Anti-Aliased: What happened to building worlds

Seraphina Brennan
S. Brennan|10.22.10

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Anti-Aliased: What happened to building worlds
I hope you guys have taken the time to check out our GDCO coverage, specifically our interview with Richard Bartle. If there's anything that has really been on my mind for these past weeks, it's been that. Dr. Bartle's approach to MMOs is very similar to my own personal approach to MMOs: these are games, but they are also worlds.

And it's been that line of thinking that has lead me to today's column. What happened to creating worlds in our games?

Now, I'm not saying that our games don't include vast settings for us to explore. All of our MMOs include some great settings, but they seem to fall flat anymore. Instead of focusing on how players can interact with the world and each other, many developers are focused on creating the coveted "theme park" environment. We have worlds filled with pre-planned obstacles and challenges that rarely change and evolve over time, instead of allowing players to interact with the world and vice-versa.

So, with all of our new knowledge on how games work, what's stopping us from tackling the challenges we used to tackle regularly? How can we make world building and sandbox practices approachable? How can we re-ignite the creative fire?
Why building worlds is hard, and why we probably moved away from it

I'm not going to write this column in a vacuum -- building full, rich worlds is hard. If you want an example, take a look at World of Warcraft's Stormwind or Orgrimmar. Think of all of the little things that have gone into building those two cities. You have the necessities in the city like shopkeepers, class trainers, profession trainers, questgivers, etc. But, beyond that you have NPCs performing various activities that add to the ambience, like Stormwind's resident poor man, Topper McNabb, or the school teacher that leads her kids around Stormwind on a tour, or the bickering mages outside the mage tower. You also have to design all of the houses, the moats, the NPCs walking paths, the quest interactions that take place in the city, the docks and their boat schedule, etc. I could go on.

"It's precisely this style of gameplay -- emergence through interaction -- that makes online worlds so fascinating."

And still, Stormwind is a very basic concept of what a city really is. Stormwind is small, lacking some form of public transportation (due to the size, of course), lacking a reason to visit pubs and restaurants, lacking player housing, lacking guild housing, lacking differing NPC interactions depending on time of day, lacking shop hours, and lacking many other concepts that a city would truly have for its residents. Stormwind is great (don't get me wrong here), but it's nothing more than a tool in World of Warcraft's progression scheme. Stormwind stands to offer you services and goods to progress along its pre-made path.

Making cities that truly live is hard. Making a world that truly lives and changes is hard. And, even worse, when you start offering your players tools that allow them to interact with one another, they start leveraging those tools in weird, unknown ways. That's emergence through gameplay, and it's the bane of a theme park game. Emergence may lead to one of your game's systems breaking the rules, and no one likes it when rules are broken.

Thriving on emergence

It's precisely this style of gameplay -- emergence through interaction -- that makes online worlds so fascinating. Taming emergence is difficult, but it's not impossible. Take EVE Online for existence. For a long, long time here at Massively, I've always considered EVE to be our best news source. Heck, let me refine that statement a bit -- EVE Online is one of the only games that actually generates real reportable news.

Now, of course, that's not to say other titles don't generate news. Our many, many communities generate news everyday, as we create community events and discuss the games we play. But EVE creates news right in the game's design. It's not news about the game, it's news about what's going on inside of the game. War, thievery, assassinations, politics, power -- they're all built into EVE's design. When something happens in EVE, it is a unique event that will create waves throughout their universe. That is simply amazing to think about.

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