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Building a better MMOusetrap: Buildings, barrens and beyond (Part 1)

Dave Moss
November 14, 2007
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I spent the last two years living in the UK with an architecture enthusiast, and we often got into debates about the functionality and aesthetics about architecture and design. As such I began doing a bit of personal research on the topic, but filtered it down into a view on my own extra-curricular exploits. It was through this that I found a number of papers related to architectural choices in video games and virtual worlds, some are now a little outdated as they were written in the early days of true 3D gaming, but some hold true even to today. The main point, being that the decisions being made by developers are not simply held to aesthetics, but often have classical themes of architecture and planning intertwined into the building of our online cities.

MMO architecture is something I think can define, both the enjoyment, and popularity of the game in the same way that the ease of use of its interface can cause people to love it or leave it. And I think designers and developers are starting to believe this as well, looking at the cities, towns, hamlets and mega-cities of games are starting to feel more like real places instead of just something that serves in game function.

This isn't something that is only tied into a single MMO genre either, games such as World of Warcraft, Everquest and Final Fantasy XI all draw on well-known fantasy architectural schemes, City of Heroes/Villains uses a lot of real world and comic influences, and games such as Eve Online tie into popular sci-fi conventions. That being said, these games are not simply drawing from norms, but also are utilizing individual ideas and designs, there are influences of lore and unique design in all of the above mentioned games.

However some similar designs are seen across a number of different games. Take for example Ironforge in WoW and Kaladim in Everquest, they certainly aren't carbon copies of one another, but they follow traditional settings and materials for dwarven architecture, sculpted stone, precious metals, and often include confined spaces, such as caverns or mines. The question is, are these choices made so that players can easily identify with the areas and the races associated to them, or is it just because that's the way the developers wanted to make the areas look? It's a battle of aesthetics against function, which is something that mirrors architecture in our world as well.

City designs in MMOs seem to (mostly) follow conventional architectural processes by organizing the areas into activities or areas of purpose. There is almost always a 'Trade Quarter', 'Magic Quarter', a place to craft new gear, and so on. This is not to say it's the only way of doing it, but it allows players to easily understand the layout, even if the building designs and world are foreign and unrecognizable. These common layouts aren't the only way this can be done however; this feeling of comfort can also be accomplished by using a nomenclature that is easily recognized by your everyday gamer. Calling something a Town Hall, or Bank, or Auction House, helps the player understand the function of the building. The same can be said in games like CoX, where they use real world ideas in places such as Paragon City –like city hall- so that the players don't have to search around aimlessly, and learn strange names for the buildings to be able to complete specific tasks.

Once a sense of comfort is found, my experiences led me to discover that there are two types of architecture commonly used in architectural design in MMOs. Areas that are designed to be used and have a purpose, as well as those that are designed simply as aesthetics, a backdrop to give the cities and towns a feeling that they are actually being lived in. While these two ideas may seem very obvious to most gamers, I think that the reasons that they are used are for a less obvious purpose. Space is a very important factor of video games in general, as Espen Aarseth stated in his 'Allegories of Space', "the defining element of computer games is spatiality." As such space must be used very carefully, not only to give the player an idea of being a part of the virtual world, but also to give the world an idea of how to react to the player.

The latter idea might seem a little wonky, but stay with me for a minute.

Bernard Tschumi says "Architecture is not simply about space and form, but also about event, action, and what happens in space." Now I'm hardly an architect, or a game designer, but I read that in my layman's mind as "architecture is not just about a person reacting to the space, but also the way the space reacts to the person." Looking at it in that way, it allows a gamer to start to understand the rules that are put in place by designers in MMOs, so that we can both feel like part of the world, but to also understand that, like in reality, not everything is possible.

Take, for example, in a lot of MMOs the inability to jump, or even fall off of structures. Now in reality this is impossible, we are both constrained and defined by our relationship with gravity. We can jump and dive and roll and fall off things to squishy horrible deaths, but over the years we have come to understand that this is not always the case in video games. It's simply a rule put in play, which is not always enjoyed, but is almost universally accepted. But that rule goes both ways, not only are the players unable to jump and fall, but in the same way the environment cannot expect the player to be able to.

Gravity defines the architecture in the same way that handrails, netting and safety structures do in reality. Certain we could leap over the handrail and plummet in a not-so-roadrunner fashion to the ground below, but because the architect (or safety board I suppose) put the handrail in place, something within us understands the limitations of the environment (better known as gruesome maiming and death).

Then there are the MMOs where you can fly, or jump, or swim, like CoX or WoW. By removing the above rule, the developers also had to redefine their architectural choices. Now their buildings need to be designed on all sides, including the roof-tops, and environments have to be able to react to a player being able to hop, skip and jump their way all over it. Buildings have to be able to be accessed from multiple floors; NPC guards have to be able to protect the citizens from people hiding in those places.

This does not always go the way the developers planned....

Over the next few weeks I will continue to cover these topics, delving into the worlds of terrain exploiters, and stepping out of the cities and into the wilderness that surrounds these refuges.






















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