Exploration in MMOs needs to return and I have high hopes that Everquest Next is going to help bring back that fun of seeing new areas in an MMO. Game developers have for far too long been a huge fan of copying and pasting terrain that we've lost the fun of finding new stuff. A few games come to mind when we talk about exploration and a few more games come to mind.
The Olden Days
Now I'm not one of those MMO gamers who just want to bring back the pain of the original Everquest and similar games. Those games were super niche and developed around the idea of having just a couple thousand players online at a time and it was a success. They were hard, took forever, and were the perfect escape for latchkey kids of the early 2000s who could pour endless amounts of time into the game for a reward.
I get that the mass market MMO appeal is instant gratification - however, it doesn't call for us to forget the really cool and fun parts of older MMOs. For instance, in Dark Age of Camelot I found that leveling up was exciting because I could explore new terrain, see new enemies, and a lot of other neat things. There was a specific wonder to escaping the confines of the current zone you were in and finding out what else is out there.
In Ragnarok Online a lot of the fun was seeing what new areas you could handle, what parts of the maps you could find, and the best areas to farm. In Everquest there is almost a infinite amount of stories about people wandering into areas that they knew nothing about and getting into some of the most hilarious stories of all MMO history.
What's interesting about exploration in the olden times was that maps didn't even really exist for MMOs. You had to go online and find a map, then use landmarks and figure everything out in order to find stuff. This meant that a lot of things exploring required actual exploration.
The Current Landscape
Things are a bit different now with how we explore MMOs and we can pinpoint when it started to go downhill with World of Warcraft which introduced us to the world of copy and paste. Most of WoW has a ton of repeating structures, caves, zones, storylines, etc. You can explore large parts of the world in the early levels and as the game has advanced, flying has pretty much taken away the fun of walking somewhere that you didn't know about.
Game worlds are also growing smaller and smaller. FFXIV: ARR for instance is really small. I mean I feel like I can walk through it in almost no time. There isn't anything I really want to see. There is a ton of white space too, the cities are way too big for the location. Realistically, I feel like an ant in some of them. There is no interesting stories to tell of what I've done in FFXIV: ARR. Nothing funny... nothing interesting... nothing cool.
That's the story of our lives though. What interesting stories do you have? Outside of Neverwinter, which segues into my next point.
Voxel Technology and Player Created Zones is the Savior of Exploration
See that title up there? That's my point of this article, the entire hope and dreams of the MMO industry is voxel building games that are becoming a massive fad after Everquest Next and Camelot Unchained. Here is the fun thing - exploration in Minecraft is the <insert fancy french word or italian world standing for epitome or best awesome thing> of the game. All stories revolve around the hilarious adventures, the random things that creepers destroyed, the cool things that players have built.
Human creativity is the hope and savior of MMO exploration. Imagine playing an MMO where the world is constantly evolving and changing, when there is new and interesting things to see and talk about, and when leaving the town is a new experience because someone may have built a giant tower on the road and another person could have exploded another part of it.
That's not the only hope though, world building masters (at inserting caves in all of their games) behind The Elder Scrolls Online are aiming at making a world that is interesting and creative, although some of the hands on articles so far have begged to differ. I do think (and this is a bit off-topic) that ESO may be the last of its kind, the last game where players don't built the world.
Realistically, it's going to be ESO vs. EQN on which way is valid. Is the standard and true fantasy world going to maintain the status quo or will player created content be the true path?
Either way, I do hope that I can once more share interesting stories of where I have been and what I have seen in games. Exploration is awesome.