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.