Well, by now I know that you are pretty attached to a lot of the jRPG conventions
I wouldn't say attached as much as, I don't want to reinvent the wheel unless I need to. The purpose of these discussions is to improve on the genre that exists and not to make something entirely new out of it. I'm not opposed to that idea, but it's just not what I'm currently in the process of achieving basically.
but I guess I'd have to ask whether the game would be 3d or 2d?
Personally, I really, really enjoy wandering in open wilderness. The caveat is that I've really never found 2d graphics compelling enough to drive this, because they are just too far from reality. I think with decent graphics though, even empty wilderness can be fun to explore just for the sake of seeing things.
I have experienced such awe in Chrono Cross on at least 1 level. The fact that the game underdelivered afterwards didn't remove that moment from my memory, which is part of the reason why I'm after improving the exploration aspect of the jRPG genre.
In a more strictly traditional jRPG though, the only thing I can remember really driving me to poke into every nook and cranny was treasure hunting. I really don't care anymore whether I find every single hidden room, I'm much more interested in experiencing the story contiguously, but when I was young I remember spending hours and hours searching every single square of grass, and every wall in every dungeon.
You list an interesting startup point: hidden rooms. Not every rpg has that, and its a good thing to work with, using clues that the trained eye can see. I remember it was pretty cool in ff6 when locked backtracked to that one city and found a staircase behind a bookshelf. Iconic moment I'd say (good way to characterize this relatively weak party member as an important part of the team even).
I'd recommend working from known examples of games that have introduced some twists.
What i hate in some rpgs are Towns.
They are generally a waste of time. I was very happy with Chrono Trigger's resolve to minimize towns to buildings on the overworld map instead of actual streets and whatnot. There were still pointless npcs, but it reduces the unecessary walking. That said, this didn't really improve on the exploration aspect of the game.
Games immune to that feeling: Skyrim. Oblvion.
I have to disagree here, both games are big offenders in that field too. They may not be as bad, but they're certainly filled with useless npcs.
In short, I personally think the only way for exploration to be "fun" is if there is something to explore.
I read you. Knowing there's something nearby, perhaps even being shown the item, but having to understand how to acquire it could be a good motivation factor for a player to explore. FF5 had that in the mirage village where each shop had 2 shopkeepers and one of them was hidden, so you knew that you had to look around and find them.
Exploration implies risk, I believe, and with risk, you most certaintly should have a reward at the end.
That's what I'm actually interested in. What other risks than fighting can you imagine for exploration?
Otherwise it's more of a walk through the scenic route which may get the player to the same place longer than the normal way, something that won't resonate with most people.
To me, it also sounds like a waste of time, and I'd much rather cut the chase unless the game has something in mind for me (optional content such as cutscenes, items, etc).
But I think we're a bit missing the points here. I really think there could be actual mechanics that could be put into place to game the exploration itself more fun. Hidden passages is one. Any other?