MMO worlds – when are they big enough?

Inspired once again by lurking forums I find myself wondering about the size of the worlds in which we game. We all want that enormous lush ‘lived-in’ world that our characters can adventure in and explore. But at what point do we say ‘this is too small’ or ‘this is too big’? I want to present a few examples of MMO worlds and my feelings on the good and bad of each.

World of Warcraft’s Azeroth – Here is a prime example of a world with decent attention to detail. Most areas in WoW are polished and given thought. Few areas feel like they were generated with a tile set and simply populated with random code. The designers get credit here. But what about the size? I can’t remember where I read this so take it as hearsay but Azeroth is somewhere in the ballpark of 19 miles from corner to corner. Crossing most zones will take you only a few minutes at most with a mount and on foot you’re never looking at more than 5-10 minutes. With the “fast travel” of a tram and flight paths you can cross the world is minutes. Traveling the world, as polished as it is, becomes a tedious activity by level 40. They know this and thus give you a mount, then a faster mount, then a flying mount, and somewhere along the way the world stops being important and all that matters is how quickly you can get to the next instance.

Everquest II’s Norrath – Here is a game that took what I like to call the “Island approach”. Somewhere along the line it became extremely convenient to create a dozen islands each with their own look and feel and call it a world. There’s nothing wrong with this except it can ruin the immersion when to travel from one place to another you simply ring a bell on a dock. It also becomes apparent that the world feels more “thrown together” than it does polished and alive. Nodes and mobs are literally generated randomly (as evidenced by the fact that there are some mobs in tree’s or in walls when they shouldn’t be). Eventually the scenery becomes a blur and you find quick traveling is the only way to go. The world quickly feels small and walled in.

Lord of the Rings Online’s Middle-Earth – Quite possibly the most beautiful artwork ever done on a MMORPG world. The scenery is breathtaking and the vistas are abundant. The world that we have to play in so far however is small. (It should be noted that the world is not even half released yet but we must be with what we have so far.) There are signs of decent attention to detail namely with scenery. The world flows well from region to region and you get a real sense of living atmosphere as you explore. The main city of Bree is well done although it does lack a sense of “lived in”. But where the buck stops completely for me is the instances and fast travel options. Enter a house and you “load/zone”. Enter a dungeon and it’s instanced. Traveling across the world is as simple as buying a ticket for one silver – yes that’s a simple one silver fee to travel instantly across the map. Some classes and all races are given instant travel options as well. What’s with the instant travels?

Vanguard’s Telon – One word: enormous. This is by far the largest MMORPG world out there right now. Divided up into three continents this virtual world houses an enormous selection of races, cities, regions, you name it. There are oceans, forests, swamps, dungeons, etc and they are all connected to each other. Each continent is one entire big zone divided into regions for the sake of chat channel sanity. Every so often you do “hitch” as you load the next area but on a decent system this can be overlooked. But the downside? The size hurts. Finding a group and getting together can take literally over an hour. If the place you wanted to hunt in is too crowded you are either out of luck or forced to perhaps travel an additional hour to explore other options. Even with mounts offered as low as level 10 the world feels overwhelming. SOE knows this and it has been said that the ability to summon group members is coming “soon”.

Okay so I have gone over a few of the current MMORPG worlds and my thoughts on them. Now let’s get to the meat of this discussion and talk about “how big is enough?”. Are we seeing evidence that the worlds are too big when developers give us fast travel options? Is the lack of detail in even the smallest corners of the world once again a sign that the world is so large they don’t expect many people to see these things? What about the other end of the spectrum when the world is so small that the developers have to distract players with instanced content?

I think this question is completely subjective so I won’t try and assume I can speak for the entire MMO community. However for me the answer is simple. When the world feels so big that I would rather use instant teleportation it’s too big. When the world is so small that I can see it all and no longer care it’s too small. If all I care about is getting to the next location as quickly as possible then the world is not complete.

I hope developers will feel challenged to create worlds that are alive. I don’t care how big you want the world to be and I certainly hope you don’t understate it either. If the worlds you create are not immersing and they do not beckon players to want to live in them then you have failed to create the total experience. With Warhammer Online and Pirates of the Burning Sea coming soon players will have the opportunity to see two sides of the coin. On one hand you have a world that is being created based on hundreds of thousands of pages of text and stories with decades of content. On the other you have a world that is being turned over to the players with a player run economy and a pvp conquerable world.

I look forward to the future of MMORPG worlds.

  • Personally I always prefer a smaller well detailed world where you actually see players moving around, walking bye etc. Now if this world is full of detail and makes you stop for a second to look around, then all the better.

    As for instancing, really never botherd me to much, I do like the ability to walk into any dungeon and see others in it. However this is not the end of the world for me …

    I do not think the perfect mix of instancing and open world has yet to be achieved fully … to be honest i would be happy with instancing story line dungeons, raids etc however the small dungeons around the world should not be instanced …

    I think Potbs is a nice sandbox however I believe they are using instancing in some of there missions, so it is not a true open sandbox of a world.