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You know how it goes in a typical MMO: You level through a variety of zones, usually at breakneck speed, just so you can get to max level and the endgame. Once you’ve reached that milestone, those old zones become barren wastelands, populated only by the occasional alt or max-level player scooping up low-level crafting mats.

Granted, MMO developers have tended to do a better job these days in getting you to visit your old stomping grounds and making them seem alive, but you’ll probably still spend most of your time doing max-level things with your max-level characters. I’ve played a lot of Rift and Guild Wars 2, and I think those games do about as good a job as can be done in getting people to visit low-level areas, but those zones are still largely empty outside of the occasional big event. Unless you’re leveling an alt, most people spend their time in the handful of max-level zones, towns, and dungeons.

Making all that open-world stuff takes time, money, and energy, maybe as much (or more) as it takes to make a dungeon. The difference is, a dungeon will be used over and over by a player, while a leveling zone will be chewed through in a few days, (almost) never to be seen again. I don’t consider myself a speedy player, by any means – I like to take in the sights and enjoy the landscape while I level – but even I have to wonder if we wouldn’t have a better full game experience without it, if those resources that went into barely used leveling zones could be better invested by creating a richer endgame experience.

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The first question is, why do we have this stuff in the first place? I think there are two reasons, one for gameplay and one for aesthetics. The thing is, I’m not sure either is really necessary, at least not in the way they’re presented.

The gameplay argument is the typical “learn to play” argument, that you need to play… well, something fairly easy… before you can get into the real, “tough,” endgame. I’ll agree that some kind of basic training is a good idea, especially in games with vertical leveling, but is it worth it to create 50 hours (or so) of non-repeatable content to prepare a player for hundreds of hours of repeatable content? Most shooters that are designed to be played online have significantly reduced or completely done away with the single-player aspect of their games, letting people jump right in to the core multiplayer experience, even if they’re a little undergeared and underskilled. Why don’t MMOs do the same?

Then there’s the aesthetic argument, the notion that the world just won’t “feel” right without some vast territory to explore or conquer. We’ve all played single-player RPGs, and many of us have played pen-and-paper games, and journeying over that next hill or finding the monsters’ hidden lair is part of the fun – assuming you didn’t just look it up on the game’s wiki. It helps set the scene and more fully immerses you in the fictional setting. Maybe a “no open world” game would be like a movie or book that’s all about big action sequences without any of the dialogue to set up the action.

Of course, in both of those cases, the “filler” is part of the game roughly on par with all the other parts of the game; in other words, you might spend 50 hours leveling and then another 10 hours on the “endgame” until you beat the final boss. MMOs have more like a 50/1,000 leveling/endgame hours split. The same goes with a movie or book; the writer or director might spend a little more time making sure the climax is great, but you aren’t likely to revisit it once a week.

But even with both of these factors taken into account, it’s still pretty much guaranteed that you’ll spend far more of your time doing the max-level stuff than running around the leveling areas. This is a gross simplification, but if it takes half the developers’ time to create the open world and half their time to create the max-level content, why not just take that half that goes into creating hills and oceans and villages and double up on what people really spend their time on? From a strictly economic standpoint, it makes sense.

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This is mostly what a game like Warframe does. There’s not a whole lot to think of in terms of story, other than that you’re a resurrected space ninja who’s supposed to destroy everything in their path. But it’s got classes, advancement, a party system… really, just about everything you’d expect from a full-fledged MMO apart from an open world to explore.

Suppose that that’s how your favorite MMO worked. Let’s take Rift as an example. Maybe you’d still have a town to socialize in, but you’ll spend all your time doing the chronicles, dungeons, raids, PvP battles, etc. Trion could, conceivably, make more of those because they aren’t spending time building up a new leveling zone with every expansion – a zone that you’ll basically ignore once you get to max level and sit around in town all day waiting for queues to pop. If that’s what you’re spending most of your time doing anyway, shouldn’t that be what they make more of?

Or, maybe the correct alternative is to go in the other direction and get rid of everything except the open world. Maybe if you’re going to go to the trouble of creating this world, you need to take away the temptation of the easy advancement through nice, easily regulated instanced areas. Old-school MMOs, with their open-world PvP, were often like this, and you can see it in games like PlanetSide 2 and DayZ. Nobody is suggesting either of those games add dungeons.

I’m not sure what the answer is, and like my last awful idea, I’m not suggesting this become the new trend in MMOs. I still like having some semblance of “life” to my MMOs, and not having an open world to roam – even if I know I won’t spend much time in it – makes it seem like less of a world, makes it seem less alive. Maybe we still need that, inefficient and “wasteful” as it is.

the author

Jason Winter is a veteran gaming journalist, he brings a wide range of experience to MMOBomb, including two years with Beckett Media where he served as the editor of the leading gaming magazine Massive Online Gamer. He has also written professionally for several gaming websites.

