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Building a better MMOusetrap: Buildings, barrens and beyond (Part 2)

Dave Moss
November 21, 2007
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Last week we started to look at the architecture of MMO cities, and how they can impact game play. How developers use areas like transit zones, to herd the players, even if they players aren't aware. This week we will take a deeper look into the cities themselves, the people that inhabit them, and why.

Cities are often looked at in virtual worlds as a type of mall, where you can go and pick up the things you need, trade in or sell the things you don't, and maybe swing by the food court for a bite to eat. As such, players often treat cities very differently; just like malls you have different groups of people who want different things out of the environment. To some, it's a hangout place, the folks who sit around talking with their friends, using yell or in-city channels to spam their personal and most inner thoughts (WTS [Wang] x1 PST). You have those who look at it just like a pit stop, get in, do what you have to do, and get out. And those who abhor the cities entirely and would rather go out of their way to some small outpost just to avoid the unwashed masses, even if it means an extra twenty minutes.

I think developers can change this though, making the cities more like the ones we are used to in the real world. Places to rest, refresh, and socialize. In games like FFXI, the cities feel barren and devoid of life, with only the most necessary NPCs around to give out the quest and vendor your unwanted loot. There are frequently more empty, inaccessible buildings than there are ones you can go in. Where the opposite can be said about WoW, where there are countless houses for you to explore (albeit most of them empty), NPCs wandering around with no function other than to sell pie, and more vendors than you can shake a stick at.

In the same vein, more areas that serve different functions can be added, putting questing areas inside the cities (though not primarily in the cities as seen in such games as NeoCron), or having gathering places for outside zones situated in the towns. I always wanted to see a "job board" in a small town, not unlike the wanted posters in WoW, but a place where people could go in and make a Help Wanted poster for a quest they couldn't complete, sign their name, and allow other players to come around and see if they could help, or if there was someone stuck on the same quest they were. Certainly this isn't as elegant a solution as general channels in zones, but I think it adds more of a personal touch than spamming a channel for thirty minutes trying to get some help to kill that roving band of goblins.

Cities are often seen as a place of refuge as well, I couldn't begin to count the number of times monsters were trained to the cities in FFXI, where people would just sit by the zone waiting for a party, and then band together to take out the nasties as they arrived. But in games where the threat in the outside world isn't as high, players don't need the high protective walls or brave city guards to protect them when the going gets tough.

At the end of the day, the architectural choices made in online games is rarely wrong for the settings they are in, aside from difficult to navigate areas (until you've run through them a thousand times), or out of the way cities due to world placement, you rarely hear complaints about them. However, as online worlds expand I believe the cities and towns should take a more pivotal role, as often the focus in these types of games lies in the outlying regions where the monsters live, but when you ask players why they play MMOs instead of other types of games the answer is frequently "for the people I meet", and what better way to bring the people together than to give them areas where it's not always about fighting the next toughest monster, but sitting down for a cold pint after a long day of stabby fun?

I mentioned briefly at the end of last week's column, that sometimes things don't go the way the developers want them to when it comes to architectural choices, or terrain mapping. Sometimes the players take these things into their own hands, or simply want more out of the buildings and environments than the developers intend.

Take for example people making it on to the rooftops of towns like Darkshire or Gadgetzan in WoW. Once people learned how to navigate the open terrain, they learned that they could grief other players by putting themselves out of the reach of the NPC guards.

On a similar note, an infamous WoW group, known as the Nogg-aholic's, used game mechanics such as slow-fall, jumping, and every form of terrain exploit they could to get over insurmountable peaks, into forbidden zones, and just anywhere they could go. Blizzard reacted as any developer would, by swinging around the ban-hammer on anyone caught trying to duplicate what was seen in the videos the Nogg-aholics put out. This was because players were no longer adhering to the architectural rules put into place to govern over the world.

Along the same lines of the terrain exploiters, comes those who wish to have a greater range of interaction with the environment, as it stands in most MMOs the players have absolutely no way to modify the environment they are in. In Tabula Rasa, the Bane and the players constantly battle over bases and outposts, but neither truly changes the environment. In the upcoming WoW expansion it has been stated that they are going to have siege engines that will help in world pvp and events, allowing players to destroy buildings and environmental features. But I'm sure after a set amount of time the damage will revert, so all the hard work of typing in "Warlocks are overpowered" in cannon balls on the side of a building is forgotten.

This is very different from many single player games, both RPG and otherwise, where players could pick up items from tables, knock over barrels, break windows and destroy the environment in any way they pleased. This rarely affected the game play, but allowed the player to feel more immersed in the virtual world.

And immersion is really what we want when it comes to MMOs, more and more developers are trying to find ways to involve their players in the world itself, instead of just scratching the surface as a character, they want you to be a real citizen.

Next week we will begin to look at the world outside of the cities, the vast expanses of terrain, sky, space, and ocean that make up the meat of the virtual worlds we love to explore.























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