Jonathan Steinhauer's MMO Column

Steinhauer’s Opinion: The Dangerous Wilderness, Part 1


Taurmen stared into the forest. He could see Gwiniell’s lost bunny nibbling on some leaves only a few dozen paces away. Two stags wandered leisurely past and one lifted its head to stare curiously his direction. It appeared safe enough.

Taking a deep breath, he took a step off the road and recoiled in horror as three massive bears, their jaws slaver, leapt upon him.

As I’ve wandered through the wilds of various games, I’ve been stunned by the panoramic vistas that have opened out before me. Trees sway in the light breeze, their leaves rustling softly through my speakers. A stream trickles by, the sunlight gleaming of the whorls and eddies of the current while in the distance, purple mountains capped with white glaciers scrape the billowing clouds. The imagery is so detailed, I could almost believe it is real.

Yet, I can’t help but wonder if any game designer has ever gone on a camping trip, or even a simple hike. Populating these elaborate wild lands are the largest population of carnivorous animals I’ve ever seen. In WoW, for example, it’s not uncommon to encounter a dozen ravenous bears within a few hundred paces of each other. I might wonder at what massive population of deer, fish, and roots support these beasts except that these aggressive bears ignore every stag or sheep that wanders by, targeting only me. Ironically, in real life, bears and wolves have a healthy fear of humans and will almost always run when we approach. If they didn’t, there wouldn’t be many hikers!

Of course, you may say that this observation, while accurate, is irrelevant. These are fantasy worlds and games to boot. That is true, and I’ll buy off on aggressive creatures, but not in the massive quantities, especially with them completely ignoring little critters that would be their primary food sources. I’d even argue that the problem has become more pronounced rather than less.

In the early days of Asheron’s Call, for example, there was a relatively light quantity of ground spawns in most parts of the world (the Dires being a noteworthy exception). The game was unique in the almost complete absence of nearly every normal and mythical Earth creature (rabbits being a curious exception), so there was a greater justification for aggression from monsters rather than animals. But to find monsters with a consistent enough presence for reliable hunting you had to go where you would expect to find them: their dens, camps, and fortresses. Of course, when AC updated its spawns with level based regions several years back, the realism declined drastically.

World of Warcraft saw an even greater increase in wilderness carnivores. Being a more Earth-like world, it has large quantities of both aggressive animals and monsters. Furthermore, these creatures are very focused in their areas, such as the bear example above. Lord of the Rings Online imitated WoW in many design functions, and this is no exception. The only real difference between LOTRO and WoW is a greater variance of monster and animal types in a particular region. Unfortunately, this makes the wilderness even more curious because cold worms wander past bears and elk without a second glance, yet both turning their sharp teeth on any adventure that happens to wander to close. I’m further amazed at the large number of rabid bears, wolves, and boars these games possess. As I recall, the disease is rather fatal and not conducive to perpetuating any species. Yet the rabid animals seem to be at least as prolific as any other!

All comedy aside, this may seem to be a rather trivial matter, but I would argue that it goes to the heart of game play. After all, surface spawns in these large quantities is clear evidence that one of the major aspects of character growth is camping. Indeed, LOTRO has even taken this a step further. In order to earn many of the coveted deeds, you must kill massive numbers of a specific monster type. This boils down to pure tedium. And here I thought games were supposed to be fun.

As I contemplate the heroes of page and screen, I can’t help but note that Aragorn didn’t become the powerful Dunedain he was by camping a goblin village or purging a forest of its pesky wargs. Nor did Luke Skywalker become a Jedi Knight by waging a slaughter against the sandpeople. Or moving on to RPGs, I can’t imagine a pencil-and-paper game where the heroes just undergo a perpetual slaughter of monsters. You may as well play a random number generator.

I’ve looked at newer and upcoming games with mixed results. Most games still in the design state hardly address the wilderness areas at all, except to describe what a wonderful panorama they are. However, it appears that both Warhammer Online and Age of Conan are wandering down the same old path. I’m happy to say that Pirates of the Burning Sea has no random ground spawns at all and Darkfall has promised an end to repetitive monster encounters. There is hope.

Next week we’ll look a little deeper into this affliction and at solutions old and new to break out of the habitually overpopulated wilderness.

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