• Create BookmarkCreate Bookmark
  • Create Note or TagCreate Note or Tag
  • PrintPrint


Authors of epic Fantasy novels often start with a map. Similarly, designers of virtual worlds often choose a map as the first concrete realization of their dreams. In any venture that has place or travel at its core, a map is the natural starting point. In constructing a map, not only are ideas given form, but new ideas are suggested. It's unlikely that a designer will create a map only to go back and change it later to account for details that have arisen from fleshing it out. The design process rarely backtracks over maps, and therefore they're an excellent way to begin developing content.

Virtual worlds have a more practical reason for doing maps first, in that there are technical constraints in operation. If the programmers insist on a zone-based approach, for example, that directly affects the topography of the world; if the designers want 200 zones, that affects the topography of the network the operations team has to support.

Geography is therefore where designers usually begin to turn their concepts into (virtual) reality.

Geographical Consistency

Throwing paint at a blank canvas does not create the geography of a virtual world. To be immersive, everything should be where it is for a reason. Much as a designer might relish the prospect of creating their planned Magic Shoppe that's bigger inside than it is outside[23], at this stage it's only ever going to serve as a prototype to demonstrate the principles involved. Although not a bad thing in itself (actually, it's quite a good thing—I usually recommend it to newbie developers), piecemeal development of individual structures is not the way to get a whole world. For that, you have to take a more top-down approach, through various levels of abstraction.

[23] Or, to be more original, bigger outside than it is inside.

These levels (from most general to most specific) are

  • The world

  • Zones

  • Regions

  • Areas

  • Rooms

Although in technical terms there may be a multiverse of parallel worlds (that is, different shards/incarnations), this is not something that directly affects the geography of a single such world.

The layout of a world depends, naturally, on its genre. A “world” for a space opera might consist of several planets; one for a prohibition-era gangster game could be a single city. At this level, the main geographic features are placed so as to make sense. Depending on the scale, this can mean suns, moons, oceans, continents, rivers, mountains, deserts, forests, parks, freeways, roads, and so on. The main aims of the designer are

  • To create a believable overall map. Rivers run from mountains to seas; forests don't appear in deserts; cities aren't built on glaciers.

  • To partition the world so that it can cluster players. The world may be huge, but you still want people to meet up (but not so much that they never go anywhere).

  • To allow for the world to be extended, both internally (“Where can I put the new sponsor's coffee shop?”) and externally (“Where do I put the expansion set?”).

  • To have room for some ideas you want to put in. “I'd like a city on the edge of a desert, so I guess I'll need a river or a major oasis or no one would have built a city there.”

  • To provide for a meaningful ecology and (through resource placement) economy.

  • To be attractive to more than one player type. Just because a place is a slug-fest, that doesn't mean interesting flowers can't grow there.

  • To give themselves ideas. “Hey, that mountain lake would be perfect for a mystic kingdom of martial arts experts!”

Interestingly, these same aims (apart from external expansion) apply at all the other levels of abstraction, too. “Hey, that ox-bow lake would be perfect for a rowboat-leasing facility!”

Geographical consistency can be achieved in a number of ways. If spending a few hours learning about plate tectonics will help you place mountain ranges and volcanoes accurately, do so—your players will appreciate it. If something doesn't make sense, there should be a very important reason for it not to do so. A player who wonders why there is a perfume factory in the middle of a quiet residential area[24] should be able to figure out it's a front for a bootleg distillery, rather than sloppy work by a designer. If something doesn't make sense, it should fail for a reason that does make sense.

[24] This assumes that at least one of your world's settlements is extensive enough to have a “quiet residential area.” A town in EverQuest is considered by the players to be “large” if it has 20 buildings.

