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A Sense of Space...


For entirely unrelated reasons, I've been giving the Vanguard 14-day trial a go. It is a game that has many things, and lacks many things also, but one thing it certainly doesn't lack, is room. Its initial Isle of Dawn starter map is an immense place, and judging by the map tabs for the three different mainland continents, this theme of great open spaces and expansive countryside appears to continue throughout the game. Early quests send you off on lengthy runs to distant places and the minimap barely flinches, suggesting a very large land indeed.

I found myself quite surprised at the distances and travel times involved, and in turn, surprised that I was surprised. Clearly, I have become used to a much smaller kind of vast wilderness in my online gaming, and for a self-diagnosed Bartle Explorer type I wonder if I haven't gotten a bit soft when it comes to all things distance related. Was this a trend that had crept up on me, or does size simply not matter any more, in our MMO gaming?
Travelling has always been a part of the MMO, especially those worlds of a Fantasy persuasion. The sagas, tales, mythologies and novels that these worlds are inspired by are very much based on the storytelling tradition of the 'Hero's Journey' or Monomyth, a repeating narrative form which can be identified in countless works from all over the world, and throughout history. In this structure the protagonist leaves their commonplace homeland on a quest, travelling to an exotic place of peril, there to conquer adversity and gain insight or power, and then returns, richer, wiser and generally victorious. The physical journey itself becomes an integral part of the tale, providing a thread which ties the various individual adventures together; There and Back Again.

"In these cases, the bigger the world, the better."

In an MMO, where stories with a beginning, middle and end are harder to come by, and thousands of players all get to choose their own path, the journey changes from a linear thing to something more two dimensional and rather than long paths and roads, wide plains and large lands are more useful, particularly in MMOs that aspire to be of the sandbox variety. The ability to roam free over any horizon and go where you like is only possible if there are horizons to roam over in the first place, and more than one other place to go. In these cases, the bigger the world, the better, and ideally such worlds should be seamless and without artificial boundaries or borders, to truly create a place of unbounded possibility.

An interesting example of note here is Star Wars: Galaxies. At launch, it offered ten separate world maps which were all very large indeed, taking dozens of hours to traverse on foot. Mounts and speeders came later, but it would be entirely possible to strike out into the wilds and not see another player for days, even on healthy populated servers. Much of this was by design; player housing existed in-world rather than as instances, and wide ranging resource movements were a feature of the game's crafting – both things that need a lot of room to happen. There was even a whole profession, the Scout, who was designed around living in the wilds, foraging off the land, and creating camping supplies from slain animals. The sheer size of these worlds meant that no matter how busy a world got, there was always a wilderness, and always some place further over the horizon that the new player could stake a claim on. Much of these vast plains contained little but dynamically generated monster spawns, but in a sandbox type game, the wilderness is a stage, not an attraction in its own right.

EVE Online also offers unbounded vastness. A typical star system there is about 30 a.u. across, which will take the average internet spaceship around 300 years to cross, all of which is real space and real time. This illustrates a rather extreme example of the dangers of providing too much space in an MMO, and the entire game is only made workable at all by the provision of a warp drive, which cuts that 300 years down to about 30 seconds. This effectively reduces that vast immensity down to a series of bubbles of space 250km across, at various space stations, jump gates moons and similar; a chain of points which players travel between, and thus actually meet each other at all.

For the more directed theme park style of MMO a world which is too large can be a bad thing, making content inaccessible and ignored through prohibitive travel times. Why run for an hour to get to the same kinds of monsters that you could fight just outside the starter town? You only have to run back again! Quests become the signposts and getting there is typically a part of that quest, a miniature monomyth of a convenient yet significant duration. We travel to the lair, we slay, we return victorious to the village and the whole forms a distinct adventure, of which the journey is a significant part. The expected travelling time becomes an important lever for the quest designer, and the available values for this are dictated by the size of the map the quest takes place in.

"It all conveys the feel that Eriador is big."

For all but the most hardcore sandbox MMOs, striking a balance between a believably large world and a conveniently small play area is crucial and can directly colour perceptions of the title. For example, Lord of the Rings Online, a game based on a very travel oriented work of fiction indeed, features a great deal of raw distance. Its zones are large and its travel routes take significant time; which all becomes particularly apparent during Volume I, Book 3, which sees the players travelling back and forth across the North Downs map extensively, and watching a horse's backside for a great deal of that quest chain. It all conveys the feel that Eriador is big.

By contrast, Guild Wars feels very small. The continents of Tyria, Cantha and Elona certainly look very big on the world map screens, but the travel mechanic in use there consists of instantaneous teleporting to any previously visited town or outpost, whenever the mood strikes. Individual zones must still be fought through, but the instant travel effectively means that no place is more than two or three zones from any other.

Striking the correct balance is different for each MMO, depending greatly on the kind of experience the designers are attempting to create. While a cynic might dismiss all travel times as content filler and unnecessary downtime, removing significant distance from an MMO moves it from 'world' and toward 'game'. Conversely, the further the player must venture to get things done, the more like a world and less like a game the overall experience becomes. And of course with more distance, comes more opportunity for intervening adventures, the things that happened on the way to somewhere else, which may or may not be a desirable thing, again, depending on the kind of experience being created, and the kind being sought by it's players.

There is an undeniable appeal to exploration, to striking out over the nearest horizon to simply see what is there, but there is also an appeal to being able to get to a place quickly, and to get things done efficiently. Which appeals to you the most?

This article was originally published on Massively.