The RPG Scrollbars: Size Matters

Even by Blizzard’s standards, The Mean Streets of Gadgetzan is taking the piss. In case you missed it, which I know you didn’t, but work with me here, it’s the newest Hearthstone expansion. The trailer is wonderful. The setting is a corrupt crime-town full of gangsters, hoodlums and mugs, all fighting for cash and control in a tongue-in-cheek mix of Lord of the Rings and Bugsy Malone. I’d love to play a full adventure/RPG/heck even shooter set in that world, not just play with a new set of cards using it as a theme. In just a minute of charismatic art and a fun song, Blizzard fleshed out Gadgetzan with more love and more detail than some games manage in their entire runs.

But, uh, here’s the thing. This is what Gadgetzan actually looks like.

One second while I rewrite the trailer. Blizzard, you’re welcome.

“Ah, Gadgetzan! I vaguely remember going there.”

Gadgetzan. Where nobody makes a fuss.
Gadgetzan. Home of maybe ten huts.
Nobody goes. It’s a low level zone.
The tiny port of Gadgetzan…

Gadgetzan. Smaller than Booty Bay
Gadgetzan. Real far out of the way
At least it’s not the Barrens, it’s over in Tanaris
The port of Gadgetzan!

Everywhere you’re looking, everyone is- uh, um-
“Everyone’s in Dalaran, pal!”
Not the Mean Streets of Gadgetzaaaaaaaan.

I mean, goodness me. Scale in RPGs is always interesting, and typically done with a nod and a wink. It’s not how big something is that determines how large we’re meant to consider it, but its relative scale. The capital city of Stormwind for instance has a canonical population of 200,000, yet in terms of actual buildings would struggle to hold a few hundred. Just down the road, Goldshire is little more than a pub and a couple of houses, intended to represent around 7,000 farmers and miners and their families. Heck, Azeroth itself has been calculated as being small enough to fit on the Isle of Wight. Specific size estimates vary, but it’s not much of a planet.

That’s not a problem though, because once actually in that space, all the different biomes and encounters help fill up the space, and Blizzard pulls every trick in the book to further increase the perceived scale. Having to get onto a boat to switch continents for instance creates a sense of distance purely with a loading screen and a map. Much of the rest is then carried by the fact that we know why it has to be this way. Expected population numbers, the density of quests, the amount of time people want to spend just following a road instead of hitting things and hearing dings…

Still. Turning Gadgetzan into… that? That’s pushing it a bit.

Looking at it though, it did get me thinking about other games and how they handled it. RPGs have always been somewhat unique in how they treat size versus content. Yes, there are exceptions, but historically the big sell was that if you bought an RPG, you were buying a lot of game for your money. That was initially okay because most of them focused heavily on combat, and it’s not that hard to build out a world with a million things to fight. As story and fidelity became more important, we started to see the two sides pulling against each other, with worlds shrinking or finding/adopting different methods to represent space. Different world-scales for overworld exploration and cities for instance. Maps for the overworld, leaving deep exploration for cities. Flipping it completely, with exploration in the overworld leading to menus when actually arriving anywhere. The trend though was and remains firmly towards shrinkage.

In 1991 for instance, Ultima VII (take a shot) presented Britannia as one continuous world. Later that decade, nobody blinked when Fallout and Baldur’s Gate opted for a discrete map that just highlighted the points of interest and treated the journey between them as mere detail. Now, Ultima successor Shroud of the Avatar also uses this method. And it makes sense. As theoretically cool as it is to have something like The Elder Scrolls Arena offer unlimited procedurally generated landmass, it’s rarely long before the experience loses its appeal and actually making progress wins out. Space games have their time-skips and their hyperdrives. RPGs have their magic maps and conveniently adventurer-focused cities. Those that have leaned towards the realism of scale haven’t typically done so well for it. The Elder Scrolls Arena for instance may have kicked off one of the world’s biggest franchises based on a huge world, but even by the third game everyone involved was going “Let’s just do a single island instead.”

