Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities #54:

Building Blocks: Zones

by Shannon Appelcline

December 20, 2001 — With the year drawing to a close, we're in the home stretch for building rooms in an online game. In fact, there's just one topic left: zones. The idea of zones isn't particularly crucial to online games, and in fact won't be used in some — without any lossage — but despite that some builders find them useful.

And some manage to abuse them.

Zone n.
1. Online Games. A discrete realm within a game that tends to have unique graphics, mobiles, background, stories, plots and/or builders.

The whole idea of a zone, as defined above, is that it's a individual area within a game — something clearly unique and different from those areas around it. Pretty simple. The wheres, whyfors, and whynots of the design, however, require a little more discussion.

The History of Zones

The first time I ever came across zones was in AberMUD, which I began playing in 1989. The original game seemed a fairly homogeneous whole. You wandered around — from the village church in the southeast, through the blizzards and the mountains, to the temple in the north — and the world seemed pretty consistent.

But, there were little quirks. Along the path leaving the village, for example, there was a singular entrance to a realm of trees, where one climbed from walnut tree to oak tree and even into an interesting old house. The whole place was written in a style that really seemed to fit in with the rest of the game, but the fact that it had only one entrance to the rest of the world and that all of its puzzles were totally self-contained revealed it for what it was: a zone.

I really got the concept of zones down the next year, in 1990, when I created my own zone for AberMUD. I unself-consciously named it Dinthiar's Elven Forest, after my own character, of course, and came up with a story of battling undead, of elven society corrupted, of hope shattered — all that fun stuff. And I found two places to connect it to the main map. Presto, instant zone.

One of the larger AberMUD Web Sites lists numerous zones that have been built for the game. One list notes the first twenty-five or so zones built for the game. You'll note both that oak tree and my own elven forest among them:

ancient, blizzard, castle, catacomb, cave, church, eforest, forest, frobozz, home, icecave, island, labyrinth, ledge, moor, mountain, oaktree, orchold, quarry, sea, tower, treehouse, valley, village, waste, xlimbo.

The whole AberMUD experience showed two of the prime reasons to have zones in a game:

  1. It allowed singular builders to create their own, self-consistent realms within a larger world.
  2. It allowed master builders or administrators to OK these new areas before connecting them in to the rest of the world — and thus also protected existing, "trusted" areas from change.

Players of more recent, graphical MMORPGs are probably quite aware that their worlds are built up of zones too. Illia's Everquest Bestiary provides one list of the zones in that world. It's complemented by some terrific zone maps which can be found at EQMaps.

Why are these zones required in modern MMORPGs, when the development team is entirely trusted, and all theoretically working together?

One answer is the same: it's easier for a builder to create a "story" if there aren't a lot of other people stepping on his toes. And, for that matter, it's easier for a player to piece together the parts of a story if there isn't a lot of other stuff going on at the same time — it's unrealistic, but a definite nod toward dramatic necessity.

But there's one other reason to have zones in a game, particularly in a large graphical game like Everquest: resource management. Graphical games tend to have unique graphics for both mobiles and geographical features, and all of those graphics take up memory. Rather than constantly lagging players, downloading huge pictures every time they see something new, a zone allows the game to load all the required graphics when a player enters that area (and thus players only get lagged once). So that's two more reasons to have zones:

  1. It helps players figure out stories.
  2. It helps resource management.

In creating Castle Marrach, we created two of what are essentially zones — though we weren't thinking of the term at the time: the Inner Bailey and The Outer Bailey. Why? There were two main reasons:

  • StoryBuilder Distinction. We had two different teams of StoryBuilders on Castle Marrach, one working on the Outer Bailey and one working on the Inner. Because of the relative isolation of the two areas, it made some sense that they might "feel" quite different.
  • Player Distinction. As I discussed in Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities #52, Courting Misrule, sandboxing can be a major issue in plot-based games. Old players can take up all the "positions" which new players might want to fill. Creating these two zones offers a bit of a pressure relief valve for this problem in Marrach.

Finally, though we haven't take advantage of it yet,(1) our two-zone approach to Castle Marrach allows for a bit of resource management too:

  • Map Distinction. Every time you click on the map box in the Castle Marrach client, you get a map of the Outer Bailey. Wouldn't it be nice if you got a map of the Inner Bailey when you were there?

