Appreciating cities, scope, and usable space in games


My main purpose for writing today was originally to simply share a screenshot from Rift that I thought was pretty cool.  This is the Guardian starting area and I’m playing my dwarf paladin who was something like level 5 at the time.  You can see a faux-rift in the background which is actually just part of the quest that kills you so that you can be reborn outside of the newbie experience and some castle that you can’t reach but looms nicely over a town that is also not accessible.

BBC's Merlin

My reason for sharing this, other than it looks neat, is because I like the scope it represents (although it fakes it).  They have this neat castle fortress thing looming over a city with a big open field and mountains surrounding them.  Many games are very flat.  Look at WoW and you have a game that is very good at using the floor and doesn’t really give you this immense sense of what I feel is realistic scope.  I can picture in my mind a dozen or so pictures of castles on hills overlooking cities from both real life images and ones from tv shows like Merlin.

The fake scenes are great, and I appreciate them as someone who appreciates scope, but I would love to see a castle on a hill and know that I could go there to a fully realized place.  I’d like to come down into a valley and see a medieval city and know that I can go down into that valley and visit.  Some games do a great job of giving you vistas and letting you go there, but few create fully realized environments or ones that are more than fields with trees.  I’d love it to be more realistic in its design because I know that I am someone that can truly appreciate the visual part of how a game immerses the player.

Guild Wars 2

My appreciation for these scenes is not recent.  I can recall my first visit to Albion’s Camelot in the aptly named Dark Age of Camelot.   Back then it was nothing like the great visuals we have today.  It was a rather blocky looking castle on not much of an incline with a small hamlet just outside.  The castle loomed though, and it stood there in all its majestic glory capable of being entered and explored by the players as a capital city. (Screenshot: Camelot from WAR”s easter egg)

Guild Wars 2 is obviously going this route.  Just look at the various concept drawings or their CGI teaser trailers.  Seeing what appears to be in-game graphics (shown to the right) is a total nerd-out moment for me.  Can I go into that city in the distance or is it just the skybox teasing me? I regretfully assume the latter but still hope for the ability to explore and use that space; usable space is just so important to me.  GW2 definitely has the monopoly on awesome city pictures (google image Guild Wars 2 city).

I’m not sure where I wanted to go with this other than just sharing something I really like and appreciate in games as well as my hope for the future that it will become something more than just atmosphere.  I’d love to see that city in the background of a screenshot like the GW2 one and say “see that tower, 3rd window down? Yeah, I live there.”

  • I believe from the recent video during human week they showed that city is physical and not just a skybox, how much is accessible is a different story

  • I agree. I’d love a game world where the cities were really cities, and the castles so huge it would take a day to even begin to explore them. So often, it’s all a facade, and the cities have so few people, they are more like a tiny town.

  • So true. I want all MMOs to give the same sense of awe as the Shire in Lotro, or the actual scenery from the Italian or swiss alps, or the sea side of Portugal. Whether its quaint or majestic, just make it so the player actually wants to step thru the screen and be there.

    I have high hopes for GW2 and its oil painting-like stylized graphics to bring the immersion to Disney-like magnitude.

  • As far as THAT exact city in the screenshot from GW2 I can assure you that you WILL be able to enter it. It’s Divinity’s Reach, the humans capital city. There’ll be a district in the city which is instanced for you only, your “home district” so to speak, that district will reflect on where you are in the storyline etc. The majority of the city is persistant and should work pretty much like Stormwind only on a much bigger scale. There’s similar cities for all the races, not sure about the size but in some of the videos you can see the Charr city, dark and dangerous looking, looks pretty immense as well.

  • In the Freemarch (Defiants’ 1-20 zone), their capital Meridian is seen from half across the zone. I agree, it’s nice to have such perspective on a zone. Feels more like world and not a series of scenes.

  • Interesting you mention flatness of some games. Coming to think of it LOTRO is also taking massive advantage of height with their cities. Look at the elven cities, all in mountains that is so high it adds so much to the epic scope of the city. Rivendell being prime example.

  • Vanguard and Star Wars Galaxies are 2 games that come to mind…both had good usage of the ‘height’, Vanguard moreso than SWG. But both were very good at showing the objects in the distance, and you could go there and visit.

    I recall many times whilst playing Vanguard I would be on my way somewhere for a quest, and see something in the distance and think “How cool, I’m going to go have a look at that” and off I’d go 🙂

  • I think FFXIV was trying to do something like this. There are alot of cool castles strew around the country side that simply didn’t have content placed in them yet. How sad. 🙁

  • ” I’d love to see that city in the background of a screenshot like the GW2 one and say “see that tower, 3rd window down? Yeah, I live there.””

    And therein lies the problem… you and 12,848,091 other paying customers want to do that.

  • well, i should say that the ACTUAL problem is that the designers think “if they pay, they get what they want”

  • If it had a large upkeep cost and gave some bonus other than looking cool it would work out. Have a player essentially pay rent every day. Have it cost so much gold and if they miss say… 2 days of payments or some random amount of time… they are evicted. All of their stuff that was there is mailed to them and the place goes back up for rent.

  • @ Epiny

    They did that in LoTRO. I hated it. The knowledge of the mess I had to clean up in my mailbox, and a locked house with unpaid rent was one of the barriers to my return to the game. Just ugh.

    A video game that requires that I set up rent payments with a guildie before I travel or take a break from the game just doesn’t work imo.

  • @Jenah
    You can prepay your rent months in advance! Dont know if thats a newer feature but it built in now.

