For the first time in well over a year, my roommate and I went on a geocache. We really haven’t been into it since we went geocaching in Menominee last summer and ended up with dozens of ticks on us. Overall it was a fairly successful cache in that we didn’t end up with weird ass bugs on us. At the end of the run though, we walked through the park and found an overlook out over the valley that this park was situated on a hill nearby. Looking out on the valley, I sat and wondered what it would look like without all the roads, and farms, and buildings, and people. What it would be like if it were still wild.
And while I sat there in wonder what it would be like, I did sit an awe at what I saw. And then that awe turned into disappointment. Not disappointment in what I stood in front of, but disappointment in what you see on a day to day basis in video games, in particular with MMOs. This inability to create such awe-inspiring areas without extremes is mind-boggling to me. Here I was on top of a large hill overlooking a small valley with a little stream in it and I got awe that I’ve never got near in an MMO. The sad thing is that MMOs are supposed to be re-creating worlds in a virtual sense, and yet this miniscule example of the real world just comjpletely trumps anything that has ever been built in a video game world.
Now don’t get me wrong, if I were to recreate that glade bit for bit, the video game wouldn’t have generated the same feeling as if you were actually standing there. But I think the more disappointing aspect of this is that there is the capability of video games to create really awe-inspiring landscapes largely because there is so much more that we can work with. After all if we are creating the world with magical phenomena, part of the landscape would then include this magic. And if the landscape included this magic then the landscape would be that much more amazing to foresee.
Yet we don’t have even the simplest of vistas to overlook. I think that Rise of Kunark expansion for EQ2 did far better than was in EQ2 ever before. There were some pretty cool overlooks. But thinking about it on a more realistic side of view it seems rather silly at the same time. These are completely artificial views (granted it is a game) that you can tell are completely forced. It is extremely rare in the real world that we would ever see sharply rising mountains out of the middle of plains like we see in Kylong Plains. Yet it isn’t uncommon in MMOs. You see it in Kylong, you see it in Fens, in Thundering Steppes, Butcherblock Mountains, etc. It is all over the place.
Like I said this is a mechanic that is artificial in these games. Mountains are mostly used as a way of dividing out land. This is especially important in zoned games. All games that rely on zones will generally have an increase in mountainous terrain and if there aren’t mountains, you’d better believe there will be water around so that you can’t traverse from one zone to another. (For all you WoWees out there, WoW is a zoned world too even if they do a better job of hiding it and you can see this in WoW as well). Yet even with all these mountains, it is odd that very rarely do you actually feel like you are in a mountain. (Kylong has a little bit that does, as does butcherblock, but that is all I can recall that feels mountainy). RoK did use these mountains a little better, again extremely to provide vistas and it had its moments because of this.
The ultimate problem here though is that the reason that this awe doesn’t occur largely has to do with scope. As I looked over this valley, I realized that just this small valley was really much larger than maybe 1/4 to 1/2 of the entirety of all the land that was in RoK. What these MMOs are really lacking is a large scope, and much of the reasoning for this is the need for “stuff” to be in it. Every little spot within any given bit of land must be chock full of something. Be it a tree, a monster, a quest item, a harvest node, etc. Something of some use must be everywhere so that no space is wasted giving us a virtual traffic clog of usefulness.
This jam of stuff gives the world a busy busy feeling that doesn’t necessarily need to be there. While I appreciate that I can’t walk 5 feet without hitting some random baddy to whack over the head with a big stick. I don’t really need it as much as they think. A big point of argument for why you need this to happen is Asheron’s Call, which had a random generator of spawns and locales in a wide open space which generally made the world feel empty and useless.
And yet, despite this, out of any games of the time, this game was most successful at creating vistas which is not surprising considering this is also one of the few games in the history of MMOs to have a zoneless world. What people fail to really bring into this argument is not that it was a bad idea to have a large world with vast open spaces. The argument should have been why they spent so little effort on crafting anything for this particular world besides the openness. The real problem with AC was that it was 99% random, and 1% crafted. The crafted portions of this world tended to be dungeons and towns, with very little other crafted areas the rest was completely randomly generated and placed.
I don’t think it is bad to randomize a large world, it saves a great amount of time and the devs of AC were in that situation where they needed to save a lot of time given that Turbine was a small firm at the time with little money. However, what they really needed was more interesting spots thrown in, more guidance for players to know where to go and how to get there in that big world, more ways to direct the eye, and more crafted events within the world. The idea wasn’t bad, they just didn’t have the ability to really execute it. That doesn’t necessarily mean it shouldn’t be tried again, AC2 wasn’t a bad attempt at this actually. They fixed a lot of the problems, they had vistas still, though obviously on a much smaller scale than AC1.
I don’t really know what the solution is. I’m not a big fan of the random amounts of monsters everywhere for no apparent reason whatsoever philosophy. I would much prefer to see a living breathing world. One that was big enough to have those awe-inspiring overlooks in a more natural way, and also that allowed for the animals to roam in herds and packs and move more freely throughout the world. And yet, it seems as each online world opens, we move further and further away from that dream of what a virtual world SHOULD be.