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Does Size Matter?

Star Wars: The Old Republic Columns - By Michael Bitton on March 30, 2011

Does Size Matter?

BioWare’s Damion Schubert took to the official Star Wars: The Old Republic forums recently in order to jump into the age old debate of MMO world sizes and share his insights on BioWare’s approach to the oft controversial subject with SW:TOR.

Let me get this out of the way first: I don’t expect to put this discussion to rest with my thoughts this week (after all, we encourage your hearty debate in the comments!) but it is certainly a topic worth discussing and so we shall.

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In the roughly eight years I’ve been playing MMO games I’ve always been an avid explorer, in fact, I met one of my best friends in Star Wars Galaxies (prior to the introduction of mounts and vehicles).We actually bonded in our exploration of the entirety of Naboo on foot. If you’ve played Galaxies and think that sounds crazy, it is, but we did it anyways. At the same time, I’ve enjoyed myself in games like Vindictus and Guild Wars where there really isn’t much of a world but more of a hub city from which to jump into instanced areas, so it’s fair to say I’ve seen the whole gamut of approaches to MMO world design and I don’t think there is a one-size-fits-all solution to every game.  

BioWare’s approach with The Old Republic thankfully takes into account the evolution of the genre. Impossibly large worlds may look great on the bullet points of a box, but when all that space basically amounts to practically endless amounts of “dead space” between points of interest it doesn’t necessarily lend well to an engaging experience for most players, and BioWare appears to be cognizant of this fact. Now, I say most because I am actually divided on this issue. I can completely understand and appreciate BioWare’s approach, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t personally enjoy the mystique of SWG’s worlds which really fit the bill in terms of the sort of worlds Damion was referring to, well, at least until SOE introduced vehicles, mounts and of course player cities. There was indeed a lot of dead space between points of interest in Galaxies, but I felt that vastness also made for some great thrills. Not many players had the patience to (especially on foot) investigate that hill off in the horizon and committing to doing so and finding something interesting was one of my favorite things to do in the game, especially on particularly dangerous planets such as Dathomir and Endor. With that said, Galaxies was a sandbox game and The Old Republic is not, and so a world designed in such a way would likely only frustrate users who desire to progress through the game’s content without spending 15 minutes driving through swarms of vicious Scyks in order to get to the next objective.

In any case, I don’t see anything negative in BioWare’s approach. If they manage to accomplish their goal of creating a world dense with “good experiences” that’s all that really matters in the end. One thing in particular that stood out to me was Damion’s clarification that this density isn’t limited to points-of-interest and quest content but also focused on player population. For all of Galaxies’ vast landscapes there was certainly something wrong with being surprised to find someone out in your adventures due to how spread out the population often was. Throughout the years I’ve discovered that I find it to be quite depressing when I’m adventuring in a game only not to find a soul in sight. This is possible even in healthy games as players tend to congregate in certain areas, or if the game offers easy access to instanced content (such as a Dungeon Finder or Battlegrounds) many players simply won’t be around.  Spreading people around in an intelligent and organic manner is key and I’m very interested to see if BioWare can accomplish this particular aspect of their approach to world design. In doing so, the world is sure to feel much more alive, and there is the added benefit of server stability to consider. Too many players in one place is never a good thing.

Ultimately, it sounds as if BioWare fully desires to give us large worlds to explore, but they aren’t focused on the size above all else.  As someone who can appreciate both sandbox and themepark style games really all I am asking for is the ability to veer off the beaten path and discover things for myself.  Little secrets, easter eggs or unmarked points of interest go a long way for me. A direct path from quest hub to quest hub without any optional detours would be more disappointing to me whether the world was large or small. I don’t expect a fully wide open sandbox world and no one following the game should by this point, but I’m certain a decent balance could be found if BioWare simply takes the explorer playstyle into account when building their worlds (and from Damion’s post it sounds like they are!). 

Does world size matter to you? If so, to what extent? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

Michael Bitton / Michael began his career at the WarCry Network in 2005 as the site manager for several different WarCry fansite portals. In 2008, Michael worked for the startup magazine Massive Gamer as a columnist and online news editor. In June of 2009, Michael joined MMORPG.com as the site's Community Manager.