The State of the MMO: Building a World, Part 1

In the first part of an ongoing series, multiple MMOG developers dissect the creative effort that goes into building a persistent world.

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You might hear naysayers crowing that all massively multiplayer online role-playing games are just World of Warcraft clones, but in fact, there is a great deal of diversity in the genre. In 2012 alone, each popular MMOG's world has been notably different from the others--and for those looking to escape into an alternate digital universe, the uniqueness of the world can make all the difference.

In our first part of an ongoing series on MMOGs, we caught up with developers from five major studios and asked them to describe to us the joys and sorrows of building a persistent world. Fortunately, the majority of the studios in question weren't newcomers to the genre; they were standing on their own shoulders, using their previous experiences to inform subsequent projects. ArenaNet is one such studio--and their time working on the original Guild Wars went a long way towards what Guild Wars 2 would become.

Efficiency was a key factor, as it turns out. "I learned the importance to get any element into the game and playable as soon as possible from working on the original Guild Wars," says Guild Wars 2 lead level designer Steve Hwang. "This allows you to test new play concepts like dynamic events and allows you to iterate on them. For example, we prototyped the first dynamic events in GW1 and played them for several weeks. We learned what UI elements were needed to inform the player about the event, how chaining events would play out, and how difficulty was very dependent on player group size. We've been fighting centaurs in Queensdale for five years now."

Hwang's ArenaNet cohort, lead systems designer Mike Ferguson, learned similar lessons: iterate quickly, and attempt as many daring ideas as you can. "Our experience with working in very quick iteration cycles was absolutely critical in allowing us to try out all kinds of ideas and keep what worked well and change what didn't," he says. "We also learned that it was essential for us to try out ideas we really believed in instead of just settling for what works for everyone else. When our team really believes in a concept, we will do our best to find ways to make it work, no matter how hard (or crazy) it sounds initially."

LucasArts has a database called the Holocron. That is the final say on everything Star Wars related.

The Secret World wasn't Funcom's first online RPG, but the Norwegian studio didn't approach its world blindly: it had two previous games under its belt, as well as reams of tall tales to inspire their take on modern-day mythology. Says The Secret World creative cirector Ragnar Tornquist: "With Anarchy Online, we built a universe from scratch. While the story used Earth as a starting point, the rest was a blank slate. Rubi-Ka, its ecosystem and political structure, the myths and legends of an advanced far-future civilisation, the corporations vying for control of the galaxy--every detail had to be thought up and fleshed out. By the end of it, there was enough material to fill a whole novel."

As it turns out, Anarchy Online has more in common with The Secret World than initially meets the eye. "With The Secret World, we also began with Earth," says Tornquist, "but this time around, we stayed put. You'd probably think that would be easier than creating a universe from scratch, but that really wasn't the case. When you're basing your story and setting on the real world, on history and mythology, on things people have heard about, read about, or seen with their own eyes, you also have to make sure the details hold up to scrutiny."

Of course, world designers aren't limited just by their imaginations: multiple persistent world games are built on existing properties that inspire rabid fanboyism and excessive nitpicking. How can a developer hope to stay true to a license like Star Wars or The Lord of the Rings, while still exercising creativity and flexing your passions?

If you're Turbine Entertainment's Chris Pierson, you read, and you read, and you read.

"My primary reference [for The Lord of the Rings Online] is, of course, the core books (The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings), and Tolkien does a lot of thorough description, but you'd be surprised at what he doesn't describe. Try and draw the exterior of Theoden's hall of Meduseld based on the book, for instance. He spends more time describing the channel of water that runs alongside the road leading up to it. So we draw from other artists' interpretations--60 years after the books' publication, there's a fairly strong zeitgeist for many things in the world--as well as, in many cases, historical sources. Rohan, for instance, is extremely Dark Ages Germanic (plus a lot of horse imagery), while our Dunland pulled in strong Celtic elements. We also use some of the atlases and other reference books that have come out over the years, but always double-checking against the source in case those books get a detail wrong now and then (which sometimes happens when anyone interprets someone else's work)."

Bioware's James Ohlen has an even broader database of licensed material when it comes to Star Wars: The Old Republic.

