Something made me hate Fargoth.

I had just entered the world of Morrowind. I had enough problems without this guy in my face, whining about his stupid ring. One well-aimed arrow shot later, and I found myself squatting in his secluded Seyda Neen cottage. But it wasn’t just somewhere to keep my spare weapons and armor. I found myself decorating. I kept the place clean. It was my home.

That’s when it really hit me: This wasn’t just some level in a game. This was my vacation home in a digital environment.

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Contemporary games are quickly becoming self-contained virtual worlds. Most levels aren’t just paths through streets or buildings – they’re entire square miles of cityscape or countryside that you can see, hear and even feel if you’ve got controller vibration turned on.

Game designers, who 20 years ago could rely simply on a fun gameplay mechanic, have been replaced by world-builders. Today’s biggest games have unique architecture, precise physics, history, culture and creatures beyond imagination. Titles like Mass Effect and Halo have even spawned entire novels that take place in their unique game worlds.

We’ve spent hours, even days in these worlds, from BioShock with its sprawling underwater city of Rapture; to Lost Planet and Gears of War with their alien landscapes and savage life forms; to Grand Theft Auto IV with not only the streets and structures of Liberty City, but its own name brands, fast food chains, radio stations and politics. These games provide us with a name, occupation and sometimes even friends and family. Open-world game are like being whisked away into a digital witness protection program where you are told who you are and why.

Oblivion Lead Designer Emil Pagliarulo believes that we have delivered the promise of virtual reality that was often discussed and hyped in the ’90s. Through first-person visuals, realistic physics and simulated time and weather, game developers have brought about the visions of immersive VR, but without the bulky headgear and excessive wires.

When you play an MMOG, a game like Oblivion or Bethesda’s current big project, Fallout 3, “you’re not controlling that character, you are that character,” Pagliarulo says. “You get a sense of control over the world that you can’t find anywhere else.”

A fellow Bethesda world-builder, Executive Producer Todd Howard, describes these virtual worlds as existing in two layers, the believable world and the game world.

“The allure [of the believable world] is that players can imprint themselves,” Howard says. “Players think ‘I want to be this person, I want to do this thing!’ and it’s our job to fulfill as many of those
ideas as possible.”

To do that job, Howard believes in one principle above all others: “Great games are played, not made.” He explains that if you don’t approach the development of games as a gamer, then you’re all about the process and not the product. “It’s pure entertainment you can tweak. You have to know constantly ‘What’s the vibe? What does it feel like?’ in order to tweak the story and the world and get them to highlight each other. … And the simpler everything is, the better it all works together.”

“In a world this big, it can be tough to really be honest with yourself. You have to play it like a player,” Pagliarulo says. “I forget sometimes that people spend so much time in our games.”

A complete run-through of Oblivion, depending on your class and which quests you accept, can take up to 200 hours to complete. That means players can spend the equivalent of a week’s vacation staring at a screen, learning the geography, laws, politics, religions and shopping areas in a virtual world. And that’s just a single-player game.

In MMOGs such as World of Warcraft or Age of Conan, players spend thousands of hours exploring the game world. In these games, however, you make friends with other users, bringing real people into your virtual world and thereby making it seem all the more realistic.

“Being able to play games with a friend – or thousands of them – is the largest evolutionary step in the last decade in my opinion,” says Shane Hensley, Studio Head of Superstition Studios and project lead on City of Heroes and City of Villains.

MMOGs, far more than single-player games, must provide a world in which players truly feel their characters belong. Since the dawn of the MMOG, players have created communities, guilds and even entire cities – as was the case in Ultima Online, where users created towns from the ground up, complete with their own laws. Now, games such as World of Warcraft must provide vast gathering places where players can talk to each other and find new allies.

“Having an Atlas Park (City of Heroes) or Undercity (World of Warcraft) is critical in not only getting people together,” says Hensley, but also “letting higher-level players show off their hard-earned loot.”

The need for places for players to comfortably socialize “factors into every single scene or zone or dungeon of an MMOG,” says Destin Bales, content director at EA Mythic.

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“You dive into the world and believe that you’re living a robust, consistent world. When a world’s been built well, you kind of forget that it’s been built. You don’t see how it’s been constructed; it just feels like a real space,” says Greg Grimsby, Art Director at EA Mythic. Grimsby, who with Bales is working on an upcoming fantasy MMOG, Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning, explains that much of the time spent in massively multiplayer games is a “meta experience.” Players aren’t constantly fighting; in fact, much of the time they’re just hanging out. It’s that comfort to enjoy the game you’re not playing and just watch the sunrise that really highlights the reality and the weight of the virtual world.

But what’s next? I asked each of the world-builders what they thought was the next great innovation that would advance the industry. The Bethesda team focus on players’ emotional response toward NPCs; Hensley says episodic content; and the EA Mythic crew note that a changing world would be the keys to the future, but all those answers boil down to one thing: detail.

“The first things we placed in Oblivion were a tree and a farmhouse,” Howard says. “In Fallout, it was a destroyed building. A lot of the character of the game comes from the world itself.” Howard
and Pagliarulo explain that these initial details informed the story, characters and everything else about the games.

Hensley describes the first steps into the virtual world as “critical.” “They tell you what the tone will be, and that and the art style very quickly begin to determine the pace – and therefore gameplay – of the experience as well.”

As the world is created, Hensley says, he believes in embracing what he calls “escalating weirdness.”
“The environment should start our reasonably familiar (though it can still be cool and atmospheric), but should then build in weirdness and intensity to something that is completely over the top,” he says.

The increase in detail, not only in graphics but also in physics models, is defining a new era of gaming. Precise rules for weight, mass and velocity create more and more opportunities to enjoy a game not just for the missions or the plot, but for the childlike ability to just play in them. Like a kid flinging a SuperBall around a room to see what breaks, more and more people are stacking red barrels or ramping vehicles every which way in order to test what is possible in games. You know something’s up when more people want to see the YouTube video of a plane hitting a stack of crates in Crysis than any cut scene or footage from the single-player campaign.

Yet even a great physics engine needs a good story to make it a cohesive part of a game world. While the Portal gun is amazing, it’s just a gimmick until you meet GLaDOS and learn about the moist, delicious cake that’s waiting for you.

While world-builders have nearly infinite tools to make their visions stand out with the best graphics, story or most compelling gameplay, worlds can still collide. As Pagliarulo puts it, “Your game is only as good as the next good release.”

“I truly believe that all video and computer games boil down to ‘what’s the next eye candy?'” Hensley says. “It’s our job as designers to constantly provide incentive for you to see the next monster, magic item or environment just around the next bend.”

As the future of gaming unfolds, the self-contained, personalized game-worlds will begin to mirror the real world even more. They will be adaptive, emotional and constantly changing, giving players an even greater sense of personal importance as their actions change the very world they live in. The non-game exploration of the world and its limitations will become more pronounced, and games might just start advertising their sunny beaches, lush forests and secluded Seyda Neen cottages.

Jeremy Monken is the former interactive entertainment editor for The Examiner and a lifelong student of all things comics and videogames. He currently freelances, designs and works on his comic strip, “Striving for Mediocrity,” which can be found on his personal blog, The Church of the Red Barrel.

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