That being said, it’s interesting how a map itself can contribute to the sense of scale. I’d argue for instance that Fallout’s world always felt cramped, not because of the amount of content or even the number of grid squares it had on the map, but how compressed that map feels on the screen. Skyrim meanwhile offers a view of a world it feels impossible to fully explore. World of Warcraft’s feels epic despite ‘knowing’ how small it is, in no small part because of the different levels of zoom to dig through to get to where you want to be, up to and including alternate worlds.

The worst example ever though has to be the unofficial/not Wasteland sequel Fountain of Dreams. If anyone had played it, I’d say it was the defining example of how not to do maps. The map is tiny, and surrounded by a wall that you’d be forgiven for thinking you were meant to get past to enter the main part of the game. No, that’s all of it. There are only three locations of interest, and those are small too. Worst of all though, the purpose of the game is to find a legendary fountain capable of curing mutation. It is twenty steps from your house. I counted! And while admittedly you can’t actually find it until you know that via the main quest, I can’t think of a less satisfying outcome.

To finish off, here’s the question of the week – as you’ve probably guessed, it’s which worlds have managed to convince you with their scale, and which have blown it completely? I’ve picked a couple of examples to get started with.

On the good side, the city of Divinity’s Reach in Guild Wars 2. In general, I think GW2 does a good job with this, but Divinity’s Reach for me is what Stormwind desperately wants to be. It’s a stunning place to explore, made even more impressive by the fact that it’s not even the world’s capital – that’s the city of Lion’s Arch. Nevertheless, it’s a huge multilevelled place full of different districts, where the ceremonial artwork is as intimidating and patriotic as it could possibly be. It’s also a brilliant example of game artistry in its own right, wasting little space where it could squeeze in a few tall buildings and unreachable but still visible places for its population to be crammed into. It’s majestic, and all should bow to its majesty.

And on the flipside… wow, does anyone remember Star Trek Online at launch? It’s different now, thankfully, but I’ve never seen a game so confused. It somehow managed to make space, the final frontier, feel small and cramped, while the interiors… look, there’s reasons why MMOs tend to be built to about 1.5 scale. When you’ve got a lot of players clustered around, or fighting to get through doorways (whether there’s collision detection or not) or otherwise taking up space, you need a little extra. Still, Star Trek Online is the only game I’ve ever played that clearly expected an audience of giants…

Seriously. Does Starfleet provide its captains with opera glasses?

Again, thankfully those were shots from a long time ago, that I just happened to have around because I was so amused at the time. It’s fixed now, thankfully. Well, I say ‘fixed’. Perhaps someone was just assigned to clean the code, misunderstood, threw the whole game into the wash and it shrunk. Either way, result. At least the infinite majesty of space is now finally where it should be – outside the damn ship.


  1. Freud says:

    Novigrad in Witcher 3 is a great example of how to pull of world building. You spend so many hours in farmlands and while there are some memorable places such as Crow’s Perch and Oxenfurt, nothing in the game has prepared you for Novigrad.

    The first time you ride into the city and realize the scale of it blows your mind. Then they pull the miracle of having a big city without overwhelming and boring the player with too many places to go and too many NPCs to talk to. It’s just a place we get to know bit by bit.

    • Richard Cobbett says:

      Yeah, Novigrad is amazing. Not just because you feel like you’re in a place, with such incredible fidelity, but because it somehow doesn’t feel more constricted than having an entire open zone to explore.

    • LexW1 says:

      Not trying to be difficult, but I was honestly in no way shocked or impressed by Novigrad. I mean, in retrospect, thinking about it, it’s an impressive design, but I’ve seen a hundred big cities in CRPGs and MMOs, and it absolutely did not stand out as either “WHOA!!!” or “Ugh”.