"To remain true to the world we're working in we use source books, online sources and the IP experts that work for the company that owns the property. Most important is that everyone on the game team is a fan of the property we're working on. There is a significant amount of source material for Star Wars. We've used Wookieepedia. LucasArts has a database called the Holocron. That is the final say on everything Star Wars related."

Ohlen is fortunate enough to work on a game that has considerable freedom within its universe. "Because we're based thousands of years before the movies we have a lot of freedom to develop the Star Wars universe the way we want. LucasArts has been great at giving us creative freedom." The Lord of the Rings Online, on the other hand, has unique limitations. Says Pierson: "Certainly there are constraints; figuring out how to merge with the timeline of the novels is the most challenging one, since the characters cover a lot of ground really fast, and leave a lot of mayhem in their wake, particularly in The Two Towers and Return of the King. Oddly, it's not as bad with actual setting because Tolkien left so much interesting stuff lurking off on the periphery of a reasonably narrow strip of action. Take Moria, for instance--the Fellowship traverses only a tiny portion of it, which meant we got to fill out a lot more. If anything, Tolkien gave us a good sprout to grow a larger plant from."

Pierson continues: "Of course, there are parts that are annoying. His tendency to make interesting areas off-limits to outsiders--hi there, Lothlorien--or to describe wide swaths of land as utterly barren and uninhabited--Lone-lands and Eregion, I'm looking at you--makes me want to beat my game designer head against my desk. To an extent, with stuff like that, you have to apply liberal doses of salt and say, 'well, there has to be someone living somewhere other than Dale, Rohan, Bree, and Gondor.' We're still making a game, after all, so we have to push against the constraints at times."

Whether or not you feel Turbine succeeded in creating the Middle-earth of your dreams, you certainly couldn't accuse Pierson of neglecting his research duties. He also has to be conscious of how others have interpreted the licence--particularly Peter Jackson, director of the Lord of the Rings films.

If anything, Tolkien gave us a good sprout to grow a larger plant from.

"I've read the books about six or seven times straight through," says Pierson, "but I'm constantly rereading bits, particularly when doing the research pass at the beginning of an expansion's development, so in reality I've probably done certain chunks between 15 and 20 times. It's been occasionally hard to keep from replicating Jackson's work because he got the book spot-on in a lot of cases (not all of them, though), and there's an expectation among fans, particularly casual ones who came to the story through the films, that Middle-earth should look the way it does in the films. Fortunately there's still plenty of leeway on a lot of things. If you look at our interpretation of Amon Hen in the Rohan expansion, for instance, it's radically different from Jackson's."

A world starts with concept. But dreams don't magically appear on paper--or on a computer monitor. It takes years of hard work for the imagination to take on a shape that can be enjoyed by others. It also takes a lot of collaboration. Ragnar Tornquist knows this all to well. "[MMO development] involves a lot of people. Writers, concept artists, designers, modelers and environment artists. It's an iterative process that begins with the written word and ends with an actual world you can move around in and interact with." The team at Trion Worlds might have imagined a very different world from Funcom's mysterious realm, but creative minds like Rift Design Director Simon Ffinch and Environment Artist Chee Fong worked tirelessly to bring the world of Telara to life. How did Ffinch and Fong take a vision and turn it into an actual digital realm?

"Once the concept for the overall mood is figured out, the next step is to create a whitebox," they say. "This is a very simple version of a given area where we are mostly concerned with footprint, silhouette and layout. We then figure out the major hubs and variations on the concept, using a set of pre-created whitebox assets. At this point more detailed and refined concept art is made, focusing on construction aspects of the bigger pieces. Not everything in the whitebox gets a concept; it is usually just the major points of interest or 'hero' pieces. Modelers then take the whitebox to completion, changing it from a very rough idea of the area, zone or dungeon to a detailed but mostly untextured version. It is at this stage that the modelers transfer the style and design motifs from the concept art to all the pieces in the area. As the modelers take the assets to completion, terrain artists flesh out the geology and layout to a more realistic and refined state. Skies, lighting and final terrain textures are added and everything gets wrapped up with a polish and optimization pass. This includes reducing draw calls and polygons and unifying colors and lighting."