19 Readers Commented

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  1. Sir Douchebag on December 2, 2014

    Good article. In regards of what is usually seen in MMOs questing zones do become redundant to game play and as you say a waste of resources. I hope as gaming progresses they’ll drop questing zones and have literally an open world full of many random encounters, migrating NPCs and player housing within the open world. Of course quest hubs along the way but not in the same sense that they are now. Each ‘zone’ should be alive, immersive and highly interactive.

  2. ExHuman on November 11, 2014

    The real awful idea is to base you project on more than a decade-old design philosophy. While it worked fine for early subscription based mmorpg`s, allowing them to bleed enough money from customers even before they manage to see so called “real content”, things doesn’t work that way anymore. Games are mainly entertainment, and if your game fail to present its best right from the start, the bored client will go and do something else.

  3. Leon on November 7, 2014

    One of my favourite MMOs was Guild Wars. The first one. Partially because of it’s low level cap of 20. Something that could be done in a very short amount of time. And then the rest of it was all it’s “End Game” content.

    I agree that the MMO market is stale and enjoy when games try to do something different to break away from the rank and file. Guild Wars 2 totally forsaken gear progression in favour of aesthetic collecting.

    Although, I feel MMOs are becoming less social – the most often you’ll spend with other players is in a dungeon, with a group of people who you’ll have no contact with afterwards generally because they’ll be on a different server.

  4. Annonymouse on November 5, 2014

    The open world done right is pure awesome.

    In Vanilla WoW the open world was used a lot more. Partially because there was simply less open world, but mostly because battlegrounds did not exist. Blizzard basically killed one of the main draws of the open world by implementing battlegrounds.

  5. Razer on November 5, 2014

    Companies can’t seem to comprehend an MMO’s open world as anything more than a grindy and linear ‘theme park’. Everything has to be a tour from low level areas, to high level, to the end game that bears little resemblance to the rest. This is where the source of the genre’s stagnation lies. Until they can let go of the idea of strict vertical progression, this problem will never cease.
    On a different tack, I do declare that the people making games like DayZ (even though I’m not a fan of the game, I’m going to give credit where credit is due) understand what the concept of a true open world massively multiplayer online ROLE PLAYING game should be, better than the likes of Blizzard and all the other such numbskulls in the industry. It’s not about incrementing arbitrary numbers on your character’s spreadsheet so you can level up and move to the next area or the end game. It’s about deep, emergent gameplay interactions with other players in a wide open and immersive world (griefers notwithstanding). Something that the likes of World of Warcraft has a very poor grasp of.

  6. mike on November 5, 2014

    Another pvp freak! Mmo is all about open world, go play moba or something. In wow, you can go back and collect pets, in lotro you can go back and do deeds for turbine points=>real money worth and more. I wonder why you dont play offline games or some 2d stuff. Open world is rear anymore and the only reason is that its tough to create with an optimized engine. Anything else is just excuses!

  7. Scott Sigurbjartsson on November 5, 2014

    I also enjoy fellating overweight men in open world games.

  8. Randyblythe on November 5, 2014

    I do agree with you that open world does take up a lot of resources that could be used elsewhere, however, one of the reasons I LOVED world of warcraft so much is the open world. Every area felt like it had life.

    If it was all linear I doubt I’d enjoy it at all.

    Remember MMORPGs are about the journey, not the destination.

  9. Zhao Yun on November 4, 2014

    And people ask why i play single player games like portal or middle earth shadows of mordor or assassin’s creed nowaydays instead of mmos lol.Thats exactly why too much grind to deal with like jason said grind till max lvl and then grand 10 times more for end game gear and boom then u quit lol.I also agree that games who got “rid of” the open world aspect like warframe are a lot better i mean sure its repeptitive cause u do the same thing over and over(shoot stuff and try not to die)but at least theres not the open world aspect of it to worry about 😛

  10. veicht on November 4, 2014

    I have to wonder how disenchanted you have become with the mmo genre with this article and the last of the same type.

    You seem to have lost (or never did have a grasp of) why rpgs are the way they are. Some games use leveling as a tutorial but thats not why it exists. Rpgs are generally about your character and their journey/journeys and leveling is part of emulating that fantasy (it represents character growth and development, defining traits and powers of said character) not a barrier to entry which it has so often been treated as lately.

    Instead of removing the pointless open worlds of modern mmos, how about we make the open worlds more useful and meaningfull to all levels again? I come from a time in mmos where quests were not experience bonus filler, but were instead a means of exploration, obtaining rare items, story and even mystery, bring this back. Make areas that are not simply for a single 5 level spread but that offer things for a wide range of levels. Have activities of value scattered throughout the open world areas. These are all things that mmos USED to do that seems to have died off with world of warcraft and the quest hub mmo it brought into popularity.

