The world is so empty if one thinks only of mountains, rivers and cities.

From a PC Gamer article:

“Firefall’s world is made to be explored: there are few limits to where you can go. It’s an MMO built for those who see distant waterfalls, shadowy peaks and crashed ships and want to know if anything’s over there. Right now, in the early beta, there isn’t, much, but there’s enough to get an impression.”

Is it only me who wants to find something when I get there?

It’s one of those MMO development tropes which really bugs me: make vast swathes of landscape, slap a couple of vista viewing stations with suitable landmarks in the distance, and call it done. Then pop a fly-by on YouTube, preferably with a rousing soundtrack

Dun dun dun DUN DUN DUN “Here are some hills! Have you ever seen hills like these in any other MMO?” dun dun dum de dun DUN dum dun DUN dun de dun DUN “Here are some houses! In a village! AMAZING!” dun dum de dum de dum DUM DUN DE DUN “Now here’s a forest! Bet you weren’t expecting THAT! Look at the Speed Tree optimisation on those babies! A forest! A forest! Just like every other! But this one is ours!” dun dun dun dun DUN DUM DUNNNNNNNNNN DUN DUN DUNNNNNNNNNNNN “Uh oh, here comes a fortress! WITH RAMPARTS! AND BAD GUYS!” OoooooOO! OOooooOO!

and call it done. Best. MMO. Ever. Hmmm? What do you do in this landscape? Well, there are some mobs scattered about. They stand there, staring longingly off into the distance, perhaps wondering if there’s anything interesting at the top of that cliff (there isn’t, we just thought a cliff would be cool), and you can, uh, run up to them and kill them and, y’know stuff. It’s details, we’ll sort that out later. Just enjoy the AMAZING landscapes for now. Bet you haven’t seen a landscape in an MMO before!

Like many MMOs before it, Tera was terrible for this (have we all done the Terable pun in our minds? Yes? Okay, good, let’s move on). The game was stunning to look at, breathtaking, but it was all stage dressing. There’s the occasional Kodak moment, where you are compelled to halt your grind momentarily, stare in wonder, and possibly line up a screenshot, but that’s all there is to it. I rarely think “I should go and explore over there” in an MMO, because I know that ‘over there’ will provide a disappointingly desolate experience, akin to looking behind the stage dressing and seeing the ropes and pulleys holding the set together.

I can’t see the point in making a virtual world to explore if there’s nothing to discover but scenery – I already live in a world with awe-inspiring panoramas, so what a virtual world should provide is the suspense, adventure and danger which I cannot find in this world, or do not wish to risk my life experiencing. When you say your world is made to explore, give me something more to discover than waterfalls and windmills.

Skyrim’s environments were impressive, both beautiful and accessible, but I wouldn’t have spent as many hours as I did wandering through them for the sake of the scenery alone, it was the jeopardy and adversity which I found along the way that kept me exploring. It was that association of adventure with both exploration and environment which made the experience so complete – locations and landmarks became significant because of what happened to my character there, no longer a simple part of the game’s world, they became an intrinsic part of my character’s world. It seems a simple rule, but one which is rarely followed in the MMO genre: make a game’s world the backdrop for adventure, don’t make adventure the backdrop for a game’s world.

15 thoughts on “The world is so empty if one thinks only of mountains, rivers and cities.

  1. Helistar

    The only game where I did exploring for exploring’s sake was Ryzom. I could also add that it was because the rest of the gameplay left a lot to be desired….

    BTW, answering your question: “Is it only me who wants to find something when I get there?”, the problem is I would be SCARED of what I find there!

    a) texture alignment bug. I already fell through a crack in the world, to my death, of course.
    b) procedurally generated environment, which ends up being identical to all the rest of the procedurally generated environment I already visited.
    c) a NPC giving me a quest.
    d) same as above, and the quest involves killing ten rats.
    e) same as above, and the ten rats are in the same city I started my trip from.
    f) same as above, and there’s no TP/recall, so it’s a 1h trip to the rats and 1h trip back.

