Saturday, April 24, 2021

Exploration Pattern Paralysis (ft. Darkside of Xeen)

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood. And sorry I could not travel both, and be one traveler, long I stood.
          
My experience this session with Darkside of Xeen led me to a long contemplation of exploration patterns in RPGs and why I find the Xeen games particularly confounding in this area. To understand, it's probably worth first considering the extremes.
   
One extreme would be a dungeon crawler like Wizardry. It would certainly be possible to win the game without mapping the entire 10-level dungeon, but I doubt any serious player would try. Too much depends on finding key items and encounters in key squares. Even when there's nothing to find in a particular corridor, the act of exploring it generates random encounters that you need for character development. This is why when I replay a game, I almost always make a new set of maps. Sure, I could use the old ones, but then I wouldn't have anything to do while trying to build experience points.
  
At the same time, there's also little mystery in how to explore the Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord. You map each level completely, then move to the next one. Since this system also works with enemy difficulty and character development, it's a no-brainer. To do something different--say, roll a random number from 1 to 10 and head directly for that level--would not only be weird, you'd probably just end up dying.
        
When I'm mapping a walled dungeon, there's no exploration angst. It's just right or left.
       
At the other extreme would be the game that's currently occupying my console time--Assassin's Creed: Odyssey--but also any of the open-world titles in the Elder Scrolls or Fallout series. Only the most insane player would try to explore everything. In a continuous-surface game (which almost all games are after the mid-1990s), what does it even mean to "explore everything"? To look behind every rock? To map every tree? Your exploration patterns in such games are heavily quest-driven, and while many players take time to stop and smell the roses, investigating ruins or stopping at encounters along the way, their tendency is to move from quest to quest. Nobody plays Skyrim by starting in the northwest corner and moving systematically eastward in north-south strips, yet using this system to explore Xeen doesn't feel quite as risible.
   
A related question, of course, is how much content you feel comfortable missing. The player who insists on solving every quest and clearing every dungeon in Skyrim makes as much sense to me as the tourist who insists on walking down every street in whatever city he's visiting. If your friend told you he was going to visit Manhattan and his plan was to visit every single building--whether systematically or randomly--you'd think he was mental. And yet thousands of players cheerfully say, "I'm a completionist!" as if they weren't essentially announcing that they have a crippling disorder. (And yes, I understand the irony of someone who's spent 11 years on a quest to play every RPG ever made commenting on someone else's mental health.) That isn't to say that when I play those games, I simply follow the main quest line. I guess I would describe myself as a serendipitist. I work my way through quests organically, systematically, or even sometimes randomly, and if I encounter something interesting along the way, I'm happy to explore it, but I otherwise don't mind if I finish the game leaving large parts of it unexplored.
    
Odyssey and Skyrim, however, were made well past the era in which a player needed to explore every corner to get strong enough to win. In the era I'm playing in, it was generally understood that you had to do everything, or almost everything, to prepare yourself for the final battle. There are some exceptions even in these years--Darklands, Legends of Valour, and Realms of Arkania all spring to mind--but needing to do all the precursor quests is the norm. I don't think that Clouds and Darkside require you to do all their quests to get strong enough to win, but they certainly require you to do a good portion of them.
   
Put all of this together, and you find that no approach is entirely satisfying. Lawnmowing (systematically exploring each map in rows or columns) seems artificial. Simply pursuing the main quest would leave you too weak to win (and you'd miss a lot of great content). The tiled nature of the game makes it difficult to explore organically. There's no natural pattern to the geography the way there was in Might and Magic III or, say, Ishar. And the difficultly level ramps up too quickly between areas to do something like, for instance, exploring the road network before everything else. I tried this and got stomped by an "armadillo" five minutes in.
          
What "organic" exploration gets you.
          
By starting a new party, I was hoping to limit my options a bit, as the new party doesn't have "Pathfinding," "Mountaineering," or "Swimming." But these skills never really made any sense anyway--I can't walk through a frigging forest without a special skill?--and the lack of them just makes the terrain feel artificially restrictive. Plus, I know where I can get them, so honestly, what am I waiting for? Do I need to somehow prove myself exploring more limited terrain before I can feel comfortable buying the skill? What milestone am I looking for? And in the meantime, do I just lawn-mow the terrain that I can explore, or do I try to do it "organically"? Honestly, those of you who encouraged me to start Darkside without those abilities, what did you expect I was going to gain from the experience? What do you get out of it?
      
"Organic" exploration isn't really possible at this point anyway because the game gives you no idea where to go. All I know is that I need a bunch of power discs. I know that most of the dungeons and towers will require stones and keys I haven't found yet, so heading directly for them seems like a waste of time. My only thought was to go look for hints in the next town's tavern, which is east across the map. That got me eaten by an armadillo.
        
For at least a 3 x 3 area ahead of me, there's nothing to find. Is it somehow better role-playing if I refuse to step on those squares?
       
There's yet another element to consider: the Xeen games feature visible encounters. Unlike most tiled games, NPCs, treasures, and enemies never just pop up in otherwise generic squares. You can see that there's something there from several squares away. It's not necessary to hit every one in Clouds or Darkside; you just have to look in the direction of every one. But try something like that and you'll drive yourself crazy. The game keeps track of the tiles you've stepped on, not the ones you've "seen." Are you really going to leave three grass tiles gray on your map just because you can tell there's nothing there? Please. But then you get to a lava area, and you start to wonder if you're really epitomizing the spirit of role-playing by forcing your party to walk on it.
   
Given all of this, you can understand why I found myself wishing I could just start in the southwest corner of the world and mow my way eastward. Doesn't it make more sense to explore the area around the starting town before tearing across the map? And if I'm going to do that, how do I do it? Rows and columns are "artificial." So is concentric circles around the town. How do you comprehensively explore a tiled open world in a way that isn't fundamentally "artificial"?
     
This started as a Darkside of Xeen posting, but I realized I wanted to hear your thoughts about exploration patterns before committing to one for Darkside, so I'll put this out as more of a "special topic" instead. In the meantime, here's the basic approach I've taken to some recent games, both on this blog and off:
   
  • Assassin's Creed: Origins and Odyssey: Select the next quest in order of level, find the location (or most likely location) on the map, and mark it. (I try to avoid the actual quest markers.) Head there in as direct a path as possible, but if any unexplored sites (annotated with a ?) appear on my radar on the way, I have to detour to explore them before continuing. If there are multiple ?s, I detour to the closest one. This method has me backtracking a lot, sometimes over very long distances, but I don't mind because the terrain is gorgeous and the random encounters and natural resources you find on the way leave you wealthier. Last year, I played The Witcher 3 basically the same way.
      
Looks like I have an oasis to explore.
       
  • Far Cry 5: Pretty much the same as above except I selected the quests more organically (e.g., which seemed the most pressing).
  • Mission: Thunderbolt: Moot point because it's a mostly-linear game. Fully explore each level using the "rightmost wall" approach.
  • The Magic Candle III: Went systematically across the game world from west to east. This was a fairly dumb way to do it. Top-down open-world games often leave me with the same angst (cf. Tunnels & Trolls: Crusaders of Khazan) as Xeen. The Magic Candle III is a bit different because you don't reveal squares as you explore, but you still have to hit most of them because hidden locations only show up if you're in an adjacent square. This meant that I had to explore the world like Xeen but also remember where I had been.
  • Ultima Underworld: Not tiled, so you don't have to hit every spot, just enough to basically fill in the auto-map, which ensure that you've seen everything. At the same time, it's not quite an open-world game, so there's a natural linear pattern to vertical exploration, at least, and I used the "right wall" approach for lateral exploration.
  • Ultima VII: The Black Gate: I tried to do this one organically, setting destinations in a logical order, but after creating a role-playing reason not to do things in the order that the game clearly wanted me to do. This created some problems, as we saw, but it also created some fun moments and probably led me to experience more of the game world than if I'd done things in the "official" order.
        
Exploring serendipitously meant that I found interesting places like this.
     
  • Legends of Valour: It's an open-world game with a fairly linear quest order. I just went in the natural order of quests. I made small detours if I saw something interesting, but I mostly didn't worry if I didn't explore 50% of the buildings in the city. The nature of character development (i.e., there is none) doesn't reward dallying, nor does the game's inventory system (you only ever find three items). If the game had proper experience or leveling, I think my approach would have been different.
  • The Dark Queen of Krynn: All of the Gold Box games with overworlds lack visible encounters. You have to step on every square to ensure you find anything--and the nature of character development makes you want to find everything. I went between locations in the natural order of the somewhat linear quests, but I made sure to step on all the squares in between.
  • Fallout 4: I did the quests in a relatively organic order, but my rule was that if my quest marker touched any unexplored icon in the 3D compass, I had to go there before continuing.
       
From this list, we can see how other factors--side quests, difficulty, character development, the economy, the possibility of finding treasures--all affects the decision for what feels like the "right" exploration pattern. Thus, in most games, I don't really struggle with it; some combination of the above leaves me with a single path that feels natural. My paralysis here is yet another way in which the Might and Magic games are unique.
  

143 comments:

  1. I seek to 100% every game I play. Not just RPGs, but games of any kind. It's simply the approach that makes the most sense to me. I never viewed it as a chore imposed by the power level of the end boss, I saw it as the natural way to play games - after all, when you read a book, do you not read every word? When you watch a movie, do you not watch every minute of it, even if the only "important bits" are the action scenes and the ending climax? Modern games feed this urge further with achievements/trophies that frequently include things such as "kill every type of monster", "cast every kind of spell", "complete every quest" and so on.

    It's true that some games make doing literally everything in them infeasible, but usually there's a clear (if subjective) division of content that "matters" and content that's just there to distract you, usually random-generated. That's why I find Skyrim so dreadfully boring - everything in it feels to me like content that doesn't matter.

