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Is Bigger Really Better in MMOGs?

Updated Fri, Oct 02, 2009 by Ralsu

The slumping economy here in the northwestern US has driven down the price of real estate. The market favors buyers right now with more property going for less money. The flailing financial system tends to have an opposite effect on the gaming industry. Developers have a harder time raising cash and must cut corners or reduce content to get a game done and playable, so the formula works out to be a little less real estate for the money. Interestingly, F2P developers may have an easier time dealing with monetary limitations than their P2P counterparts because they already tend to make smaller games. When I ponder the smaller size of F2P worlds in comparison to those of P2P games, I realize that maybe bigger isn’t really better in the long run.

Telon is freaking huge.

Have you seen the 1986 Tom Hanks film The Money Pit? Hanks buys a very large house with a good bit of real estate for what he believes is a bargain price. As the plot unfolds, he realizes the house is one big money pit as he has to pour in resources to make repairs. While The Money Pit is a comedy where viewers laugh at the hapless character portrayed by Hanks, no one laughs at the game developer who designs a large game and can’t keep up with repairs.

Consider SOE’s Vangaurd: Saga of Heroes, a game near and dear to my heart. The top brass at Sigil Games, the original developers for Vanguard, had what seemed to be unlimited capital for a while, and the design team was wildly ambitious. Telon was a huge world at Vanguard’s launch (bigger than any I’ve ever seen), but even its massive launch size was a truncated version of the dream. The continent of Kojan, for instance, had to be scaled down as time and development dollars ran out for the project. I remember my beta experience in Vanguard when players would fall through the world. While this is a common occurrence for any 3D game in beta, can you imagine how hard it is to track down all of the holes in your world when it’s as massive as Telon? Now take the number of instances of that one problem and increase it by some exponent and you’ve got your own money pit where things are breaking faster than you can fix them. It’s a bit like playing in the backyard versus mowing the lawn: bigger is better until you have to take care of it.

Just as it’s no fun for the owner to have to mow a lot the size of a football field, it can be a little daunting for the children to go outside and play in such a big yard, especially if they enter the grounds from opposite ends. At launch, getting your Orc from Kojan to meet up with a friend’s Dwarf on Thestra in Vanguard was a pain. Again because of funding shortfalls at the end of development, Vanguard was missing key elements intended by the design team to make travel meaningful. The result was laborious travel. SOE has since fixed the problem, but just about every P2P game ends up with ghost town starter cities after a while.

Atlantica takes place on earth, so it feels pretty big.

I haven’t encountered a world as sprawling as Telon in any F2P game I have tried. There are some big worlds out there (Atlantica Online feels pretty large at times), but a scant few add square mileage as a bullet point on the website. F2P games tend to use more instancing and deliver an episodic experience. Runes of Magic offers a good example of a F2P that blends instances with an over world and open dungeons, but Taborea is not large. Frogster knows its lawn isn’t as big as others, so the focus is on keeping the landscaping immaculate.

The smaller worlds designed in F2P games like Runes of Magic have some noteworthy benefits, but the pressure is on P2P developers to build bigger. Grouping is a little easier when gamers play in a smaller area. As already noted, it’s easier to care for a smaller world, too. At the same time, P2P gamers often stick with one game for longer periods than do F2P gamers, making a lot of real estate to explore a real boon. Larger worlds also spread out content to give smoother transitions between areas with encounters for different level ranges. The wider dispersion of content further reduces competition for the limited assets (mobs, dungeons, and harvesting resources) of the world; instead of only one zone for levels 20-25, a P2P game might have five with vastly different quest lines. This all makes a big difference in a P2P game that has a larger player base than a F2P game. If this all makes it sound as though more is better, what about games with a lower population?

Parting Thoughts

I’m back to Vanguard again. Even with all of the improved methods of travel and global chat, Telon can be a lonely place at times. SOE has a terrific game on its hands, but it’s a bit like watching two-on-two football using a full regulation field; a lot of the space is wasted. As MMOGs continue to saturate the market, even P2P gamers are starting to hop from one game to the next a little more often. Four extra zones of level 20-25 content means nothing if you don’t stay with a game long enough to make an alt. Some P2P games have started releasing with smaller worlds already to defray costs, and the lagging economy may mean a trend looking ahead. At the very least, the idea of releasing part of the content at launch and continuing to develop the rest for an expansion or patch is sure to be on the table.

As a gamer who played P2P MMOGs for five years and then switched to F2P games in the last year, the idea of smaller worlds doesn’t bother me much. I am fine with a relatively small world so long as it means fewer bugs (or faster bug fixes) and a better community experience. Bigger is not always better.

Do you see any advantages to smaller worlds, or is Ralsu wrong? Email your thoughts or post them in our forums!

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