Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Huge, Detailed Open Worlds

Some people claim that it is impossible to create an open world as detailed as Skyrim for a MMORPG because that would be too expensive.

Their main argument is that the MMO world has to be larger than Skyrim. There are two points I want to make:

First, I don't think that Skyrim's world is that small, really. I haven't yet tried to walk from one edge of the world to the other, but that would certainly take quite a while.

The other, more important, point is that Skyrim had eight level designers working on its 150 dungeons that populate the open world. Let's assume that one level designer costs the company $200.000 a year to employ. That includes the administrative costs as well as the equipment he requires.

Eight of them cost $1.6 mio a year. Now, remember how much money a successful AAA MMO company makes. Here's a reminder. It is easily possible to employ 40 or a hundred level designers! There are no diminishing returns here, really: twice as many level designers create almost twice as much landscape per year.

Since there is no Steve Jobs in the games industry we need more competition for games with huge, detailed open worlds. It's not a problem of profit; it's a problem of incentives for the industry.


  1. I walked (actually ran) from Whiterun to the Throat of the World. I stayed on the roads and took the northern path around the mountain. It took me 1 hour and 5 minutes of real time to walk that distance. And it took around 19 hours of game time.

    I did have a few fights with mobs along the way and tried to hit a dragon flying above with an arrow.

    But if this is indicative of the size it would take about 3 or 4 hours of real time to run from one edge of the map to the other edge of the map following the roads.

    On a side note I noticed at elast a dozen different mines, houses, forts, dungeons etc along the way that I could have stopped at to explore.

  2. You've identified a problem, have repeatedly written about the solution, and have pointed out how insanely profitable it would be. Therefore, I look forward to your imminent MMO project announcement! :)

    Okay, so there are a few more issues to consider beyond costs. Here's one off the top of my head: the technical requirements change dramatically when you could have one to several hundred people in the same area. Your engine needs to be able to handle a variable number of people in one location since you can't necessarily control how many players are in one area.

    There's also the issue of bugs. The Elder Scrolls games are notorious for their problems. A crash is inconvenient and frustrating in a single player game, but it's something that will make your players leave in droves in an MMO. So, you need to focus a lot more on stability.

    Finally, I guess I'm curious to know why you consider MMO worlds "small". I haven't played Skyrim (I'm a cheap bastard and will wait for the Game of the Year edition with all the expansions included for cheap; this is also when there will be several good mods available), so I don't know why you consider Skyrim's world to be open and large but not, say, Age of Conan's world.

  3. Where did I write that MMO worlds are small? I consider them larger, but not as detailed, Psy .. Brian ;)

    You mention serious issues. But they aren't unsolvable. In fact, I expect future MMOs to offer a landscape of the same detail level of Skyrim. The trend is clearly going that way. Compare, for example, WoW and Rift in this regard.

    Crashes are a problem but can be fought with money (=time and skill).

    Really, I only made this post because a few commenters at other posts wrote that MMOs can't have as detailed and beautiful worlds as Skyrim.
    Yes, you need to make compromises for a MMO. But the amount of content is not the problem. The real problem is figuring out ways to get people engaged with the locations you create.

  4. "The real problem is figuring out ways to get people engaged with the locations you create."

    how about a deed system similar to that in Lotro that rewards you with characteristics and/or skills?

  5. First MMO worlds are already pretty big and imho detailed. The reason they might not appear so now is that they are very "streamlined". Player is funneled to a tiny portion of the world at a time

    WoW world is really huge. Bigger than skyrim in fact.

  6. I fixed the post so that it is clear now that I consider MMO worlds to be much bigger than Skyrim's world. The notion I discuss is that they have to be less detailed because they need to be so much larger.

  7. If WoW's world is 4 times less detailed as Skyrim, but 10 times larger, that is a major undertaking to get WoW up to that level. Are we talking 40 times more work before accounting for thousands of player avatars?

  8. No diminishing returns? You might want to add The Mythical Man-Month to your Christmas reading list...

  9. Zoso, are there diminishing returns, and if, why?

  10. I don't think it's actually a matter of cost. It's a matter of player PC resources. MMOs require a lot of RAM and CPU cycles by their nature. Handling text, loading models for every player and creature and assett in the area. That's a lot of information to handle at once.

    A single player is a controlled environment. Devs can push the envelop with graphics and physics because they have absolute precise control over everything that's going on. In an MMO, however, the devs don't have control over whether 10 players or 2000 players are occupying the same small space. MMOs need headroom.

    MMOs will continue to get more graphically impressive as hardware progresses but don't expect them to ever catch up to the amount of power devs can squeeze into single player games.