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What happened to open-world MMOs?

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Can you imagine a real world where you were driving between the borders of Arizona to California and your vision was interrupted by a “Loading.. Please wait” image?

TALK ABOUT RUINING the immersion of this ‘real world’, right?

The following ‘complaint’ was logged on Joystiq’s gaming web site about the current user frustration of these rude load screens which ruin the immersive effect in so many of the existing MMORPG video games.

It would seem developers aren’t even TRYING nowadays to mitigate this problem.

SO how do YOU as a developer implement this enigmatic thing called an open world?

The current ‘trend’ seems to be by creating servers which ‘house’ geographical assets and player real time positions ‘in game’.

For a real life analogy, it’s like having a single server containing JUST California’s Information. AND another containing all of Arizona’s information.

SO IN GAME for this type of setup – when the player moves to another area (referred to as a ‘zone), then communication between those servers is established – and ‘passes you off’ to the other system.

For instance. Let’s say your driving from California to Arizona.

And the border patrol stops you at the border, as they call ahead to the other border patrol agents – and say “Joe Smith is heading your way”.

Meanwhile. You’re caught in a loading screen. Known as a line at border patrol.

Or immigration if you’re coming from another country…

Now these individual server systems contain player locational information in relation to other players, and typically serves to contain ‘map’ information and player information.

These servers are also directly communicated with by ‘Gods’ and/or ‘In game guides’ – there’s a infinite number of different references to these advisors and in game helpers … Who are there to ‘help you’ should you get ‘caught in scenery’ (a frequent occurrence for some games), or simply fraternize with you (they’re rarely flashy, and more often serve to help or ‘tease’ the player).

Sometimes these entities create dynamic ‘events’ which make life on these sometimes dull systems seem a little less dreary. Sometimes these entities simply kick back and watch what you’re doing. Sometimes they ‘show off’ what they can do by insta-killing a mob or showing you an area you’d never seen before that only they (currently) have access to..

It’s purely situational.

In any case. The beauty about this ‘zoned’ design is it’s VERY easy to maintain and preserve administrative access and keep rigorous authentication on your players and your admin staff.

PARTICULARLY if you like to, as a gaming company, recruit players or specific personalities and people to act as these in game guides, Gods – or whatever you want to refer to them as.

THE PROBLEM it presents is simple: WITH nothing but loading screens between zones, you LOSE the effects of immersion.

Now loading screens can be replaced by real life routines such as ‘border patrol’ and immigration. or simply queues and lines – which does not ‘disrupt’ the immersion of the ‘real life’ experience, and would be a clever way to achieve immersion in-game as well if you wanted to maintain a ‘zoning’ strategy.

This works particularly well for zones which have a LOT of preloaded graphics and sounds.

But if you wanted to ‘seamlessly’ fly from one end of the world to another.

Or drive as fast as possible.

Or teleport instantaneously without load screens.

GOOD LUCK!

Antoher problem with the zoning strategy is: With HIGH DENSITY of PLAYERS in an area, lag starts to appear because of hardware limitations and simple limits of communications speed and reliability. THAT IS – the more people you get in a given area, the more you will see ‘sloppy graphics’ and hesitations as a player. KILLING THE IMMERSION EXPERIENCE.

Now companies like PWE (Perfect World Online) have attempted to resolve this issue through simply scaling up. Add another server – they refer to it as instancing.

But here’s the problem: THIS AGAIN blows immersion away.

How many times have you gone to meet a friend for dinner, and they claim they were there, yet they never showed? You waited for hours. And now you’re no longer friends?

Now in a video game, let’s say you both agreed to meet on planet Vulcan in Star Trek Online at 3pm. You wait and wait and wait.He never shows. You don’t bother picking up the Phone, and remain miffed for the rest of the day.

IN GAME – the VERY real explanation for this is simple: YOU BOTH were in the same location at the same time, but because of zone server instancing, it’s not unlikely there was simply too many people in that location at the same time, so PWE put another server online to handle ‘the load’.

So your location is being managed by one system, and he’s on completely another system.

Could this explain real life? 😉

Now Worlds of Warcraft leverages a magnificent system which is referred to as an OPEN WORLD DESIGN.

Leveraging a system that ‘scales’ by adding ‘cell towers, very similar to real life cell towers, the more people you get online in certain areas, the more cell towers you add.

This allows dynamic scaling, with servers (aka cell towers ) ‘popping online’ in locations to serve key areas.

A world map is contained BY ALL SERVERS.

The client contains ALL world asset information (graphics and sound).

THE ONLY Thing the servers do is contain and relay positiona and characterl information.

And while this system isn’t perfect.

It provides a far more interesting and immersive experience than zoning.

Which lets developers pay attention to consistency of the integrated environments.

A zoning approach works well for competition.

But sometimes you just gotta learn to get along and work with players (and their in game gods) to create a more fulfilling and dynamic experience for everyone involved.

You see. I don’t want to be God. Never wanted to.

I want to be Q. Like a God of my own perceptive realm.

Working with my environment and players to make OUR lives that much more entertaining!

