Tobold's Blog
Sunday, June 03, 2007
The smallness of virtual worlds

In the book "The Hobbit", Bilbo Baggins and the dwarves travel 38 days from Hobbiton to Rivendell. In "The Lord of the Rings" Frodo, pursued by Nazg├╗l and not encumbered by ponies, manages the same distance in 28 days. According to Tolkien's maps the distance between Hobbiton and Rivendell is nearly 500 miles. But in the virtual world of The Lord of the Rings Online you can run all of this in less than one hour. Assuming a long-distance run speed of 12 miles per hour, the virtual LotRO world is smaller than Middle-Earth from the books by a factor of at least 40. In the books the villages of the Shire are miles away from each other, in the game they are just around the corner or over the hill.

Azeroth, from World of Warcraft, doesn't have a book to compare with. But with a continent in WoW being only 4 miles wide, and the two warring factions living as little as 1 minute walk away from each other, we can assume that Azeroth is also reduced in size from what it would be in a lore outside the game. The "village" of Goldshire only has three houses, and even the big "cities" of Azeroth would barely qualify as a town in the middle ages.

The reason for the smallness of virtual worlds is convenience. Travel times of hours or even days between cities would be more realistic, but pretty much unplayable. In virtual worlds you can't uncouple time from space as easily as in a book; the phrase "they travelled for three days" only takes a second to read, but still manages to create the illusion of distance. In virtual worlds you can have some forms of teleport, even LotRO has teleporting horses, but often people will travel on foot or with some vehicle / mount at not more than twice of run speed, and they won't be willing to spend hours to get anywhere. And finding some spot for a quest gets harder the bigger the areas are. Games with much larger surface area exist, but that often comes at the price of the landscape being randomly generated and bland. Who has the resources to hand-craft thousands of square miles of landscape?

But small worlds also have disadvantages, most notably for player housing. Ultima Online isn't particularly small, but there isn't enough flat space around for every player on the server to place a house. Actually, with up to 20,000 players having a character on a single World of Warcraft server I have my doubts whether WoW would have enough flat space to place that many houses. And even if it did, how would the Barrens look like if you placed a few hundred houses there? It would turn a wilderness zone into a suburban sprawl. Games like Final Fantasy XI or Everquest 2 have housing where from the outside you only see one house, but the inside is instanced and different for each player. That solves the space problem, but also takes a good part of the attraction of player housing away: the ability to show off your house to others. You could create instanced zones, for example having each city in WoW an instance with 60 rows of 60 houses, but unless you liven that up with player-run shops, bars, and other functional buildings, such an instanced housing zone wouldn't be a very attractive place to live.

One other consequence of small virtual worlds is that it increases the likelyhood of meeting other people. That can be both good or bad. Sometimes its nice to be able to form groups on the spot with passing strangers that are obviously on the same quest as you are. But from a lore point of view seeing so many other players around in places that are supposed to be void of life, like the Barrow Downs or Lone Lands in LotRO, feels really strange. And how often were you hunting a mob and found it difficult just because that mob only exists at some small spot and several other players were hunting it too?

I think that games like WoW and LotRO are at the lower end for available space, slightly bigger worlds would be more fun to play. Area increased with the square of distance, so doubling all distances would give you four times as much space for placing player houses or monster camps. Of course we might have to wait for hardware powerful enough to handle the increased volume of data. And players would probably need to get access earlier to faster vehicles or mounts, plus forms of instant travel between known cities. Having enough space for player-built sub-urbs around cities, or even villages at select spots in the wilderness would be very nice. If we want our virtual worlds to feel more like worlds, and not just games, we will need more room.
Volume and Areas could be solved in terms of size by taking the WoW model.