      I mean, Witcher 3 is generally an impressive game, but nothing there stood out to me – it had the usual flaws and impressive bits common to a lot of MMO cities for example, and was in no way “living” or anything like that.

  2. Technotica says:

    It is so weird how often Star Trek Online pops up in various forums and on so many websites lately. For a game that was a big pile of shit at launch and that, even with all the improvements, usually no one really actually talks about, it still seems to get around a lot.

  3. Ghostwise says:

    As an old-time tabletop role-player I’ve completely integrated time and space compression in video games (especially MMO). It’s not unlike a verbal description of the environment, except that you get a “sample” of what’s there to help visualise.

    So my bits of dissonance come when somebody is assuming that they are dealing with an uncompressed space and time in-game. :-)

    • Richard Cobbett says:

      Yeah, though it’s interesting how many of the rules are unspoken. Like in most of World of Warcraft, distance = time. Dungeon bosses aren’t (necessarily) REALLY ten feet tall. And of course, cutscenes have their own laws that must never be questioned even when screaming ‘BULLSHIT!’ at the screen.

      • Ghostwise says:

        I think my fav example of this is the Azuremyst Isles.

        Travelling Westward (it was Westward, right ?) takes you across considerable territory, and especially through months of time. You start a few hours after the crash. Some distance Westward and new villages are being cobbled together because days have passed, then you continue Westward and the crash was months ago, buildings have been built, the Alliance is already there, etc.

        And I don’t think there’s *any* hint to explain that to people. Though it was years ago and I may have forgotten that there were some.

        • Richard Cobbett says:

          Nope, just visual clues that these people had been around for a while, and their words confirming it. Blizzard put a surprising amount of faith in players to get the concept, really.

  4. caerphoto says:

    Divinity’s Reach for me is what Stormwind desperately wants to be. It’s a stunning place to explore, made even more impressive by the fact that it’s not even the world’s capital – that’s the city of Lion’s Reach.

    Divinity’s Reach is impressive, no doubt, but it’s also a weird mix of giant buildings with… not so giant ones.

    Still, the game is very pretty despite the occasionally odd scaling.

    (also it’s Lion’s Arch, not Lion’s Reach)

    • TheAngriestHobo says:

      DR even has a whole district which is normally inaccessible, that roleplayers have figured out how to get into and completely taken over. It speaks to the size of the city that very few non-RPers even know it exists.

  5. lglethal says:

    The City in Thief 4 was for me an excellent example of a good map. The city feels big, dense and packed with things to find and explore. The unfortunate loading screens between city areas I can forgive because there was just so much to do.

    It is also the best game I’ve come across for “progress over time” within the map. After each mission, if you wander the city, the conversations you will be hearing are different to what you heard previously. It really feels like the city is getting closer and closer to revolution. I have yet to come across a better game for advancing time across the map…

    • Horg says:

      Even without the open city map, I was thinking about Thief 1 and 2 as examples of games that do a good job of disguising the fact that you are in a contained space. A lot of thought went into the area around the edge of most maps to create the illusion of a larger city that you couldn’t reach, but looked like a convincing continuation of the architecture. Thief 3 was probably the weakest game in the series for maintaining that immersion as the city hub maps were minute and largely forgettable, leaving you painfully aware that they had tried something ambitious but couldn’t pull it off due to console hardware limitations.

    • Kushiel says:

      Prototype did a great job of getting across the feeling that time is passing as you play through its chapters. Initially the city has just a few spots of viral-zombie outbreak, but as you progress through the game, more and more of these appear, and previous outbreak zones start getting more densely-packed with enemies. And there are visual effects to match, with heavily infested areas getting grown over with flesh-tentacles and the air filling up with spores. Great stuff.

      • AutonomyLost says:

        I wouldn’t have thought of that, nice one. I played the hell out of the first Prototype when it came out. Love that game.

  6. GameCat says:

    That’s what she said. :(

    Gothic 1 & 2 have ideal scale, but that’s because the game doesn’t try to simulate a country, but just a small mining colony and port city set on an island with some forests, mountains an farms around.

