In most MMOs the layout of the map is simple. There are starter’s zones with low level monsters. Adjacent to these are mid-level zones. And adjacent to these there are high level zones. A simple, easy but most of all boring layout. A layout unfit for the true explorer.
Allow me to tell you of an experience from the game of Morrowind, one I’m sure most of you will be familiar with. Throughout Morrowind you may remember there being lots and lots of caves, tombs and ruins. Unlike in most MMOs these caves and ruins weren’t setup with a sign next to them telling you for which levels they were meant. You had to go in and find out yourself. You had to explore. There was always a huge thrill for me when entering these tombs. I was even scared from time to time. You never knew what would be around the next corner. The start of each of these dungeons was always empty. You couldn’t just zone in, see what was there and zone out again. You had to move in. The dungeon could be filled with bandits, most often easy targets and good loot. But for the same money it could be filled with house dagoth cultists that would rip you limb from limb before you got two attacks in.
As you may have noticed there are two main parts that make Morrowind an exciting game fit for an explorer. Firstly the setup is non-linear. Meaning that there could very well a level 50 boss inside what seemed to be a level 1-10 zone. Secondly you didn’t know how strong your opponent was. You had to actually fight him to explore his abilities.
Just imagine. You’ve just started a new game. You find yourself in a small village in the middle of a war. Just outside your heavily guarded village you see some enemy soldiers. No level is shown. Eager to get some levels and experience you set course to what seems a lonely soldier. As you approach him you see him turn around. You already start to feel some doubt, shouldn’t it have taken a bit longer for him to notice you? In the meanwhile the soldier is already rushing for you. You stand your ground and prepare for battle. Your enemy raises his axe and with one devastating blow he cuts you down. You should have expected it, surely the enemy wouldn’t put their weakest recruits on the front lines but instead their veterans.
Sneaking out the back of the village you manage to find yourself in a relatively quiet forest where you can level up. After a while it’s time for a new challenge. In the village you’re handed a quest to explore a dungeon where a bandit leader is hanging out. So you follow the directions given to you and soon enough you see a cave in front of you. You enter it and sure enough, you’re faced with various bandits. Using your new levels and skills you manage to dispatch them easily enough. After you’ve encountered a few bandits the cave in front of you is surprisingly empty. You walk back and check the bandit corpses, no leader to be seen. So on it is, the leader must be ahead. The quest giver told you so right? You proceed further into the cave and suddenly you find yourself in a huge room. Dark wizards with glowy red eyes can be seen everywhere. This can’t be good. As you look to your left you suddenly see a massive demon. His eyes are centered upon you as he’s conjuring a massive fireball. Moments later you find yourself back at the graveyard.
You go back to the cave and explore it fully save for the dreaded room. No leader to be seen. So you get back to the quest giver hoping to get some clues. As you approach him he suddenly tells you that the bandit leader has left the cave and is currently camping in the woods. Seemingly something had scared him out of the cave.....
Now ofcourse there still is the problem of wiki’s and databases in wich players can visit to instantly unravel all the secrets of an MMO world. There would be databases recording all the levels of the monsters even though these aren’t shown in-game thus spoiling the surprise. Guides telling you to only kill 5 bandits at the start of the cave and then just head back to the quest giver thus preventing you the thrills of exploring the cavern. Movies showing a high level clear that entire demon room thus taking away the magic of the room.
While this can never be fully prevented there still are ways to keep the surprises intact. A simple random location within the cavern could do. Create four possible rooms in wich it could be located and each time you enter the instance it’s in another room and the other three rooms are closed. Create random monsters, not just levels. One time the cave is inhabited by bandits. The next there are just spiders there. Same for the gaurds at the start. One time it may be a real veteran. The next it could be a convicted petty thief sent to the front lines to redeem himself.
There are countless methods to make MMOs more surprising. To let you fear what might be around the next corner. To let you hope that you guessed correctly when you thought you could handle that monster. To let you explore each zone to unravel all the secrets and surprises.