    If you have a hard time picturing this magicman might be able to shed some light on it from his past final fantasy xi experience.

    • Rockmeo on November 5, 2014

      Could´nt say it better , i never agree with someone , but i guess there are times when smart people appear , i do love the way we see the Rpg with the wide open world´s and the journey you have to do and at the end that´s the way you enjoy your character.

  11. FreshUndead on November 4, 2014

    One of my favorite game serirs is monster hunter in that game you have a town hub that u get missions from and use one of the varrios maps to hunt monsters but wether high lvl gear or low lvl the maps don’t change but the boss monsters do, in a sence no open world to forget the end game and noob stuff all same maps just diff bosses to kill.

    • Bratwurst on November 4, 2014

      Best RPG I have ever played, I myself play in Portable 3rd, Selene Moonbroken bow and Gold Rathian Armor using the blademaster helm as it just looks cool.

  12. sixtynuggets on November 4, 2014

    If you remove the open world, a game with “advancement, parties and classes” is not an mmo, its just a multiplayer game. League of Legends while extremely popular and played by millions, is not a MMO, it is just a game with a progression system, the xp progression system present in multiplayer games originally made popular by Call of Duty 4’s class and level up system (and no one will call CoD4 an mmo). So there are free online multiplayer games, Warframe, WoT, Warthunder, League and other Mobas. then there are massive multiplayer games like Planetside, WoW, and others that have many players in the same play space continuously. It may just be semantics but unless you actually have a massive play space with many players, its not an MMO, just a game.

    • Jinfusakei on November 5, 2014

      Actually to correct you on the whole thing about how MMO’s have to be open world idea. Let’s explore games that are MMO’s who have lived longer than said Rift and Guild Wars 2. Let’s say for example, DDO. It is an MMO, yet it has instances; but it also has multiple free roaming instances to screw around in.

      An MMO is this, Massive Multiplayer Online, which means that you just have to have a massive player-base on one server or the game itself. Simple, and many games have proven how simple it is.

  13. Padsoldier on November 4, 2014

    From a purely gameplay standpoint, having that “open-world leveling experience” is completely unneeded and could easily be skipped, usually the difference between leveling characters (even when they’re of different race and class) is mostly for the first 5-10-20 levels (in a game like WoW where endgame begins at 80-85-90-100 and there are many ways to speed up the leveling process), afterwards there are not enough zones (and not enough quests in a single zone) to use different routes and players will pass by the same area on their second/third/n-th character. It gives an illusion of choice while in reality there is one significantly “best” way or the paths cross eventually and it’s just the order in which you visit the zones that makes a difference.

    Open world is better than a linear experience, but only when it’s done well, otherwise it could be a burden as it makes hard to find a way around the place. A well-crafted open world game is slightly pointing you into different ways but should force you to make a (maybe temporary) choice – which of these interesting things do you want to look at first? When you finish a quest, there could be something you passed by on your way towards there or something you see from the quest-hub that gets your attention and want to see for yourself. If all you get is nice scenery, then it could not be worth your time and the fifth time you find something like this you do not go up there and the whole open-world aspect of the game is wasted because they’re not using it properly. If you find something there (a piece of story with a book, a quest, a chest with some loot, a strange monster) the next time you’ll hesitate a lot less when it comes to investigating such things.

    If all the quests are in a single hub in one part of the zone (or if there are additional questgivers around then these quests point you towards them) then the game is not really open world. Yes, you can go wherever you want but you’re not rewarded at all for it. Only the players who’re into the artistic parts of the game would keep on exploring and they’re going to be a minority. If the game has nothing worth exploring then I’d rather have it direct me towards the next quest/zone to speed up the leveling process, especially because (due to the contrast in time spent there compared to endgame as mentioned in the article) the leveling areas receive less development time and as such the quests there will most likely be fairly generic without much variety (WoW made some great changes there with Cataclysm) – but the leveling process is one of the key things that need to be interesting so players keep playing, and it’s a lot easier to create an interesting environment than it is to create a leveling experience filled with variety all the way through – most of the variety comes from the different places and scenery and not from gameplay.

    TL; DR: Open world is something that needs full commitment and should be done well or not at all.

  14. carlos on November 4, 2014

    well, the best game i ever playd for sure is lineage2 the first chronicle i think maybe 2005.. the game was rly rly new and innovator you know, i mean did not have all the recourses that a mmorpg hae nowdays but i mean what we need is something like lineage2. my thought.

  15. Player 1 on November 4, 2014

    Indeed

  16. Elesion on November 4, 2014

    Another amazing thought-provoking article Jason 🙂

    One game that can kind bridges the gap in the argument, I would argue, is Face of Mankind kind. Regardless of the many criticisms of the game, planets are always being revisited because of the competitive pvp territory ownership 🙂

    Just my 2-pence ^.^

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