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A Contiguous World

by Natalia

I would like to discuss a subject that I think many players gripe about, including myself. It has been one of the big complaints I have about most games. Most of my reviews mention it as a negative about the game. The review format does not lend itself to a complete explanation of why this reduces my enjoyment of playing a particular game. The topic I'm referring to is the lack of contiguous worlds. It has been referred to as "dense maps" as well.
An Australian Lizard

Flora and Fauna, no no! Don't eat that!

For the most part (there are always exceptions), muds tend to have worlds that don't make a lot of geographical or consistent sense. You can move from city to a town populated by an aggressive race to a swamp to a tundra. The flora and fauna change instantly as you move from one area or zone to another. Often there is a sign indicating that you have moved into a new part of the game, who developed it, and so forth ("Welcome to Area XYZ for Mud ABC by Natalia. Watch out for that last step... it's a doozy. Levels: 5 - 45.").

This is obviously quite a bit different than those social games where many players build and create their own environment and share it with each other, with or without the direction from the game owners. My main focus in this article, then, is on the standard mud, probably DIKU-based, maybe hack-n-slash, especially those that encourage role playing.

I'd like to promote another avenue for how we as game owners and designers can improve the gaming world environment. A move back towards being Game Masters instead of Law Enforcers is one I hope that will let us enjoy our creations again.

A Standard World

So what makes up a standard game world? Typically it is a number of areas (or zones) linked together directly. These zones often actually overlap each other if you were to map the complete world, but they don't appear to do so when you are playing the game (that is, you cannot easily move between zones that are actually laying on top of each other). The ability to walk north one and move from a sunny, spring day on a plain to that of a frozen waste is quite unbelievable.

The worlds we spend so much time playing online have some fairly obvious problems with them. We as players realize that the world is just make-believe. It makes it hard to suspend our disbelief and really enjoy "being somewhere else" when the world does not make sense unto itself and has a lack of consistency. I don't mean that we have to make our game worlds realistic. Instead, I want the world that we walk around in to be designed like a real world.

Defining the Problem

So I ask: why do we almost universally have disjointed worlds with areas that don't make sense?

There is an obvious answer: most code bases come with a default set of areas included to "get you started". Unfortunately, many games put their game online and then focus on neat changes to the code, forgetting about the world. I wrote about this before: it's a lot more fun for most administrators to make code changes than it is to grind out really well-written areas.

When time is spent on the world you get one of two main actions: (1) revisions of existing areas to change names and modify the equipment or (2) addition of new areas that are just thrown into the morass anywhere that is convenient ("just link that new zone off the north end of zone xyz... it doesn't matter if it makes sense, but we need another low-level zone close to the home town").

Return to our Game Master Roots

The world that a good Game Master designs for standard paper-and-pencil role playing (fantasy, science fiction, wild west, alternative worlds, etc.) is rich in history and context. There may be parts of the world that "don't make sense" in comparison to other areas, but these are almost always explained by legend or science (an old war area that affected the soil dramatically, or wild magic zones, or interesting areas where time and space collide). These are an exception, however, to the main world and are consistent within the design of the geographical world. As a player in this world you have the freedom of direction, only limited by actual physical barriers of the landscape or by fortifications (e.g. cities, space ports, giant walls).

Why can't we do the same thing for our online role playing games? Obviously we can. It has been done quite nicely by a handful of games that I have played or heard about. The world is built as a dense map with no obvious markers indicating that you have moved from one zone to another. You have the ability to move any direction in the wilderness, only stopping when you hit a river or a cliff or the ocean or some other impassable entity. Cities take up an appropriate amount of space: you don't want to cut through the city? Fine, walk around it. You'll find that the distance you walk is the same as the distance down main street.

Suggestions Towards a Dense Map

Designing a world with a dense map has the obvious advantage that many, many players love exploring new areas. Our game codes are often so similar to each other that one of the few reasons a player chooses to play one game versus another is the world environment he or she is playing in. (Note: the obvious other reason is the number of players on the game at the same time and the attitude that those players have.)

You have more freedom to get to a dense map if your game is not yet online: nobody will be upset if you remove an area that the players know gives them a whole slew of gold or that easy-to-find ring of +10 constitution. Even if you're game has been online for some time, there are plenty of ways to ease into a completely unique, planned, and custom built world.

World Design Steps

The following list are steps that have been useful to me in getting to the point of building a world from scratch. A lot of the technical aspects of building particular zones will depend on what code base you are using, of course, but the ideas leading up to it are pretty much the same.

  1. Before anything else is done you need to decide what kind of world you want. Will you have multiple races? How many continents do you want? Are there oceans or just lots of lakes or is this a desert world? Are there mountains separating two major countries? Do you plan on having ice caps that players can visit? Is the whole world really just one large city? Is the world a series of islands? The questions obviously are endless here. If you are completely overwhelmed with the decision, base your world on one designed by your favorite author. Surprisingly, authors do spend a lot of time thinking about the world they are writing about.

  2. Having decided those major world ideas, create a map of the world on paper. This doesn't have to be done on graph paper, although obviously it helps later. What about scale? Many online games have between 5,000 and 10,000 actual "rooms". Many of the games that I have played that did have a dense map were well below the lower end of this scale to start with (it really can take some time to cross a forest that is only 20 rooms wide but filled with all sorts of wild animals and perhaps some secret rooms). Remember that it takes time to build these areas. Don't start so large that the world will not ever be built because you burn out and are overwhelmed with a lofty design.

  3. If you are developing a game that is not yet online, strip out all of the zones. If you are using a DIKU-based code base you might have to remove the coding that refers explicitly to objects in those zones, or keep one zone that contains all of them. It's much easier to start from scratch if you can!

  4. Start building the world based on your map. It will obviously change as you put it together, but the more detailed your map was the faster this will go. If you already have a game online, create this new world and areas in a separate part of the game. Depending on your player base you could do it all at once ("Surprise! The world is completely new.") or gradually by adding your new world at one edge to the "edge" of the existing world. In a game I ran many (ack) years ago, this is the route we took. The game was online and the players were happy with it: we added a new starting town and let it connect to the stock world. Then our world was built up around this town, edging the old zones further away. As we built areas suitable for particular skill-levels, we removed the stock zones. Nobody complained -- they were excited to have new, original areas to play in.

Example Games

Some examples of games that have well-written and conceived worlds with dense maps will probably help with both inspiring ideas for your own world and showing that I'm not suggesting an impossible task. Please bear in mind that this list is based on my own personal experience or those that I have heard about recently. It is obviously not a complete list.

End Game

A contiguous map is a good thing. Even moving in that direction (no pun intended) is a good thing and will please both you and your players.