I’d like to start off by pointing out that I simply love Guild Wars 2, with over a thousand hours already spent with it I still don’t see myself letting it go quite yet. Guild Wars 2 is a great game, and the developers said they want to make it as best as they can. It’s still not perfect but they try hard to make it as close to perfect as they can. GW2 changed a lot when it comes to MMOs, so naturally not everyone will like all of its features and mechanics, myself included, this however shouldn’t be the issue with the basic concept of exploration. Exploration should be a rewarding act of curiosity, but in GW2 it just doesn’t feel like it at all, because it thinks that playing Poker with a constantly revealed hand makes for an exciting game.
It took me a long time to put my finger on what was actually bugging me all this time. Being a completionist that I am, at first I loved the fact that each zone had official things to find and collect instead of just wandering around leveling up. It provided me a clear focus on how I could go about the areas, however this check-list collectible exploration system is actually one of the biggest design flaws when it comes to living in this breathing world.
Shortly after creating your character, you are immediately greeted by the first scout. These guys serve as a guide to show you what you can do and where you might want to go as they point out things of importance on your map, like nearby quests aka hearts, points of interest, vistas and skill points. One can decide to ignore scouts altogether, but still all of these markers are revealed to you on your map as soon as you come near them. Why I personally like scouts is the fact that they explain and add some narrative to the location and the situations you will be assisting with. After a few hours the player quickly realizes that the map is the primary tool to use when deciding where to go, and this heavy emphasis on the map is where Guild Wars 2 suffers most in exploration.
There’s no denying that Guild Wars 2 indeed has many nooks and crannies for you to “explore”, but these are all mostly just plain disappointing. Why? Because there is nothing for you to actually find in them. Here’s an example, I once stumbled upon something what appeared to be a crypt of some sort. There was an entrance leading deeper into the darkness, I checked my map and noticed there was nothing in the vicinity marked on the map, no point of interest or a skill point inside. Despite my conclusion that there is nothing interesting to find inside, I still went in simply to confirm my suspicions, and indeed, the place was completely empty, no items to interact with and no enemies at all. The location in question is probably tied to an event, but why should we be forced to wait for an event to start in order to have fun playing in these locations?
The game is teaching players to simply follow the map at all times by revealing what you will find if you head in a certain direction. This is why exploration in GW2 isn’t actually exploration at all, instead of being excited about what you found yourself, you always know that you will find exactly that which the game was showing you all along, completely eliminating the element of awe, surprise and satisfaction from traveling the world. Instead of going to places yourself to actually explore them, you are going to that place specifically for one reason, to grab that skill point/vista you missed. This in turn means that instead of feeling “Oh look I found a vista!”, you will be saying “Yeah I finally got that vista I was trying to reach for the last 15 minutes”. And it’s basically like that for every single thing, “I finally got that skill point I was aiming for all this time”, and you will be going for every “Point of Interest” because it’s marked on the map, not because it appears to be an interesting place at all, at least not from a distance.
Recently I realized that I knew the overhead “satellite view” layout of pretty much every zone, but didn’t exactly remember how that place looked in person. This was because the game taught me in the early hours (and enforced it throughout the entire experience) to keep looking at the map in order to locate rewards for my travels. Even the minimap keeps showing you mining veins, trees to cut, plants to pick up and even events taking place, essentially making players always keep an eye on the minimap if they want to locate anything, instead of actually making them look more at the world around them. I remember the first GW2 announcement mentioning players being able to see smoke in the distance as an indicator that something is going on, but so far in my thousand hours I have yet to notice such a signal. The smoke may indeed be there, but the minimap will always reveal an event before you can notice it yourself in the actual game world surrounding you.
This is why I found Jumping Puzzles to be the most interesting part of GW2. They are not marked on maps at all so finding one and figuring them out is exciting and feels rewarding. The problem is that they are too few and far between, and are also way too secretive to find on your own without resorting to looking them up on various websites. Every map has one, some even have two, but they are so well hidden that you can actually complete everything in the entire world without ever finding a single Jumping Puzzle. Exploration goes from one extreme to another, it doesn’t offer us any kind of middle ground. Jumping Puzzles need in-game rumors and tips that hint at their locations and solutions, currently they are also making us play an interface by making us go look at guides for finding these rather awesome Jumping Puzzles instead of making it possible to find one ourselves.
I honestly don’t know if I should be insulted or disappointed by the fact that ArenaNet thinks players need to be hand-guided throughout the entire game, but fortunately this can still be remedied and I have faith ArenaNet will eventually do the right thing. Removing these indicators is not the solution, as that would make world completion too hard of a task, but how about simply hiding them and displaying each one as a simple question mark on the map until you actually grab it? It can then change to its actual graphic icon once you have it so you can easily keep track of these things where you found them.
Another solution is to simply add more stuff in the world which will be unmarked, but will also appropriately reward us with uniquely usable stuff for strolling off the beaten path and actually exploring the beautiful landscapes of Tyria. I’m aware that occasionally you might find a chest and other similar stuff, but these are always rare finds in the world and 99.99% they reward you with vendor trash, items that you aren’t likely to be using at all. But I digress, alternatively, the map markers could not be displayed at all until we reach 50% map completion (or maybe 75%) on our own, by that point the rest of the remaining stuff could be revealed simply to ease the pain of locating the few remaining ones which we couldn’t discover on our own. Also another method that comes to mind could be that certain cartographer NPCs would reveal these map markers to us for a certain price, in case you’re stuck or simply want everything revealed, the price would obviously decrease per marker left for reveal. I would be much happier with any of these methods than the current method of simply revealing everything automatically.
You might have never experienced this at all if you only ever played one character, but when you start completing zones with your second character you will soon see how this can be a real chore if you want those completion rewards. This is because it’s just not exciting at all, and is also one of the reasons people stop playing when they get that world completion with their first character, however it didn’t have to be like this. Exploration in GW2 currently feels like simply walking around landscapes with a shopping cart collecting stuff to increase that percentage number, which is a far cry from actual real exciting exploration. With constant repair and waypoint costs it doesn’t encourage anyone to risk their lives by going into uncharted territory if there is no clear indicator which guarantees you will find something. This being said, don’t let it discourage you from trying out Guild Wars 2, despite its flaws it’s still an amazing game with many improvements already on the way, let’s just hope exploration will one day become more exciting as the updates bring in more content for us to tackle.