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    1. I don't think the comparison to movies or books works with games that have contradictory quests that can't be completed in the same playthrough, though. You don't really have (non-Choose Your Own Adventure) books that say "read this book twice, but on the second read, halfway through, flip it over and you'll find an alternate plot where the bad guys win".

      I'd compare it more to an extended IP with a lot of extra content, honestly. Are you finished watching Star Wars when you watch the movies, or do you have to watch all the associated TV shows, read the comics and the novelizations, and play the video games? Most people would argue that just watching the main story qualifies, although certainly there are going to be superfans who say you have to experience everything.

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    2. Even before I read Ian's response, I was thinking that the Star Wars films/extended universe was the more accurate metaphor.

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    3. To me the natural way to play games is to complete them as fast as possible (in-game time) and/or get as good score as possible. The funny thing is that the (Ho)MM games are among the too few games that reward the player for doing this.
      Especially games that become too easy with the completionist style are more fun this way.

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  2. I think the only time this question occurred to me is after beating Fallout: New Vegas (w/ expansions.) I looked at a wiki and felt like I'd missed 90% of the game. Who the hell is Boone? Why don't I remember a giant lizard statue? I felt like, in not experiencing these things, I'd somehow played the game wrong. I felt the same way about Morrowind when I first beat it.

    But I don't really feel this way about Skyrim. For some reason, the side quests in Skyrim feel like an annoyance; a bunch of random tasks jamming up your quest log when I'm just trying to do the main quest. It's doubly annoying that there's no way to avoid some of them, like the Forsworn quest in Markarth; if you go to Markarth, it's going in your quest log.

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    1. Yeah, I'm the same way with Skyrim. The quests are ignorable in a way they weren't in Morrowind or even Oblivion. I think Bethesda went too heavy into the random generation of infinite quests, so it just becomes noise.

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    2. I think it also doesn't help that so many of the quests and areas in Skyrim end up feeling kind of the same - there's both random generated quests and main storyline quests that are just "go to this tomb, fight some draugr, get an item". So it's also hard to tell what's custom created to be important or interesting vs what's clearly randomly-generated filler just to get you to check out some new spot.

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    3. I was sort of the opposite in Skyrim; I avoided the main quest as long as possible in favour of exploring and doing minor quests around the map.

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    4. I loved Skyrim (if not as much as morrowind), but I agree that many of the extra quests SEEMED like busywork. Half of them were garbo randomized quests, and the other half were genuinely interesting content that had more going on than it first appeared. If the random/repeatable crap wasn't there, you'd be more inclined to trust that the threads you pulled on would be more likely to lead to something cool.

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    5. I played Skyrim about 150 hours without finishing it. That might be my fault but I think it also indicates that the ratio wasn't right there.
      I am also someone who does the minor quests first before moving on in the main quest. Skyrim exhausted me at some point.
      I ended up being frustrated, but only in hindsight. Makes me wonder if that is a weakness of the game or of me.

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    6. Well, I guess my opinion on that is clear. I would never fault a developer for offering MORE content than I want to consume as long as it's optional. This thread is full of comments that say both "I'm a completionist!" and "the game was too long and I got bored," which to me is a bit contradictory. The Grand Canyon is going to get boring, too, if you stay for six weeks.

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    7. I view games like Skyrim as a role playing sandbox. Especially when you use alternative start mods. I have played games of Skyrim where I never even touched the main quest, yet still felt rewarded and complete game for the character I was playing. I have never done everything on one character in these types of games. I more explore organically and do the quests and follow leads that would interest my character.

      For example, a magic focused character studying at the university probably would be interested in clearing out a bandit cave for a cash reward. But if there were rumors of the bandits having a rare magic artifact or something else that would further his or her studies, then they would gladly take the quest.

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    8. I lawnmowed Skyrim. It took me two years to finish. The world was so rich, I would just take whatever I came across and have a good time. I would get nearly a hundred quests at a time, but I rarely would go out of my way to complete one. I just liked sitting down and unwinding with a few hours of exploration, and this seemed the best way to maximize that. The storyline didn't engage me enough to follow it from start to finish.

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  3. Personally, I feel like my completionist tendacies come from a desire to extract the absolute most value out of something I spent money on, especially considering I tend not to be like that with stuff I didn't spend money on. As for exploration and how I go about doing things, I always just do whatever makes sense at the time or seems like the most fun, because at the end of the day it's still a game and the primary purpose of it is for entertainment, so whatever gets me that is how I end up playing

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    1. Do you really find yourself enjoying the game, though, or do you get bored with it long before you finish the main quest?

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    2. Generally, I enjoy playing like that. Pretty much the only time I got bored with a game and gave up because of trying to do everything was with Xenoblade 2, and that was because doing everything requires getting lucky with a gacha system along with having an ungodly amount of content for a JRPG. Even then I eventually went back and finished the plot, and have been meaning to go back and do everything I didn't the first time around. I just have a massive backlog of stuff I haven't played that I've been working on first.

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  4. In most open-world games (particularly Ubisoft ones) I do prefer to clear geographic areas before moving on. I did this in AC: Origins and Odyssey, and usually do it in FarCry...

    ... but also those latterday Ubisoft games get *boring* quickly, and sometimes gate key mechanics or items behind later plot quests, so if it becomes apparent I'm doing something inefficiently because I don't have a key item, or if I just get *bored* in an area, I progress the main plot, and then come back a bit later and continue slowly geographically clearing.

    Knowing there's no quests left in the southwest quadrant of the map is *satisfying*. And yes, I generally do try to do *every quest* in those games - although AC: Odyssey in particular was just ridiculously big, to its detriment. Far too much content, and not enough of it memorable.

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    1. Oh, and I was always in the camp that said you should play both games together in an organic way, that it was nonsense to try and start Darkside as though you weren't importing a max-level Clouds party, and that 90% of real-life players played them together, with the remaining 10% experiencing Darkside as an expansion that they continued on to after finishing Clouds.

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    2. I spent an inordinate amount of time in AC: Black Flag collecting all the treasure chests scattered about the world map. But I also genuinely enjoyed just sailing around, doing nothing, so that helped.

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    3. Black Flag was my favorite in the series by a large margin. I had to sail everywhere and see everything, most before I ever finished the main quest. It was also one of the few games where I was disappointed when it ended because I would have happily doubled my hours.

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  5. Depends on the game. I built My swimming up to 100 in Dark Savant to get every water space mapped that I could. In Oddyssey I cleared every map space, working by level on first playthrough, then proximity on my second. Witcher 3 forced you to do the lowest level stuff as early as possible to not miss out on so. It's been so long since I played Xeen that I can't remember how I explored that one. I did bring my Clouds party over though, I remember that

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  6. «I can't walk through a frigging forest without a special skill?»

    You will be surprised,but maybe you can't. Friend of mine is head of volunteer search'n'rescue team, and they save about 100 people each summer/autumn season, who could not find their path back from forests near big city. Mind you, it is not Taiga for hundreds of kilometers, it is relatively small forests, 10km across max, often bounded by (noisy) highways and villages. Mushroom foraging is extremely popular in my country, and each summer/autumn there are much more lost people than his team could find and rescue. And everybody has phone with GPS now!
    Going straight line in forest is not a trivial skill.

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    1. Yeah, I was going to say, as someone who lives in Maine, you'd think Chet would be aware of how hard it can be to move through unmarked wilderness. People get lost and need to be rescued every year, even with (or perhaps because of reliance on) having a GPS device in their pocket.

      (although to be fair, if the game really wanted to simulate this accurately, they'd let you enter the forest without the skill and then have you be unable to find your way out - perhaps with some graphics to show the difficulty).

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    2. YOU ARE IN A MAZE OF TWISTY LITTLE TREES, ALL ALIKE

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  7. I used to be a completionist, which sucks for modern open world games filled with repetitive filler content, but thanks to those games I have mostly gotten over it. There's a certain fear of missing out at the core of it - what if that one dungeon over there is one of the best dungeons in the entire game? I gotta go there and make sure I don't miss it! But then it's just as linear as all the others and all the reward I get at the end is a locked chest with 4 health potions (yes, I'm looking at you, Skyrim).

    In recent years I have become a lot more relaxed in my exploration. I replayed Morrowind not too long ago and went about it in a fairly organic way. I used a visual improvement mod that increases view distance quite a lot, so I can spot ruins from a great distance. I look into the horizon, spot an interesting-looking place there, head towards it, and enter most of the locations I come across along the way. When I reach my point of interest, I explore it and then look for another interesting landmark on the horizon.

    I really despise the modern "convenience" of compass markers that point out all nearby points of interest. IMO it destroys any sense of exploration, since it's not you who discovers these places, but your compass. I love stumbling upon an interesting place that I could just as easily have missed. Being able to miss something is an important part of exploration. To explore a place means to look for non-obvious things. If everything is pointed out to you, and you are therefore unable to miss anything, you're not exploring.

    I live for those obscure hard to find places in out of the way locations. My favorite form of exploration is the one done in first or third person games. Morrowind is a great example, but also the Gothic games (and anything else by Piranha Bytes), good old Ultima Underworld, Deus Ex, Thief, and many more. The main advantage of freely traversible full 3D is that you can have an element of verticality (whereas an isometric game or an oldschool grid-based bobber usually is restricted to a single plane). You not only have to look left and right, but also up and down. The BEST example of that is Subnautica with its underwater setting and six degrees of movement. There can always be something above you and below you.

    In isometric RPGs I tend to follow a quest-based exploration pattern. Some NPC told me about an interesting location or straight up gave me a quest to go there, so I go there. In Arcanum, I take Jongle Dunne's quest to deliver a package to Dernholm, and so I travel to Dernholm. Within dungeons in both isometric games and classic blobbers, I explore the hallways somewhat randomly, going into whichever direction I feel like. Then I look at my map and go finish it up by revisiting all the places with branching paths I haven't yet wandered down. If I get lost in a too complex dungeon, I follow the "right hand rule" of following the wall on the right hand side, always taking a right turn if there is one, and turning 180 degrees in a dead end.

