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MMOWTF: Where's the Wanderlust?

This week, in his most recent MMOWTF column, Staff Writer Dan Fortier tackles the idea of dynamic content and true MMORPG exploration.

Where's the Wanderlust?

Editor's Note: This is an edition of a weekly column by Staff Writer Dan Fortier. The column is called "MMOWTF" and will look at some of the stranger or more frustrating events in MMOs as seen by Mr. Fotier. The opinions expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of MMORPG.com, its staff or management.

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The map was old and yellowed and it's deep creases were on the verge of becoming rips, but the old man's hands gently pulled it from it's place on the shelf and smoothed it out upon the table for everyone to see. Though the carmine ink was faded in places to the point of disappearing, you could just make out the traced lines that described features of the surrounding countryside with amazing detail. The towering tree line of the Shady Forest contrasted subtly with the pockmarked desolation of the Northern Wildlands. The keen eyes of the Elven scout picked out a slight distortion in the shapes of the hills east of the Lake of Wavhar.

"It almost looks as if these hills are dotted with small mounds," he said as he squinted and hovered his face just above the map. "Barrows perhaps?"

The old man smiled a toothless grin and chuckled.

"You have an eye for detail good sir!" he praised. "Within the Horrid Hills lie many of these burial grounds, although no living creature has returned alive from that place."

The Paladin smiled and placed his hand upon the old man's shoulder

"Fear not for our safety Iskail, we have overcome greater odds and managed to come out unscathed. Please tell us the quickest way to get there."

"Sadly there is no way to reach them for they are no roads that lead east of Faylum" the old man said as he shook his head sadly "This place among many are merely fluff that the Creators placed on the map but created no walk-mesh or zones for. Perhaps they will be available with the next Expansion though."

A few weeks ago, I vented my frustration with the linear advancement scheme of most MMOs, but there is another aspect of this that is worth its own topic. A lot of work goes into the visual aspect of most modern games, but unless there is a decent level of interactivity in the environment, it quickly turns into a slide show more akin with a game like Myst than an actual virtual, persistent world (especially if the engine hasn't been optimized). This week, I want to explore the lost concept of exploration in MMOs. Make sure that your second chute is packed and jump on in!

This whole issue is tied directly into the whole Simulation vs. Game debate. At a certain level, most games try to simulate some aspect of our life, history or culture if only to suspend the disbelief and make a fantastic world more lifelike and enjoyable. Depending on the design philosophy and the type of game, aspects of realism are replaced with more simplistic, or measured systems that maximize fun rather than replicate boring realism ad nauseam. Obviously, it's important to keep only the elements that promote fun while removing elements that don't, but different people will have different ideas about what actually constitutes a fun game.

The design philosophy behind most MMOs is simple: Content is King. If you only create enough content to keep a player entertained for a couple of months, then you are removing a significant portion of your recurring revenue. With limited time and budgets allowed by publishers and investors, it's no wonder that developers try to focus their efforts into concentrating the content into an area accessible to any character who happens by, lest lazy players simply bypass it, complaining later that there is nothing to do. Since the idea of most MMOs have of content is fields of re-spawning fiends and static quests, we shouldn't be surprised that most zones are simply long alleyways of land or wide open fields bordered by impassable barriers. With casual players getting all of the attention, why should developers go though all the trouble of building a wide open world with dynamic and evolving content?

It's a completely rhetorical question, but an important one. The answer is no, obviously, if your only goal is to make as much money as possible and you have let your investors put a ball-gag in your creative process. While a game that actually allowed and rewarded exploration might not top the charts, it could definitely survive now that the genre is getting a bit more attention from the gamer community. Those of us in the media don't exactly make it easier on people working outside the box either, since it only stands to reason that the reviewers would come from a cross section of the MMO playing community which is probably playing a slide show or cartoon MMO as we speak. Any game attempting remove the barriers of a claustrophobic walkmesh is labeled 'empty and boring'. Of course, some projects like Dark and Light that actually promoted exploration, failed miserably in virtually every other aspect, which is a shame since it only serves to dissuade other developers from taking a shot at making larger and more freeform worlds.

There are no easy answers, and I'm sure most folks could care less of they could climb those unclimbable hills and set of toward the horizon unless it got them to an un-camped spawning area.

Despite the design and perception challenges involved, I hope that procedurally generated content will expand the borders beyond our short attention spans and let us ride off into the sunset. As always, pack enough food for another week and I'll meet you back here next Friday.