Clearly, world design doesn't occur in a vacuum. Each aspect of the game impacts everything else, from quest flow to character dialogue. Says Bioware's James Ohlen, "World creation starts with the writing team working with the world designers, then goes to concept art. Then we figure out the quest flow. Once that's known, designers block out the world with temp art while writers are taking care of scripts for the quest lines. Then designers implement the quest lines while environmental artists start adding final art to the worlds. Then we spawn the world with enemies. The final stage is building out the cinematic scenes in all of the conversations. Internal play testing is ongoing throughout the process once spawning is complete."

This is the nitty gritty of world design. There are artists to consult, assets to request, and considerations that the uninitiated would never stop to consider. Chris Pierson at Turbine laid out the process in plain terms, and even then, it was clear that a staggering amount of effort and teamwork goes into crafting a digital paradise.

"To do a chunk of a world, I figure out what needs to go where, in a very broad sense, by painting over a scaled map of the area in Photoshop," Pierson says. "Once that's done I'll use licensed terrain-building software to block out and develop a basic heightmap, while also figuring out what biomes we're going to need, requesting the necessary assets (trees, rocks, ruins, waterfalls, etc.) from our art studio, and deciding what existing assets we can use as placeholders for both ground textures and scenery. I check out the heightmap in the engine and iterate a bunch of times over several weeks, adjusting stuff here and there, then divide the world-chunk into smaller pieces and doing a more detailed pass on each of these in turn within our worldbuilder tool. By the time this is done, the piece will have a first pass on texturing and scenery-asset placement done, at which point I (and whoever might have been doing it with me, because I always have some help) hand the piece over to whoever our lead has assigned to that piece. They then polish the region and build out the towns, monster camps, and other details, and just keep refining until we hit deadline. Along the way our requested assets come in from art, and we incorporate those as we go (as well as making suggestions for polish)."

As you can imagine, there are a lot of kinks that must be ironed out. These kinks aren't necessarily bugs, but entire game systems that might not turn out as intended, or that don't work harmoniously with other aspects of the design. ArenaNet's Annie VanderMeer Mitsoda knows a thing or two about ideas that just don't work the way they were meant to. "When we were working on actually starting to build out personal story content, and looking back on early drafts for missions that were written before the other systems really came online, there was more than once that we went 'Whoa, okay, this isn't going to work!' Or we'd implement it and it wasn't nearly as fun as we thought it would be."

Mitsoda's colleague, Steve Hwang, offers a specific example of a system that just wasn't working. "At one point in development, to make the world feel alive, dynamic events were visible to players from a very long distance. This had the effect of cluttering the compass with icons and players would often see an event and head to it, but because it was so far away they wouldn't arrive in time, or would show up just as the event ended, which was disappointing to players."

I think I want a mix of 'yeah, that's what I thought that looked like' and 'so that's what that looked like,' with a dash of 'holy shit' mixed in now and then.

Almost everyone we spoke to agreed that the key to success was remaining flexible--and to be ready to throw an idea out if it wasn't working, no matter how much you adore it. "One of the largest adventure zones in the game, for example--the Besieged Farmlands in Transylvania--was built and rebuilt from scratch three times before we landed on what we have today," says Funcom's Ragnar Tornquist. "Gameplay changes, performance issues, art direction, testing and feedback--all of it affects the world we've built, and we need to be very flexible. It's dangerous to get too invested in how things look, and a willingness to change and discard and redo is something we instill in everyone."

At ArenaNet, Kim Kirsch echoed Tornquist's sentiments. "When you build something, it's easy to fall in love with some tricky thing you came up with on the backend, or to miss the fact that you aren't explaining or messaging things properly because you already know how everything works. The ability to put yourself in the shoes of the player, and the ability to receive and use feedback, are irreplaceable things that every developer should be mindful of."

Each developer made vast changes to their worlds over the course of development, either throwing out entire areas, or redesigning them so drastically that they took on new properties. Not every region you explore in Star Wars: The Old Republic is the same as when it started, for instance. Says James Ohlen: "The first world we built, Korriban, probably went through the most revision. Initial builds were too claustrophobic and felt more like a fantasy world than a Star Wars world. The final version that appears in the game has more open spaces and feels like it belongs in the Star Wars universe."

These steps are only the beginning to creating an online world, and our world designers had a lot more to say. Next week, the developers talk about first impressions, and taking old fantasy standards and making them new again. We also get a peek into the future. Could there yet be an Anarchy Online 2 in the future? Ragnar Tornquist gives us the scoop.

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