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Linear vs Free Exploration Games

Introduction

When it comes to action and role playing games, they are broken down in to two types: linear and free exploration. Linear would be where you have a quest line, or mission line, that you follow from beginning to end. It can have side quests and missions as well from time to time, but the general rule is that you follow a direct path and do not really stray from it. In a sense, you can think of this as being when everyone ends up using the same path.

Free exploration games are a whole different animal in that you choose your own path. You can still treat the game linearly, but you can also take off and make your own way up to the top. For example, with role playing games you can do quests or skip them, you can grind mobs or skip them, etc. You end up with full control over your entire game experience.

I want to focus a bit on the concept of linear vs free exploration games where it pertains to online role playing games. I think this is an important discussion because there are a lot of misconceptions about them, so hopefully this can help clear the air a bit. To do this, I will be using actual games as examples and help explain which category they fit in, or even both, as well as why this is.

Why Linear Leveling Can Be Good

A lot of people like to argue against the idea of a linear leveling path, but when it comes to casual gamers it is usually preferred. What you have to realize is that the more open a game is for exploration, the more overwhelming it will be to learn the game if you are a passive player. Without having a lot of time to spend in games, open exploration based games often leave a lot to be desired.

You can also say the same about players that are just new to online role playing games in general. When you get involved at the very beginning, the concepts and everything are like a foreign language. It takes time to understand how everything fits together, what the goals are and how the games actually work, and the less choices there are in the game the easier this is to catch on to.

I am not, in any way arguing that games should use a more linear approach or start watering down their content to please a larger group of people, but the simple fact is that the easier it is to jump in to and start being successful, the more people are going to be drawn in to it. In a way, you could use the analogy of legos. If you are given a map that shows exactly how to build the item you want, learning how the legos work, what they do and how to manipulate them becomes that much easier than if someone just tossed you a large box of them and said “hey, go build me a car!” The less intense the learning process is, the faster the learning goes and the happier the player is.

Why Linear Leveling Can Be Bad

On the other hand, we get to the point where you are very experienced with the game genre and you want something more. Back to our lego scenario, you have built the items you wanted, and now you want to try and push your imagination further than it has gone before. How do you go about this?

Well, if you are told that the drawings or documents explaining how to build things are the only reference you can use and that you must be building things that are on those, it really limits creativity and enjoyment. You may want to build, say, a boat, but there is no boat diagram and so you are not allowed to make it. How does this make you feel?

This is really the same as the role playing games. The more limited you are in your creativity, the less enjoyment you are going to have. When playing a role playing game, one of the things to keep in mind is that you are playing it through the perspective of another person. In other words, it is almost as if you are that person. Maybe you would like to know more about their world. But in a purely linear game, can you do this? No, because they do not allow you to. This means that not only is there less to do in the game and many less choices to make, but now you also have to deal with the lack of knowledge of things surrounding the world. If you were able to explore as you want and speak to the people everywhere, this opens up the doors for a whole new experience.

Hybrid Approaches

I have to say that taking a hybrid approach is by far my favorite. I really do not like being forced to follow a linear path all the time, but I also do not like games that are so open that you are left wondering what you are even supposed to do. Instead, going with the hybrid approach is perfect because it implements both of these ideas in to one, giving the players many more choices as to how they play their game and opening the doors to both casual and hardcore players, as well as those that are experienced and those that are new.

The hybrid approach also benefits players in that you can switch between a linear quest line and exploring on your own at any point. This brings in tremendous flexibility with leveling, and also increases the replayability of the game because you can make multiple characters and level each of them differently. In any case, more options are always better, as you really want to cater towards all gamers, rather than just one sub set or another. The more options there are here, the more players can benefit from it and the more successful the game will be!

Lineage II

Lineage II had a somewhat open approach to it. There really was no way to level up through quests, and it was all based on grinding out mobs. This led to a pretty open way of leveling because you could go where you wanted and grind the mobs you liked, whether that was in dungeons, doing raid bosses or grinding regular mobs in a variety of different places. For each level block (say, every three or so levels) there are many places you could go. Some of these would require you to join up with another player, some required large groups and some you could just solo.