    Hmmm, thinking of it, option a) may end up being the best….

  2. Telwyn

    I’m the same, if I see something on the horizon I want to be able to get there and see it up close. Many WoW-style MMOs cheat with painted backgrounds that you can never reach. Other games block you from exploring (usually via unclimbable cliffs). I’ve been playing Vanguard a lot of late and it’s very exploration-friendly so long as you don’t mind running from the monsters you encounter which are way above your level when you get to said mountain/tower etc.

  3. Melmoth Post author

    I’ve always read that about Vanguard. But when you reach that place, is there anything there other than a few mobstacles standing around? That’s what gets to me: it would be nice if there were, more often than not, something to do or discover once I got there.

    Skyrim was –as I keep banging on about on the blog– really rather good in this regard. More often than not you’d discover something to do when you explored in Skyrim; a dungeon to delve; an NPC in need of help; a ruin which had a jumping puzzle required to enter; an ancient forge that could be used to craft magical weapons; a bandit den; an abandoned wagon train; and on and on.

    For most of the MMOs that I’ve played in recent times, if I’ve even been allowed to get to an out of the way landmark, there’s either nothing there, or a bunch of generic mobs standing around waiting to be butchered.

    It’s depressing, the number of ruins I’ve explored in fantasy MMOs, where exploration involves slowly killing my way around the place, with every second yard of space occupied by a generic mobstacle, and where I find nothing at all at the end of it. No treasure, no artefacts, no mural of ancient lore, no explanation for why this group of mobstacles had set up camp here. It was just a landscape feature that someone thought would look atmospheric, sat on top of a hill, where nobody would be likely to go because the choo-choo questing train did not call at that particular station.

  4. Pardoz

    This is something I rather enjoyed while playing a beta weekend of a game that can’t be named (it’s a secret) – wandering off the beaten path was likely to result in discovering…well, something. A half-eaten policeman’s corpse, or a dropped smartphone, or an ancient Akkadian idol being used in dire summonings. Sure, the resulting quest was likely to be fairly standard (find and kill the policeman-eater, return the phone to the geek who’d lost it, blow up the idol and surrounding cultists), but it provided an additional reason to explore and poke into every corner of the map, rather than running from floating punctuation mark to floating punctuation mark.

  5. Melmoth Post author

    Ah, the game which tries to ellicit a san check through its character model design. I admire their dedication to the cause.

    I heard that a recent patch improved the combat, so I’m still hopeful that before release they’ll squeeze another one in for the character models and animations.

  6. SKapusniak

    Skyrim is great at creating the illusion that a bunch of stuff has been going on at any location before you turn up, that every random insignificant place has a history that you just walked in on, down to a very fine grained level, a history that isn’t about you or your quest. Morrowind had that too, whilst Oblivion didn’t really manage to pull it off (at least for me).

    Of the MMOs I’ve played only LoTRO seems to sometimes be able to manage to do it. And it makes sense that it would, with all that backstory and lore available. But even given that, sometimes it fails to pull the illustion off.

    I think there’s a density thing involved. It’s not enough to have a thought out a backstory for a zone or an area, you need to have one for each indvidual bandit, each bloodstain, each rock, each plank, fork, knife, and wheel of cheese. You’ve got spread that implied story on really thick, in multiple layers, and not ever let it wear thin.

    It probably helps the Elder Scrolls games that their forks, knives and wheels of cheese are coded as individual moveable objects, and makes things more difficult for the MMORPGs that they can’t really do that.

  7. Pardoz

    @Melmoth – the very one. Much as I’m a slave to character models, and while I’ve sacrificed a dozen New Englanders propitiating Shub-Internet for better animations, once I got into the flow of things I stopped being so bothered by the fact that my character was a resident of Uncanny Valley who walked through eldritch non-Euclidean geometries.

