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It's Alive! (MMO Theory)

Mad science meets the MMO! Unnecessary surgery on all areas of MMORPGs, trying to turn lead into gold. Come join the fun and perform textual vivisection on the fevered rantings of a crazed mind. Find flaws, point out problems, and perfect or reject ideas.

Author: is_not_blue

Experiment 3: Shifting Terrain

Posted by is_not_blue Monday March 22 2010 at 10:01PM
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Experiment 3: Shifting Terrain
Making the Most of the Space You Have.

One quality most MMORPGs feature is the notion of points of interest surrounded by terrain. Worlds are built with towns, dungeons, quest goals, and specific locations in mind, with the intervening world typically being made up of less detailed terrain.

The level of craftsmanship in areas connecting points of interest vary from game to game. Every detail of World of Warcraft's (WoW's) regions are handcrafted, while Star Wars Galaxies (SWG) uses a fractal-based terrain generator. The end result is WoW's small, but exquisite regions, and SWG's large and organic worlds.

Despite the way in which the areas in these games are created, there remains the distinct similarity in which the large portion of the game's terrain functions: as the area a character must pass through to move from one point of interest to another. In the case of WoW, this makes for relatively small areas between points of interest that can serve to make the world seem smaller, as areas are easily memorized and cities and towns tend not to be far from one another. With SWG, the large world can seem empty and uninspired, as the terrain between points of interest is rather random and sometimes haphazardly constructed.

So what is the real problem? In both cases, the games presented may suffer from the way in which terrain is implemented. A region that can be memorized becomes boring and loses the sense of danger and mystery that many MMORPG players crave, while uninspiring terrain doesn't hold the feel of a vivid, living world.

The Challenge: Create a method to use hand-crafted terrain in a way that is unpredictable and not easily memorized. Make regions capable of having more area between points of interest without defaulting to random terrain generation.


Shifting Terrain Autopsy

As always, this description is not intended to represent a complete system. The major part of this system would be in the conception and application of a great number of variables that require something greater than speculative summary. The key phrase here is Imagine If...

MMO worlds are not nearly as large as the worlds they represent. Distances between cities and other points of interest are intended to be indicative of much larger areas. In reality, if one were to travel through a large forest without following well-laid paths, it would be possible to go the same basic route several times without covering the exact same ground more than once.

MMO worlds are intended to be huge, but the logistics of a character spending hours just moving through a forest to get somewhere is not always in the spirit of the game. Even so, there is no reason why an MMO world of the standard size cannot be used to represent the feel of that large forest, without sacrificing resources and extending distances between points of interest to ridiculous lengths.

Slice and Dice

A region using the shifting terrain system utilizes static paths and points of interest, with a tile-based terrain filling out the intervening areas. The theory is that the major points of interest and the paths connecting them remain the same, while the areas between them change to provide mystery and unpredictability, and to represent the larger game world.



Points of Interest: “Islands” of static content. These are the towns and dungeons of the region, connected by paths.

Paths: Narrow strips of static area that connect points of interest. Paths form the framework in which tiles fit.

Tiles: Large areas representing the terrain between points of interest. Tiles can be as large or small as a developer decides, but should be large enough to avoid the problem of completely random terrain.


The idea is to use tiles large enough to contain hand-crafted areas that show care and attention. These tiles are placed randomly in the framework created by the paths. At some point, the tiles are shifted, meaning they are moved to occupy new, random locations throughout the region, replacing those that were there before. Shifts could possibly occur during a maintenance period, or even on a timer while the game is up and running,

The result of the shifting terrain is a region that has anchored points of interest, but a wild and unpredictable world. Following paths will always lead to the same major landmarks, but leaving a path results in a world that is different and constantly changing.

This is not to say that an entire world would completely change in an instant. Regions, and even specific blocks of tiles, can be limited to those that belong there. In this way, the dark forest remains the dark forest, the mountains stay mountains, etc. The point is not to create chaos, but to create a symmetry between a world of beauty and craftsmanship, and one of mystery and unpredictability.

In application, the shifting terrain system would still function like most games. If it were in place in a WoW model game, the goals of many quests may be found out in the wilderness, making it impossible to simply look up the coordinates of, say, a monster's lair, or even use the memory of its location from a previous character. One would have to seek out the enemy, as well as defeat it.

Special Considerations

Tile Edges: One difficulty with the shifting terrain system is in forging tiles that overlap smoothly. In order to do this, certain aspects of tiles would probably have to extend beyond the edge of the tile proper. The edges of a hill or group of trees may extend from one tile to another, in order to provide a seamless transition. Ground textures could probably be employed to “sew” the tiles together. It may also be necessary to add small static strips to the framework between tiles that shift to cover up any gaps in the floor.

Rare Tiles: Some tiles may only show up on rare or random occasions, or even as the result of meeting certain requirements.

Expansions: Game expansions are a staple of MMOs, usually adding regions, and new content to older ones. Expansions in a game using the shifting terrain system could also add new tiles to existing regions, introducind locations to the mix with every shift and keeping older areas from becoming boring or outdated.


The problem of terrain and regions in an MMO is the problem of persistence. An MMO world is supposed to represent a “real” place for the characters to perpetually exist. With this burden comes the reality that even with large resources at hand, a game world is limited. Hand-crafted worlds are smaller and become memorized quickly, while more random methods of world-building result in larger, but less interesting areas. I believe the shifting terrain system is one way to conquer this problem without detracting from the persistence of the world. Points of interest always exist, but the intervening terrain has the potential to become mysterious and new with every shift. writes:
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