An obvious way to get guaranteed geographical consistency is to replicate parts of the real world virtually. This is particularly useful for non-game applications, where teaching or exploring a real location might be a primary aim (“Welcome to Virtual Venice!”). Fictional worlds that use real-world settings are more problematical. It can be argued that depicting an environment with which players are already familiar is good for immersion (players already know and understand it); however, unless the depiction is highly accurate, it could be bad (incorrect or missing details will jar against the player's knowledge of reality). There are problems of data-gathering and data-maintaining, both of which are expensive, and if recognizable real-world buildings appear, there could be legal issues (a virtual bordello set up in a virtual building, the real-world twin of which is occupied by a mosque, would bring all kinds of real-world laws to bear). Another problem of using the real world to give authenticity to the virtual world is that it may not be authentic in the context: A post-apocalypse Washington, D.C. would be unlikely to contain many of its most famous monuments, for example.

Unless the designer is trying to make some kind of artistic point, replicating recogniz able parts of the real world in the virtual world is usually a bad idea. As a rule of thumb, keep real-world proper nouns out of virtual worlds.

If you want geographic consistency, use the levels of geographic abstraction.

Levels of Geographic Abstraction

Geographers have many different ways to look at this and other real worlds. They're experts, after all. Most players of virtual worlds are not geographers, however, and they're only going to notice more obvious errors. A degree of knowledge beyond that of the average player is always a good thing for a designer to have, of course, but as soon as players stop noticing what you're doing you can stop doing it. Immersion is about not busting players into reality; it isn't about teaching them erosion patterns for sedimentary rocks[25]. From this point of view, the levels of abstraction listed in the previous section are sufficient to give a virtual world all the geographic consistency it needs. Let's look at them in more detail.

[25] I guess this statement wouldn't apply to a geology-focused educational virtual world, though.

Zones are a functional partition of the virtual world, imposed for technical reasons. Not all virtual worlds will have them. Their usual impact is to consolidate geographical features into zone-friendly blocks. The mountain range will stop short of a zone boundary, rather than poke a couple of foothills across it; the river will run through a zone, but not weave over zone boundaries and back; the peninsula will jut out just far enough that it won't entail a zone change to reach the end of it.

Zones are like the pages in a road atlas, except that you get to change the geographic features so they're a tidy fit.

Regions are large swathes of territory that have distinct, thematic differences at the strategic level. “The north,” for example, may be cold, populated by hardy, hairy, expansionist barbarians; “the isles” may be beautiful, lazy paradises whose inhabitants have a penchant for human sacrifice; “Westside” may be a neighborhood full of big houses with pools and long driveways, populated by rich people who have nothing but contempt for those born across the river.

Regions fit natural geographic boundaries. If they spill across such a boundary, it's a cause for conflict. In worlds that have zones, the two often coincide; this is because players feel zone boundaries with the same (if not more) intensity that they feel purely geographical ones. The zone/region relationship is not necessarily one-to-one—you can have several zones to a region or several regions to a zone—but it's usually integral; you won't find 1½-region zones very often.

Areas are subdivisions of regions that, while thematically similar at the strategic level, are thematically distinct at the tactical level. “The north” may consist of “the mountains,” “the valleys,” “the frozen waste,” “the isle of the gods,” “the lava pits,” and so on. It's often the case that areas are specified fully by individual designers, to ensure an atmospheric consistency within each area.

Areas are made up of rooms. This is the level at which players experience the virtual world. The definition of what constitutes a “room” depends on the way the virtual world is displayed to players. The options are

  • Nodes

  • Coordinates (tiles)

  • Coordinates (polygons)

Nodes are points with (potentially) unlimited connections to other points. These are the dominant paradigm for textual virtual worlds, although some also use coordinate systems. Normally, a single node represents the smallest unit of position that players can share, which (in buildings) would be a room—hence the name.

Formally, tiled coordinates are nodal systems that enforce a rigid relationship between the nodes; you can, in theory, represent them as freeform nodes. In practice, though, tessellation is used because it can be implemented easily with an array. There are often other contributory reasons, but its mapping to a fast, random-access data structure is the main one. Arrays allow for automatic content generation for speedy, shortest-route path-finding and (most importantly) for display as (2½D) graphics.

