What Is World?
One of the things that always attracts me to the MMORPG genre is the concept of the virtual world. To log on and exist as a digital representation of oneself in a completely fictitious yet vibrant and functioning world is probably as close a thing as we’re going to come to virtual reality any time soon. The first time you wander around a city and encounter a group of players dancing for absolutely no reason, bump into someone wearing awesome gear you’ve never seen before or accidentally overhear a couple cybering in a quiet alleyway make you really appreciate the hidden gems of the eccentric world you now inhabit. These small encounters create a sense of randomness, a sense of freedom and, probably most importantly, a sense of virtual community.
Defining The World
Trying to define what a virtual world is though is pretty tricky (at least it is for me) and figuring out what makes them tick and how they create their illusion of immersion even more so. We’d all pretty much agree that most MMOs try to offer a complete world whilst other types of games don’t. Multiplayer Diablo doesn’t take place in a virtual world, it takes place in a chat room with quick games launching from it. Same for Starcraft or Quake or Street Fighter or a dozen other games. What makes them different from MMO worlds though? The area of interaction may be smaller but it’s still a virtual realm that you inhabit with your avatar even if just for a few brief moments.
I think there are several elements to making a MMO world feel like one. Attention to detail is a no brainer – those little bunny rabbits that run in front of you only to get zapped by a magic lighting bolt, the weather system that causes it to rain unexpectantly, the day and night cycles, all of these things contribute to making a lifeless set of polygons and vectors seem like another planet. Random encounters with other players is another one – seeing a mad Orc dancing, someone riding past on a stallion, or best of all some mysterious and silent champion leaping into the thick of battle to save you from certain death at the hands of those pesky Gnolls. That is world.
A big factor contribuing to me personally buying into a virtual world is the design of the zoning system. I truly adore (and deeply admire) the fact that one can travel around vast areas of land in World of Warcraft without ever having to see a jarring loading screen. Seeing landscape change beneath you as your fly above it is really a marvelous feat of technology and creates the ultimate sense of existing in another plain. Contrast that to a game like Warhammer Online which utilises a lot of small zones and gated landscapes, making me painfully aware at all times that I was just playing a video game. I don’t think gamers want to know about zones or instances of zones (I never liked the idea of multiple instances of overhead zones in EQ2 or AoC) because it only serves to make a game feel like a glorified chat room.
Newer technology like phasing is very interesting because it allows players to potentially see two completely different things happening on their screen at the same time. I appreciate the fact that this sort of thing helps create a more personalised story and removes a lot of frustration but wonder how it affects the concept of the virtual world. Used in small measures it’s a nice gameplay device but if it was used excessively and permanently, it could create a severe split in our concept of MMO reality. The village exists for me, it’s burned to the ground for you, do we both still inhabit the same world or have we ventured into the crazy territory of multiple dimensions? I’m sure Stephen Hawking’s would love it; for me, too confusing.
I think the concept of what constitutes, comprises and defines virtual worlds is going to alter more and more over the years in MMOs as technology progresses. We’ve already seen uses of zoning, instancing, gigantic uninterrupted sprawling worlds, single servers, and phasing with plenty more to come, including what looks to be some interesting technology in Guild Wars 2. I’m sure all of this is just the tip of the iceberg as designers and developers look to explore new ways to immerse us. The tricky thing will always be trying to balance the stories of the individuals with consequence, impact and permanency on the virtual world for everyone else to see. No doubt some attempts will fail and some will succeed but, either way, it’s going to be an exciting future for sure.