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An educator's view on game design and psychology

Thoughts, ideas and commentary on the psychology of gamers and how this knowledge can be used to create better game designs, by a software engineering teacher/game developer.

Author: Scaroth

Can we solve Bartle's "Explorer" problem?

Posted by Scaroth Thursday June 11 2009 at 8:05AM
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Richard Bartle, co-creator of MUD, the original multi-user dungeon, posits that there are, broadly speaking, 4 types of MMORPG player:


  • Achievers - want to "conquer" the game by gaining XP, levelling, increasing their craft skills, getting better equipment, downing bosses, etc... Their focus is on acting on/against the environment.
  • Explorers - want to discover new places and things, learn the lore and backstory, gain knowledge of the world and it's mechanics, find clever exploits, solve puzzles, etc... Their focus is on interacting with the environment.
  • Socializers - want to interact with other people through conversation, helping, giving advice, trading, group raids, etc... Their focus is on interacting with other players.
  • Killers - want to dominate and/or compete against other players, usually violently. Also tend to enjoy doing whatever they can to generally harass and annoy other players (griefers)


Bartle also discovered that the most successful MMORPG games had a good balance of all types, rather than a dominance of any particular one.

He also found a problem referred to as the "explorer problem" - namely, that "explorers are a rare occurence in virtual worlds". Mike Rozak discusses this very situation in a detailed blog entry, wherein he posits several models for understanding the problem and how a game designer might deal with it.

I would like to suggest yet another view - what if we redefined the 4 types in terms of the content available in the vast majority of MMORPG that exist today? After a careful reading of Bartle's original paper and Mike's detailed essay, I came up with this:


  • Achievers - like "hardcore" PvE content - instances, raids, downing powerful "elite" creatures and bosses. Want to get the best gear/weapons/spells in the game, get their character to the level cap ASAP, and max out all their professions and skills.
  • Socializers - like "casual" PvE content - group quests, slowly levelling their character, skills and professions, special social events like fairs, etc... Like content that makes their character look good, even if it serves no practical purpose (eg. elegant clothing, glow enchantments on weapons, etc...), or enhances social interaction (mini-games, balls to throw to other players, spells that change other players appearance, etc...)
  • Killers - like PvP content - duels, battlegrounds, arenas, NPCs of opposing factions, etc...


Conspicuously absent is the Explorer type. I honestly couldn't think of any content in the archetypical MMORPG that caters to explorers. The three content types I've suggested collectively account for ALL of the content in the vast majority of MMORPG games, and the Explorer simply isn't interested in most of it.

Bartle also raises another issue regarding the interdependence of the types. He points out that, if the balance of content is wrong, then this imbalances the game dynamic, which usually leads to a chain reaction of players leaving, resulting in the eventual death of the game. What he found was that Killers, Achievers and Socializers, in the correct balance, yields the most stable game dynamic. Explorers are simply not required by any of the other groups, neither do they require any other group

Explorer types typically enjoy adventure games, or single-player CRPG. Why? Because of the rich depth of story, complex characters, and places and things to explore, discover and learn about, without having Killers or Achievers running around spoiling their sense of immersion. In theory, one could develop an MMO that only has Explorer type content. The trouble is, Explorers constitute the smallest minority of game players - about 10% or less. Since Explorers demand rich content (which, as Rozak points out, is very expensive to produce), such a game would not be financially viable. Another problem is that the non-Explorers would find such content tedious and boring, and may even resort to walk-throughs or other forms of "cheating" just to get past the content.

Given all of the above, it seems clear that Explorers have drawn the short straw. So what can they do about it? Well, not much. This may be controversial, but perhaps the MMORPG genre is not suitable for Explorer types, in the same way that Quake is not suitable for people who like strategy games. It is not necessarily impossible to cater to Explorers in an MMORPG, but it is difficult, expensive, and if botched, can easily destroy the gameplay balance. It is a high-risk design path, and as such, most developers have avoided the problem by simply ignoring it, and will continue to do so for the forseeable future.

p.s. In case you didn't guess, yes, I'm an Explorer myself ;-)

ghstwolf writes:

That's a pretty bleak view of it, but short of breaking some molds I fear you are right.  I do however, disagree with Mike Rozak's assertion that achiever/explorer content is inherently incompatible.  If anything I fault poor design for that impression.

Why is it that often the only (or certainly the best) solution to every quest is to kill everything in your path?  Seriously, if you were sent to assassinate a rival leader, it would often be best to avoid the royal guard and remain as unnoticed as possible.  That is unless you're playing an MMO, where killing all the palace guards doesn't hurt your chances at the leader and in fact benefits you with more XP.

