Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

A matter of scale

Posted by Rampant Coyote on May 21, 2013

I’m in France this week. Actually, I’m in France as I type this, dog-tired.

While the trip was long and arduous, it is kind of amazing how small the world has become.  In one ten-hour flight, I’m a third of the world away. It’s a butt-busting trip (particularly when flying coach), but relative to the history of the world it’s amazingly fast. I mean, you are covering several miles per minute.  Modern travel and communication has allowed us to view a hundred miles in the same way that our ancestors may have viewed ten miles. It’s changed scale a lot.

I remember, many years ago, seeing game ads and previews pushing the size of the world in real-world units as a selling point. That never made sense to me. I mean, take Ultima – I can’t remember if it was one of the offenders or not – where you could cover leagues of distance per keypress. Maybe the map represented thousands of square miles, but an entire world of Ultima IV or V couldn’t contain the amount of adventure thrust upon you just crossing the city of Baldur’s Gate in Baldur’s Gate II, where you couldn’t get down a street without having a half-dozen quests thrown at your feet.  The smaller world was more adventure-packed.

As a side-note, I once heard that if you did a 3D representation of those epic, sprawling cities and villages in Ultima VII, they looked… pathetic. That top-down perspective really helped make the world seem bigger…

Fortunately, I haven’t seen real-world scales used much in recent years as a marketing point for worlds. Either they are going to be big, empty miles cross uneventfully just like a modern-era jet eats the miles, or you will have a sandbox world where – with a few carefully-designed exceptions – the complete game and all of its potential can exist only a short distance from your spawn point.

When I was a kid, I lived out in the hills of West Virginia, and I’d see our little community (the “holler” – that was West Virginia speak for “hollow”) surrounded by woods. I imagined adventure lurking behind every patch of brush and every tree. I imagined giants, ogres, witches, buried treasure, you name it.  Hey, my younger years included folk-tales of a guy named Jack who faced those kinds of threats whenever he left his home, so I imagined it just beyond our back yards. To me, that’s how adventure is supposed to be – high-density.

This should be something that guides RPG design, as well. Where the gaps are perhaps more notable for their rarity, a chance for the tension to mount or a brief respite to be obtained.

Filed Under: Design - Comments: 9 Comments to Read

  • Infinitron said,

    The city of Athkatla in Baldur’s Gate 2. Baldur’s Gate itself was in the first game.

  • Adamantyr said,

    You’re right about Ultima VII. If you do a building count of Ultima IX in Britain, you’ll find it actually has about the same number of buildings. The 3D perspective just makes the place seem MUCH smaller.

    Another element is that most of the buildings in Ultima VII are single-story, other than the castle. When they were developing Serpent’s Isle, they actually hit the CPU limit when designing Moonshade, which was originally going to have two-story buildings and bridges everywhere.

    I think the reason Britain FEELS big in Ultima VII was the careful consideration made to the design. The cobblestone streets and lamp posts make you think “city”. If you replace it all with dirt tracks and wood buildings, would it still feel that way?

    The same design work is needed in 3D projections as well. There, I think size and closeness of buildings matters more than overall coverage. If you’re having to look up all the time or you have narrow alleys to traverse, you feel like you’re in a big city instead of a little town.

  • Maklak said,

    I think it is best to have dense (towns) and sparse (wilderness) locations. It makes sense for towns to be filled with job opportunities (quests) and not so huge as to get lost in them. Wilderness should be relatively sparse by comparison. Sure, there should be some scattered herbs wherever you go and a few random encounters / monsters / caves / whatever, but I just hate having an enemy every 20 meters wherever I go, like in WoW.

    One of the fun things about Morrowind was just going in some random direction and just picking plants along the way. I would always find some adventure eventually.

  • groboclown said,

    I believe the comment about 3d Ultima VII was related to this project:


    Maybe it’s an empty looking city, but it’s still impressive.

  • Felix said,

    My favorite example is from Runes of Magic, where the human starting town — a mining outpost — is ridiculously tiny. At one point, you have an NPC telling you they need to deliver a package to someone but they can’t leave their shop unattended. Thing is, the other NPC is standing a few meters away, roughly behind said shop; you can see them from where you’re standing. In real life, our quest giver could literally just look behind the corner and shout. It’s not the only such situation, either.

    On the other hand, the wilderness areas feel roomy without being miles of empty space. You can even become lost in places, and there’s something different at every turn. It’s still only a theme park, but it’s a pleasure to wander about. Clearly, their level designers knew what they were doing.

  • CdrJameson said,

    I miss the size in space RPGs.
    Starflight, Star Command etc. had HUGE sprawling galaxies with galactic areas, maps with every planet explorable (procedurally generated of course).

    With everything so HUGE you had to have a plan and know where you were going, but it gave a good feeling that there were mysteries out there…

    Mass Effect & KOTOR by contrast, never feel space-y in the slightest. Their ‘epic’ areas are the same decimeter scale zones you get in fantasy RPGs. They’re shrinking all the time, too.

  • Noumenon said,

    Thanks for the link, groboclown.

  • LateWhiteRabbit said,

    I can’t help but think of the totally unnecessary “inbetween” wilderness areas of Arcanum. Rather than reaching the edge of an area and using the map to fast travel to another location, you could just continue and keep walking in this huge empty space. I don’t think there were even random encounters or monsters in them, but I can’t remember to be sure.

    It just made you scratch your head and go, “Why?”

  • Maklak said,

    Oh, one more thing. Large empty areas are much more awesome in 3D, where you can run through them, but see mountains, forests and castles on the other side. In 2D, like in Arcanum or Eschalon, walking through a bunch of nothing is a werid experience.