Virtual worlds give us an opportunity to explore and discover new environments filled with new people. And given the malleable nature of virtual worlds, we can design these environments in ways to specifically encourage exploration.
But trying to encourage people to explore by design is tricky. Read on for some thoughts and examples.
Back in the early years of Second Life, we had an interesting feature in the world.
It was called the Telehub.
If an avatar in Second Life decided to teleport to a specific location in Second Life, they would not arrive at their final destination. Instead, they would arrive at the nearest Telehub. From the Telehub, they would have to fly or walk to their final destination.
These Telehubs were installed by Linden Lab and scattered strategically across the grid of Second Life so that you wouldn’t have to fly or walk too far to ultimately get to where you wanted to go.
The intention was to encourage exploration. By purposefully preventing direct teleporting, avatars would be encouraged to explore the world between the Telehub and their final destination. And the Telehubs would become social gathering places, where avatars could meet new people arriving at them and establish new friendships.
Well…that was the intention. The reality was something else altogether.
What happened was a lot of user annoyance. People bought land all around the Telehubs. They put up big billboards and stores. There was guaranteed traffic, so it made perfect business sense. And over time, many Telehubs became somewhat laggy because of all the development around them. People generally hated having to deal with the hassle of navigating the last leg of their journey. They didn’t want to explore. They just wanted to get to where they were going.
I was working at Linden Lab at the time this started to become a real issue for Second Life users. But it took a while for us to decide to get rid of Telehubs. I think one reason we waited so long to address this issue was quite simple. Linden Lab employees could always directly teleport to anywhere in Second Life. So we didn’t feel the daily pain of our customers.
Eventually, Linden Lab decided to get rid of Telehubs. I actually led the team of Linden Lab employees who went into Second Life and disabled them all. We had fun doing it, too.
Naturally, not everyone believed that getting rid of Telehubs would be a good idea. Some Second Life users and Linden Lab employees believed that getting rid of them would reduce the amount of exploring done in Second Life. But when we looked at internal traffic data for avatars, we actually noticed an increase in overall exploration after getting rid of the Telehubs. And the community response was overwhelmingly positive.
So Telehubs were happily relegated to the dustbin of history. And we learned that trying to encourage exploration by design can sometimes go wrong. Lesson learned.
But there’s a catch.
Because of a bug, people cannot directly jump via the Hypergrid to a location that is more than 4096 coordinates away. If someone is trying to reach a location that is too far away, they have to make intermediate hops. Once they reach their final grid destination, then they can make a local grid teleport directly to where they want to go.
Sounds annoying, right? And yes, if you’re in a hurry and trying to get to where you want to go on the Hypergrid, it can definitely be a pain.
But I’ve noticed something interesting. Based on my own experiences with the Hypergrid Adventurers Club and speaking with other people who use Opensim on a daily basis, I’ve found that folks often really enjoy making these intermediate hops. They enjoy discovering new locations en route to their final destination.
So what’s going on? What’s the difference between the complete annoyance of the Telehub model and the rather successfully (albeit unintentionally designed) encouraged exploration of Hypergrid Hops? There’s the obvious “pioneering spirit” of folks on Opensim that definitely contributes to an increased desire to wander around. But I wonder if there’s something more at hand here. Here’s an idea.
If a Journey to a specific goal requires exploration midway, that’s usually a Good Thing.
Imagine a real life road trip where you stop and wander around interesting places along the way to your destination. You reach your destination city after many hours of driving, but you manage to quickly and easily find your hotel. Such trips are fun.
If a Journey to a specific goal requires exploration at the end, that’s usually a Bad Thing.
Imagine a real life road trip where you drive directly to your destination. You reach your destination city after many hours of driving and discover you must park your car and then wander around to find your hotel. Such trips kind of suck.
Summary: Encourage people to explore well before they get close to the goal of their journey. Once someone is near the end of their journey, they usually just want to finish it.
The art of successfully encouraging exploration is much more complex than just these ideas. What are your thoughts on encouraging exploration by design? Your experiences with Telehubs and Hypergrid Hops?
-John “Pathfinder” Lester