Textual virtual worlds that use tiled coordinates will usually give the tiles the same status as other nodes—that is, treat each as a room that more than one player can potentially occupy. Graphical virtual worlds go for a smaller granularity, with a tile representing the space that an individual character takes up; for this reason, they are single-occupancy only, and a subjective “room” consists of contiguous tiles bordered by ones that contain walls, doors, windows, and other architectural features.

Both the nodal and tiled approaches define a virtual world in terms of space. Polygons define it in terms of enclosures. Characters do occupy coordinates, but their world is defined in terms of barriers—planes through which they cannot move. As an analogy, consider a piece of graph paper: Nodes define the lines by numbering the squares; polygons define the squares by numbering the lines.

Virtual worlds that use coordinate systems can be displayed graphically. The resolution of the coordinates in a polygonal system is yet smaller than that in a tiled system, because characters themselves are made up of polygons. The concept of a “room” still exists, as an enclosed space that many characters can occupy, but it's not atomic: Characters can be between rooms, in some kind of transition state; for a nodal system this location would itself constitute a room.

Of the three, a tessellated system is the least flexible. It doesn't have the resolution to handle details; in particular, it doesn't get along well with curves. Carefully drawn texture maps can create illusions of curves, but they're exposed if players ever do anything to them (for example, walk on what looks like a gentle curve but is actually a step).

When 2½D is used, it's normally because it's relatively easy to implement, to animate[26], and to upgrade[27]; it's often the first choice for hobbyist graphical worlds such as Furcadia[28]. This may change as cheap or free full 3D engines become more available[29], but some people prefer the “pieces on a board” look and the clear demarcations of space it offers; the 2½D approach is therefore unlikely to go away.

[26] Assuming some degree of artistic talent.

[27] Updating animations can, however, be more expensive than for a 3D approach.

[28] http://www.furcadia.com

[29] Ultima Online now boasts both a 2½D and a 3D client for its virtual world.

A world made of polygonal planes better represents different facets of an environment, because of its higher level of detail. You can easily rotate large objects through arbitrary angles, not just 90 degrees. Curves still have angles, but these are small enough to hide behind texture maps without looking fake[30].

[30] There are limits, though. In a demonstration of a new role-playing game at a computer show, I found I could hide my character completely in the texture map of a tree that overflowed the space that the tree formally occupied. Great for ambushes!

Node-based systems are the most flexible of all, because they allow for non-Euclidian geometry. In a nodal world, you can exit a room to the north to enter it from the east; you can walk into a wardrobe and find Narnia there; you can be inside a room that contains itself; you can have multiple exits leading to the same entrance; you can reconnect or destroy nodes, leaving a sealed void.

The most immediate benefit of a nodal approach is that you don't have to use a constant scale. A journey to the top floor of a tower can take as long as the journey across a mountain range. Important details can thus be given close attention, whereas unimportant ones can be dismissed as part of a broad sweep. The world can focus on what matters, matching the way that a cognitive map built up in a player's mind works. Worlds founded on a coordinate system are limited to real-world physics, and don't have this level of refinement. On the other hand, they can be represented graphically, which can't be said of an unrestricted nodal system.

An issue affecting all these approaches is what to do at their edges. If you keep walking east what happens? There are a number of tried-and-trusted ways to deal with this situation:

  • Wrap around. If you go east forever, you end up back where you started—just like with the real world.

  • Physical boundary. There's an unclimbable cliff, unswimmable river, unnavigable ocean, impassable forest in the way.

  • Big stick. If you walk too far into the desert, the sun is going to bake you dead no matter how well-prepared you thought you were.

  • Emotional boundary. Your character “doesn't want” to go any further. You might, but you don't control your character.

  • Notice. If you try to go too far, you're given a polite message explaining that the designers have failed to provide the necessary content.

  • Invisible wall. There's no explanation, you just can't move off the board.

Of these, the physical boundary is the most popular as it's within the context of the virtual world and leaves open the door to further expansion. Unfortunately, it's so popular that its expression can lead to cliché. “Hmm, the sea. Looks like I've reached the western edge of the map, then.” There is a great opportunity for imaginative solutions here.


