Wednesday, April 13, 2011

A World without Borders

MMORPGs have zones. They need them so that players don't get bored by the surroundings. At least that is the theory. The zones are usually separated by impassable terrain: mostly mountains, sometime oceans or trenches. And all MMORPGs have external limits on the world. If you start going straight you will eventually find some border.

Can this be improved? I am thinking about a world that does not abruptly (hard) end, but rather has a soft end. Of course, there still needs to be some hard end eventually, but before players realistically reach this, it should be possible to have them stop for other reasons; like too powerful mobs, for example.

So imagine you start going and you pass all this beautiful terrain and you pass rivers and hills and fields and maybe even a cave. And at some point you realize that this land is completely wild. There's nobody around here. Just animals big, small and monstrous. At some point the birds begin to make sounds that are slightly distorted to what they used to be. The land is vast - and boring. It is, of course, procedurally generated. Then suddenly you are attacked by something really big. You barely manage to fight it off. The air is foggy, but in the distance you see shapes. Many shapes. You return home. (Because the game disencourages dying).

A week later you convince a few friends to come with you and explore. After some hours you eventually reach a similar place to where you have been earlier. (Don't explore if you don't have the time or are easily bored. The game offers other activities, too). The shapes on the horizon look less dangerous in the company of your friends. So you start to move. Many minutes later you find out that the shapes are actually statures. There is a ruin of some sorts. Beneath it you find a (procedurally generated, that is rather boring) labyrinth. You invest some hours and are finally able to find some exotic items. They are not powerul, but maybe their looks make them valuable on the player-run market. You focus on the light ones, as there is a serious weigth limitation on your chars and there was no road to have a cart come with you. A cart would also have been too risky (=expensive) for exploration. You return home.

A week later you manage to convince your friends again to go explore. This time you really want to find the end of the world. So you travel for many hours (while talking about other things - the travel is boring). Eventually you reach those ruins again - or are this different ones? Hard to tell, because your map doesn't cover the outer regions of the game world. You continue to travel. The fog intensifies. Suddenly you are attacked by several creatures. You manage to fight them off, but need to rest a bit before continueing. About 10 minutes later you realize that you are followed. Several rather slow creatures. Instead of fighting you continue. And then, finally, there is a desert in front of you. The game tells you that going in there is certain death. Of course, you ignore the warning. After a few minutes in the desert (that is even more boring than the land before), you start to take health damage. The sand pierces your body, you are thirsty. You try to turn around, but die before leaving the desert. Congratulations! You discovered the end of the world. (No, no achievement in my games :).

From a game designer's point of view:
The regions that are meant to be played in are surrounded by lots of cheap procedurally generated content. It is boring, but has some quirks that can make exploring interesting - yet not required in any way. There are some unique mobs there, but since you use fog and sand storms and heavy rain, the mobs don't need to be graphical masterpieces. If players really travel too far, they need a group to fight the mobs. If that group travels too far, the players are eventually warned that they are going to die (due to credible reasons). Finally, if they still continue traveling, they, well, die.

The point is that this shouldn't really increase the production costs all that much. But it is a dream for explorers and, generally, far more immersive and interesting than a steep mountain-wall; or even an invisible wall. Isn't it?

Additional questions:
- Is the minimap really worth the space it requires on the screen? What about a minimap that is toggled off by default, but can be toggled on?
- What about a spherical world - you know - like the one we inhabit in real life?
- Are different zones really necessary? Would it be possible to i.e. concentrate on mastering a central european climate and perfecting this, instead of having your graphic guys come up with 20 different climate zones?

Added "No one cares about my forth pillar ?!" to the link storage to the right.


  1. I'd absolutely LOVE no borders / dynamic terrain!!!
    my explorer's heart does jumps at this, although I still think a classic fantasy world should come with different area "themes" as long as the terrain changes aren't abrupt but transition over very long distances only. I love northern european themes, but it adds to a world's mystery if you have flying islands, fiery mountains etc. - that's big part of their appeal to me personally.