    I recently started playing Conan Exiles, which is a free-movement full 3D game, and my exploration pattern follows the same principle as my Morrowind replay detailed above: scan the horizon for interesting landmarks. Visit them. Repeat. The game has a very cool feature where you can climb up ANY vertical surface (but the height you can go is limited by your stamina pool, which gets bigger when you raise your grit attribute) so I often climb up cliffs just to see what's up there and to enjoy a nice view from there. The game does have a map that shows your location and it does mark points of interest once you find them, but it doesn't have that stupid compass marker crap many games do these days (thank god) so the only thing to guide my exploration is visual landmarks.

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    1. I agree completely with your points about "modern convenience" and quest markers.

      Once upon a time I was into MMORPG's as well, and starting with Everquest where you had to pretty much discover it all yourself felt so rewarding.

      When WoW began to take over, I gave it a try and it was such a spoon fed, almost instant gratification experience.

      No individual, or very little effort required to solve quests, markers to show you exactly where to go and what to do...

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    2. And the maximum streamline result we have now are the mostly Eastern MMOs which have an "autoquest" feature. You can literally press a single button and the game will play itself for hours.

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    3. Not an RPG, but one recent game that did this in an incredible manner was Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. The game features towers you have to find and climb in the wilderness (somewhat Assassins Creed/Far Cry-esque), but finding them simply gives you some bare details of the map - then its up to you to spot interesting details or cool spots and mark them for later exploration. You also get a bunch of stickers to mark your map for cool treasure or tough enemies, so by the end of the game, your map is well-annotated with all the things you found interesting throughout.

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    4. I agree about quest markers, too. And it would take a trivial amount of additional programming to give he player the option to turn them off. I have no idea why more games don't do this.

      How have I never heard of Conan: Exiles before? That game seems right up my alley.

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    5. Conan Exiles is pretty fun, but it's grindy as hell. It's a weird hybrid of open world crafting, and a real RPG. There is an actual main quest and end of the game, but it doesn't really advertise it and requires you to figure a lot of it out through vague clues. Very satisfying.

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    6. Everquest had entire sites devoted to figuring out "unsolved" quests, many of which were never implemented fully, or were just backstory. But you didn't know which were which.

      Back near it's beginning most keywords in NPC conversations weren't marked. And I think you had to phrase things correctly with mostly complete sentences.

      There are still things that aren't known what there for, especially from the first few expansions. Like just what is Jairnel Marfury, a ghost from The Field of Bone, for. Unknown for over 20 years, and likely no one knows anymore.

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    7. The thing about removing markers is it can just be more annoying or immersion breaking if they don’t also design the quest dialog around not having it because it can lead to situations where you may have to check every house in a city because the developers assume people would fallow the marker so the quest giver doesn’t tell you that it’s the house with the red roof two doors down from the black smith if you reach the alchemist you’ve done too far.

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    8. Yeah, exactly. You can turn off the markers in Bard’s Tale 4, and sometimes I have to turn them on because the next step wasn’t sufficiently signposted in the quest text.

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    9. Speaking of toggleable quest markers, I started Assassin's Creed Odyssey during my last bout of insomnia, and they have that option, selectable at game start and supposedly also flippable at runtime.

      And even if you have the "show me all the quest markers" option turned on, there are points of interest in the world with names, occupants, and XP rewards for discovering them that don't show up, because there aren't _quests_ there. I was very pleasantly surprised to stumble across an abandoned mountaintop altar to Zeus on the starter island, fight off the wolves there, and get the "historical site" bonus.

      (Some of the quest sites don't necessarily have any story attached, the quest is just "find all of the 2 treasures and 1 bit of lore in this area to get a XP bonus." And if you don't find all of them, well, you still got some treasure, and you can go back later and hunt more if you're feeling completionist.)

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  8. I think earlier games were (as you say) designed about exploring everywhere. As well as the key quest tokens, the experience you needed to progress would only be found by exploring everywhere completely.

    I never tried to 'lawn mow' the overworld like I would a dungeon, though. I would go organically to a place (a town, or whatever) and explore the vicinity.

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  9. I just recently played through AC: Origins (including both DLC) and currently playing AC: Odyssey where I'm, I guess, a little more than halfway done with the main game (with the DLC waiting).

    For Origins I started out doing everything, all of the ?s. But I think by the time I got to Alexandria I learned that lots of the side quests took you back to places you had already explored, and if you had turned the game off or traveled far away enough since then, you'd have to clear the place out again (usually a huge fort). So I started ignoring any fighting-centric ?s, assuming that a side quest would probably send me there. And also by that point I had enough decent gear that the incidental encounters was enough to power up.

    Although, at some point I realized that I did want to check out some of the ?s because I wanted to do the constellations, and I especially wanted to do the gold glowing ?s that represented tombs with ability points and especially with the cool Isu stuff at the very bottom. So then I started making sure I unveiled all of the ?s when doing my side quests in each region. By the time I got to the DLCs, though, I stopped trying to unveil each one, even though the special realms in the Curse of the Pharaoahs were pretty neat, and I generally enjoyed that DLC a lot, I was at max level without much need for ability points and as far as I could tell there wasn't any secret Isu stuff to see in either DLC.

    Now, for Odyssey, on Kephallonia and Megaris I think I did every single ?, but when I got to the place after that I went back to just checking out every ? but only doing a few. I don't bother with most of the timed side quests (the ones that are mainly generic quests with obviously repeated voiceovers) but I have been doing all of the golden and blue quests. I still like to explore every region fully before moving on to the next one, but again only the quests and the tombs, and any Mercenaries or Cultists that are nearby; it feels like even more than Origins, the side quests are likely to take you to most of the ?s in a region. This did backfire on me a little bit after I realized I needed ancient tablets from the red symbol ruins to upgrade my ship more, so I had to go back to them...but it worked out after I got quests to defeat Polemarchs at forts and I could go do a bunch I had passed by.

    I started playing Witcher 3 but I'm waiting for the upgrade patch for the Xbox Series X that's been delayed but will hopefully be out this year. But from what I could tell of the first region, I will probably treat it similarly to Odyssey, as I need to power up early on in the game but then later on I will focus on the quests and the skill point locations. But I may revisit that as I learn more about the game.

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  10. I found older games much easier to "complete." Tile-based games made it clear where you hadn't been yet, and were necessarily rectangular in shape. But as I grew more experienced (okay, older and lazier), I found myself just concentrating on having fun. If I miss a kobold village or two along the way, I can live with that.

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    1. And the kobold village can live with that, too.

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  11. I think there's no reason not to grab swimming and forestry for the early game in Darkside. Mountaineering and whatever the desert one could wait a bit. I'd also say your initial inclination (explore around where you start from, expand eastward from there) sounds about right.

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  12. Apfel oder Birnen?

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  13. "I tried this and got stomped by an "armadillo" five minutes in."

    In Darkside you'll need to rely on tactics and spells a bit more than simply relying on a buffed sword. If Clouds was about might, Darkside is more about magic.

    ON that note expect Darkside to be more difficult due to your party selection of no dedicated casters. The game manual advises a balanced party is recommended, the default party at Vertigo tavern is sufficient though I personally prefer additional casters.

    The exploration pattern is fine, make your way past the Armadillos to the next town to get more hints. With the correct spell Armadillos are easily defeated by a novice party. Without the spell they can prove difficult even for an experienced party. Be advised later mobs will require magic to quickly defeat them before they can do the same to you.

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    1. I would respectfully disagree; my experience with this game was quite different. You need some casters for toolbox spells (healing, teleporting etc.), but from a certain point on, physical attacks become so much stronger than spells it's not even funny. I had parties with two sorcerers, and those two dealt more damage with their daggers than with their magic. Armadillos are a rare exception, but even they can be circumvented and slaughtered in melee later on.

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    2. Yes I have to remember this is the stock game with the broken Heroism spell. With Heroism I suppose you only really need a sword or two since it basically doubles the effective level of the party, making any encounter in the game trivial. I've gotten so used to Ludwig's mod that I forgot. The addict should feel free to just mow everything down and score the game accordingly.

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  14. Quite a cool post... I agree with many of the above posters in that I was a 100% completionist, and modern games got me over that a bit. Well, I was still methodically collecting absolutely useless Smugglers' caches in Witcher 3 for no rational reason at all, but let's not talk about that shall we... But I think growing with 90s games you were expected to complete has to do something with it, maybe younger modern players who start with "unfinishable" and "dynamic" open-world games don't feel the same.

    Making it feel "organic" and natural is actually really a difficult design problem, and one Skyrim indeed failed, it felt indeed like a groceries list most of the time. But as a general rule I start by trying to explore organically (quests, roads), and then catch up with methodic exploration patterns. In all exploration, it's THE MAP (deep cavernous voice) which is for me the meter for completion, not the quests. I don't mind missing quests, or having unfinished quests in a log, missing items or NPCs, but kind of need to walk/map every tile or clear the whole fog of war.

    One thing that I realized we tend to disagree on, after a few years of posts/comments, is the "getting in the wrong place too soon" case, like your Armadillo here. It's something that seems to bug you and you frequently criticize that as a design problem, but in all games where it has happened to me I saw it as a wonderful feature. I genuinely love to take a road and get slaughtered by some monster far beyond my level. It gives me a challenge and, more importantly, and objective: "One day I'll level up enough and be ready to take that road". And then I try 5 levels later and still die, and again, and when I finally make it it's such a feeling of achievement. Modern games that either auto-level things, or gently guide you through exploring zones of "appropriate" difficulty, completely fail at that. No sense of progression and no logic. Like why a bandit near the starting city is level 2 and the same bandit near another is level 43 (looking at you Witcher 3). It doesn't make more sense that those old Might and Magic games where the left road leads to 50th-level monsters and the right to 15th-level monsters. They are both artificial game systems, at least MM makes you feel progressing.

