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Can We Ever Fix Empty Zones?

Lewis Burnell Posted:
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I’d intended to write about the arrival of the dreaded lockbox into The Elder Scrolls Online but having already written about them in the past, I wanted to turn my attention to MMO worlds and more specifically, zones and the “busyness” of them. As a new player to The Elder Scrolls Online I’d every expectation that the majority of zones I’d pass through would be empty. The game is, after all, over two years old and a large portion of its playerbase should have moved well away from low level zones.

My arrival in Glenumbra when I first started was met with surprise as there was a fair amount of players going about their business. Even when questing and generally exploring the zone, I saw a handful of people here and there. It’s as I’ve began to play that I’ve noticed fewer and fewer people and despite Tamriel Unlimited effectively removing level requirements from zones, it seems anyone new to the game is still a minority.

I think there has to be a certain expectation that zones will thin out as time progresses - the intake of new players is only finite. However, this is something that has always frustrated me about MMO’s. Do starter zones really have to feel like ghost towns after launch?

If you’ll allow me, a game that I’ve always loved is Metroid. Not necessarily for the story or the action, but more for the fact that I truly admired its world designs and how each zone intertwined and encouraged replay through growth. In Metroid, you had to go forwards through the story in order to go back through levels: improvements to your armor, weapon and kit would grant you access to new locations you may have visited hours before. This web of interconnected maps is genius and encourages not only returning to locations where you have once been but with a new-found way of exploring and navigating them.

When Guild Wars 2 first revealed Heart of Thorns and began to discuss Masteries, I honestly thought ArenaNet were adopting a similar process. The prospect of working towards new abilities or languages to then use this to access new content is unquestionably exciting. Unfortunately and like many things in Heart of Thorns they failed to live up to expectation and I can only describe their implementation as “metroid-lite”. You needed only a tiny smattering of Masteries in order to access just about everywhere and further progress in them simply resulted in the tiniest route advantages.

A large part of what’s wrong with the genre and why zones become deserted is that each map or continent tends to be designed with a level in mind. Players progress out from the starter zones, slowly working their way through incremental enemies at higher difficulties, before ending their adventure in a cluster of set areas that accommodate their level. Almost every MMO is guilty of it and irrespective of the beauty of some zones, you’ll never revisit most simply because there’s absolutely no need to.

Although it’s too late for The Elder Scrolls Online to adopt an approach, it was ripe for utilizing the Metroid blueprint. Considering it’s so story drive, Zenimax could have comfortably ensures players passed through, out and back to all zones. While I can appreciate the prospect of returning to a starter zone, geared up might not be to everyone's taste, areas takes on entirely different feel and importance if there’s something new to do there as a result of your progress.

Why not ensure the primary story of an MMO works its way across and back through all zones? Why not place end-game dungeons across low and mid-level zones? Why not implement fewer zones and continents and mix the creature levels amongst them? Why not ensure Guild Halls aren’t in capital cities but in - what’s expected to be - underpopulated zones? Why not mix high level resources into a variety of zones to ensure players don’t farm specific places? Why not have world events across all areas of the game world instead of just high level zones?

The list of changes developers could make to the existing formulae when embarking on designing an MMO is enormous and that’s before you even scratch the surface of what a Metroid approach could achieve.

It seems such a simple concept to encourage players to use old zones and yet in all the MMO’s I’ve played, it’s rarely if ever adopted. The odd quest here and there might send you back to somewhere you’ve been before but for the most, everything is always “let’s move our players forwards!” I can’t imagine I’m the only one that thinks this is a complete waste of resources and the release of new content only exacerbates the issue. 

If developers act cleverly and actually weave their content in and around all zones - regardless of if they have a level or not - I think the genre going forward would be in a much better, more sustainable position.

How do you feel about the current way MMO’s deliver their zone content? Do you think more effort should be made to remove the level treadmill across zones? Does the Metroid approach appeal to you? Do you think a Metroid approach is even possible? Let me know!


Lewis Burnell

Lewis has played MMOs since Ultima Online launched, and written about them for far too long.