Clint Hocking was interviewed by Gamasutra, and he talked about exploration as an activity-in-itself within games:
Spatial exploration isn’t mandatory. It’s not required in any game. It’s a certain play style and a certain type of player who’s interested in playing in that way. There are ways to design to support that well and ways to do it badly. I think it’s pretty clear which games do it well. Grand Theft Auto, Oblivion, they make players who might not even be that kind of player become interested in the act of self-motivated exploration.
I sometimes wish it was mandatory. Exploring has has long been one of the most important things for me in gaming. Elite, Midwinter, Armourgeddon, Outcast – there’s been a history of games I’ve wanted to play just to wander around in their landscapes. I often play games just to see the architecture. I was a tourist in Everquest 2, and couldn’t play Dark Age Of Camelot because the buildings were too dull. The main reason I log into Second Life is to fly around looking at peculiar structures and half-finished castles in the sky. I would quite happily have played World Of Warcraft if it had been an empty landscape with nothing to do but wander around exploring. In fact, I would probably have enjoyed that even more. (It would be interesting to take WoW’s landscape and create a ‘living world’ mod, where it is simply a place populated with AI and basic ecosystems, rather than being the backdrop for sets of linear quests. It could be an alternative MMO world based on the same space. Blizzard themselves could do that – WoW as a pure trade sim, complete with cartography, trade routes, travel plans, etc.)
I think the reason I liked Oblivion was that I could just poke about in the woods and discover little shacks in the middle of nowhere. So few games offer that – Stalker does, to some extent, yet still I wish Stalker had been larger, emptier, and spookier. The number of baddies was still too high, and the ‘battle’ post-brain scorcher just didn’t interest me at all. I wanted to explore that enormous terrain at my leisure, not be hustled through under constant barrage.
One of the major disappointments of Eve Online, recently, was that “exploration” as an activity didn’t really love up to its name. There was much more genuine exploration when the galaxy was littered with random asteroids and dust clouds. I’d like more detail like that to have been burned into the world, whereas a semi-instanced system was created that lingered for a few days and then disappeared. If you did manage to find anything, then it was never really there, and therefore never really explored. One of the joys of Eve was finding interesting systems, or obscure things left over by the dev team – an unusual space station built into an asteroid, or two space stations around the same moon, for example. (Eve players will know what I’m blabbing about here, sorry…)
Anyway, I think Hocking is right, that exploration of many different kinds is an important concept for understanding games. But purely spatial exploration, the idea of just exploring for the hell of it, doesn’t seem to be well catered for. Perhaps we explorers are in a minority. But I know we’re out there (so to speak), and I recall vividly flying out to a pointless remote island during the early beta of Planetside, only to find another person stood there on the rock. He’d gone out there because he could, because it was there. There was no gaming reason to be out there, we had both just happened to want to see it, perhaps because we might have been the only people to do so.
Would anyone pay for a game that was created in the name of aimless wandering tourism? Could anything in a game world be interesting enough just to go and look at? I wonder what the minimum threshold of activity, the minimum amount of danger and challenge a virtual landscape has to offer to be considered a game?