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    1. I've always loved area based leveling, personally. It feels like the best way to make sure there's some sort of challenge at higher levels while still letting you feel like you're getting stronger, along with making non-random loot more interesting in games with that. Do you go to the area that you can handle and work up from there, or do you try for an area far beyond you because you can get amazing stuff from it?

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    2. There are people, who have grown to be the majority of the gaming population these days, who interpret challenge as frustration. Any time they're blocked from progress, they have a bad feeling. They want to win, to feel in control of their destiny in the game. So that's what the developers give them. They get enough bad feelings in their real life, they don't need extra in a game they paid good money for.

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    3. I feel like a large part of the perceived lack of challenge is really the removal of fake difficulty and the addition of quality of life. Besides, even if it really is because people are wimps who can't handle the slightest bit of difficulty, so what? At the end of the day the point of a game is to be entertaining, and different people get that in different ways. It's not bad if you don't want to be challenged and just want to go around dominatimg everything, just like it's not bad if you want to claw and fight for every single bit of progress, and these days there's plenty of games that cater to both types of people.

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    4. I think the view that today's games are easier or dumbed down isn't accurate. It's more a matter that the medium is so large now that it can cater to morr types of gamers. So while there definitely are way more games that provide a more "casual" easygoing experience there are also whole genres of games that are brutal and hardcore, even moreso than any time in the past.

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    5. Generally, I would also prefer area-based leveling, but this depends on the number of areas you can go. If combined with relatively free exploration, it results in trial and error, and if the game world is the size of Russia or something, there's no way I'm going trial and error through 137 outside areas and 219 dungeons.

      Also, what Sloth says is definitely true. In the mid-90s, you could assume that someone interested in CRPGs would have played a certain number of landmark games and be familiar with certain tropes of game design. This is not the case today.

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    6. I have a fun anecdote from my first time playing through Divinity Original Sin. The game has a very rigid "higher level = harder challenge" system where an enemy's level makes it much harder to beat, independently of its actual stats. While the actual stat gain between level 10 and 15 would be maybe 20 points and maybe 100 hitpoints, for some reason an enemy 5 levels higher than you gets additional damage and armor bonuses just based on the level difference. He would not have these bonuses against a party of his own level. This means that generally, you can't sequence break because anything more than 3 levels higher than you is unbeatable.

      I really hate that kind of mechanic because it doesn't make any sense. Leveling up already offers the benefit of improving stats, skills, and hitpoints. Why add an artificial damage and armor scaler based on level difference? It's terrible.

      But somehow I managed to break the game's sequence. There's a snowy area reached through a portal and I completely missed it. Forced my way through enemy mobs 3 levels higher than my party, which was extremely tough. But I prevailed and pushed on... until I hit a roadblock of getting stuck and not knowing what to do.

      Turns out I didn't have a vital quest item from the snowy area, so I had to go there and get it. All the enemies there were super easy because now they were below my level.

      That was a very memorable experience, and you can't find that in a level scaled game.

      In fact, if there is level scaling then there may as well be no leveling at all.

      If every enemy scales to your level, and same with the loot, why even have levels? What changes? You gain ten hitpoints and ten damage, but so do all your enemies. It evens out again. The whole gameplay loop of RPGs is about becoming stronger so you can defeat enemies you couldn't before. If everything is always scaled to your level, that loop doesn't exist.

      You can play through the entirety of Oblivion, for example, without leveling up once. Because everything including the endboss scales to your level. In fact it's EASIER to finish the game without leveling up.

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    7. Area-based leveling for monsters is great and my personal favorite system - as long as the game is (mostly) clear about what areas are more dangerous, etc. I'm thinking of Morrowind, where the game is pretty direct about the coasts being safer, closer to the Ghostfence being more dangerous, and things like caves or tombs being a bit of a crapshoot (I'll also point to Dragon Quest and it's "every time you go over a bridge, the enemies get harder" as a great simple version of this). But in games where there's no direction on this, it can feel frustrating when it's not clear whether you're just meant to be challenged or if the area is just unwinnable until you come back later.

      Related: Harland, I'd argue that the popularity of games like Dark Souls, Cuphead, Celeste, etc. contradict your argument that the majority of gamers want there to be no challenge. I'd argue the difference there is that people want challenges to feel fair - they want to feel like they have a chance to succeed and need to be quick/clever/prepared to overcome the challenge, which I'd say isn't found in a lot of games where you can find yourself in an near unwinnable state purely via bad RNG or poor design (such as being put in a "walking dead" scenario, or discovering 20 hours in that you've been leveling up a skill or ability that isn't actually useful).

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    8. The majority of gamers don't play games like Cuphead. Isn't Cuphead supposed to be fiendishly difficult? The majority of gamers play games nobody has heard of, and all they want to do is log on for 30 minutes of relaxation after a tough day. They don't want to be quick, they don't feel rewarded for being clever. They've been quick and clever all day long and need a rest. Making progress in a game is just the ticket.

      Us old-style "challenge gamers" used to be all there was out there. But today it's a different story. The gaming industry is huge, and it's all about the feelings people get from the game.

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    9. Personally, I love how the Xenoblade games handle the "enemies too much higher level than you are virtually impossible and far enough lower are nothing" sort of thing. They're very explicit about how hard a fight should be, and because they're relatively linear for the most part you won't run into issues where you can't progress without leveling... but every area tends to have enemies far, far higher level than you that you'll have absolutely no chance of beating on your first time in the area, but later in the game you usually go back to those areas, and it's great to be able to kill the things that terrorized you earlier in the game. It's also generally not completely impossible to kill an enemy that's a good few levels higher than you, just very difficult. The first game even has an acheivement for it.

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    10. Georges, I'm a bit mistified by your comment, because I don't think I've ever complained about "getting in the wrong place too soon." To complain about such a thing would be silly if you value open-world games as I do. I LOVE that you can blunder into high-level areas before your time. Go back and read the way that I played the original Might and Magic. My comments about armadillos in this entry weren't meant as criticisms of the game; they were meant as an illustration of the difficulty finding a workable exploration system. If I've ever "criticized as a design problem" such a thing, please point that out so I can clarify whatever I was saying.

      I suppose the one qualifier I would add is that I prefer when games give you some hope of victory even when you blunder into high-level areas. What I have criticized is the way that The Witcher 3, Odyssey, and Origins hard-gate enemies (and thus areas) by level, making it functionally impossible to progress. I rather prefer games like Might and Magic VII where if you really WANT to spend 45 minutes having your Level 1 party run circles around the dragon, stopping to fire arrows between its breath attacks, you can do it.

      Nonetheless, I would still prefer hard-gated areas to losing the open-world experience entirely.

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    11. I like a lot how "Gothic" managed monster difficulty, because it made sense that some monsters were much more powerful than others, and the NPC themselves recognized this. You could lure a few goblins towards a camp gate and the guards would come and slaughter, but those same guards would run in panic if you brought them a group of orcs. That's a much better way to do it than in "The Witcher 3", where it was ridiculous fiding "level 5 nekkers" in some areas and "level 30 nekkers" in others.

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    12. This post made me think of Divinity: Original Sin also, because that's a game which, at least on the higher difficulty levels, requires you to really seek out every little bit of experience, or else fall behind the very punishing level curve (for some reason, they made certain levels in this game, like level 13, have double or triple the increase in stats of other levels, making it really tough to sequence break even a little bit.) You can't exactly lawnmow because of the structure of the maps, but if you don't clear out all the fog of war and do everything it can be impossible to win any fights. On the other hand, there are a lot of ways to cheat fights using explosives and teleportation of enemies (similarly, you can beat almost any enemy in the Witcher 3 with perfect dodging even if you're way under-leveled, by the way.) The game is very open in some ways, but subsequent playthroughs usually end up looking a lot alike, which is one of the reasons the linear/open world dichotomy can be reductive.

      My other opinion that's counter to the rest of the thread is that I like level-scaling in games like the Witcher 3, where it's an option that I always turn on. Sure, it doesn't make sense in terms of the world, but it's better than being bored by all the combat when doing quest in areas of early maps that you missed because the enemies are far weaker than you. I don't think open world games have fully solved this one yet, but we have to recognized that a game like Skyrim or Witcher 3, or Assassin's Creed: Odyssey with tons of non-essential content have to do something to prevent earlier areas from being obsolete.

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    13. I apologize, maybe I was under a wrong impression, there were a couple of "I tried exploring organically and died right away, well so much for that" comments, which passed a bit as annoyed. I kind of remember a similar discussion about MM3 at the time too. But since it's me who misunderstood, sincere apologies.

      In any case, my post and all the pertinent answers after highlight how exploration decisions seem tied with the macro design decisions regarding difficulty scaling and distribution. So the discussion is more about how does the player wish to "navigate" through the game, (with different player's personal preferences), and how the game wishes you to navigate. There's a thesis to be had indeed, like you point out, that your resulting enjoyment of the game "world" and progression is how much those fit or are a constant struggle.

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  15. Loved opening the post with a little Robert Frost!

    If it's allowed, I'll usually try to follow quests organically, whether that be local or the main questline (which isn't always apparent initially or at all).

    Completionism often only creeps in during a replay, as there are oft times that I almost unwittingly reach the end!

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  16. I try to explore everything in an older, 2D games. Usually, their design makes that both easy and rewarding. For the newer 3D games that becomes unfeasible and mostly unnecessary.

    By the way, there is some invisible encounters in Xeen. You may recall the talking tree on the Clouds. There is another one on the Darkside.

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  17. I am a serendipitous explorer. As long as I have fun, I keep exploring.

    I never followed quest compass in Skyrim and explored the game on my own. Basically I played it like Morrowind. And I'm always having fun with Skyrim.