Terrain is what geography is made of. It also has levels of abstraction, matching the needs of the thematic levels. Someone designing a region might decide to place a forest; someone designing an area might decide to place a wood; someone designing a wood might decide to place a tree. Terrain is the paint that depicts the image a designer wants to convey.

The different types of terrain that are available to a virtual world depend on that world, of course. Swampland isn't necessary for a virtual world set entirely indoors, for example. Tempting though it is to go straight to an atlas and look at the symbols it uses, there are more scientific ways of determining terrain that allow for more realistic tangible effects. For a generic, outdoors, continent-scale kind of virtual world, the following dimensions are likely to be most useful:

  • Elevation

  • Surface geology (rock, soil, water, sand…)

  • Vegetation (none, grass, scrub, cultivation…)

  • Cover (none, snow, ash…)

  • Volume (air, water, mist…)

Thus you can have a hill, a forested hill, a snow-covered, forested hill, and so on. The particular types of forest would depend on the level of abstraction (jungle, mangrove swamp, pine, oak, whatever).

Explicitly representing each layer allows for a virtual world to give different terrains different properties. Graphical worlds benefit the most from this as they need the texture maps, but they can use them for other things, too (movement speed, footprints/footfalls, ambient sounds). However, even textual worlds can profit from giving rooms a terrain property: Trivially, if you drop a glass bottle on a paved road, it'll shatter; if you drop it on a sandy beach, it won't. Multi-layered terrain will also allow you to spot incongruities, such as underwater snow, but to be honest anyone stupid enough to do something like that is going to be too stupid to check for it anyway.

Ah, yes, weather….

The first time I went to San Diego, U.S. customs hauled my bag out of the X-ray machine and made me open it because they couldn't figure out what I had in it. The object perplexing them turned out to be my umbrella.

I'm from England. We have weather in England. Weather affects terrain. Calm seas can become rough, trees in forests can sway, snow can turn to slush, grassland can become marsh, streets can turn to rivers, hail stones the size of golf balls can appear with no warning in mid-July and set off the alarms of every car parked within a square kilometer[31]. A persistent world with a climate appropriate to its geography is more believable than one that's the same the whole year round[32]. You don't need a sophisticated model to decide the prevailing winds, the temperature, and therefore the cloud cover and likely precipitation. Just because it's always blazing sunshine where you live, that doesn't mean it should be like that in your virtual world. Those lush green pastures have to get their water from somewhere.

[31] Not that I'm speaking from personal experience or anything.

[32] Even if it's not entirely believable, the players will like the variety it offers. The lakes in Asheron's Call 2 freeze in its winter, allowing characters to walk across them.

The second time I went to San Diego, I left my umbrella behind. It rained so hard it stripped the paper off billboards. The locals were unfazed, as it had been forecast for two weeks. Augh!

Using a systematic approach to terrain makes moderating the effects of weather much easier. It has another, equally nice feature, which although not yet used a great deal could nevertheless be the answer to some designers' prayers: implicit terrain.

In Lord of the Rings, all the action takes place in just a few regions. Vast swathes of Middle Earth are not affected by the conflict to any great degree. If you were designing a virtual world in this setting, you'd want to ignore those places the players weren't going to be interested in and concentrate on those they were. Unfortunately, the result would be rather patchy. In players' minds, maps should at the very least be rectangular; if they've read Lord of the Rings, they'd expect the virtual world to match the maps in the books, too.

Content costs money. Even mundane content costs money. There may only be one or two sites of interest in the Misty Mountains, but if the entire map were being represented virtually, then some designer still has to place every tree on every slope leading to every jagged peak in the whole range. That's a lot of effort, just to pacify the occasional player who wanders by.

The overall map shows what the general terrain in a region is, even down to the area level. It's only when the map has to be realized as actual polygons that its creation becomes tedious. This is where implicit terrain comes in.