Putting that all together, we can see that in Castle Marrach we're trying to take advantage of three of the major purposes for zone creation — builder, player, and resource distinction. The only thing we really don't worry about is the issue of using zones to protect the game from untrusted content. And that's not a worry because the group of people who can create new areas is pretty small. Because of that, anyone who can create a zone can link it in too, if they want.

The Problem with Zones

While zones are really useful, they aren't all smiley faces and puppy dogs. If you're not careful, they can really mess up players' sense of reality. The world does have some artificial distinctions — California is different from Nevada, and Berkeley is different from San Francisco, and the United States is different from Afghanistan — but they're not as abrupt as the differences that you often see between zones in an online game.

So, if you're using zones in your online game, you should carefully consider one rule: don't make zones entirely discrete. As with the real world, try and blend one zone into the next. Try and mention the background of one zone in another. Try and make your transitions between adjacent zones gradual. Every once in a while, hide a puzzle piece from one zone elsewhere. You'll still get all the benefits of a zoned game, but you'll also be creating a more realistic world.

Building with Zones

It's a bit silly to offer a set of rules for how to create zones. After all, the actual task of creating a zone is really simple. You say, "Bob, you build the ocean, I'm going to build the coast; we'll figure out how to connect them later." And off you go. However, there are lots of decisions that you're going to need to make, about whether to include zones are not. That is most of what I'm going to be discussing here.

1. Recruit Builders

If you're going to engage in zone-based building, you want to do it from the start rather than trying to switch over mid-game. So, before you do anything else, figure out how large you want your team of builders to be — and if that magic number is more than "1", go out and find some helpers.

And, I'd like to highly suggest that number should be more than "1", because building a game is hard work. Besides that, if you have lots of different people working on the game, you'll get lots of different ideas, and your game will be more interesting and vibrant.

I've written about this before, in Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities #30, The Team's the Thing. My advice remains the same: gather a team, and do it first thing.

2. Decide Whether to Create Zones for Builders

Once you've figured out your team size, determine if you want to have different builders create different zones within your game. Surprisingly, you won't always want to do this. You might have some Builders engineering systems while others create rooms. Likewise, you might decide that the core of your game needs to be so self-consistent that everyone has to work together.

However, your Builders will probably be more comfortable if they know they're totally responsible for their own areas of the game, and that's what zoning allows.

3. Decide Whether to Create Zones for Players

Life's a mess, and it's hard to figure out what events fit into one "story" and what events fit into another. On the other hand, when they're being entertained, players want to be able to easily piece together the stories being presented to them. Consider if you want to break out individual zones to highlight certain stories within your game.

4. Decide Whether to Create Zones for Unique Areas

This is very closely related to the above. Just as you'll want to highlight certain stories, you'll also want to highlight some individual and unique areas within the game. The Astral Plane, the haunted mansion on the hill, or a moving 747 all have their own reasons for being unique zones, irrespective of the stories being told within.

5. Decide Whether to Create Zones for Resource Management

By this point, you've probably already got a bunch of zones planned out. Each individual Builder probably has a packet of zones to call his own, each zone telling an individual story or surrounding a unique area. And, there are probably a few zones meeting each of these criteria that are held in common between all of your Builders — because they're the core of your game.

Before you finish zoning your game, however, you should look at see if any zones are too big. This might not matter at all in your game, but if you do have any resource issues, whether they be loading graphics like in the MMORPGs, or whether they be allocating rare map window space like in Castle Marrach, you might want to figure out how to make existing zones even smaller.

6. Integrate Your Zones

And then you're ready to start building your game: creating your maps, designing your rooms, creating your details, and finally naming them. But you're not quite done with your consideration of zones. As you build you should always keep in mind the fact that your zones should not be totally rigid dividers in your game. Constantly think about how you can overlap them, ever so slightly, having items, people, objects, and terrain all mix on the borders. You'll make your game that much more lifelike!

Adieu! Adieu! And You! And You!

And that, my friends, is it for me this year, here at Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities. There will be no columns next week, as part of "Article Amnesty Week" at Skotos. Instead, check the home page between December 24 and December 30 for a brief listing of the columnists' favorite columns of 2001.

Two weeks from now I plan to talk about where our medium should be going for the future, and then it'll be back to building blocks. Inheritance and portables are next on the list, in some order.

  1. 2/6/02. And now we do take advantage of map differentiation in Castle Marrach. However, just to confuse my argument in this article, when you click on the map window you get a map of your entire floor, not the whole Bailey you're in, and each floor is definitely not a zone. Nonetheless, the use of dividing things up remains obvious.

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