    I occasionally still load up the game (same original character) and still find new things. I found this npc, that teaches archery in the mountains, and for some reason, I enjoyed that encounter. It was so accidental, and she turned out to be more than just another character. I felt like I had discovered something worthwile, 10 years in the game.

    Witcher 3 world I'm not a huge fan of. I like the story, but I find exploring the world to be unengaging. It just feels like a big empty background, it doesn't feel like a real place. So I got over my desire to explore in Witcher 3 very quickly. Witcher maintains it's illusion by the sheer number of side quests, but once you've done them, then the world betrays it's lack of life. It's just a background.

    Assassin Creed games I usually never finish. I just run around the towns and read all the encylopedia entries and then I'm done.

    I've also never played Xeen games like you did. I jumped between worlds on a whim, went there where my interest took me. When I got bored of Clouds, I went to Darkside. And when Darkside got hard, I went back to Clouds. But I had fun.

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  18. What I did for MM3-5 is lawnmow by map area; because each area has two kinds of monsters, and once you know you can defeat those, you're can clear the area. And yeah, pick areas at random until you stumble upon quest items.

    Although I love the idea of obtaining new movement skills (I play metroidvanias a lot), they turn out pretty pointless in MM4 and 5, because you get most of them in the first city. I encouraged a new party not because of the terrain skills, but because of character growth in terms of learning all skills and spells (instead of starting with the full list of both).

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  19. I remember Darkside to offer pretty clear guidance through the quests and the poster map. Note that the poster map shows all dungeons except for the very minor cave entrances. So what I did was clearing an area to make sure I got all the quests, then go wherever the quests would point me, and in case there was any doubt, go to the nearest dungeon depicted on the poster map.

    Running Darkside with a mostly new party is not interesting to follow because of the movement skills, at least for me; it's interesting to witness the balancing (as you noticed, Castleview has numerous encounters with ridiculous XP rewards to let characters quickly jump to level 12) and in particular the availability of certain spells. To prevent abuse of Teleport, for instance, you only get it much later in the game (and in some locations it has even been disabled).

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    1. Reseting the movement skills isn't that interesting because the game, unfortunately, doesn't ever try to do anything interesting with them. So yeah, it's a minor reason.

      The bigger factors are losing about 10 million experience from Clouds (which will keep you back permanently about 10 levels), reseting your attributes, and clearing your spell list. I think this will greatly improve the sense of challenge and character development.

      I continued Darkside with the same party and found it dull because my characters didn't change much and I mostly easily stomped my way through everything. Just having those extra 10 levels and key attributes in the 50s was enough that I rarely bothered to cast from my full spellbook.

      I also think I would have enjoyed a chance to try a different party composition besides the generic one I used for Clouds.

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  20. In Castleview you can buy the "Beast Master" spell which has a very high success rate at paralyzing groups of Armadillos. After they are paralyzed they can easily be killed in melee.

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  21. The Encyclopedia FantasticaApril 25, 2021 at 8:00 AM

    I'm a role-player by heart. So for me, exploration is where the adventure takes me. Be it following a main quest, rumours of a fearsome beast attacking hapless villagers or the pull of an abandoned factory just visible through the radio-active haze.

    As you've said, there is often a need to be an completionist with older CRPG's, but with beasts like Fallout 4 or Skyrim, it's about the exploration and a sense of wonder for me. I will probably miss out on more than half of the fun when i finish a game (like with the excellent ELEX crpg, where the choices you make limits you to the content you're presented with).

    But that's all right. You can always start over, ready for another fabulous adventure.

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    1. ELEX seems like another game that I would like that I mysteriously have never heard about until now.

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    2. ELEX is awesome. The best game Piranha Bytes made since Gothic 2. The jetpack adds so much vertical mobility to your exploration, it's incredible!

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    3. Speaking of ELEX, have you played the risen series - the games PB made before ELEX? for me, I started with risen 2 and I loved the whole thing.
      I remember I started the game and I was in town with some clothes and I just started walking in the forest and all kinds of structures started showing up like in savage empire and the next thing you know i was in a pirate bar and the game adjusted my quests and skipped a bit of the storyline pretty adroitly.
      Some of the quests had multiple ways to solve as well - for example you could steal something to progress and you could do it or you could get a monkey to steal it for you. You also had choices about who to ally with etc. People say the dialog was janky but I didn't have a problem with it.
      It felt like a combination of a serious RPG and monkey island and I loved it, especially the sense of progression you felt finding and travelling to other islands. Most games I finish and I'm done but I still think about Risen 2 and how much I enjoyed it all the time.

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    4. I love and hate Elex with the same strength. It is the same kind of game as Risen or Gothic, but as uneven as those predecessors (well, not Gothic, I love Gothic in its entirety). But the Piranha Bytes way of throwing you difficulty spikes that you have to overcome with a lot of patience and/or skill may be something you will appreciate, Chet.

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  22. re: exploration patterns feeling artificial, cats explore their new environment in a roughly spiral pattern, and I'd wager other animals have similarly methodical ways to explore (especially migrating species)
    as for completionism, I mostly play games for their stories so it's hard not to poke my nose in every nook and cranny of the map in case there's an interesting bit of lore or interaction hidden there.
    This makes games like AC or Bethesda open worlds harder to play, because usually in these games the main quest is frankly dull and not very interesting, it's the side content that tends to have the good bits, where the individual designer had more free reign to do what they wanted.
    Of course that also means going through many tedious look-alike dungeons because you never know, it might be a good one.
    I haven't yet found a way to approach these games that doesn't end up in burn-out after 60+ hours of play

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    1. I don't feel like arguing about this in every comment that mentions it, but I can't let comment after comment go by calling the main quests "dull and interesting" without logging at least one official disagreement. The main quest in Skyrim is about the return of dragons. By engaging in it, you get to visit some of the most interesting places in the game (e.g., The Throat of the World, Blackreach, Sovngarde) and you get access to the one uniquely defining magic ability of the game: shouts. Nothing stops you from continuing to play after you finish the main quest, either, which makes it all the more mystifying to me that so many players deliberately avoid it.

      I guess I can think of a few games where I find the main quest less interesting than miscellaneous content, but Skyrim isn't one of them.

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    2. I agree about the plot of Skyrim and many of the concepts/places in the main questline, but I do find that it suffers a bit from a syndrome that a lot of open world game main quests have.

      From a structural perspective, main quests are designed to 1) guide you all over the game world 2) guide you through all the game's mechanics 3) be achievable by as many players as possible 4) be long enough that when reviewers say "completed in N hours" people see it as a good value for money. None of this is bad in itself, but it can result in 1) getting sent all over the place and not really feeling settled 2) gameplay that feels "tutorial-ish" 3) gameplay that is too easy and/or doesn't really take your character's build into account 4) long dungeons that feel like they're filling time.

      In the case of Skyrim, the dungeon design overall isn't thrilling, so playing the main quest sometimes results in me feeling like "so I get to go down another long dank hallway to pick up a whatsit? lemme guess, I'll run into a lot of draugr?" That said, there's way more variety in the main quests and more personalities to tangle with than in Oblivion. (That kind of ties into the other problem I have with Skyrim, which is that the engine is not great at doing convincing scripted events, when they don't just break entirely. But that's not just the main quest.)

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    3. I tend to not do the main quest first because I’m bothered that people don’t realize they are asking the Dragonborn who just saved the world to clean the rats out of their cellar or whatever.

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  23. I personally feel that full freedom of movement and use of quest markers correlates to myself being less likely to explore the map. I started playing rpgs around the mid 2000s, and if a game world's map is already revealed to me(no fog of war on unexplored parts of map) I can't be bothered to head there unless there's a quest telling me to. However, if movement is tile based I see the map as a puzzle. It would bother me to leave a piece out of place.

    By the way, I love the term lawnmowing. Not sure if a common used term for tile based rpgs but I have definitely read it here first.

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  24. Ironically, only because I ~don't~ have a crippling disorder, I was never able to finish Skyrim and Oblivion. My urge to explore every nook and cranny really collided with how both games function. Eventually, my mental fortitude will run out and I will abandon my run. Still, Skyrim was fun enough I bought it again on my Switch, hoping I eventually have the time to try and finish it for good.

    In less overwhelming games like Baldur's Gate and M&M7, I tend to walk in circles until the entire map is uncovered, and where terrain and monsters make this hard, I leave parts uncovered until later.

    This kind of behavior is now so deeply ingrained, if there's nothing stopping me (like terrain or dungeon layout), I'll always fall back to subconsciously walking in circles, even in grid-based RPGs.

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    1. I find your first two sentences contradictory. If you didn't have the urge to "explore every nook and cranny," you would have relaxed a bit, maybe prioritized the main quest while still allowing time for a few side quests, and actually finished the game.

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    2. "Finishing a game" isn't what I call fun. I'm more a "journey" kin of guy. I had tons of fun with Skyrim, even though I did my very best to avoid the main story. Exploration is what I consider relaxing, the main quest of an exploration game is often more like an annoying intrusion I have to live with.

      One of my favorite games is No Man's Sky, not exactly a RPG (but close, there are RP-choices to make, and a lot of equipment-based progression), but an exploration-wonderland. I'm always coming back to build another series of towers to nowhere and visit another hundred or so planets.

      In hindsight, the number of games I've actually finished is very, very low. Playing a game is just more important to me then just rushing to the finishing line.

      As a funny aside, sometimes devs really don't expect someone like me playing their games: Recently I got back into Bravely Default, a RPG for the Nintendo 3DS, and learned to my amazement that the weird secret messages that periodically "unlocked" when playing (some sort villain-diary, it seems) where linked to the internal clock of the console.

      So because I at one point stopped playing for over a year, the game just unlocked all of them, up to messages relating to the final boss, and sandblasted them at me all at once. Quite clearly the devs of Bravely Default never expected someone would just stop for that long and later come back like nothing happened, ha ha

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    3. I get that too, and I actually leave a lot of books, movies and games unfinished for this reason. Even on my favourite genre, point n click adventures, I have trouble finishing them. I just like to think that there is still something left to explore.