Implicit terrain uses a guiding terrain type (that of its area) plus a random number seed (based on its coordinates) to generate actual terrain on-the-fly. When a player enters an area, only then is the content for it created. Any changes made by the player (for example, burying treasure) are recorded so as to supersede the implicit definition, but everything else can be discarded after the player leaves. It's less efficient in implementation terms than an explicit representation, but more than makes up for this in designer efficiency. Random mobiles can be created for an area to spice it up, but on the whole they are only there because players are passing through and would notice if they weren't. Having terrain that's defined in layers makes for easier fractal area generation than terrain that's defined by natural language terms[33].

[33] Star Wars Galaxies has a terrain-generation tool that fleshes out a basic model explicitly, allowing the designer to concentrate on placing only the gameplay-specific features of interest.

Most designers won't have this problem of a map that's too big. However, that doesn't mean implicit terrain can't be of use to them. In particular, it can step in to generate content whenever a player walks off the map. Players can be dissuaded from going too far by including ever-tougher mobiles, but then it doesn't really matter if they do go on forever— the geography can always be generated for their coordinates. It won't be compelling content, of course, but it removes the problem of clichéd boundaries. If you're doing a virtual world set in space and you want an infinite universe, well, you can have one.


Movement in virtual worlds is, strictly speaking, merely a specific form of object state transition. Because it's the tool that players use to construct their cognitive map of the environment, however, it has enhanced significance—at least in the minds of players (which is what designers are designing for). The geography of virtual worlds must account for how players will build it in their heads, which depends not only on what they see but also on how they see it. Because virtual world geographies are too big to experience in a single event, movement heavily influences both.

So, let's take a brief look at the various ways to move through virtual worlds, and consider the geographical[34] implications.

[34] And, for towns and cities, architectural.

Basic movement occurs between contiguous locations. These locations will either be nodes or points. To transfer from one location to another, players must issue a movement command (or, in rare instances, fail to issue a cease-movement command). There are four main ways to do this, none of which are mutually exclusive (that is, you can have them all if you want):

  • Absolute directions. These are the classic ones that use the points of the compass. North, northeast, east, and so on.

  • Relative directions. These treat the character as the point of origin, and align with their line of sight. Left, right, forward, and so on.

  • Contextual directions. Commands have different meanings depending on the context. In, out, back, and so on.

  • Landmark directions. These move you toward a location that contains a major feature. Swamp, tower, shop, and so on.

Most textual and 2½D graphical worlds favor absolute directions. Most 3D graphical worlds favor relative directions.

Absolute directions are preferred in textual worlds for three reasons:

  • Room descriptions don't have to take into account the point of view of each character. Note that if this is why you want absolute directions, you can't simultaneously have relative directions.

  • Absolute directions are much easier for players to map with than relative directions. Players prefer them, when given a free choice of which to use.

  • In English, the four main compass points have unique, single-letter abbreviations; the four intermediate points have unique, double-letter abbreviations. None of these clash with other abbreviations for common commands. Abbreviations for relative directions are clunkier (“sl” for “slide left”) and they do clash with other common commands (“l” could be either “left” or “look”).

2½D virtual worlds use absolute directions because they present a fixed view of the virtual world. They may allow 90-degree rotation, but it's always clear which way is north. 3D virtual worlds present the player with a character's eye view of the environment, therefore all movement is relative to the character's line of sight. Absolute direction may be determined from a second, “radar scan” panel, but then again this could use relative directions too.

It's possible to track absolute directions from relative ones, of course, but it's tedious. Given that most players prefer absolute directions so that mapping (real and cognitive) is easier, absolute directions should usually be provided as a convenience[35]. Yes, relative directions are the more realistic (no one has a compass stapled to their nose), but if you insist on having them then expect players to get lost.

[35] This isn't to say that players will use them properly. Over the years, I've encountered several players with “east-west dyslexia,” a condition whereby they have a completely accurate, functioning map in their head that is a mirror image of the one in every other player's head. Making pictorial maps available to newbies got rid of the problem.

