A Room with a View

I’ve been wondering lately about how to handle scope and scale in a PW. This is related to things like zoning and seamless worlds. Developers on the forums for various engines constantly ask for seamless worlds. Players also often ask for them. Three things strike me:

  1. Most of the large worlds that have actually implemented them serve as cautionary examples. The great big, seamless world may seem like a nice bullet point for the marketing list, but it is not possible to actually fill that space with content. So the content in the interconnecting regions becomes procedural. Procedural turns the countryside into flyover territory. Our community and indy worlds are SMALL. There is no way that a group of hobbyists working in their spare time can ever produce the kind of content to even contemplate large, seamless worlds.
  2. Indy and community teams are beggars rather than choosers when it comes to engines. We hobbyists/indies are not using Hero or Unreal3 with Umbra. We are using things like Realm Crafter, Torque and Unity. We might use an OGRE 3D based engine that supports paging or they might be running an older version of Torque, such as TGEA. Neither of these is problem free and Garage Games has even removed the paged Atlas terrain from its new Torque 3D version due to the numerous problems it caused. Then the whole issue of resource allocation on the server creeps up.
  3. Zoned worlds create a hybrid nodal/coordinate based geography. With coordinate based geography, if I want to travel from the desert to the polar icecap, I’d have to traverse transitionary terrain in between; that is if the designer does not want to break the magic circle and provides a sensible transition from the hot, sandy desert to the frozen wastes. In a nodal system, distance is in arbitrary steps and I can simply ignore that transition zone. You leave the desert and enter the arctic. Zone based systems are locally coordinate based and globally nodal. If fact, you can even do seemingly “impossible” things like having Narnia inside a closet via a zone transition.

But… seamless – or at least very large – worlds have certain advantages, not least for the economy. If currency has mass and there is no universal banking, distance starts to matter. If distance matters, the price of “nice Chianti” won’t be the same in Bangalore as in Tuscany. (in fact, it is about four times as much) That jump between the desert and icecap that takes only as long as a load screen means that it is not hard to bring polar bear furs to the bazaar in the desert and that scorpion venom can easily be delivered to the ice lands. Nothing is rare and everywhere is local. Might there be a way to gain the advantages of large, seamless worlds, while keeping the advantages of a global nodal geography and staying within the small, zoned paradigm that hobbyists and indies have to live with? Here is something that might be worth experimenting with:

  • Use a few large zones.
  • Reduce the movement rate of characters to something sane. Seriously, using the “default” run in many game engines translates to simulated speeds that are only achievable with motorized transport in real life. Dropping the rates to something that humans can actually achieve makes a 4km x 4km zone take 45 minutes to traverse at a walk and half that at a trot.

These two things already go against the grain. There is increasing emphasis on convenience these days and physically slowing players down is anything but convenient. We are designing for immersion however. Now comes the potentially controversial bit… If two zones are very distant from one another, impose a time cost in travelling there. We have two ways of doing this:

  1. Incommunicado – If it takes two in-game days to traverse the forty miles that are supposedly between zone A and zone B and the in-game clock runs at 6x real world clock speed, then that character is underway for 8 hours. The key is that it takes real time to travel between zones. If you want to haul your goods to a distant market, you’ll have to accept that your character will be travelling and unavailable for the better part of a workday. If you want to meet your friends for a run on the evening, everyone will have to plan ahead and send their characters to the meeting point ahead of time.
  2. Hybrid Text/Graphical – We need not put the character incommunicado during the transit time. We can implement text zones in between the large graphical zones. On text MUDS, the nodes that are called zones in most MMOs and (and areas in NWN) are called rooms. The character could still be available via persistent worlds’ web page or game client in a series of transit nodes. If the travel is automatic, characters can still be accessed, managed, checked on and even re-directed. If it is manual, then the player traverses a series of text rooms.

Has anyone ever built a hybrid text/graphical world?

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About Dave

I’m a 38 year old American who has lived the past 9 years in Germany and India.
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