Pure-ish Exploration

My go to game right now is The Binding of Isaac. Most games seem to take around 1/2 hour or a little more, but each game is a pure treat. The crux of my delight is that each game will be explored and played differently because the engine procedurally creates the dungeon, bosses, and loot each time. X-ray goggles for example let me pass through the secret doors, which normally need to be found by placing a bomb next to a wall and praying it is the correct wall. Now I have more bombs available for other things. Anybody that has played a roguelike, especiallyNetHack, will be comfortably familiar with this type of exploration.

For me, this is one of the most pure exploration scenarios available in any game. Unlocking a map or reading quest text in an MMO seems to pale by comparison. The developers made the chunk of game to be explored, and others have already explored it. I would go so far as to say that in an MMO the only explorers getting pure-ish exploration are the achievers working on a world first for a raid. Everything else evokes as much exploration as me going to a museum.

I want to be the scientist finding new discoveries. I want to see emergence that the developer could have only dreamed of. For me that is a purer exploration.

The best place to start, like The Binding of Isaac, would be a closed environment. Dungeons, ah ha! There has been random elements to dungeons. One particularly faded memory is of a World of Warcraft dungeon having random bosses. I remember at the time it caused a big hubbub because ‘MMO players don’t like the unexpected.’ The theory was that dungeon runners wanted the gameplan with a bunch of if/then markers. Events requiring actual creativity and flexibility were supposedly anathema to this whole raiding thing.

I feel those developers came from the wrong direction. They slapped on a random ‘exploration’ element to an existing static design. I think that the whole experience would have to be dynamic. Otherwise it would just feel cheap. Like going to a museum and randomly getting tickets to the various exhibitions, some of which are just not that interesting.

Could we have a dungeon that allows for unmitigated flexibility? I’m talking about an instance where killing a sub-boss gave us a flamethrower satchel, which anybody can wear, and hey it now makes them an area-of-effect king. Should we give it to the warrior who can stand in the middle of mobs trading blows for flame, or should we give it to the secondary healer since our tank is so good and more damage would make this go a lot more quickly? If there is a room filled with dozens of swarm mobs, the flamethrower is going to allow us to chew through them.

Ignoring, for now, the strain on the players, this flexibility and adaptability comes at a price. The next room might be a single huge iron golem resistant to flame. This golem might have any number of weaknesses, but the random number generator decided not to drop any lightning axes or thermite. Instead, things are harder because we have a flamethrower-equipped warrior, which the golem is just going to ignore. Death is an inevitability in a roguelike that many MMO players would turn tail and run from.

MMOs are creeping slowly closer in their own manner. Guild Wars 2 is going to have an ever-changing landscape based on the dynamic events system. One run-by might have a centaur-run fort, and another might have it be an allied outpost with merchants. I think this will evoke many “neat” moments, but I have a feeling that ArenaNet is not going to allow too many emergent moments where who knows what’s going to happen when these two events overlap.  Star Wars the Old Republic is going to have a branching storyline of epic proportions, akin to any of the classic BioWare games.Yet, the exploration will be personal. Some developer somewhere has already envisioned your story tree and here is the outcome.

Minecraft comes very close to having both the persistence of an MMO and the exploration of a roguelike. I would say that the level of adaptability is quite minimal in comparison to a roguelike, though, because the player can define their path by creating the tools to overcome any obstacles. It’s rarely a situation of “I only have a shovel and a bucket full of lava, and I need to take out this dungeon mob generator.” It would be really interesting to play a variant of Minecraft more similar to a roguelike.

And, so I keep playing The Binding of Isaac. Each game feels fresh. Each game feels like it’s been generated for me and only I have the answers and skill to overcome mom. There is no guide to tell me how to best use my floating missile worm pet with piercing, mirror tears. The answers either in me or dead Isaac’s will. Dreams of such pure-ish exploration in an MMO will just have to remain dreams, for now.


10 thoughts on “Pure-ish Exploration”

  1. Seems simple to me. Exploration (whether of mechanics or space, notably two different things) in a finite world can only last so long. MMOs are supremely static beasties, for the most part, banking more on repeating content for shinies than participating in a world.

    WURM Online has some malleability, but I think the crux of the issue is in the middle of your article:

    “StoryBricks is the only “MMO” that seems to want to necessitate pure-ish exploration, which has caused many to simply not understand the premise of that engine.”

    Many simply don’t understand, and don’t particularly want to. It’s a different mindset.

    1. So are you saying there is no true Exploration (re E, A, S, K) in MMOs then? Or, it’s just a false E to begin with?

      1. No, I think we have pure exploration, it’s just limited. Once we’ve seen the world and stopped learning about the game systems, we’re done.

        1. Everything is exploration, exploration just means learning, and playing a game consists of learning how to play it. When the game is played out, when we’ve explored enough that what remains unexplored is trivial, we have become true masters and the game has become boring. This is why masters seek out disciples: because teaching is a new challenge they haven’t mastered, and because each new student with different strengths and weaknesses and prejudices is a whole new game. Rogue-likes such as 100 Rogues and The Binding of Isaac have the tools to constantly reinvent themselves into new games. Games like Magic: The Gathering change themselves slightly every three months, before anyone has time to master the current version.

          The problem with most MMOs is their player base won’t tolerate them reinventing themselves. Look at the hew and cry whenever an MMO resets its players’ raid gear. Can you imagine what players would say if favorite dungeons, or class traits, or anything else were liable to disappear at any moment?

          1. Yeah, Exploration doesn’t just have to do with geography after all. I enjoy exploring systems in a game and relationships with other players (not necessarily in an S way, not that there’s anything wrong with that!)

            And aside from that… museums exist for a reason. :)

  2. I consider myself to be primarily an Explorer archetype, but I have a very different conception of what that means to what you describe. I see exploration as sightseeing.

    I don’t want to discover things that no-one has seen before. I couldn’t care less how many people have already seen them. The important thing is that *I* see them.

    It’s also extremely important to me that I can see them again, as often as I wish. I see absolutely no point at all, either in MMOs or in real life, in going to see something once, ticking it off a list and moving on. The point of exploring is to find places worth revisiting repeatedly. And especially places worth of telling other people about and taking other people to see to enjoy their pleasure.

    If everything changes every time the whole thing is rendered meaningless.

    1. I fully agree with bhagpuss. If it is a temporary dungeon or maze it is a puzzle and not an exploration. Puzzles are great, but it won’t do anything for my sense of exploration. Exploration is about visiting persistent places. Wikis and Google make it all pretty trivial as accomplishments. But that only matters if I would explore to achieve something.

  3. Oddly, for a topic titled ‘Pure-ish Exploration’, I think I need to follow along and accuse the blog writer of being some sort of Achiever/Explorer hybrid. :-/

    “Don’t tell me what’s over there, I want to go have a look for myself” is one thing. “I don’t want to go over there because that other person already looked there” is another.

      1. Oh, derr, forgot to mention though that what Rav suggest sounds cool, though he also mentions why it doesn’t exist. Here’s to hoping Storybricks shakes it out!

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