Getting lost is the main issue that virtual geography must address. Although occasionally losing your way isn't necessarily a bad thing (especially if you're exploring), if it happens often it means that players haven't been able to build a working model in their heads of how the virtual world is laid out. Such confusion causes frustration (which is bad enough) and further it suggests to newbies that the whole system is confusing (which is worse). If a virtual world is so badly designed that you can't even walk from A to B without getting lost, what chance is there you'll be able to figure out spells or combat or the manufacture of crossbows?

In order not to get lost, a player needs to measure two things: distance and orientation. In nodal worlds, distance is a problem because it's measured in rooms, not in unit lengths. It's possible to go north, east, south, and arrive at the same location as if you'd gone east five times. Worse, you could go northeast and southwest and not end up where you started. For this reason, contextual and landmark commands are used, so that players can get back to somewhere they know relatively easily. Most landmark commands are hardwired into the virtual world, but actually there's no reason why players shouldn't be able to create their own. Route-finding algorithms are fast and efficient, and as long as they don't check things a player couldn't know (such as whether an intervening door is open or locked shut) it should be fine to allow potentially any static geographical feature to be used as a landmark.

Graphical worlds satisfy the distance criterion for not getting lost, but they don't deal with the direction one very well. Furthermore, they don't normally have the interface to allow explicit lost-busting contextual or landmark commands, relying as they do on mouse and arrow keys[36]. If they want such commands, they have to provide them implicitly in the environment. Players go “into” a room because there's a single door. The tower is a “landmark” because it's the tallest structure for miles around.

[36] There are other devices, of course, such as joysticks and VR rigs, but they have the same problems.

Landmarks are important because players use them as reference points[37]. Not all reference points are landmarks in the “being highly visible” sense, though. Inns, underground caves, shrines, sunken oases—people may well regard these as points of reference, but not see them until they're close up. In this event, graphical virtual worlds should provide players pointers to show directions: Roads, rivers, and (of course) signposts can help in this regard.

[37] Some virtual worlds give players access to the coordinate system so they can associate explicit reference points to positions.

Some environments are more likely to get players lost than others. The main culprits are

  • Featureless landscapes, such as deserts.

  • Landscapes packed with similar features, such as forests.

  • Landscapes that frequently change. “The hills are alive!”

  • Deliberately disorienting “crazy angle” vistas designed to convey alienness.

  • Landscapes you have to traverse at speed with sudden, arbitrary direction changes. “Velociraptors! Run for your life!”

  • Twisting, turning, irregular passageways. Mazes you can't steer clear of are not fun.

If you don't want people to get lost, avoid these. If you can't, then be sure that entering them is optional.

So far, I've only discussed contiguous movement. Characters also regularly travel using discontiguous movement—that is, teleporting. This is like moving using landmark directions, except movement to the landmark is instantaneous. Teleportation has implications for several aspects of virtual worlds (particularly the economy), but we'll just look at the geographical ones for now.

One of MUD1's most influential early players, Mark Longley, used to go to London by train fairly regularly. On arrival, he'd take the underground to the stop nearest what ever museum, exhibition hall, or Science Fiction bookshop he was visiting, walk the short distance to his destination, then return the same way. He once explained to me that his geographical knowledge of surface London consisted only of disconnected small areas within a short radius of underground stations, and it was quite a surprise when he looked at a map and discovered just how close some of the stations were in real life.

Virtual worlds with teleports are like Mark's version of London. They may be huge and packed with interesting things, but if people can use portals, then they'll never see anything any distance from one. The fact that most virtual worlds (unlike London) rarely have anything worth seeing on the walk between portals only compounds the problem. It's not so much a virtual world as a collection of virtual sub-worlds.

This may be okay with some designers. Content can gravitate toward portals in the same way that burger restaurants gravitate toward road intersections. It does, however, mean that much cohesion is lost, and it can greatly reduce the sense of awe that players experience on visiting a place for the first time. Atmosphere relies as much on anticipation as it does delivery; enchantment is enhanced by surprise, not by guide books.

