Thursday, January 13, 2011

Design Theory 01: Exploit Exploration!

So here we are, at the first of what I hope to be many of my self indulgent exercises. Really I just want to type up my ideas on aspects of game design, whether anyone listens isn't really the point, but please do regardless! These are going to probably ramble on a bit, since I mostly think about what I'll type when I'm working on the art to go along with them, but we'll try to keep that to a minimum. On to the subject at hand!


When I was younger, before my life was ruled by pixels and controllers, my favorite past time was exploring the property surrounding my parents one acre of land in the middle of the countryside of Indiana. The land was surrounded on all sides by an unkempt field that extended into a small pond, and eventually gave way to thick woods that went on for miles.

The woods were of course, the prime spot to explore, since seeing any further than 40 feet ahead was impossible even in the autumn, and this made exploration all the more interesting. But looking back, the field that extended outward on all sides was the real deal. It's no surprise to me that Pokemon games use tall grass as a means of random encount
ers, the fact is, you can trip right over a turtle, or an abandoned tool, without even knowing it. You could walk the same path every day a year straight and find something new every time.

But upon reaching adulthood you come to the stark realization that everything has BEEN explored, or at least, everything worth exploring. Road Atlas's, Mapquest, GPS, these all take the romanticism right out of you. Someone else has already done it all, and cataloged it neatly for you to passively examine.

We're programmed, on a genetic level, to move outward and explore. But for the moment, discounting a few extremely inhospitable places on earth, until we as a species are ready for interplanetary travel, that option is currently off limits to us.

It is no surprise to me (or really anyone I think) that a game like Minecraft has done so well. But I think that the truth of the matter is that people like the idea of Minecraft more than the game (at least for the time being). When you start a new game in Minecraft, you are literally the first person to set foot on that land. The beauty of it is, from there on out, there are so many options open to you that the fact the game has no set goal is of no importance at all. The goal is what you make it. Do I want to make an underground mineshaft, or a castle on the beach, or perhaps I'll be a vagrant traveler exploring my surroundings until
I put up a tiny camp before nightfall?

Exploration is not simply the environment, at least in this case. Exploration is the ability to find things in every aspect of the game that the player hasn't before. A skill tree in an action RPG is full of unturned stones, even if it gives you the basic information of the skill before hand, you have never used it!

Discovery! You can go everywhere! But there is nothing to do.

So can a game have a bad sense of exploration? Yes. Definitely. We need look no further than Spore.

I'm not going to get into all the speculative fractures within the team that developed Spore, the whole science vs. game deal, or any of that. If you want to, there are some very interesting articles out there on just that. What I am getting at is that the game has literally a galaxy's worth of content, but most people just won't care by the time they reach a point that they can access it.

Let's look at the Space Stage of Spore. Again, galaxy's worth of content here. You fly and upgrade a space ship, you contact and deal with other civilizations, and you colonize planets. The thing is, the average player will have done all of this within the first half hour of gameplay. Everything after that is basically the same thing, only faster as you gain access to new equipment. You can deal with every alien species a handful of ways, a
nd although the game pretends to have depth by making various equipment available only to players that play a certain way, the fact that the game has to force players to do things just for unlockable equipment is a problem in and of itself. I should WANT to establish contact with 10 alien species, because they should all be so different that I actually seek them out!

The only part of the Space Stage that never quite got old to me, was the planet terraforming aspect. This was just about the only mechanic that required the player to put any thought into it, and it was almost too obtuse in comparison with the other objectives in the space stage. Still, it was a fun way to kill the time while I waited for my trade routes to allow me to buy out other planets.

What keeps me playing 40 hours into the game?

Spore is an example of bland exploration. What is a game that does it well?

Just Cause 2 is a sandbox shooter. Sandbox games are obvious choices for good exploration potential. So what puts Just Cause 2 above the others in this regard?

There are a few things, for one, the world map is massive, 400 square kilometers, bigger than any other sandbox shooter at the time of release. The world map is also, mostly, natural landmass. Canyons, jungles, deserts, mountains, plains, and ocean. Lots of ocean. Even the way the player moves is made to facilitate this huge map size, with a grappling hook and a parachute at your disposal, traveling several kilometers takes only half a minute or so, and of course, there are very fast land, air, and sea vehicles.

What does this all mean? Well, the fact is, you spend as much, if not more time, searching new places out and finding secondary objectives, than you do shooting at bad guys and blowing things up in bedazzling sprays of pyrotechnics. The game is, in all actuality, a thinly veiled collect-a-thon! But its the variety of the locales, and the variety of ways to deal with collecting and destroying the objectives, that keeps you going. Even when you tire of that, there are completely optional races and missions that you can do in the meantime.

Heres some other games that get exploration right:

Spelunky: It could be said that most rougelike games actually get this concept right, but in the case of RPG type rougelikes, the player is oftentimes met with situations that are inescapable simply because the dice rolled against the players favor. Spelunky is a platformer though, and as a result, it relies more on the players skill than on the invisible number cruncher behind the scenes.

Transendence: A space themed adventure game, the thing the game gets right is by having short term and long term objectives. The player can easily seek out a warpgate to the next star system, at the risk of missing out on the numerous instances within the current map that could provide them with weapons, armor, or money. It's also one of the few games out there that has a "death deletes your save file" sort of system, but also allows for an ingame way to subvert this system (though it is not easy to do).

Skies of Arcadia: A Dreamcast JRPG, it suffered from many of the problems that games in that genre do, but the entire game focused on discovery from a thematic element, as well as a gameplay one.

Closing Comments:

The indie gaming community has made it abundantly clear that ideas that aren't part of the mainstream can be wildly successful. If I had to make one assumption about what is going to happen in mainstream gaming in the next 10 years though, it would be that exploration is going to be facilitated through the use of procedurally generated content. Some games have been, or have begun to skirt this idea (Spore, randomized loot in games like Borderlands) but I think that with Minecraft showing off the kind of stuff you can do when you let players do it, this will be a much bigger deal, especially when the next generation of consoles is released.

So hopefully this didn't bore anyone to much, it's a rather big wall of text, next time I'm going to try to keep it much more concise, and hopefully shorter!

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