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Worldbuilding: what can map design tell us about game design?

10 November 2017

Ollie Balaam is a QA Engineer at Improbable. 

The Mercator projection was created in 1569 and is the de facto standard for mapping apps. Millions of people use it every day, but its utility comes at the cost of some significant spatial distortion.

In order to flatten the globe, Mercator exaggerates the size of areas far from the equator, causing Europe to appear the same size as Africa. If the winners write the histories, they also draw the maps, so it’s perhaps no coincidence that Mercator (a Flemish geographer) settled on a model that so drastically exaggerates the size of his home continent.

Whatever his intentions, Mercator’s model demonstrates that maps are subjective documents. They’re only as accurate as the data they’re based on, and only as impartial as their creators. In real life this makes maps rich sources for political analysis, but in games, great maps can do much to enrich fiction and surface themes.

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A map of Fallout 4’s wasteland shows most, but not all, of its world.

Mapping the territory

Take Far Cry 3. The colonialist bent of the game’s tourist protagonist manifests cartographically. Playing as this character, you spend a violent gap year marking the map with colours as you “liberate” an archipelago. By the game’s end, you have literally redrawn the map.

Similarly the vast melancholy of Fallout 4’s Glowing Sea truly hits home when the in-game map ends but the sprawling wastes do not. Players can voyage beyond the map’s theoretical limits – daring to go where the mapmakers didn’t. In this liminal space, neglected by imagined cartographers, the game is at its most suspenseful.

Setting a lighter tone, Pokémon GO successfully transposed the series’ cheerful rural vibe into real-world towns and cities last summer. The galvanized crowds that rare pokémon drew were a testament to the transformative, psychogeographic effect of gamified maps. At the height of this craze, where friendships were formed and neighbourhoods rediscovered thanks to an augmented reality layered on top of our own, you could see the beginnings of a pluralistic identity taking shape.

Improbable’s CEO Herman Narula expounds the idea of a ‘multiversal self’. By this he means that humans are likely never going to be able to travel between the stars – but in simulations we can be, for a time, other people, creatures and things. And in the immersive, persistent simulated worlds of the future, we may be those things for our entire lives – like a part-time Matrix.

In the simulations that Narula envisions, the cosmetic items and arbitrary rankings that players compete for in today’s most popular games would be superseded by more elaborate goals and rewards, arising from the complexity of the simulation itself. Knowledge would become a valuable commodity and navigational data would be worth fighting for and fiercely protecting.

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Screenshot from Worlds Adrift by Bossa Studios (made with SpatialOS)

Why map Worlds Adrift?

Among the early versions of these worlds, is Bossa Studios’ massively multiplayer sandbox Worlds Adrift. Built on our SpatialOS platform, it seamlessly stitches together hundreds of servers to enable one massive, persistent world. Home to wild creatures, complex ecosystems and hundreds of players, it’s roughly the size of Los Angeles, and it doesn’t have an in-game map at all.

So the game’s community, seeing this deliberate omission as a challenge, have set out to chart the vast expanse themselves. 

Armed with compass, altimeter and speedometer, pioneering players are setting their own ambitious goals in this game that otherwise lacks much formal structure. The cartographic guildsthey’ve formed and the maps they’ve created speak to the game’s rousing opportunity space and the human drive to explore it.

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A map of Worlds Adrift’s game world created by The Cardinal Guild.

Its enormity invites exploration, but what makes Worlds Adrift a joy to journey through is its physicality. Surgeon Simulator, Bossa’s physics-based malpractice-em-up, was an instantly appealing tactile experience, but reproducing this tangibility at scale was no easy feat. Distributed physics is an extremely difficult problem for games to solve but, with SpatialOS automatically managing these interactions, Bossa have managed it.

In the simulations that Narula envisions, the cosmetic items and arbitrary rankings that players compete for in today’s most popular games would be superseded by more elaborate goals and rewards, arising from the complexity of the simulation itself.

This means that, while most MMOs necessarily limit physical interaction to maintain player count, Worlds Adrift is both massively multiplayer and fully physics driven. It’s built to be clambered over and grappled under, dragged around and otherwise manipulated. It’s a world that you can touch and the sense of presence this affords, in tandem with its sheer scale, makes it one worth mapping.

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The Truman Show (1998) lends its name to an immersion-breaking game world phenomenon.

The Truman Show Effect

Another feature that makes Worlds Adrift feel like a real space is its persistence. The game doesn’t reset or forget, so players affect the world in meaningful and long-lasting ways. A shipwreck for instance, isn’t just set dressing, but a relic from a prior calamity.

The integrity of persistent worlds solves one of gaming’s longstanding problems, which Rock, Paper, Shotgun’s Adam Smith has referred to as the ‘Truman Show Effect’:

“It’s in Grand Theft Auto, when the game spawns traffic behind your back where none existed a second before, ensuring the streets in your vicinity are populated. It’s in triggered interactions, those conversations and brawls that don’t begin until the player drops by to listen or observe. So many game worlds are made up of performers, treating the player as a participating audience member. They’re not simulating credible places, they’re simulating a kind of living haunted house experience, where all of the ghouls are staff who have been instructed to entertain the paying guests.”

The technical compromise described here so pervades modern game design that, before I played Worlds Adrift, it hadn’t occurred to me that there was another way. Once you feel the effect of “simulating credible places” though, like Truman, you don’t want to go back to the haunted house.

Judging by the community response to the game, I’m not the only one that feels this way. The average Worlds Adrift player has spent more than 25hrs in game but paradoxically, the greatest indicator of their continued investment is the time they spend outside of it. Highly engaged players are sharing Photoshop templates to unify their map making efforts, brokering ceasefires in the forums, and podcasting about their adventures.

These acts of metagaming show that they’re thinking about the world even when they’re not in it. They’re still playing because the world is still playing, shifting and evolving, awaiting their return. And their maps are reflections of their desire to impose meaning on this world, like any world.

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