These problems can be alleviated to some extent (at least in graphical worlds) by the use of better fiction that makes travel faster but not immediate. If characters can increase their speed by riding on a horse or taking a boat ride, they get to see the local terrain and will arrive at their destination with a better idea of where it is. Failing that, travel could proceed while the player is offline: Tramping across salt flats is boring, but if your character does it while you're asleep in the real world, what's it to you? Travel this way doesn't have to be dangerous—it effectively works by “slow portals”—but at least it gives an idea of how far you've traveled (if not exactly where to).

So, when designing your virtual world's geography, remember that people will have to experience it. Give them landmarks, give them maps, give them coordinates if you must—just make sure, however you do it, that they know where they are. Then, they can decide where to go.


Many virtual worlds contain virtual buildings. Although some of these may be isolated (farmhouses, cottages, wizards' towers), worlds created to a bigger scale will want settlements.

Settlements in this context are collections of buildings (or one huge building with lots of rooms—a castle, say, or a space station). Most of the time they will be occupied, but ruined settlements are also possible.

It should go without saying that settlements are positioned where they are for a reason. Virtual worlds are more believable if their settlements are built in locations that make sense. A town with no access to fresh water or no trade routes to other settlements will cause anyone who gives them a moment's thought to raise an eyebrow. Unfortunately, many designers are oblivious to such formalities. They're quite happy to put a ruined city on the side of a mountain and say it's the site of a massacre of humans by dwarfs, but they're less concerned about what the humans who lived there would have eaten.

There are many reasons why large-population cities in the real world are built where they are. Most grow from smaller settlements, although some are founded by rulers (for example, Baghdad, Munich, St. Petersburg, Washington D.C.). To prosper, all of them need

  • Plenty of level ground

  • Access to food and water

  • Nearby building materials

  • A non-threatening climate/geology/geography

  • Communication links

  • A population

If they are close to natural resources and are in an easily defensible position, so much the better.

Note that for many virtual worlds, some of these criteria are not necessary from a strictly gameplay point of view. Food and water are only needed if characters need to eat and drink; characters are generally impervious to the effects of climate; communication is often instantaneous. Indeed, people may only want to have a house at all so they have somewhere to store their stuff. That's not how real-world settlements form.

For virtual worlds designed under license, settlements have to appear where the map says they do. Even so, it doesn't necessarily hurt to put roads, springs, forests, and cornfields in the vicinity. Designers of other virtual worlds have more freedom to put cities where they want, but more responsibility to put them somewhere non-idiotic. As with many aspects of virtual world design, the key is to do your research: A few hours spent skimming through a textbook for first-year Town Planning undergraduates will give you the rudiments of settlement organization (which are all you need). With a virtual world, you don't only get to place a settlement where you want it in relation to other settlements, but you can change the geography to accommodate it. There really is no excuse for carelessness. The usual rule of rule-breaking applies: If a settlement is in a place you wouldn't normally find a settlement, there's some in-context reason it's in such a place (for example, the religious inhabitants don't want contact with outsiders).

Note that smaller virtual worlds, especially ones that don't have a high degree of persistence, may use social places, such as inns, as hubs (rather than resort to full-blown settlements). The placement rules for these will differ, but they'll nevertheless still exist; don't just plonk them down anywhere.

Given these basic laws for positioning settlements (or whatever), the next issue is applying them to derive the configuration that designers want. Settlements invariably serve some gameplay purpose; they're not there merely to provide yet more background color. Although some locations are so natural that a settlement just has to occupy them (the estuaries of major rivers, the heads of deltas, the desert oasis on a major caravan route), the positioning of the rest depends on what designers want out of them—in particular, whether or not they want players to visit them. Often, settlements will be centers of trade, where players can go to sell their stuff and buy better stuff. They're also frequently places where players get quests. Thus, they act as focal points and can foster a sense of community; in worlds that allow for property ownership, they can become the physical embodiment of communities.

If there are too few settlements, players will crowd out the ones that do exist. It's less of a problem if there are too many, as players will gravitate to just a few and leave the others as testimonies to designers' wasted time.

