Oblivion Exploration Analysis

I’m really slammed at the moment, so I though I’d post some excerpts from some analysis I did a while back on the exploration in Oblivion.

Note: I didn’t remove all spoilers or grammar errors, but I got a bunch of em.


One of the coolest things about Oblivion is how “free form” the game feels. As you wander through the world, attempting to do a quest that you have in your log, you are constantly running across other quests, ancient ruins, castles, cave systems, farms, camps, etc…. All of which are inevitably just slightly off your path, and which show up on your radar when you get close.

In studying how they accomplish this feat, I played through a few steps on the “critical path” quest line, as well as some of other the major quest lines in the game. My methods were as follows:

  • I never used “quick travel.” I always walked from where I got the quest to the destination

  • I always took the shortest “reasonable” path to my destination. “Reasonable” in this context means that I attempted to play like an average fairly linear non-completionist player.

    • I stopped in towns if I needed to sell stuff, or if I thought I had some other pressing need to stop.
    • I only wandered off the path if something cool came up in my immediate vision. I didn’t follow my compass unless I could see what it was indicating from the path.
    • I stayed on one quest at a time and continued to follow it until it was done.
    • Note: While I noted dungeons and other things off the path, and would visit them, I did not often go inside to complete the dungeon.
  • In the case where I had an option of taking a straight line between two points and following the main roads (which went severely out of the way) I saved the game and did both.
  • In all cases I noted the following in my travels
    • Number and names of quests encountered

    • Names of quests that I got which resulted purely from the completion of the quest.

    • Names and numbers of dungeons encountered

    • Numbers of enemies encountered.

    • Any additional notes I thought were worth remembering.

Using these methods (supplemented with information from gamefaqs.com) I was able to form a picture of some of the main tools that Oblivion uses to encourage and teach their core exploration mechanic.

These tools are:

  • Leveraging the critical path to train exploration

  • Leveraging the major quest lines to encourage exploration

  • Using “stub quests” to fill out the world and make more content

  • Good use of landmarks

  • Good re-use of assets (this is seen especially in stub quests and dungeons)

I’ll endeavor to elaborate on these in the following sections.

Leveraging the Critical Path

Oblivion does a number of really slick things with the critical path that I didn’t notice the first time I played this game. These techniques really help to foster and train their exploration mechanic in a very subtle way.

The first two steps on the critical path (“Tutorial” and “Deliver the Amulet”) essentially boil down to the following steps:

1. You go through a dungeon, which quickly fills up your inventory so you’ll want to find a place to sell all your stuff.

2. Upon exiting the dungeon, you are treated to a forced view of an Aleyid ruin dungeon a short ways away. You are not required to go to this dungeon (I did the first time I was playing it) but it establishes the fact that there are things out there you can explore that are not on the critical path.

3. The shortest path leads to your next quest destination takes you through the Imperial City (where tons of quests wait). At this point, you’re probably desperate to sell things – so the designers included a quest that you can find in almost every shop in the merchant district. You are also exposed very quickly to the thieves guild quest (the quest start is on a poster at every gateway into the merchant district and tons of people talk about it).

4. After leaving the city, the road leads you near an inn. Next to the inn is a guy standing in the middle of the road who, (unsurprisingly) has a quest for you. There is also a quest inside the inn. Both of these are almost impossible to miss, and train the player (if he didn’t stop to sell things) that he can get quests from many NPCs.

5. Leads you past a castle dungeon that you can see but don’t have to go to. This reinforces #1.

6. Right before your destination, the road physically leads you through a castle (and essentially marches you right next to the entrance). Before you can exit this area, you MUST encounter an NPC that tries to steal money from you (encouraging you to fight him and range all over the area, potentially showing you the dungeon door again).

7. You arrive at your destination.

It’s clear from this that the designers are leveraging their critical story quest line to essentially train the player on the exploration mechanic, and they do it without saying anything. They just dangle carrot after carrot in front of you

The way they dangle two dungeons in front of you before they make you walk right up to one – is a really great concept. They give you two chances to go off and explore on your own (which I did the first time) before they beat you over the head with a dungeon. It’s pretty clever, if you ask me.

The next quest “Find the Heir” in the critical Path Line allows you two different ways to approach it. You can either walk straight there from the location you get the quest (which involves going off-road through a forest and over complex terrain) or you cal walk there along the roads.

I did both and came up with the following results:

Straight Path

  • 4 quests encountered
  • 6 dungeons encountered (3 castles, 1 dungeon, 2 ruins)
  • 4 enemies encountered (half of which were found at camps with loot)

Using the Roads

  • 1 quest encountered
  • 1 city you are forced to encounter (cities have all the guilds in them, as well as a ton of quests for anyone who goes through and talks to NPCs)
  • Upon exiting this city, you are forced to encounter an NPC who offers you a quest (the one specified above)
  • 7 dungeons encountered (2 castles, 3 ruins, 2 caves)
  • 12 enemies encountered

Both (after they join up)

  • 1 Quest
  • 6 Enemies

They were able to leverage this step of the quest to give you a staggering number of exploration chances, and that’s INDEPENDENT of the direction you chose to go.