    And while we're talking maps: I'd like to see NO minimap at all! I've tried to play my MMOs many times without one, orientating myself by terrain alone and it's an entirely different gameplay experience that forces you to actually 'look' at the world and get to know all its locations and landmarks (which is the more authentic approach). as for the world map, you shouldn't get it from the start either; I'd actually prefer having to either a) draw your maps yourself, or b) maps to be very precious and expensive, so you won't always have all of them right away (FF11 did it like that).

  2. Syl, I agre with the maps. I, too, was thinking a lot about whether maps are really adding to the fun. If you start running on the map and the real world is just an obstacle, the game design failed, in my opinion.

    The big question is: Is it acceptable nowadays to not have maps or to have only crude maps? Is it acceptable to have no minimap?

    It does depend a bit on the game of course. And you need to have some solution at hand for players that get lost. Anyway, me, personally, i agree with you: Maps mostly reduce the fun. If you mark 'quest locations' on the map you also get an enjoyable game, but not the kind of game I would like to play.

  3. I think that sounds like a great idea. That's basically what Minecraft does, although it's unclear whether the same method would work in an MMO. Oblivion is another example; beyond the "edge" of the map there seem to be vast areas of procedurally generated, empty terrain.

    I think one problem is that the map could become extremely large, because diehard explorers will simply go endlessly in each direction.

    Are different zones really necessary? Would it be possible to i.e. concentrate on mastering a central european climate and perfecting this, instead of having your graphic guys come up with 20 different climate zones?

    That's pretty much what Oblivion did, and I know some players complained about the lack of variety. I think Bethesda has said the world in Skyrim will be more varied.

    By the way, I've always wondered whether the impassable zone separators in MMOs were used for gameplay reasons (to guide players) or for technical reasons (to limit zone transitions to certain points). Do you have any idea?

  4. Tolthir, in the past, most MMORPGs tried to use servers for 'regions'.

    However, modern MMORPGs, like Rift, don't. Massive MMOs (yes, not all are massive :), try to find ways to distribute all functionality on as many servers as convenient. i.e. to be as flexible as possible.

    So, today zone transitions are mostly unnecessary for technical reasons. They are mostly a game design decisions.

  5. Tolthir mentions Oblivion, but when reading your post, I had a strong sense of Deja Vu for the first Elder Scrolls game Arena. In that game the whole outside world and dungeons were procedurally generated and would be different in each game (If I remember correctly). It really did generate a feeling of exploration.

    It would be great to see this in MMOs, but it hasn't been so easy for game companies to make compelling content other than combat and I think that would be essential.

    Actually in Rift I quite enjoy the artifacts and the way they are hidden in out of the way places (although there is little reason to collect them unless you like minipets :(). Also in LOTRO I was quite happy delivering pies. So I reckon that there is a lot that game companies could do to make exploration more interesting (how about bird watching? !? rare birds might be spotted at different times of the year, you might experience meteorological events ... etc).

    I suppose that game companies don't do this type of thing (except simple stuff like artifacts), because they think that there isn't a sufficient interest among players rather than that they couldn't.

  6. It might be asking too much, but...
    I'd love it if players could gradually do some small-scale terraforming so that given time, they can push back the desert. Not quickly, but eventually. Then of course they just dig up some sealed evil in a can (the reason for the desert) and everything gets wrecked. But if they can get back there, riches! Or insanity! But if you're sufficiently insane, it's as good as wealth.

  7. Roq, maybe game companies are a little bit wrong. Maybe watching for birds is more fun than watching for shiny artifacts - even though the pure gameplay is worse.

    Klepsacovic, I fear we will have to wait some 10 years for the first Minecraft-like AAA-MMORPG. It will be fantstic, yeah :)

  8. Yeah I always liked huge world idea. Dark and light had amazing terrain (check out the tech ) . World where mountains were real and landscapes are vast .It was simply breathtaking

  9. I like to explore as well, but like Tolthir I think that the map becoming huge would be an issue, as well as people getting too spread out. That might not actually be a problem, but it could be.

    And I have to admit that I would hate to play a game without maps, with the current state of technology at least. Having to orientate yourself via terrain is more immersive, but at the end of the day the entire landscape is still a 2D picture on your screen and that makes it very easy to get confused about where you are and run in stupid circles. If we ever get to play in a truly 3D way, maybe.