Ideally, settlements should fail or flourish by a process of survival of the fittest. At a superficial level, this looks easy: The ones that players frequent should expand to offer new opportunities and services; the ones that are forgotten should atrophy away to become ghost towns. Unfortunately, this is easier said than done: The majority population of most settlements consists of non-player characters, who won't necessarily be easy to move (even from a purely implementational point of view). More worryingly, they could look useless but perform an important function indirectly. For example, players may never visit the mining town but if it produces all the iron that the artisans in the big city use to make armor, closing it down would be a mistake. In a sophisticated virtual world with interlinked economies, ecologies, and communities, measuring the success of a settlement merely by the number of player-occupied houses is not enough.

Should players be able to build their own settlements? This would allow for them to appear spontaneously where designers (deliberately or otherwise) left a hole. Ultima Online allowed it from the beginning, but other virtual worlds can have technical reasons for not permitting it: Asheron's Call only lets players buy prebuilt housing, for example, because its long-term story arc could suddenly call for a volcano to appear beneath a shanty town otherwise. On the whole, though, player-built settlements are simply too powerful a retention tool to dismiss; for long-term persistent virtual worlds, if player-created settlements make any kind of sense at all then designers should aim to facilitate their creation.

This isn't actually as easy as it sounds. Virtual worlds need virtual inhabitants as well as real ones. Settlements that don't have NPCs in them won't be as functional as those that do. From where do they acquire their denizens?

There are three main ways to do it:

  • Sleight of hand. When the settlement reaches a certain size, NPCs appear. Other than in defining the boundaries (and therefore size) of a settlement, the only disadvantages of this to speak of are that it isn't exactly convincing and it can lead to NPC inflation (that is, the more NPCs there are, the less the value of each one).

  • Bought in. With these, buildings that operate services come with their own staff. If your community clubs together and funds the construction of a cobbler's shop, it comes automatically with a cobbler. This is marginally more realistic and allows for a greater variety of towns, but can still lead to NPC inflation. If every town builds a cobbler's shop, how does this affect the price of shoes?

  • Economics. NPCs periodically look at how their business is going, and if it's poor, they move to somewhere else where it won't be poor. This is the most realistic solution of all, but it needs a good economic model to underpin it—one that can be used predictively so NPCs can speculate where a good market may be[38].

    [38] It won't be able to account for intangible effects, though. A community of pacifist players who don't buy weapons would attract NPC weaponsmiths to set up shop because all they see is a large population of characters who don't have weapons—exactly what they're looking for!

Construction time is another issue. If major buildings can spring up overnight, then it doesn't bode well for a sense of realism. Unfortunately, if it takes a realistic time, then it doesn't bode well for community management: Impatient players will complain if it takes a whole week to build an entire castle, let alone a modest dwelling (although this can be alleviated if you make them build in stages). There's a case for having some delay, even if the fiction can support instant houses (“Just plant the house seed where you want it to grow, then water it and stand back”). A wait can heighten the anticipation, especially if progress is visible. Too long, though, and it becomes frustrating[39]. It's up to you where you draw the line.

[39] “God should have made the gestation period for humans six months instead of nine”: discuss.

Perhaps the most noticeable thing about the settlements in virtual worlds is that they aren't actually all that large. EverQuest's largest towns have perhaps 50 buildings in them—they're mere hamlets. Big textual worlds can have many more, but they suffer from not “looking” big. If graphical worlds had 5,000 buildings, that would be more like it! Unfortunately, this would depend on their having a capability to support significant numbers of NPCs that most of them severely lack (because of the degree of AI needed to control the little dears). Also, many designers see little point in having large numbers of pretend people in a virtual world that can boast several thousand real ones[40].

[40] This situation is likely to change under pressure from epic-scale, single-player role-playing games (Bethesda Softworks' Morrowind set the alarm bells ringing).

Nevertheless, I look forward to the day when I can visit a virtual city populated by tens of thousands of virtual players, each of whom has their own life to live and their own place in their virtual society. That would really be quite something.

  • Creative Edge
  • Create BookmarkCreate Bookmark
  • Create Note or TagCreate Note or Tag
  • PrintPrint