  • EQ2 instanced houses and give the illusion of owning apartments in a city. That was cool. LotRO and DAOC did rent on house lots, which worked. SWG did straight up own land and pay for it but you could pay in advance. It works.

  • @Jenah
    If you don’t have enough money banked, you lose it… or if you don’t pay in advance. Look I understand IRL > Video games but alot of people seem to think that everything should be put on hold until they get back. That isn’t fair to the rest of the community.

  • also in freemarch the iron fortress is visible from a hilltop while your questing then more available once you reach the quest line to take you there

    its approachable before then, but i never cared to explore it. it just looked real cool ominously sitting there while i was doing quests in the valley below.

  • @Pierre:

    But not all 12,848,091 other paying customers are playing on the same server together. In EQ, there were about, what, 2000-3000 characters allowed per server (of which only about 1000-1500 were on at one time). I don’t know what WoW allows, but 5000 sounds safe. There’s 5 races in GW2. Just for ease of calculation let’s assume an even split. You’re telling me they can’t make 5 capital cities per server that can each hold 1000 people’s personal houses? Or have 200 guild houses? And then there’s other cities that could be used, there’s also Lion’s Arch which is basically an all-race capital city. Think of a city like Minas Tirith in LotR movies, or indeed the excellent concept art from GW2. There are so many buildings shown, there would easily be enough for everyone on a server to have their own if they built the city that way. Now the actual technical logistics of making that much space enterable, etc, in-engine, I have no idea how possible that is. But I’d like to see someone try. Someone needs to make a city in an MMO that you can actually adventure in, that has an active Thieves’ Guild, etc.

  • @Khoram
    I like the idea of adventuring in a city. Every MMO has you fighting some monsters and an opposing faction from your city gates to the far reaches of the world. It creates a very detached feel from your faction. Alot of ancient soldiers felt it on long campaigns, they forget what they are fighting for.

    If you could do more INSIDE the city it would help. Fight thieves, dynamic quests, etc, bring the city to life. Cities need to have people in them to feel alive and placing more game content in them would only help that.

  • That sort of thing is all about creating a virtual world, one where you know everything is accessible rather than things just be glowly shapes in the background that have no subsistence. For me, the perfect online world would allow me to enter every building, explore every room and really like like I existed everywhere else and not just in a hollowed out fun park. Single player games like Oblivion did this really well.

  • @Gordon
    That is something that bothered me about Warhammer. Praag could have been the most epic PvP zone ever if you could have simply gone in all the buildings.

  • @ Khoram

    Apparently they can’t … Every game with housing i’ve played has felt like anarchy online’s “apartments”. I’d ALMOST say SWG felt ok, but the fact the big cities were dead empty hollow prop buildings.

  • @Pierre
    It’s not about can’t, because the technology is there, it’s about why would they. Lets be honest player housing doesn’t really add to the core game. It’s a nice afterthought and something cool to list as a feature, but it wont make or break subscription numbers.

  • GW2 seems to be a mixed bag in this regard – although it does look super nice!

    As was pointed out, the screenshot in the blog post is Divinity’s Reach, which you can definitely go into. It’s basically a big wheel or bull’s eye shape surrounded and divided by a very high, ornate wall – the problem is that the towering vertical “wall” elements we’re seeing in that screenshot aren’t buildings, so much as a big piece of scenery used to structure the city – at least AFAIK. Think of them like Stormwind’s inner walls; they’re definitely there, but it’s not like you can go in them.

    It’s pretty obvious if you watch the new human video ( – bottom of that page); you can see that there is a huge, relatively flat city to explore, which has these very tall, ornate “walls” that run around it and through it – but their scale isn’t really right to be buildings you go into; they’re slightly too small if you look closely.

    On the other hand, GW2 does do better than a lot of other recent MMOs, in terms of creating indoor vs outdoor play – for example, many buildings out in the world – such as pump houses, lumber mills, inns, and such – seem to have working doors (like, click to physically open and close, not instance portals) that lead to interior spaces on multiple levels.

    Overall it seems like a wash to me. I’m very positive on a lot of things that GW2 has claimed, and it looks like they’re using vertical space in interesting ways out in the zones. But I’ve always found ANet’s decisions regarding buildings and cities to be more frustrating than anything else.

    I may be wrong on all of this, however – we haven’t seen much video on these specific topics as of yet.

  • As what happened to Grishna for the brief time I played Vanguard I had those same oh what’s that moments and traveling there. It was frustrating in Vanilla WoW when you see the airport by ironforge and never able to reach it.

    @Keen what was also great about the apartments was you can set them for anyone to enter them to look around or give a friend or family member you knew in game to move stuff around and add items.

    Do to these features I just did not care if the apartments were instanced as I did more so with the Raid and dungeons and major cities being instanced.

    You would think WoW would add that to the game but, no….

  • The cities in Rift sadly only look good from far away. Once inside, it’s not a city, but rather a sort of giant war camp. You don’t feel like it’s a place where people are living, eating, sleeping.

    The cities in UO were “living” cities.
    The cities in WoW feel like “living” cities.
    Bree in LOTRO feels like a city, even if there are a bit too many fake movie prop buildings in it. The hobbit villages are just amazing.
    Hell, even in Age of Conan, the capital city feels like a city.
    Vanguard was good with cities, too.
    But not Rift.

    Also, in Rift, most building on the landscape, including villages, can not be entered and explored, making them a little more than fake movie props. As I said above, it’s a “problem” LOTRO also has, but LOTRO still does it better.

    It’s just another good looking “counterstrike” MMO, not a MMORPG. Even WoW is more of an MMORPG than that.