    Still the most beliveable world in RPG, I think only Witcher 3 can surpass it.

    • JonasKyratzes says:

      I still remember the layout of pretty much all of Khorinis by heart. It’s brilliant.

    • MondSemmel says:

      Gothic is a great example for this topic. If I recall correctly, Gothic II was advertised as being 3x the size of Gothic I. And I loved both Gothic I and Gothic II, and certainly appreciated having a larger game than Gothic I.

      But then Gothic III was advertised as being 3x the size of Gothic II, and ended up suffering all the disadvantages of unnecessary size, i.e. it ended up empty and generic (IIRC – I’ve never played it, just read the negative reviews).

  7. Premium User Badge

    Drib says:

    I really despise the sorta ‘1.5’ upscaling in MMOs.

    I played a lot of Star Wars The Old Republic recently-ish, and it never failed to annoy me that some impoverished Twilek farmer is moaning about his financial woes while sitting in his one-room 10mx10m house.

    Let alone castles where each room was two hundred feet on each wall, completely dwarfing the people inside.

    It’s just dumb.

    • Lacero says:

      SWTOR is the one that nagged at me while playing it.

      The combination of star wars scale, MMO scale, and the hero engine corridor blocks, made the whole thing feel like I was a tiny midget.

      It’s just way, way too big.

      • Richard Cobbett says:

        Yeah, and made worse by the areas then being artificially lengthened with things like ‘go through customs halls to get on world’. Conceptually nice, but a PITA in reality.

        • kael13 says:

          That annoyance has made me quit the game several times. I just couldn’t get over how oversized everything was. Coupled with the new streamlining of quests into ‘story quests only’ and you spend 90% of your time on your speeder travelling to the next area. Hoth was absolutely the worst for this. A huuuge zone, with about 30 minutes of story content.

          • Premium User Badge

            Drib says:

            “Hoth was the worst for this”.

            I spent a fair amount of the game looking forward to iconic planets like Tattoonine and Hoth.

            Both of those I sped through as quickly as possible.

            The game grinds to a standstill, there’s no scenery, and everything is boring as sin in those areas.

      • Ghostwise says:

        Just pretend that you’re a Jawa ! :-)

    • Jac says:

      You would have enjoyed playing The Division at launch.

  8. Mungrul says:

    Neverwinter Nights’ Tardis effect for every single building just ended up completely breaking my suspension of disbelief. The same goes for most Elder Scrolls games since Morrowind, albeit to a lesser extent.

    Every time Bethesda announce a new Elder Scrolls game, the first question I plaintively ask is whether they’ve dropped Gamebryo and decided to finally adopt a modern engine that can handle building interiors without having to load them as separate cells. Yet every time, I’m disappointed.

    • Richard Cobbett says:

      Heh, yeah, Dragon Age 2, where Merill is meant to be living in a tiny hovel, but in terms of space, basically has her own mansion.

  9. BMD80 says:

    I’d like to remind you of a little something called the city of Britain in Ultima IX

  10. Arathain says:

    Apparently in the Hearthstone version of Gadgetzan it has expanded rapidly ever since Deathwing made it a port. The explosion of organised crime is a combination of rapid economic and population growth and the accompanying building spree, mixed with Goblin laissez faire governance.

    In its own goofy way its a little piece of commentary that I raterh like.

  11. elaforge says:

    I loved Ultima 5, and everyone says how great Ultima 6 was, but I was never able to get into it. One reason was that it didn’t run on the Apple IIe, but when I finally did get access to a PC, I discovered the world and city maps had been integrated. That, combined with the cities expanding, made it feel like a journey through a vast and wild world had been reduced to a stroll through suburbia.