Have distinct Islands, they don't have to be seperated by water, to expand the size yet reduce need for operating memory on the client end. With clever use of terrain textures and models... this seems a simple and dooable method.
Instanced housing is lame! If I can't be in my house and see players outside, though my window - then it's nothing more than a glorified bank vault, with antlers hanging on the door.
LOTRO seems to introduce an in-between solution. Michel Delving should certainly not look like Mexico City full of 500 silver wooden shacks. I read in an interview that they want to allow for large guilds / wealthy individuals to have their solitary houses that everyone can see and also include the instanced housings for solitary players.

Of course, a small neighborhood, together with shops etc. would be great. What they *could* do is: instanced villages. They would make an entry like in Archet for excample in a small valley, when you enter it the game loads a village instance which works like a "dimensional pocket" in the landscape and could stretch almost infinetly. When you reach the outskirts of the town, you are back in normal landscape.

The realism folks would certainly cry havoc if this is done, but hey - it is a good working solution and a compromise most people could live with.

Is there any game out there that does it like that?
I'm pretty sure that Age of Conan is going to handle player towns exactly the way you are describing. Instanced villages (with NPC bandits in the forests even that you have to keep clear or they'll rise up and attack your town).

Tobold said: You could create instanced zones, for example having each city in WoW an instance with 60 rows of 60 houses, but unless you liven that up with player-run shops, bars, and other functional buildings, such an instanced housing zone wouldn't be a very attractive place to live.

I honestly think that is exactly what they should do. An instanced housing area that is normally filled with "doorless" small houses, when a player buys a building they can choose from a number of different structures, house floorplans, or inns, bars or shops, then they pick a lot to place it on. Let them hire NPCs to man the place and buy supplies (or craft them) and set prices.
Is there anyone with experience of Dark Age of Camelot's housing? I think that that was going to be instanced, but I'm not sure what form it took. Did it work, I wonder.

And of course Star Wars Galaxies had an entire galaxy of planets to fill, as it were, so I guess player housing was actually a 'cheap' way for them to fill planets without having to put content in themselves.

You can avoid the 'meeting other people' thing by having instanced zones, as Guild Wars does, but then people complain that the game feels detached and has less of the Massive nature.
I read in an interview that they want to allow for large guilds / wealthy individuals..

If that's true, then every gold farmer just had an orgasm.

Either make housing all instanced or all non instanced, but only allowing the super rich to have non instanced vanity houses and guild halls would be a recipe for disaster and the first major stumble that Turbine has made.
Size of the world is one of the primary reasons I haven't played LOTRO. I can't imagine running anywhere in Middle Earth in minutes. I don't consider myself to be an LOTR purist or anything, but I think that would ruin the experience for me. Tolkien was a master at conveying the vastness of this world in his books... To be able to run across the Shire within a matter of minutes or even hours would ruin the experience for me.
I'm not sure I agree that LOTRo is on the small end of things, certainly even in it's current size, I've been traveling for a sizeable amount of time without running into anybody, and the same is certainly also true when leveling an alt in the 25->55 range in WoW.

WoW and LOTRo are already travel heavy so they really can't be bigger unless of course people get mounts early and the world is designed bigger (at no actually added game-play value).

On the player housing thing. I know a lot of people ask for it. I have never played an MMO that had it, but to be perfectly honest I don't see it adding much. Exception I see is in-game roleplay when having an instanced part that is just non-combat players and NPC can be helpful.

WoW has a number of open houses, especially in Ironforge that people can claim homes informally and RP there. It's not a great solution but anyways...