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    4. I went with this thought to bed and woke up and realised why I do this: because there is always a point where I am exhausted of what that piece of pop culture is offering. Tired if the gameplay loop, of the tropes, of that movie final fight or final battle, of that series way of stretching the resolution. There is also some element of frustration: I have not been able to finish Infra after many hours because not having seen a puzzle means that in this ending I am going to leave the whole population with water poisoning. After more than 40 hours going through crumbling tunnels, this is very frustrating to me.

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    5. It sounds like you two approach games the way I approach pasta. I don't want to eat pasta until it's gone. I want to eat it until I lose my appetite. I'm not sure that this approach is entirely healthy in either case, but I suppose as long as you're having fun...

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    6. Unless you're a Choose Your Own Adventure kind of reader, I'd of thought the linear nature of most books would make this method redundant?

      I appreciate, as Chet said, that as long as you're having fun... but the comparison of a CRPG where you've much more control and freedom to a novel simply doesn't make sense to me.


      I currently also have an image of a cluttered home, with piles of half read books in large vertical piles! lol

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    7. That's the thing: I stop when I stop having fun.

      I usually stop for 2 or 3 years and then I pick up the game again. Which forces me either to take a lot of notes or to actually restart.

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    8. Chet, you played and completed _Braminar_. You're in no position to call anyone unhealthy. (Just kidding!)

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  25. I like to explore as much as the game will let me before I have to do anything plot or progression related. In a simple dungeon/level structured game, I'm going to explore every nook and cranny of a level before I go downstairs to the next. In something like Skyrim, it meant that I had explored most of the map before I sighed and went to see that bloke about the dragon attacks.

    I didn't enjoy The Witcher 3 much, but I did manage to explore the entire starting map before I gave up on it.

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  26. I recently learned about a remake of Daggerfall that someone made in Unity. Daggerfall was the CRPG I grew up with, and thinking about it with the topic of exploration patterns makes me realize how much Bethesda was trying to break that mold.
    They heavily relied on procedural generation to make a mass of content that will break a strict completion it, but they also hid nuggets of artist-crafted content in there. So the exploration becomes finding the crafted stuff in a sea of procedural generated content.

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    1. IIRC all the hand designed dungeons were used for the main quests, while other dungeons were generated by combining pre-built pieces with each other in random patterns. That's why you often encounter the same room in different dungeons. Daggerfall players even came up with a term for it: dungeon vu.

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  27. Someone mentioned it above, but I think Breath of the Wild does a really great job of encouraging more organic exploration. There are several large, easy to spot landmark towers that let you unlock a general map of each area, which gives a natural set of destinations to hit first. Then, either while traveling or from the towers themselves, you will inevitably spot a few easy-to-see shrines, giving you a whole new set of exploration destinations. During the process of traveling to *those*, you will undoubtedly find some other interesting thing to look at or hidden feature to explore.

    Probably the most satisfying feeling of exploration I've experienced in a game.

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  28. My exploration pattern depends on the game I'm playing. With MM3-5 I explore area per area, sometimes lawnmowing, other times going in circles. When an area is done, I move to the next one. If the enemies there are too tough, I go back to the previous area and continue in another direction. It's very mechanically, but I feel it's all the game allows you to do.

    In Oblivion, I will walk at least once to every town without using auto travel. I don't need to visit every dungeon and explore every part of the map, but I may sometimes just walk around and enjoy the views. There's a mountain path west of Bruma that leads to someplace North of Chorrol that I liked a lot; any encounters or special places on such a road are just bonus.

    And in Gothic, I try to go everywhere as soon as possible, and get back alive. It's a thrill to walk somewhere, spot a strong creature in the distance and then try to kill it using your bow, tactics, advantages given by the terrain and what else the game allows. I loved it when some guard warned me of orcs further down the road, but I went in anyway, encountered half a dozen of orcs and hounds and fled... Back to the guard, who got killed by the pursuing orcs, allowing me to escape and come back to collect his crossbow afterwards.

    In short, if a certain exploration style makes sense for a certain game, I just go with it and don't think about it.

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  29. The way I see it, RPGs are meant to be hard. There´s a great difficulty in programming them to be a real exploration but also keep track of what the player is doing, out of best sequence, keep suprises coming but not over or under whelm. It´s honestly impossible. Visual depth is still hard even with all the leaps and bounds in 3D rendering we now have. Players can try to get "smart" and go round clockwise or whatever on a map, but just as you´d expect say if we had an easter egg hunt, things are in places the author randomly spread around so it´s always going to be a struggle. Imagine how much we´d all complain if games were authored so all the clues and special spots followed an "S" shape round the map or something. Too simple would be way worse.

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  30. "How do you comprehensively explore a tiled open world in a way that isn't fundamentally 'artificial'?"

    I think the designers of M&M III and Xeen assumed most players would not feel the need to map every square, if so, then from their perspective if you're stepping on every lava square then that's on you. The same might hold for M&M II because it introduced the auto-mapping feature to the series as a secondary skill and not a native UI feature like movement key bindings. Gamers with different styles would make their own maps or navigate by Wizard's Eye.

    I think the exploration pattern problem is separate from the game not giving you great hints on where to go next. If the armadillos weren't there, then wouldn't you conclude that the danger increases the further you get from the roads and should explore accordingly? If someone in Castleview nudged you by saying, "Nestor lives south of here, and he knows a thing or two about knick-knacks like energy discs," wouldn't you head south, even after testing the roads and meeting the armadillos?

    "Honestly, those of you who encouraged me to start Darkside without those abilities, what did you expect I was going to gain from the experience? What do you get out of it?"

    Well, I haven't played the game in twenty-five years, and I started Darkside straight after Clouds and didn't find it very difficult, so please cut me some slack. I expected that without the skills, spells, and items from your Clouds party that Darkside would be more interesting because you could evaluate it as an individual title and not stomp on the game so easily. I had no idea that you'd get to level 12 by the time you left Castleview.

    A separate point about Xeen: I thought the idea was that few people on either side believed the other existed, which is why Prince Roland's expedition to Darkside triggered Clouds' plot (such as it was). I know many players enjoyed shifting between the two games freely, but I think I would've found it more thematic it if getting to either side took a lot of work.

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  31. I think the fundamental flaw with the anticompletionist comparison to visiting a real city is that most of a real city is for practical purpose. Most of the buildings in Chicago are there for people to do ordinary work in, or for living space, or are plain "grab a bite to eat, nothing special" restaurants.

    Few open-world games include much of that. It takes designer time to make it, system resources to run it, and serves no real purpose. That's why games like GTA have most of the building interiors completely inaccessible.

    By inverse logic, anything that is placed in the game ostensibly has some reason to it. Careless developers often make too many "we needed some sources of loot, and we need them all over the place so the player can find them easily" bland dungeons, but that doesn't mean that there's anything fundamentally wrong with a "I am playing this to explore a strange world, so I'm going to explore as much of it as I can".

    I'd consider somebody playing Skyrim or Oblivion by mainlining the main quest and minimal sidequests to be far more unnatural than somebody who wants to see the world and gets lost in it.

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    1. I think it's only "unnatural" if you ignore the fact that there's usually a pressing reason to prioritize the main quest. Attention to "role-playing" gives direction to an open world the same way that real-life goals give direction to a visit to a new city.

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    2. In Oblivion the game _tells_ you about the importance of the MQ, but it _shows_ how utterly unimportant it is, since every thing is on hold until the player decides to take action.
      Consequently I've never bothered with the MQ, but just explored and played with mods instead.

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    3. Petrus, isn't that the same for almost every CRPG? Apart from a couple I can think of with timers (Fallout 1, Avernum 3, probably a few others), or a more railroaded storyline (like some JRPGs) the majority of RPGs seem to tell you that there's some super important problem to be solved but are happy to let you run off looking for interesting sidequests or exploring every square of the map or whatever rather than pushing you forward.

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    4. Yeah, there's a pretty long list of it here: https://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/TakeYourTime

      It's so common that aversions of it are pretty shocking (fhpu nf fgne pbageby gjb).

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    5. I think Oblivion was quite extreme. Unlike most other games the main quest is boring and just a small part og the total game, and it's more fun to explore the land, do side quests and mess with mods (good riddance, level scaling).
      But it's kind of a blessing in disguise, since ignoring the MQ has no consequences whatsoever, so you can concentrate on other stuff.
      How boring Oblivion would have been with my usual playing style, which is to complete the game in as little in-game time as possible.
      OTOH just doing the MQ would save me from too much time wasted trying to get the buggy mess to work and not crash with mods installed.

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    6. This is why I prefer main quests that aren't pressingly urgent.

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    7. A lot of games don't make the main quest as apparently urgent as Oblivion does. Often, the big bad evil guy is lurking in the backgrounds and being menacing, but his Evil Plan doesn't really show up until the last third of the game so far. In games like this, beelining to the next Quest of Great Importance doesn't make any more sense than going off to loot a dungeon or going to wizard school.

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    8. What makes things worse in Oblivion is that not only the main quest is urgent.

      "An evil necromancer wants to destroy the Mage's Guild!"

      "I know, but I promised to collect some rare bottles of wine first."

      Arena handled this better, you're essentially told to build up your strength first and stay under the radar, giving you a perfect role playing reason to hold off the main quest and do side quests first. And once you start the main quests, the big bad starts paying attention to you, so then you have a good incentive to continue working on that main quest.

      I don't want to be too harsh on the developers of Oblivion, it's a great game. It's just that the "sense of no urgency" is so obvious, it baffles me that this isn't mitigated in any way in the game.

