Being a Place Matters

A number of bloggers, including myself, have ragged on Age of Conan for the extensive use of zoning and instancing. Too much use of these design elements leaves you with the feeling of the “world” being merely a series of rooms connected by jumps rather than the impression of a contiguous world. In a word, it doesn’t feel like a “place.”

I got waylaid this (U.S. 3-day holiday) weekend by a last minute work project and got almost no decent gaming in, but I made time to soak up some of the Mars Phoenix mission events. Being a total space dork, how could I not? One of my earliest memories was watching Neil Armstrong step on to the surface of the Moon.

The images returned of the Moon returned by the Apollo program transformed the Moon in people’s consciousness from being effectively a 2d small floating disk to a bona fide three dimensional world of its own. As Carl Sagan would say, the Moon became a “place.” A place where we could imagine that we could go and explore and see ourselves walking over a distant horizon.

A similar transformation occurred in 1976 when the Viking missions successfully landed on Mars and began returning pictures like these:

I’d been to places like that. I could see myself in that landscape and wanted more than anything to sprint off toward the horizon to see what was over that next ridge or hill. For me Mars became a “place”. Even though the Viking landers were totally stationary, they managed to convey the impression of a complete new world. Not bad with just a few static images.

Seeing the latest today from the Mars HIRISE observer, those feelings are rekindled. This is my new favorite picture (the first of a spacecraft in the process of landing on another world). Click for the full width shot. Its really breathtaking.

With images like this, Mars is more than a place. More importantly, space travel and planetary exploration is made more real in our minds. We’ve seen the NASA animations about how these landings are supposed to look, but we’ve never seen them happening until now. I can almost see the lander drifting across the Martian landscape in its last few minutes of descent not unlike so many other similar images or scenes we’ve actually witnessed back here on Earth. Its like we were there.

No human has yet visited Mars, so these images in effect create merely a virtual Mars in our collective minds (like the virtual Moon). With each new mission and new set of images brought back, the impression is created that Mars as a world has become larger and more unbounded. Its an illusion, but a compelling one.

To create a compelling game world, for me at least, the designers have to similarly stitch together their resources to create that illusion. Simply having zoning doesn’t mean that’s broken. In EQ, zoning, while a necessary evil, didn’t seem to break the illusion of a continuous world. A few seams, maybe, but if you’ve ever stitched a few side by side vacation snapshots together to create a panorama, you know that the resultant composite image says so much more than the individual ones that the borders between pictures don’t really matter. They match up, there’s a small hiccup going from one to another, but leaving from the left of one, you enter from the right of the next.

Even with zoning, EQ was able to create that sense of place which persists into EQ2. Likewise, environments like WoW and LotRO’s seamless outdoor worlds are indeed places in my mind. I never got that impression from games like PotBS and certainly didn’t from AoC. I felt boxed in like there was no horizon over which to travel. Neither in my mind’s eye, nor in the game did I ever get that same feeling I get just by looking at those few pictures from Mars.

3 thoughts on “Being a Place Matters”

  1. I’m still not out of Tortage in Live Test (yes, it’s still up!) mainly because I just can’t bring myself to want to play the game much in its current stages.

    However, what I saw of EQ2 was quite disjointed; the zones never seemed to create a cohesive world, they just seemed patch-worked together and never really had any sense of relationship to each other.

    I’m sick to death of all the zones that make up the Tortage Experience but even then, I’m able to immerse myself in the world, loading screens and all. I prefer the feel of an open world even though I fully realize the same thing is happening: I enter a new zone and all my chat channels change, I’m still being separated from “the world” and localized to my current zone, it was just done without a loading screen. I also play Guild Wars and DDO (though I don’t think DDO was ever intended to have an immersive “world”) and I can really get into those as well. Especially GW with its story and, unlike EQ2, each zone does relate to the previous one to form a cohesive world.

  2. I too struggle to get immersed in the world of AoC. The loading screens are one thing that prevent immersion, but also the fact that you skit around the world so much, you never feel like you’re in one place. One minute I could be in the mountains of Cimmeria, next in the desert of Stygia. It doesn’t feel coherent, and as a result, I don’t feel immersed when I play.

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