A Sci-Fi MMO would have an easier time to solve the player housing issue: Just have an elevator with X floors, and you buy/rent your appartment. Because the elevator hides the actual physical area you can provide loads and loads of player housing with still fast and convenient access. A 20000 people village would certainly be massive in a medival setting. While in theory Bree might look like a city that could be roughly that size, don't think any WoW city qualifies.
To verify my comment above, here is the link:

Relevant passages:

Jeff Anderson: Well, it's something that we're currently kind of still working at and designing, but there's a couple of different things that we do know. There will be some cross-section of landscape housing and instance housing, and I think it depends on whether it's for a kinship, or whether it's an individual player. When we talk about Lord of the Rings, we're talking about a really successful game right now, where we have maybe over 10,000 people per world. And when you start doing the math, that's a lot of homes to have on the landscape. You don't want it to feel that it's gone from Middle Earth to suburban sprawl. [Laughs] So we need to kind of maintain some balance there, and to achieve that, let people have homes and feel like they've got that part of Middle Earth. Instancing is a way to do that. But we've come up with some pretty innovative ways to do instancing as groups, so that you're not just alone in your house. I think we're going to be doing neighborhoods, and letting people have multiple homes in the instanced area so that you can actually have that sense of publicness to the space.

Shack: I assume the player will be able to do standard things like customize the appearance and contents of their house?

Jeff Anderson: Yeah, absolutely. We want to give players the ability to do upgrades and visual appearance upgrades. But you know, we're going to spend a lot of time talking about that over the next couple of months too. Players love housing. I think of housing as kind of your second avatar, because when you're in the game as your character, everyone gets to see who you are, but then when you log out you're gone. Homes are one of those persistent avatars that exist even when you're not online, and people can see by looking at your home the amount of energy that you've placed into it, the commitment you've had to the game. You can express a lot of your persistence through that.

Part of the reason that MMORPGs have separate servers in the first place is that the worlds are small. I'm not very familiar with the technical problems involved, but I'm surprised that no one has used having a single world as a competitive advantage. I find it terribly annoying that I have friends who I can't play with all together because they are on a different server. Of course, having a very large single world means that someone has to come up with more content to fill that space. But with a virtual geography, I don't think it would be that hard to dynamically add or subtract land area based on how many people are in a given area. If something is just supposed to be a giant woods area with monsters that people need to kill in it, from a programming standpoint it's not that hard to make the woods as big or as small as you want, even on the fly. A smart company could even use that as a part of the game design "An always shifting world ...".
DAoC had specific zones for housing, but they weren't really instanced, only one of each zone exists per server. But it is still kind of nice.

Horizons I think had the best concept so far, which was to plan for housing from day 1, with specific areas for players to build entire communities in.
Vanguard did it... even with mounts and teleporters people complained it was "too big" and players were too spread out..the merging of the serves should fix this
If I recall correctly, the original Asheron's Call had a large landmass and it took a good 10-15 minutes to get from place to place. There were vast amounts of wilderness too, with nothing more than random trees, bushes and monsters. Fun if you felt like farming/exploring, but not so fun when you needed to find a specific place for the first time.

Asheron's Call also had actual in-game housing, placed by the developers to fit-into the terrain well. Basically there were a limited amount of houses available, you had to be the first to buy them when they appeared, then you had to pay a monthly mortgage or you lost your title and the house went on the market again. More houses were added each month until there was enough supply to meet the needs of everyone who wanted one. Of course some houses were in better locations than others, so there was always opportunity to upgrade to a better neighborhood.

Also, there were three tiers of houses, for individuals, small guilds, and large guilds.

I thought this system worked really well, but I'm not sure if it would work in LOTRO because of the restrictions of the setting, plus the map is definitely smaller than AC.
I'm not sure the majority of players would want a house. Its really a novelty item. Depending on how much the item costs. I'm guessing a house in WoW would have to be atleast 50k? That would ensure only gamers who farm, buy gold and/or focus on gold get a house. If everyone had a house it wouldn't be very special. Not many players would really want a house either, what function does it serve in game? Just a place to logout?