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    9. I agree. There are plenty of times in which the developers could have mitigated the urgency. Once you get Martin to Cloud Ruler Temple, he could have just said, "I'm going to need a few months to study this. Do whatever you want in the meantime." Or later in the game, "The ritual can only be done after the aligning of the blah blah blah stars, so occupy yourself until then." I haven't played Arena, but Morrowind did things the way that you recall. Plus, part of winning Morrowind required you to level up in the guilds, and that in turn requires you to develop your skills.

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  32. Open worlds feel more frustrating than anything. It always feels like more walking around than doing things. It's common to pass the building I'm looking for again and again, fail to notice important items, and be confused how to progress. I'd rather have a small world with few meaningful things to do; the gamebook style puzzle of retrying until you find a winning route is ok. That applies to other media as well, I'm the one who watches a movie only for the stunts and doesn't care about most plot threads in a story.

    There's two kinds of open worlds I don't have trouble with. One is when it serves more to give get you to choose which way to go rather than reward exploration. Occidental Heroes would be the closest thing to doing this, with its small map and finding everything as part of quests, but it still feels like the overworld could have been replaced with a menu adking where to next. Age of Fable works well too, if you can call determining what you reach by die roll an open world. Another kind of world is one where you revisit areas and need to remmeber them, like how you learn the roads in racing games and remmeber them when you're back with a faster car.

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    1. I agree wholeheartedly. The wonder of a new open world game wears off quickly because you inevitably begin experiencing "Do this same thing, but in a different place". In a more constrained and curated RPG, I love to explore every nook and cranny to discover content hidden away. This is really tiring in a game like AC Odyssey or Skyrim, where my time exploring is usually twice as much or more than my time spent following the main quest.

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    2. Exploration can be fine when you're using the information about the map for later attempts or later in the same story. It's easier for the dev too if they reuse levels by making friendly areas hostile or creating new levels while reusing parts of previous ones.

      If I recall Assassins' Creed doesn't need you to do much to escape pursuit, but in other games it's useful to know the city and plan escape routes.

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  33. Some of the other M&M games did exploration better than Xeen. Like in M&M3, the way that the game is structured around the islands gives you a natural way to explore, i.e. you go to an island, clear it then move onto the next one. And since you don't get the "walk on water" spell until later in the game, you naturally have to stick to the beginning islands.

    In M&M6, there are no "mountaineering" or "swimming" skills so things like mountains and water naturally block your progress and direct your exploration. You eventually do get a Fly spell later in the game but this is after you have already explored most areas.

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  34. Kudos on the "Road Less Traveled" reference! This is probably my favorite poem and also describes my favored exploration style!

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    1. I had a subversive reason for quoting those lines. The poem is often misinterpreted by taking its last two lines as literal: "I took the one less-traveled by / And that has made all the difference." Of course, Frost has already told us earlier in the poem that the two roads are equal and it didn't really matter which way he went, but that later he'll romanticize his choice and pretend that he had some reason for it. You can see how that would apply to this entire discussion.

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    2. I had a subversive reason for quoting those lines.

      I had hoped this was the case, so I'm very glad to see this. From what I understand Frost was bemused at the total misinterpretation of a poem that, to him, was mainly a sly (but good-natured) dig at his perennially waffling friend.

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    3. I have always wondered how annoying it is to an author/poet/artist when their work is widely misinterpreted. Or how many just laugh because people are oblivious.

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    4. I don't think you write a poem like that without expecting that it's going to be misinterpreted. Frost seems to have specialized in lines that people often quote to mean one thing that in the context of the poem means something else (e.g., "Good fences make good neighbors"; "Home is the place where, when you have to go there, then have to take you in"; "I have been one acquainted with the night"). He sure had a bad streak of luck if he didn't do that deliberately.

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  35. I'm 100% one of the "do everything, see everywhere" type people. In fact some of the games I have the biggest problems with are the "impossible to complete every sidequest in a single playthrough".

    I've tried RPing evil or whatever to see things from a second run, but I can only play as neutral good and it makes my teeth itch to be anything else. Which is probably why Tyranny will be forever unplayed in my list.

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    1. (although I hasten to add that games like Skyrim, where there are a billion dungeons but they're of the seen one seen em all variety I just see enough to realise it's copy pasted and then ignore the rest. See also radiant quests)

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    2. I'm not sure I'm entirely with you on the "do everything, see everywhere" bit (though I'm also not sure I'm entirely not), but I definitely am on the only playing as good part. When I first played Ultima VI, I decided to play through it with two different characters: with one I'd play the "right" way as the virtuous Avatar, since I figured that was probably necessary to win the game, and with the other I'd steal whatever I wanted and not worry about the virtues. (I even named the second character "Philch", because I was dumb.) Only even after creating a character expressly for the purpose, and even naming the character after theft... I still couldn't bring myself to do it, and ended up playing that character "virtuously" as well.

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    3. I love stories like this. I had the same reaction trying to play "evil" in Jade Empire. There's a moment after you finish an early town in which an NPC comes up to you, crying and cursing you for ever coming to their town. I felt so horrible that I couldn't keep playing.

      It would be nice if more RPGs offered options between say, law and chaos, rather than good and evil. Good and evil are boring and facile choices.

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    4. Whilst it has a few flaws (what game doesn't?) Pathfinder Kingmaker is very good at letting you explore the lawful/chaotic axis through choices, instead of pure good/evil.

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    5. I'd settle for the choice between good and evil being a bit more interesting. Most moral choices in video games are something like "Do you kill the orphan puppy or pet him and tell him he's a good boy?" It would be more interesting if sometimes the opposite choice was actually tempting and sticking to your side meant turning down advantages. Too many RPGs give you the same rewards whether you pick good or evil.

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    6. It strikes me that honorable/dishonorable is a more nuanced axis than good/evil. Simulation games often allow this: you can form an alliance with another ruler, get them to move their troops away from the border, then strike at the weakened frontier. Is failing to keep your word incontrovertibly "evil" in a game that's zero-sum in the long term? Your subjects probably don't think so, as long as not many of them perish in the attack. Better to strike when the enemy is vulnerable, so fewer of ours die -- that is, better them than us -- and regardless "our" interests take universal priority over theirs. That's pretty much SOP for most of human history.

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    7. Reminds me of an old OOTS
      https://www.giantitp.com/comics/oots0068.html

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    8. This reminds of the infamous "Most Evil Invention" sketch with The Rock on SNL.
      We tend to want to play the bad guy, but not the truly despicable person.
      My experience was in Deus Ex, trying to play Adam as a homicidal maniac. I had to stop because slaughtering imaginary people was sickening. I mean, thank goodness it was, but the fact that the option was there, intentionally...Why it's different killing imaginary citizens vs Unatco troops, or even the annoying candy bar kid, i don't know.

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    9. See, though, I don't really want to play the "bad guy" at all, "truly despicable" or not.

      Of course, as a game master in tabletop role-playing games, I do play the bad guys the PCs fight against, but I see that as a very different thing. For one thing, the villain I'm playing isn't really "my" character; the PCs are the stars, and I'm just playing their foils and supporting characters -- or at best, the villain I'm playing is just one of my many characters. I'm not identifying with that character to the extent the players are with the PCs. For another thing, I'm not rooting for that character to win. I may be playing the villain and plotting against the PCs, but as the gamemaster I'm still rooting for the PCs to spoil "my" plans and defeat "me" (even if I'm not necessarily making it easy for them to do so). So I absolutely don't have a problem with playing "the bad guy" when I'm the GM. But as a player, either in a tabletop game or a CRPG? No, I really don't want to play an evil character, or even a semi-"bad guy" who's not thoroughly despicable.

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    10. I much prefer evil to be presented as 'the ends justify the means' rather than corny D&D evil.

      I also like when it can be achieved organically, rather than light side and dark side dialogue options.

      eg There is a merchant in Fallout 2 who is a total dirtbag. Has designs on being some sort of slumlord. There is no quest to kill him, and if anyone sees you they turn hostile, even the 'good characters', but killing him is very profitable. It presents the player with an ethical dilemma that doesn't need to be explicitly flagged.

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    11. It shouldn't be that hard to offer some interesting moral choices that are, for most people, not trivially "right/good" or "wrong/evil". Like one of the optional side missions of Shadowrun Dragonfall, where you must decide at one point between going after the offender, leaving the victims behind to die, or saving the victims, letting the offender flee (with the implication that he'll do the same thing to someone else). That's not a particularly creative choice, but still better than something obviously good/evil.

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    12. On the JRPG side, the Shin Megami Tensei series also revolves around a "law/neutral/chaos" axis and, in my opinion, is the better for it in terms of offering a meaningful (and, at the games' best, truly thought-provoking) player choice experience.

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    13. Might and Magic I has the side quest with the scales of judgement. Unfortunately, since the party has to do the triggering stuff as a group, it is difficult to get the reward uniformly.

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  36. Fantastic post!

    I'm a quest-first kind of player in open world games. I prioritize the main quest, as that's usually the best way to see the most impressive set pieces and most interesting places. But, mostly depending on my mood, I'll veer off for a while and explore, check out close points of interest, etc.

    For all intents and purposes, I consider a game "finished" once the main quest line has been completed.

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  37. One of the weird gotchas with the "visit every square" approach in MMI and MMII was that sometimes *direction* also mattered, but not always. And then there's the temporal dimension - which was odd, too. I don't seem to remember 3-5 doing anything with day of year, whereas MMII does. (Plus the really under developed time travel element, but ... I had assumed about that it was a concession to the Apple II - the game was already 6 disk sides!) BTW, does anyone know if MMI or II has had its engine dissected like 3-5 has been?

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    1. I misremembered - 3 does the "sorcerer's locked in combat" thing, righ?

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    2. Yes, that's in MM3; castles Greywind and Blackwind, where some rewards are based on the time of year. There's also the sea shell for Athea that can only be found on a specific date.

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  38. I have grown up with point n click adventures. Of course I am a completionist and will check every corner and every pixel.

