How pointless are so-called "pointless mini-zones," really? Michael did a post the other day which examined the history of a zone in EverQuest called Surefall Glade. Hitting his links gave me a nice little walk down memory lane -- I have fond memories of Surefall, being an old-school EQ fan who cut his teeth in Qeynos Hills, back in the day. There really isn't all that much to the zone, though. It's like the article says: a cabin, a lake, an archery range, and a few hidden caves with some bears. There's nothing to do but raise your fletching skill, and nothing to kill that's worth killing. Eventually they added some stuff to it, but it was still never anything more than a small, transitional town.
Surefall was the essence of a pointless mini-zone: Most players never had any compelling reason to go there. Still, did it add something to the game with its mere presence? Like Moonglade in World of Warcraft, you could argue that it was kind of a neat place for players to discover and hang out. We get so focused on the "content" of these games that sometimes we forget that exploring a new zone you've never seen before, even if there's really nothing to do there, is content in its own right. Besides, does every single zone in our MMOGs have to be a big quest hub tied to a specific zone? Can't some places just be places?
You can argue that every zone should have a point, and you're probably right. After all, a zone without content is just an empty zone. For a long time, Silithus in World of Warcraft was like that. The mobs didn't drop anything, there were no quests, and the southern reaches (if you were clever and exploited your way up the mountains to get there) was basically a flat, unfinished plain. Still it was kind of fun to explore it. Even if you didn't try the exploits to climb the walls and get behind the southern wall, there was still an aura of intrigue about it. It was like the no man's land of WoW: barren, mysterious, uninhabited. One of the things that bugs me about Warcraft is that there's never a place that someone hasn't already been. I'm talking about the way zones feel, not whether PCs have been there (why is there already a forward camp when you show up in Outland?).
But that's getting off topic, a little. I can discuss the presence of NPCs (and why they often annoy me) in a different post. The point of this one is to ask a simple question: do all of our zones have to have a point? I don't need quests to have a good time, necessarily. New stuff to kill and a new place to explore is often enough motivation to get me excited. Or even just a place to explore: Even if there's nothing to kill in a zone, it can give you a place to poke around, look at stuff, and buy goods. I also think that city zones are very interesting places, and random mini-zones that are small cities can be great fun to find and explore.
Wouldn't it have been interesting if Timbermaw Hold had been a whole, functioning city? Imagine how much more grinding those furry beasts would have counted for if their faction had granted you access to new quests, special mounts, interesting items, and city services. There could have been a whole epic quest line about the future and the history of the Timbermaw with epic encounters and epic rewards. That would have been worth a faction grind. Instead, we got a few tunnels and two NPCs. Not very exciting, in my opinion. But even without quests or anything, a plain old city would have been better than what we're given (just for a new place to explore).
Some zones are just cool in of themselves, and are worthwhile by virtue of being interesting or hard to get to. Shatterspear Village has absolutely no purpose and is nearly impossible to get to, so its very existence provides players with something to do -- try to get there! The satisfaction of getting to take pictures with dancing trolls or gnomish pilots is a worthy goal in itself for plenty of players. The stories of players in the early days of WoW using tricks to get to GM island are practically the stuff of legend.
Creative players will also find alternate uses for zones without a purpose. While it might not be your cup of tea, they're a fantastic place for role-playing with other people. These zones are usually pretty empty, and often have cool architecture or environments to check out. Why not lounge on some ruins with a fellow role-player and talk in character, without having to worry about being molested by aggressive mobs or annoying players? You could also potentially use them for guild meetings, for the same reasons. Some guilds are weird and like to have those "in person" instead of just doing it over the guild channel.
I think pointless mini-zones tend to serve a bigger purpose than you might think in games. After a while, all of the zones start to feel kind of the same. There are some quests, some monsters, and maybe a few NPCs to talk to or buy from. You quest, you kill -- wash, rinse, repeat. Zones that don't follow that pattern, even when seemingly boring, at least are something different for you to chew on. If nothing else, they highlight how interesting the other zones are. They say that variety is the spice of life. How can you know how exciting and dynamic other zones are unless you have some boring ones to compare them to (and to go chill out in after you're done exploring the cool zones)?
So the next time you find yourself asking why a particular place even exists, take a moment to kick back, look around, and just enjoy the surroundings. Who cares? Why does it need a purpose?