Here’s a quick article on why:

(REPRINT From Joystiq.com’s editorial entry, here. MMORPG designers and developers, how do you implement an ‘open world?’ without zoning – look at my past blog entries on cell phone towers, and consider distribution of your servers in a similar fashion as you transition over “players” seamlessly within cell site locations.

For more info, read my editorial note at the end of this blog entry)

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A reader named Gabe emailed Massively last year with two questions (I’m getting through all the emails — I am!). I’ll address the second one eventually, but let’s do the first one today because it’s something I love to talk about: open-world MMOs.

What happened to “open world” MMOs? I grew up with giant world MMOs where you would almost never see a load screen. I remember spending countless hours running from end to end of continents exploring and trying to see what I could find. You would run into a city instead of loading a city. I don’t feel I am a part of a “world” anymore. After World of Warcraft, I played The Secret World, Star Trek Online, Neverwinter, and a few other closed-world MMOs, and it just pisses me off because I feel as if I am playing a single-player game with multiplayer options instead of a world I am a part of.

I think we’ve got two separate issues here: One’s about the literal meaning of open world, and the other’s about the feel.

First, I wish I knew which MMOs you grew up on before World of Warcraft. I stretched my brain backwards to EverQuest, the first 3-D MMORPG I played, and remember LOADING, PLEASE WAIT screens between every single zone wall and teleport death, even between city districts. Isometric Ultima Online before that was never perfectly open and seamless, either; you always had a wait period when casting recall or trying to zone into a dungeon. In fact, all of UO’s server boundaries were obvious since they lagged you as you crossed them, even when you didn’t face a formal frozen screen while loading.

And then there was Asheron’s Call, which tweaked EQ’s nose a bit with its claims about doing away with annoying loading screens but had its own problems — namely, the inefficiency of the giant rolling world helped MMO players appropriate the term “rubber-band lag” and still had plenty of loading time as you zoned into locations. In fact, the game handled player load so poorly that for many years Turbine’s solution to crowded cities was to randomly portal-storm excess players away from the city, making trade and PvP and monarchy meetings difficult and forcing the population to spread out rather than coalesce (a modern player can chime in here and tell me whether that was ever fixed!).

And really this is why I don’t need to keep rattling off how X, Y, and Z MMOs way back in the day did it because they all did their best and ran into technically insurmountable or financially irreconcilable problems, many of which are still problems today. Dividing a game into zones or subservers or whatever a studio is calling them really does make development easier in terms of graphical demand and player load, even if there is no formal loading screen — recall that many of SOE’s games make use of a handy trademark zig-zag corridor between open spaces and interiors so that players can’t see both at the same time. No MMO has ever perfected a truly open and loadless world. Heck, EVE Online, 11 years after launch, is still trying to solve the Asheron’s Call problem: how to jam a zillion people into a small space without lagging them all out. And EVE’s solution — degrading graphical representation to the point that everyone is a tiny dot — might get the job done, but it’s not exactly ideal. It’s not what we imagine when we think of an open world.

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Or is it? For a lot of folks, it’s not about the tech at all but about the feel of the game. EverQuest was the sum of big boxy zones with small doors between them, but it actually felt pretty open because of the size of the space and the scope of what you could do in it. Ultima Online was sectioned off into subservers that jerked you across the screen, but the overland areas and high seas encouraged exploration. Asheron’s Call had long roads between cities and you just never knew what sort of ruin you were going to find on the path from Shoushi to Lin. And some games feel more open all the time; WoW is a great example of a game that started out with rigid, EverQuest-style zone walls and has opened up with flying — so much that people now complain it’s too open!

I do understand your frustration, though, and to the extent that I love open worlds myself, I agree with you. There are definitely a lot of “lobby MMOs” floating around the genre now. Neverwinter is a keen example, but it’s one I’d overlook. Why? Because the technical structure fits the theme. It shouldn’t feel like a giant sprawling world; having zoned town areas and dungeons helps keep the game feel tightly controlled and almost claustrophobic in a way that enhances the atmosphere of what amounts to a dungeon-delver.

I wouldn’t want all games to be that way. In my heart of hearts, I just want to get on my BARC and zoom from one corner of Tatooine to the other and gape at the player cities along the way, with no loading pauses or physical walls to hinder me. But that doesn’t mean I don’t want to see other MMOs doing things a little differently. There’s plenty of space in the genre for both a Guild Wars 1 and a Wurm Online. Before this year, you had to broaden your horizons beyond AAA games and lower your expectations quite a bit to play an open-world MMO since most were old or poor. But this year? I think the industry is prepared again to give you what you’re looking for. With the year sandbox games are having, maybe all you need is a little bit of Landmark and ArcheAge in your MMO diet.

What should you play? Where is the MMO industry headed? How does Massively operate? Has Lord British lost his marbles? Why is the edit button on a timer? Should “monoclegate” be hyphenated? Editor-in-Chief Bree Royce submits to your interrogations right here in Ask Massively every other Friday. Drop your questions in the comments below or ping us at ask@massively.com. Just ask!

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