Jonathan Steinhauer's MMO Column
Steinhauer's Opinion: The Dangerous Wilderness, Part 2

Jonathan Steinhauer | 28 Apr 2008 13:48
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Editor's Note: For part one of this article, check out The Dangerous Wilderness, Part 1

Last time we began looking at the enormous populations of aggressive beasts and monsters that populate the wild lands of most MMOs. Of lesser importance is the gross disproportion of carnivorous creatures to herbivores that create a completely unrealistic environment. More significant is what this says about intended game play: character growth is achieved through camping ground spawns. This problem seems to be growing worse over time. In first generation MMOs like Asheron's Call, ground spawns were moderate in most parts of the world, but in newer games such as WoW and LOTRO you can't throw a rock without hitting half a dozen monsters. If online gaming is about cutting a bloody path through the wilderness, wouldn't it be simpler to just play a random number generator?

The easiest solution, though it avoids the root of the problem, is to disperse the ground spawns to a more realistic population level. There are areas where one would expect to encounter monsters, and that is where the heavy concentrations should be. Hard core hunting should occur in the fortresses and camps of the various villains, monsters, and animals that are the bane of the adventurer, not every time you step off the path. This opens up the wilderness for travel and casual hunting while giving players the kind of combat that exist in epic stories: battle in the lairs.

There is one exception to this solution that I should note. The "Rite of Passage" I most enjoyed while playing Asheron's Call was the Dires run. In the early days of the game, there were no portal routes or ties within the Dires so only veteran (or very cunning) players could make the long journey across these dangerous lands to reach the outpost of Ayan Baqur on the far side. I failed my first attempt, but was filled with the thrill of accomplishment when I finally made it. Unfortunately, this gauntlet was later nerfed when a portal tie was placed just outside the town. The elite run concept here is a very cool one, but should be applied sparingly. In games where every wilderness is a teeming hive of monsters, running the gauntlet looses all meaning.

The deeper solution to the dangerous wilds is to shift the focus for leveling and character growth away from simple slaughter to other types of quests. I say "other types" because many quests these days consist of killing ten goblins or collecting the carcasses of twenty wolves. This amounts essentially to the same thing as camping. There are other ways to implement quests (and many of these are used currently), such as retrieving an item from an enemy camp or fighting through a monster fortress to take down a boss. These types involve killing monsters too, but the rampant slaughter is not the target of the quest (though it does provide incidental experience and gamers may return to a dungeon just to hunt). The focus is turned away from random wilderness spawns and into the heart of the enemy lair.

Most games do have heavily populated fortresses and caves, but as they currently stand, the population density is hardly more than the wilds themselves. By shifting the focus from the wilderness, there is also a shift from hunting to the lairs as well. This can have the side effect of players overcamping dungeons. I vividly recall this problem from AC's Lugian Citadels and Black Spawn Dens where kill stealing and depopulated fortresses were the orders of the day. The solution to this problem is through the use of instances. LOTRO uses this methodology in many of their quests, but I would argue that it should be implemented in standard fortresses and lairs as well. That way there are plenty of monsters for everyone and players can experience the true challenge and danger of infiltrating an enemy castle instead of just following in the wake of other players' slaughter.

Essentially the problem with wilderness spawns is of two parts, cosmetic and game play. I'm not arguing for an empty landscape, but when the wilds have almost as heavy a concentration of carnivorous beasts as a cave does, one wonders what would motivate players to truly explore the fortifications of the enemy. Shifting the focus back to lairs places the real challenge where one would expect to find it and allows for a dispersion of the wilderness to more casual play and exploration.

Next time we will look at a topic closely tied to this one... the Long Road.

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