I'm not about to pretend that better systems are easy, they aren't.  But if you had such a system explorers take on an important role.  That explorer might know the layout of the keep and its patrols well, or they could even know an "escape" passage that would take you directly to the leader's thrownroom.  Granted these would have to change often enough to limit the effectiveness of walkthroughs and remain viable.

Dynamic worlds are a requirement for the long term health of explorers.  There doesn't seem to be many games that feature worlds that actually change.  I want a living land, one where: the paths through mountains change with earthquakes and avalanches, swamps fill and dry (again changing paths) and one where cities and bridges can be built and destroyed.  It's hard to say how achievers ( I sub divide this group into challenge seekers and collectors) would do in that world, but IMO explorers, socializers and killers would be very entertained.

Thu Jun 11 2009 2:45PM Report
Death1942 writes:

for me i would say the answer is in Dynamic or large worlds.  EvE has a little of both and exploring is actively encouraged.  SWG had it on some of the more hostile planets, you had scouts finding good locations for cities or camps.  I've known of a few teaming up with crafters to make a sort of adventure hub where they reap the profits of selling adventuring goods to those hunting around the city and in turn provide a safe spot in a conveniant locations.


Dynamic worlds (ever changing) coupled with a need to know the terrain (strategic attacks, resources, living space, monster locations...ect)  would cater to explorers and make (in my opinion) a kick ass game.


Thu Jun 11 2009 5:24PM Report
Scaroth writes:

Thanks for the great comments, guys :) You've both said basically the same thing - the world needs to be dynamic to hold the interest of Explorers. One way this can be accomplished is with procedural content - randomly generated dungeons, for example, so the experience is slightly different each time a player goes in. Parts of it could be randomised too, rather than all of it, so certain mobs, rooms, items, etc... will always appear in there somewhere, but not always in the same spot.

Another way of catering to explorers that comes to mind is to create an Explorer class, which has exclusive access to certain explorer-related skills, professions, items, information, etc .... A good analogy is the Rogue in WoW - it's the only class that can pick locks. And set up the game mechanics so that what an Explorer has/does/knows is of value (maybe even essential in some cases) to other players. This way, an Explorer player can do what they enjoy and do best, and even profit from it, so that the need for them to do the achiever-type activities is minimised.


Fri Jun 12 2009 7:07AM Report
ghstwolf writes:

Randomly generated dungeons is quite a bit more limited than the fully living world I'm thinking, but it is certainly a good step.  I just think it is too limited for explorers and more a way to alleviate boredom for achievers on that 73rd run trying to get that piece of gear to drop.  I think of explorers as being the people that know all the little shortcuts (the passage to the back of Stromgarde keep for an everyone knows it example), and out-of-the-way places where you can farm rare mats (WoW examples).  They're just real likely to scout out before they commit to a plan of attack.

I differ on offering an actual "explorer" class too.  IMO that would be absolutely awful.  I can see it now, a mix of hunter and rogue just so gimped that they would be damn near worthless to ever party with.  I don't buy into a strong correlation between motivations to play and combat style.  Classes largely define the effective combat style with no where near the flexibility needed IMO.  Skill based is different, I'd have no issue if you wanted a separate "explorer" tree.

Fri Jun 12 2009 8:44AM Report
Antiacus writes:

Found this article doing a google search for "good mmog or an explorer".  I guess this is my answer :)

I cut my mmorpg teeth on Asheron's Call.  The reason the game held my attention for 3 years was largely because it enabled me to scratch my explorers itch.  The world was massive, well fleshed out, had an incredible diversity of landscape types.

Considering that AC was developed by the same devs as D&D Online, i was recently shocked to log into DDO and find myself extremely hemmd in, driven down a story-line, and basically finding myself with nothing to do unless i picked a scripted story and followed it.  What's more, the duneons in AC were huge, complex, often confusing, and required perilous jumps and actual skill. 

I remember taking several days to gather enough supplies to last out in the wilds for a long while, then taking off on a compass course and running for hours on end.  Until i come across a dungeon i had never heard of before, then spending a week (for me in those days probably 12-14 hours game time) exploring the dungeon, mapping it out, solving the riddles inside and figuring out how to jump from object to object, down shafts, through tunnels, etc all the while knowing that if i die i may never even be able to find this place again, let alone get back whatever items i might have dropped.

We're talking heart pounding and hands shaking on the keyboard as i escape the place wih 4/400 hp's left and a feeling of utter glory at what i had accomplished.

Todays games are dumbed down, scripted, no risk (no reward), hemmed in affairs that hold my attention for a weekend at best before i leave in exasperation. 

Once a year or so i take a look at the mmorpg worlds offerings and usually find the genre has moved yet another step away from what i enjoyed so much in AC.

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