    I kind of hated Skyrim but because it promises you a lot on its side quests and then delivers not much. Also it is kind of random when such an effort will pay off with worldbuilding and when it will not.

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    1. I must be the only player in the world that found Skyrim's main quest really interesting and its side quests engaging. My only criticism was that there weren't enough role-playing options in some of the side quests.

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  39. My enoyment in modern open-world games improved significantly when I started to play them neglecting completeley side quests.

    Indeed these games are inherently linear, just a sequence of events to follow. The non linearity is an illusion given by the "open-world" context, but the latter is basically only a cosmetic backdrop to the game, and it does not belong to the core gameplay in any significant way.

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  40. I 'cat explored' (an expanding box) Dead State. Locations are hidden and you have limited daylight hours so you want to hit new areas as efficiently as possible. It's probably what you would actually do in that scenario - resources close to home are better to find, and dangers close to home are the ones that need to be identified ASAP (cats are smart huh!).

    If the game makes uncovering the map a game in itself (because the maps are inherently mappable or because you permanently delete fog of war) then I'll play along. Uncovered maps in Baldur's Gate were pretty satisfying to look at, so were finished Goldbox maps.

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    1. Generally though, I do the perimeter and work my way inwards. If the area is relatively small, I do all exteriors before any interiors. If the above doesn't work, I just do blobs of exploration, trying to keep the explored shape somewhat contiguous, and anchoring it to landmarks where possible.

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  41. I remember there being an issue with Dragon Age Inquisition that many players (including me) were coming in from a tradition of a different type of RPG where they needed to explore everywhere and pick up every quest, and quickly got bogged down in the first "open world" section of Inquisition by being bombarded with a million possible quests, most of which were small and not very interesting, but which buried you under busywork to the point that you lost all momentum in the game.

    so a lot of us had to be explicitly TOLD "don't try to clear the zone, do the story quests and whatever actually looks *interesting* to you and your personal RP tastes, you can always come back later if you want" in order to have any fun.

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    1. But then you have to wonder why all that crappy content even exists if it's not fun to do all of it. Does it really add anything to the game to have a dozen generic "bring me 12 items of X" quests with no twist to them? If the quests add nothing but busywork, why even add them into the game?

      This is an issue with many modern open world games. They add a lot of copypasted busywork activities that aren't really that fun but add more playtime to the game, so the publisher can boast with 100+ hours on the box. It's a cheap and easy way to add more "content" to the game. It's terrible game design and should not be excused.

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    2. Presumably, the intent is to make sure you have a source of Quest XP/dungeon loot no matter where you are in the game, allowing a method to pop off and improve your ability if you feel weak that doesn't involve so much blatant grinding.

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    3. I agree, it stops people from getting into a situation where they built their characters poorly and then could otherwise could become stuck. Also these kind of missions are easy to write or get the system to auto-gen. But it really is dull. Modern games are much better designed from a general play point of view in that everyone can enjoy the game and aren’t screwed over because they didn’t realise these spells or skills are useless, but it does also feel less fun to me.

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    4. If it's dull and less fun I wouldn't call it better designed.

      Better design to prevent getting stuck by investing in the wrong skills would be to make all the skills useful and add multiple solutions to the main quests. Or just add a respec option if you really want the player to be able to fix the mistakes he made in his skill choices. Bland "radiant quests" are still a form of grind (and in Skyrim you don't even get quest XP so what's their point other than adding more hours to the game?).

      And it's not just RPGs that have these types of quests. The older Assassins Creed titles (before the series added RPG elements) also had countless copypasted activities. Same with Ubisoft's Far Cry titles. Or GTA and Saints Row. Lots of copypasted activities that follow the exact same formula without a single variation.

      These games even give specific map symbols to every activity type so you know exactly what you're getting into in every location. You spot a new activity symbol somewhere nearby, you recognize the activity type, realize you've done this one three times already, and can already guess how it's going to go with 100% accuracy because no matter where on the map it is located, it always plays out the same.

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    5. I just don't really get this line of thinking. Nothing forces you to do every quest in the game. Why complain about MORE content than you feel like consuming? Play the main quest and what interests you among the side quests, win the game, and be done with it. Other players, meanwhile, might appreciate all the fetch quests and extra opportunities to earn experience and cash. If a player's obsessive need to complete every side quest interferes with his enjoyment of the game, I see that as a psychological problem for him to work out, not a valid criticism against the game's authors.

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    6. Bad content is bad content though, and sometimes a game makes you go through it even if you don't want to, for example by giving main quests minimum levels at which you can start them, so you have to do repeatable generic missions to reach the required level. And even generic content like that costs development resources that could have been spent on something better.

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    7. With D*A Inquisition the abundance of quests was a real problem because of the series history. Previous games in the series (as well as other games of the developer) had basically no fetch quests at all. If someone asked you to bring them 5 bear asses you'd discover that bears are protected by an ancient elven spell and the quest giver wants to create a powerful destructive artifact from those bear asses, and you can deceive the wizard and take artifact for yourself or stop his vile magic.

      DAI had a lot of fetch quests in the very first area and they had a lot of effort put into them, and they looked like a part of some big story. But it was just a high budget window dressing and people were left unsatisfied. They spend a lot of time on content that was there to do when you want to grind some additional gold and XP, but devs poorly explained it.

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  42. I definitely consider myself a completionist.
    In games where it makes sense, that is.
    Open world games, however... I usually just don't finish them. Ever since I first tried Daggerfall, whenever i come over a similarly open game, I just tend to wander around, go exploring, do sidequests, etc. Honestly, the writing in these games are usually not good enough for me to get that excited about the main plot.
    I think it was Oblivion, where I sat down I told myself: "Okay, I will focus on the main quest and try to "beat" the game. I did, and it was far less rewarding than my second playthrough, where I just went about my business, ignoring the main storyline entirely - though I never techincally "finished" the game a second time, even though it took way more time, but I never intended to.
    That's definitely not the right approach for this blog, but more open-ended games tend to work better as an open-ended experience, at least for me (It's been years since I installed Saints Row 4 on my computer and it's still here, unfinished, but almost exhausted, and I just like to beat a couple of quests from time to time, just for fun).
    I don't get Assassin's Creed though. I just don't like the sidequests (they are very repetitive, and not very rewarding), and I don't like the main quest (again: just not very engaging). I like the gameworld though. So, for me that game consisted of completing a couple of quests here and there, and then just wandering around the city for a while and then uninstalling the game.
    I think, the "perfect" open-world crpg games (for me) have a well realised and dense semi-open world, with somewhat linear progression, but with a couple of handful of well put-together sidequests added, and a reasonable length on top of that.
    In that aspect I'd say the first two Fallout games fit here (especially Fallout), pretty much all Bioware rpg's (I haven't played Dragon age anything though, so excluding those), Arcanum, Bloodlines, Wizardry 8, Planescape Torment, STALKER, Tyranny, River of time, Divinity 2, etc.
    I not "beat" all of these, I managed to almost exhaust them as well. They had stories worth following, rewarding gameplay, worlds that were large enough to feel open, but small enough where the devs can populate with content actually worth exploring, also there's a clear progression.
    There's nothing obsessive about this, I don't think I ever met anyone who tried to absolutely exhaust a game, while NOT enjoying it at all. There are just games folk enjoy and play until they get bored.

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  43. I'm late to the party, but it's clear to me that this is not about exploration as much as about what this or that specific RPG considers a choice. Older RPGs as well as, say, Witcher 1-2, Dragon Age 1-2, expect you to engage almost all content, fight almost all the battles, speak to almost all the NPCs. Your choices are to have a different character stats and thus to have a different combat experience. You also choose different resolutions for quests and encounters but you still see most of the opportunities. Freeform RPGs like Elder Scrolls, Witcher 3, AC Odyssey as well as dynamic open world sandboxes like Pirates are different. You have the same choices about character development and quest resolution but also the choice about engaging the world. Ignoring quests and locations is not just a form of rubber-band difficulty making it harder to beat the game, it's part of the definition of your unique personal journey. This is reinforced by random encounters and dynamic systems: dragon may attack the city and kill a minor NPC removing some quest from the game, and devs of such games often don't see it as a problem.

    So it's not about exploration, it's about the role of the world. Is it a set of challenges or part of the set of choices the player makes.

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    1. I tried to make the same point in my entry, but I guess I wasn't clear. The very question I pose in this entry doesn't exist in what you call "freeform" RPGs because, yes, there's essentially infinite content (or at least far more than you need). But in games like Xeen (or, as you say, Dragon Age 1-2), you're probably going to explore everything, and the only question is the order in which you do it.

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3. Please don't comment anonymously. It makes it impossible to tell who's who in a thread. Choose the "Name/URL" option, pick a name for yourself, and just leave the URL blank.

4. I appreciate if you use ROT13 for explicit spoilers for the current game and upcoming games. Please at least mention "ROT13" in the comment so we don't get a lot of replies saying "what is that gibberish?"

5. Comments on my blog are not a place for slurs against any race, sex, sexual orientation, nationality, religion, or mental or physical disability. I will delete these on a case-by-case basis depending on my interpretation of what constitutes a "slur."

Also, Blogger has a way of "eating" comments, so I highly recommend that you copy your words to the clipboard before submitting, just in case.

I read all comments, no matter how old the entry. So do many of my subscribers. Reader comments on "old" games continue to supplement our understanding of them. As such, all comment threads on this blog are live and active unless I specifically turn them off. There is no such thing as "necro-posting" on this blog, and thus no need to use that term.

I will delete any comments that simply point out typos. If you want to use the commenting system to alert me to them, great, I appreciate it, but there's no reason to leave such comments preserved for posterity.

I'm sorry for any difficulty commenting. I turn moderation on and off and "word verification" on and off frequently depending on the volume of spam I'm receiving. I only use either when spam gets out of control, so I appreciate your patience with both moderation tools.