Amongst a host of other things that occurred/popped up last week, my parents, brother, and sisters had arranged a while back for all of us to get together for a week’s vacation in Door County, WI., essentially a resort area in the northeast portion of Wisconsin, along the shore of Lake Michigan.  As usual, I wasn’t able to fully partake due to various tasks/demands at the office, but I did sneak out there for a couple days over the weekend.

More after the jump…

It was gorgeous weather, basically cloudless with a cooling yet not cold wind blowing off the lake/bay, sunny days and starlit nights.  Half of the family camped out at a park, the other half, including me, stayed at a very comfortable little cottage in Sister Bay, pictured below.

Door County Scandia Cottage

Even in the day and a half I got to spend, we got in some activities.  Took in an outdoor play (“A Cabin With A View”, not half bad, and no mosquito swarms to speak of), campfire, sunsets on the lake, took the ferry to Washington Island off the tip of the peninsula, did some sightseeing there (a couple half-decent shots below, I wasn’t doing a lot of the photography, thank god…)

Off the back of the ferry

A view off the back of the ferry as we were headed to Washington Island.

A turn of the century icehauler

An old ice-cutter used to gather lake ice for icehouses, back around the 1890s if I recall.

Gorgeous old Norwegian-built church on Washington Island

A gorgeous old “backwoods” church, well maintained, built by Norwegian immigrants in the mid 1800s if I remember correctly.

Anyway, on to the point of the post.  What could this possibly have to do with MMOs, after all?

There were more than a few places where you could lose yourself in the lakeshore and woodlands, cast your mind back a couple of centuries and imagine what it might have been like to go through the area at that time, in that age.  The French Voyageurs, canoeing along the shores, seeing mile after mile of views like these… (forgive the resolution and focus, was using the camcorder on autofocus, a poor combination)

Lakeshore 1Lakeshore 2Lakeshore 3

No evidence of a civilization in sight… knowing you are literally days away from the nearest settlement, which is itself simply a handful of cabins huddled together on the shores of a vast, largely unexplored wilderness…

Some day, at some point, I would like to experience that feeling in an MMO.  I suspect the search for this experience is part of why some people are so desperate to get into betas, to be in game when the servers first come up… to achieve at least a weak echo of that feeling of exploration, of being somewhere and seeing something that no one, nowhere, has ever seen before.

The question that I pondered as I let my mind wander during the 7 hour drive home across central Wisconsin… how could a MMO emulate such situations regularly, yet still retain any kind of social cohesion?  Is it even possible?  Large worlds have inevitably led, in the past, to the implementation of various circumventions (teleportation portals, for example) that serve to “shrink” them in order to allow for more convenient social interactions.  Is there any way to accommodate both the “explorer” and the “socializer”, to fall back upon Bartle’s terms, in the same basic setting?

Hub-and-spoke design?  Are there mechanisms which might effectively allow “explorers” to push back the boundaries and eventually be the means by which the world is enlarged?  How about a game that starts with a few small settled areas on the coast of a vast unexplored continent, and then allows the players to expand the settled area through their own exploration efforts?  With sufficient leeway granted to the players, could you test the concepts of Geography 101 in a gameplay setting?  Can the demands of convenience be balanced with the required prerequisites to create a sense of “exploration”?

I truly don’t know.  The few attempts made so far don’t seem to offer much hope, but is that an artifact of design specifics or human nature in general? 

I’ve wrestled with it, off and on, for days, and I just can’t tell.  What do you think?