We’ve seen how the designers leveraged the critical path to promote exploration. For the next part of my study, I checked out some of the largest quest lines in the game and examined how they encouraged exploration.

Mage Guild Quest

  • Before you can join the mage guild, you get a quest to visit every city on the map
    • Since cities are the MAJOR quest hubs in the game, this is huge. The player is almost guaranteed to run into other quests (and not just the ones involved with the mage guild).
  • Magic item and spell creation
    • The player is given the ability to create new magic items and spells using components found in the world (soul gems). This encourages the player to go dungeon-crawling to find more of these.

Arena Challenges

  • Near the end of the arena challenges, you get a quest called “Origin of the Grey Prince,” the end of which is a cold-blooded murder of the Arena champion. If the player hasn’t done it already, this spawns Assassin’s guild quest line.

Fighters Guild

  • Quest-givers are located in three different cities, you spend all your time moving between them. This is another way to encourage you to visit the quest hubs.

Thieves Guild

  • 3 quest givers in three cities. Five fences in five cities. Between these and the quests you are given, you are sent to every city on the map at least once. Sometimes more than once.

Dark Brotherhood

  • Most of the action takes place in Cheydenhal, which has a TON of quests in it. Many of the assassination quests take you to other cities to kill people.

It seems like the main purpose of the major quests is to expose you to the cities, which is an awesome idea. Also, while trekking to and from the quests associated with these guilds, you will run across a ton of dungeons, enemies, and other quests.

Most of the quests in Oblivion are “stubs.” These are one-quest lines that don’t lead to anything else. They also frequently involve travel, asset re-use, and text (rather than VO) to explain the mission.

Examples are any quest where you find a book or a note, or just interact with something or walk into an area. Quests usually involve elements like corpses, books, notes, dungeons (sometimes dungeon retraversals), peoples’ houses, or different uses of existing emergent mechanics (like dodging guards). These quests sometimes tell a story (and have updates to them) and sometimes they don’t.

The really clever thing about stubs is that they make the world seem much more alive, full, and vibrant. They also add extra hours of optional gameplay for a minimal cost, which is always nice.

Walking along roads you’ll see things in the distance (even without the compass, which is a real help). Since they picked Ruins and Castles as two of their three dungeon types, these serve as GREAT landmarks (especially the ruins, since they stand out of the natural environment very well).

One thing I really noticed in Oblivion was that they didn’t always take much advantage of the terrain when placing their landmarks. There were a number of gorgeous valleys and hilltops that would have been perfect for a castle or ruin. The roads would take turns that forced me to look at these empty valleys, and I always thought “man, I wish there were something down there).

  • Although there are a ton of them located all over the place, almost all the quests are internally absolutely linear.

  • The player has no way of knowing how much of the game he’s participated in (how close to 100% completion he is). At the very least this could be indicated as a percentage in the save-game, though something more granular might be more desireable (like a checklist).

  • The RPG System wasn’t very good (character creation, leveling, etc). For the most part, it was over-complex and it rewarded the player for doing crazy things (like putting some tape on a keyboard button, or refusing to sleep in-game and gain a level until he gets up all his skills).

  • Treasure was cool, but there’s too much junk. When I open a treasure chest, I want a REWARD damnit! Fallout 2 was infinitely better in this regard.
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  1. Cool analysis, thanks Mike.

  2. What an awesome read! Thanks Mike!

  3. This type of thing is one of my favorite things to do as a designer.

    I love playing games, and it’s really fun to replay a game you loved and study the hell out of it.

    Of course, the key here is replay. I tend not to enjoy games as much if I analyze them the first time I play them. The trick is being able to turn that off.

    (Though sometimes it works to my advantage. Mary always remembers when I was playing GTA4 and I was on a mission and killing a bunch of dudes, but was running low on health. So I said, out loud, “I need a health pack. Where would I put a health pack if I were designing this setup.” So I went to the spot where I’d put it, and sure enough it was there. Mary found that quite amusing.)

  4. (Though sometimes it works to my advantage. Mary always remembers when I was playing GTA4 and I was on a mission and killing a bunch of dudes, but was running low on health. So I said, out loud, “I need a health pack. Where would I put a health pack if I were designing this setup.” So I went to the spot where I’d put it, and sure enough it was there. Mary found that quite amusing.)

    Yes! That was one of the best things ever!

  5. (Though sometimes it works to my advantage. Mary always remembers when I was playing GTA4 and I was on a mission and killing a bunch of dudes, but was running low on health. So I said, out loud, “I need a health pack. Where would I put a health pack if I were designing this setup.” So I went to the spot where I’d put it, and sure enough it was there. Mary found that quite amusing.

    That’s awesome, hahah!

  6. I just installed Oblivion on my new laptop and want to go through the start of the game with your analysis in mind. 🙂

  7. How awesome is your new laptop?

  8. On a scale from 1 to “Just-too-Awesome”, it rates a “Very Awesome”. For the things I use it for, it’s more than perfect (Maya, Photoshop, a little coding here and there, and a little gaming (not a lot)). It’s bloody fast, even with Vista (Vista Tweaks FTW), color-accurate, it’s portable.

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