    Quests that involve Deus Ex-style “sneak past the security cameras and mug the guard for a uniform” infiltration? Puzzles that rely on knowledge of Latin or 17th century Dutch painters rather than on gathering 15 wolf fewmets or 11 boar testicles (undamaged left testicles only, please)? Sold.

  8. Vic Sandman

    @SKapusniak, I do believe that The Elder Scrolls Online may quite possibly provide what you’re looking for. The games have a rich, well-developed lore, great mechanics, and the excruciating level of detail that allows a player to pick up every single item they find, from bowls to shrubs to dragon teeth to weapons.

    I still haven’t sold my bowl collection.

  9. bhagpuss

    I’m fine with just scenery. One of my favorite single-player games is Google Street View. MMOs are the fantasy version.

  10. Melmoth Post author

    @SKapusniak: Another great game for creating that ‘illusion of a world being lived in’ was Red Dead Redemption, I should definitely reference that one more often. Thanks for prompting my ailing brain into remembering that one.

    @Pardoz: The puzzle gaming elements do sound most splendid, my one concern is that there will still be a heck of a lot of combat, and that the last time I saw, combat was pretty clunky. That and the fact that I’ve lost all faith in Funcom after experiencing several of its release-day MMOs. Two! My two concerns ar… I’ll come in again.

    I think that one will be a Van Hemlock Three Month Rule game for me; I do want to try it, but I think I’ll give them a month or two post-release to really fix things up.

    @Vic Sandman: Strangely, everything I’ve heard about TESO makes me think they’re going to simply add another game to the WoWpack, and are steering as far away from a Skyrim-style game as possible. Which is deeply disappointing.

    Not to mention the game’s abbreviation is a little too close to a certain major supermarket brand here in the UK, and I keep wanting to add ‘Every little helps’ at the end of each of their developer diaries.

    @bhagpuss: Have you tried Rift? If so, how did you find it? If not, it has whack-a-mole combat combined with very pretty scenery, definitely sounds like it could be your sort of game.

  11. SKapusniak

    @Vic Sandman, @Melmoth: As I said somewhere else, TES:O gives me the impression that it’s the culmination of Zenimax’s long term plan A for survival in this future of flying cars, humanoid household robots, and the triumph of world Communism.

    …Only they’ve gone done and fallen down the wrong trouser leg of time, and now they’ve got to sell this thing they’ve made in a clearly infeasible and unrealistic timeline filled with iphones, the triumph of oligarchical capitalism, and blockbuster single player Elder Scrolls games of an immensity beyond even Todd Howard’s wildest dreams of hype.

    Actually the whole TES:O thing would be sort of amusing if I wasn’t an antisocial git who prefers my big world RPGy exploration games single-player, and only plays MMOs as the closest (poor) substitute generally available.

    /em shakes fist of anger in the direction of Ultima Online

  12. Pardoz

    @Melmoth – Yep, given their track record waiting a month or two is a quite sane approach. For what it’s worth, I had the same impression (CLONKCLONK) of combat from watching videos, but didn’t feel it in play, being too busy running around dodging attacks and not having MY FACE EATEN BY ZOMBIES! to really focus on the quality of the animations. Your zombie face-eating experience may vary.

  13. Syl

    I have a soft spot for scenery, but of course longterm an MMO needs more to be absorbing. this is why ideally a game has both the Skyrim looks but also “things to do” and dangers on the way. I commented somewhere else today “give me Minecraft over Tera any day of the week” – because graphics and nice maps aren’t all that. but…how awesome would it be to have a Minecraft that looked like Tera? meaning, an open world full of player created content that also looked great?
    you can’t beat this, not even with a game that has lots of chance encounters, nice quests or events written into it. the future is back to player creativity imo.

  14. Melmoth Post author

    I think Wurm Online is possibly somewhere in-between Minecraft and Tera, I really should check it out some time.

    Having never played it, I’m not sure how much there is to do in Wurm outside of building a hamlet. However, I certainly agree that a game with Skyrim’s landscape and adventure, and Wurm’s player-created content, could be most splendid indeed.

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