Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Design: Exploration Rewards and Side Quests

Posted by Rampant Coyote on June 23, 2014

catanMy favorite Android game right now is Catan. That’s not saying much – I don’t play many Android games. Perhaps not coincidentally, it’s also one of my favorite board games. Still.

My favorite mode is one that comes with the Seafarers expansion called “Fog Islands.” It’s got all the fun stuff that comes with the expansion – ships (putting that wood to much more use!), and gold (which allows you to draw a resource of your choice), the pirate (which the AI never uses).  It gives players a bit more “elbow room” to explore the map – and create truly lengthy “roads.”

But the biggest factor for me is that something like a third of the map is “fog” – not filled out – and you have to explore to see what you get and find the best places to land. Maybe it’s the whole gambler’s high thing… the thrill of maybe scoring a jackpot this time and discovering a gold square with a high-frequency value. Or a high-frequency stone so you don’t have to rely on other players on paying at a 4:1 ratio to the bank for the stuff.

Against the AI, I’m usually one of the first players off to explore the fog islands. It’s definitely not the only way to win – depending upon initial placement, it may not even be the best way to win. Getting the “longest road” badge early turns you into the punching bag for all the other players for the whole game, but it’s sometimes worth it. But really, I do it for the thrill of exploration. The gamble. What’s nice is that the mode gives you a little of both – you can focus on the known (or what becomes known) for traditional Catan strategy, or try your luck in the islands. For a high-score-limit game, you may need to do a little of both.

There is a cost to explore. There is often a resource cost – extending your ship route, or risking the creation of a permanent road that may go nowhere interesting. There may be an opportunity cost as well. You may be bypassing a viable landing point or the chance to build up your position in known territory. But other than the “known” cost, there’s no risk involved in exploration. At worst, you encounter nothing interesting, but now have a better idea of the map layout, and better guesses as to what is left in the undiscovered tiles.

When I play a game that much, I overthink it. It’s how I roll. I compare the addictive exploration dynamic in Lost Islands to my own love of exploration in RPGs.  I love diving into the unknown in hopes of profit. Catan abstracts the game mode down to its bare essentials, and while I don’t know if the implementation is perfect, it works well.

In RPGs, a big part of the fun is exploring – but sometimes the exploring is mandatory. Going off the beaten track is half the fun. As a designer, one issue is that there’s no cost to doing this – and those rewards on the side quest will provide your character(s) with advantages. The only cost is the player’s time. I don’t usually have a problem with this, but is it truly “optional” if it’s really the best path to the end of the game? Should the player who overcomes the greater adversity by making a beeline for the end-game get anything for their efforts other than bragging rights? Should some exploration cut off other avenues? Would that be even fair if the player doesn’t get to make an educated decision?

It’s easy to get caught up in the details, which is why I like looking at a very high-level, abstract game like Catan and ground myself.

Filed Under: Design - Comments: 4 Comments to Read

  • Anon said,

    I never had fun “ordering” the game to explore an area to make parts of the map visible (or similar activities like doing scientific research – in games like ‘U.F.O. – Enemy Unknown’ or ‘Civilization’ for example).

    I always want to move my avatar into the unknown like in RPGs or adventure games – or stuff like ‘Pirates!’: *I* want to enter the cave and explore it, *I* want to see the wonders in the ocean, *I* want to enter the dark forest and see its dangers with my own eyes and *I* want to see around the corner if there is a monster looming behind it.
    It’s the immersion factor that does it for me – and the games that allow for it offer “true exploration”.

    Or perhaps it’s a variant of what we Germans call “Fernweh” – a desire to be somewhere else, somewhere new – just not at home.
    My online dictionary says it translates to “wanderlust” (which incidentally is also a German word but accepted and perhaps even more popular in other countries) or “itchy feet”: The need to be on the move, on a trip and to see something new.
    There is a subtle difference though, I think, but the similarity is that you don’t want to stay at home – which you do in a more abstract game.

    An example for that would be the old ‘Hacker’ games from Activision where you control remote cameras and robots in a distant location. The exploration part is thus very limited and your immersion consists of sitting in front of several little monitors. You really think you sit in a control room – but not that you are the robot in the secret location.

    > Should the player who overcomes the greater adversity by making a beeline for the end-game get anything for their efforts other than bragging rights?

    No. The game should support what playing style the gamer prefers and not force him in any way. I’m also against grinding – in my eyes this devaluates enemies and more or less turns them into cannon fodder or statistics.

    Are bragging rights really important? If that’s true for games with exploration give the player a trophy: “Yay! You finished the game in less than 2 hours! This means you just missed 8 hours worth of content!”

    > Should some exploration cut off other avenues?

    Definitely not when related to the main plot! Doing a true /side/quest should always be optional. It may make the game easier when you get a better weapon at the end of a sidequest, for example, but it shouldn’t influence the plot.
    The player who wants to finish the game and skips a sidequest (because he feels that a certain type of sidequest is more tedious than the other) shouldn’t be punished for it. If he wants to target the endgame let him!

    On the other hand: Doing sidequest A may very well result in not being able to complete sidequest B.
    I equate this with the results of your choice of character generation in some games: You will simply not have the chance to see everything with the choices you made. Some ways are closed off and others are encouraged.

    I think that most players have no problem with that – on the contrary: It increases replayability for them.

    > Would that be even fair if the player doesn’t get to make an educated decision?

    A game is a game, after all: You can’t always make educated decisions in all situations, just like in real life. If you could you would already have a clear idea of what lies before you and that would lessen the fun in a game with “true exploration”.
    It’s my belief that this type of game must have one distinct feature: The element of surprise.

  • ShadowTiger said,

    I like exploring and doing side quests if the game itself is interesting. Many rpgs have vast empty swaths of land filled with trash mobs, and this is very bland and repetitive. It would be better to do pen and paper single encounter design and gloss over the connective tissue. Shadowrun returns used this model and i think it nicely streamlines the boring parts while leaving the core intact.

    Exploring in strategy games is only as fun as the potential rewards are powerful. If there aren’t rare resources then there is no point really.

    In more immersive games like Skyrim, exploration can be enjoyable in a more naturalistic way.

    So it depends.heavily on the genre and the individual player. My personal favorite game is Baldur’s Gate as the combat, treasure and side quests you discover are all interesting and enjoyable.

    I guess when designing a game you have to really focus on theme and how casual you wantnthe experience to be before deciding mechanically how players will explore the game system.

  • Mustawd said,

    Currently hooked on an ios game called Shattered Planet; basically and prettied up and accessible rogue-like with different modes.

    It has an exploration mode that I keep playing over and over. There’s just something about seeing that mini map to from black to color that gets me I suppose.

  • Mustawd said,

    Gah…typos, etc.