    Even though the traditional world map was also highly compressed compared to a real world (and laughably small by modern standards), the fact that you could watch your food supplies dwindling as you travelled did a lot to sell the idea that an epic Lord of the Rings style journey was going on. Pen and paper RPGs always seemed to assume overland journey was going to involve a lot of camping in the woods and “iron rations”. Yeah I guess no one wants these fussy details any more, but sometimes a few fussy details can add something beyond the annoyance of one more little counter to manage. And where are the CRPGs where you’re actually old at the end of the journey, or where you have to spend 10 years learning swordsmanship from the master, and that 10 years actually matters?

    I remember “Pirates” had a mechanic where if you lost a battle, you’d waste away in prison or on a desert island for years, gradually getting older and sicker, and eventually it’s time to retire. It gave a real weight to a lost battle, more than “you died, reload and try again.”

    A sense of scale in time matters too.

    • malkav11 says:

      I think that’s one of the things Darklands does that nobody else really picked up on.

  12. Pravin Lal's Nuclear Arsenal says:

    Torment sold me completely the idea of Sigil as a city in which anything could happen and is probably happening right now. While not particularly huge as a gamespace by itself, just the idea that you could turn a corner and find yourself in the shrimps metaplane gave the place an incomprehensible vastness that was basically all in my head. I was actually scared to progress in the game without having made DAMN SURE not to have missed anything.
    It did all that just by showing me weird shit in a bar.
    …Ok, that’s not fair, I did witness an alley giving birth. Still, that doesn’t sound particularly impressive compared to what Sigil had become in my head.

    And then there’s the Thief series, rightfully mentioned by other commenters, especially my all time favourite Thief 2. Anyone remember Life of the party? It’s the mission in which you had to explore a whole maze of rooftops and hidden skywalks – before – you arrived to the place in which the actual mission was supposed to take place; then, you’d find yourself in a building so vast that the atrium by itself could contain entire levels of other games. Between the massive structures and levels and the mixing of medieval and Victorian stuff, very few videogame places have given me a better sense of a huge settlement that sprawls and builds upon itself for centuries like, you know, most of Europe, which doesn’t make that much sense either.

  13. Carra says:

    The latest WoW expansion introduces Suramar. After all the mini cities like Stormwind/Ironforge this actually feels like a city.

    It’s big and divided in multiple sections. Blizzard also plays with height. There’s a lower and smaller zone and you can walk on some roofs.

  14. TheAngriestHobo says:

    Paragon City in CoH? That doesn’t really count, though, since the city was the entire game world. Still, it’s the one that sticks out in my mind if I think about big, believable urban spaces in vidya games.

  15. A Wanderer says:

    The game that has really managed to give me the illusion of scale recently is, strangely, Sunless Sea. I say “strangely” because the map is everything but big : in-lore, the Unterzee is supposed to be the size of the Mediterranean sea, and in-game it’s a mere lake with a few hundred meters between islands that are supposed to be hundreds of miles away. But it manages to get past that because, contrary to, say, Skyrim, in Sunless Sea travels and journeys actually matter. They are long, exhausting for your crew and supplies (and nerves too), they take time and they mean something in the end.

    • Geoshark says:

      Things like the giant eyeball, the “sun”, and the living balls of flesh also really help make you feel insignificant.

  16. Zekiel says:

    Personally I like RPGs to focus on the important bits and abstract the rest, at least when it comes to settlements. I remember exploring the city of Baldur’s Gate and it was *amazing*. The entire city was there in the game. But it means that the entire city consists of about 50 buildings.

    Contrast Athkatla in Baldur’s Gate 2 which was probably a similar size in-game, but concentrated on the important bits (docks, market district, section of the slums etc etc) and abstracted all the rest (although you could encounter a couple of other bits as maps where random encounters happened during travel between districts). That allowed you to feel like Athkatla was huge, without having the distraction of tramping through loads of samey dwellings.

  17. Moraven says:

    I should have asked at the WoW Q&A if they planned to expand Gadgetzan. Of course HS is not meant to be treated as lore into the main game, but more of a silly off shoot.