This was an interesting approach because it enticed grouping. If you are going to be killing the same (or similar) mobs for hours on end, you really get more enjoyment if you are working with another player. Even if you were able to solo things, it just got boring after a short while, so finding others was a way to make things a bit more fun, not to mention you also increased survivability by doing so.

Age of Conan

Age of Conan was pretty linear. You went through a quest line that would take you from place to place, with no real reason to deviate from it unless you really wanted to grind (which was not that viable if you wanted to level quickly). As a result, if you compared your leveling path to that of someone else's, you would undoubtedly find that you both went the same way, minus a few skipped quests here and there.

Aion

Aion was a lot like Age of Conan in that it was linear, up until you got to level twenty five. At this point it became more of a hybrid game, where you could choose between multiple zones to level in. If you were in to pure PvE, for example, you could choose from a couple of the PvE zones. If you were in to PvP, you could also go to places like The Abyss (a central hot spot for PvP as it has sieges, but it is also a great place for PvE farming).

This hybrid approach was nice because you used the game's lower levels to learn how to play better and to get a strong understanding of the different game mechanics and how to play your class, and as you leveled up you were able to start making more choices as to how to play. This kept the game from being too overwhelming in the beginning, while still having the open feeling later on.

TERA

TERA is more of a linear game than anything, following a set leveling path to the top. You do, however, often need to work in dungeon runs and grinding to get there, though, so in a sense it could be considered as a hybrid to a point. The bad part is that you do not really have choices on zones that much, so at certain level brackets you are expected to be in certain areas (excluding the actual end game, where there are a few zones).

Rift

Rift is what would be considered as a free exploration game. You can level using a linear path, but you can also choose your own way of leveling if you wish. For example, you can level solely through PvP, through dungeons, questing, world events, zone events, rifts, invasions, and many other things. Even when it comes to the different zones for questing, there are multiple path ways you can take, depending on which zones you end up liking the most. Each path will get you to the same end goal, the maximum level, but having so many choices means you can level up regardless as to what you are playing the game for, and you are never forced to do anything you do not want to do.

Guild Wars 2

This expands upon the idea of Rift being open. With Guild Wars 2, however, the entire game is open and you level off anything you do. Whether you are crafting, gathering materials, killing enemies, doing quests or events, or anything else, you will be earning experience. It is hard to even explain how awesome this system is, and how great it is to be able to do literally anything and still make it to the end game content. Most games, Rift included, do not level you up from questing and gathering materials. Along with this, they also usually do not give experience for exploring new areas and looking at the different sights. Guild Wars 2, on the other hand, gives experience for every one of these. Never has it been so easy to level up, nor to enjoy the game exactly how you want.

My Favorite

I have to say that Guild Wars 2 has my favorite leveling system. Just about anything you could want from a game is there, and it is so easy to get rewarded for doing what you want that it is kind of ridiculous at times. It is worth noting that different methods of playing do yield different results when it comes to leveling speed, but it is the option that makes the game so great. Most of us have no problems with increasing the time it takes to level a little bit in return for being able to play the game the way we want, without being forced to take detours to do what the developers think we should want to do.

If more games would take advice from what we have learned from Guild Wars 2, I think many more players would be happy. More choices are always nice, and allowing all choices to still contribute to progression is a great thing. Rift sort of follows this as well, allowing you to obtain raid gear from doing expert dungeons (their harder version of dungeons). While it would take significantly longer to obtain the gear this way, the fact is that at least they are allowing those who want to use that method to do it. If nothing else, it can be used to help speed up the normal raid progression in that you can just add the tokens together to buy things sooner.

Conclusion

There is a massive difference between games that employ a linear leveling path and those that are more sandbox, or free exploration based. The former is much more restrictive, and leads to everyone doing the same tasks. This gets worse when you have multiple alts, as you can get burned out on doing the same things over and over with each new character you make.

On the other hand, free exploration games allow you to play the way you want, without punishing you for choosing to do something different. This not only keeps you happy while you are running through the game the first time, but it also helps add a lot more replayability to the game, in that you can do different things to level up each of your characters. This cuts down on the chances of getting burned out or bored while you run with your alts, and leads to sticking around a lot longer.

Games


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