Sunday, June 3, 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.

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