Atleast epic mounts are usefull. 5k gold can earn you more gold based on how fast you can mine ore or herbs. A house? Maybe you will now have extra storage slots....could your alts come live in your house? Could people become squaters in your house? Would you have to defend your house for the opposing faction? I just don't see enought "game" in it to make it worthwhile, atleast in terms of WoW. LotRo maybe...thats more role playing based.
As mentioned briefly above, Vanguard is designed to be large (from the perspective of a virtual world). The hardcore VG players like to refer to "meaningful travel", and thus complain about the inclusion of fixed point "riftways" (think flightpaths in WoW). The problem is that the land is gigantic, but people get spread out and getting groups together takes time. Thus, you can easily alienate "casual" players (i.e. those folks who have maybe an hour or two nightly after the kids are in bed), since most of these type of people want to be able to log-in, and jump right into a group, and not spend 20 minutes on horseback and boats, manually making their way to a location. It's been my unofficial observation is that a good percentage of the people who complain about trivializing travel are those old school EQ folks who equate difficult with enjoyable.

I tend to think that as the market becomes saturated with games, a vast majority of them will retain the cozy feeling of WoW/LOTRO, since they are taking advantage of the vast casual audience, and only smaller, highly targeted games will have large landmasses where it really does feel like a virtual world.
I see a lot of people asking, "what good are houses, they don't add much". This kind of comment can only come from a player that hasn't seen the limitless content that NON-instanced housing adds to a game.

I have done such things as held in-game weddings, crashed in-game weddings (killing all participants), attacking player houses, defending my own home against attacking players, etc etc...

I once had an animal tamer sick his pet dragon on me while I was near my house. I was able to run far enough to lure the dragon inside my home and teleport outside of the house with the door locked. The person then cried that I should, "let him have his dragon back". This after the guy sent his pet on me? His pet de-spawned after the nightly server save, but it's small things like that you wouldn't imagine happening.

Back to my point... when players are given their own interface to customize, the possibilities are only limited by one's imagination.
I like the AC idea of having a monthly mortgage, as it pretty much guarantees that as older players retire and leave the game, they're not tying up an in-game resource and preventing someone else from using it, because after a month of idleness the AC Bank forecloses on them and their house is once again on the market.

That's also one of my ideas for Harvest Moon Online to prevent people tying up land. Stop playing the game and stop paying your Property Tax and the HM Bank forecloses on your Farm, and your plot of land becomes available for someone else to build on and develop. HMO would be right up Anon #2's alley, because you could take a walk down the road passing all the farms and immediately see how successful each farmer/player is by the number of cows in each field, size of their orchard, number & type of farm buildings, etc.
DAoC's solution sucked because they put the houses in their own little instanced zone that was out of the way of anything so you never really went there unless you had a house and never really looked around to see other houses. Plus it was a big square with houses laid out in a grid. Really lame and inconvenient.
I would like to have instanced housing in WOW, even if it is just a hole in a cliff.
Where is your home in Shattrath city? Basically it's either in the Aldor or Scryor inn, where your hearthstone is set to. Not exactly private, is it?
How much more fun to be able to HS back to your own private room, and maybe also have the 'bank' in there too, or at least space to hang all your clothes, if nothing else.
EQII had flavorful, perhaps useful, instanced housing. Private bank vaults, private access to the market, and a whole range of quests that gave (along with useful things) trophies to display. There was also non-instanced housing, with higher rent, more storage, and larger floorplans.

ATitD is centered around player-built housing. I think I last played in Tale 2, where there was an increased need to provide materials and do maintenance on large structures; players were given a small number of "cornerstones" that prevented decay of small compounds and slowed decay of larger ones, and (a few) more cornerstones might be given as longevity rewards. For huge guild compounds, several players would have to contribute their personal cornerstones, or the guild would have an awful maintenance task. Compounds that decayed to 0% maintenance were unusable, and after some time could be claimed by other players who wanted to repair them and use them themselves, or tear them down for salvage / scenery clearing.

This wasn't enough to keep the centers of towns from being ghosty, however - when people quit after building something big, I believe they could give away their cornerstones, which would result in some players being passive "caretakers" for a dozen huge-but-abandoned structures.
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