Sense of Immersion – What Makes A Game World Feel Big? (Feat. A Much Calmer Discussion of Portals)

So, after yesterday’s rant, I wanted to step back for a moment to discuss both a new development in blue post land for the upcoming portal room in 8.1.5 and also discuss something I briefly touched upon in said rant.

Blizzard’s new blue post, as could be predicted, demonstrates that Blizzard was both wholly unprepared for the reaction to loss of convenience portals to places like the Caverns of Time, and also has not prepared nearly enough for communicating this change.

I want to clarify first that a lot of my personal frustration with the portal change actually has little to do with the actual change. Ultimately, I have my hearthstone collection, I have a guild cape, and I can get places I need to go just fine. The only real annoyance I have is Pandaria (getting to raids from Shrine is easier) and Caverns of Time (although I only need one more mount from Dragon Soul and I don’t really farm it anyways, plus I actually like Uldum visually).

What is frustrating, however, is the communication around this change. It seems apparent that Blizzard knew early on that the point of the portal room was to do the post-expansion portal cleanup they used to do, and to further consolidate out older portals to try and keep the world feeling large. That itself would be fine – maybe still slightly annoying, especially since it took two patches to get here, but on its own, fine. However, rather than taking a chance with communication at the start of PTR, or after Blizzcon 2018 when the portal room was first announced, they instead left it until a week before the patch.

Sure, the portals have been on PTR for nearly two months now, but the adage of PTR is always “subject to change” and it would be reasonable to assume, given the relative silence on the issue, that Blizzard could be planning to change things. At this point, now that they’ve announced that this is the intended state and are only now asking for feedback on this change specifically, they’ve guaranteed that it will go live in the current state, and even if they could make some changes, they’ll have to be hotfixed or otherwise patched in, meaning that the potential frustration could spread to a lot of players who are less-engaged with the forums and fan community.

The core of my frustration is this – it is clear that Blizzard intended to make this change in its current state from a very early point, but rather than communicating that change early on, to allow PTR players to try the new state of portals for their standard gameplay, they instead left it unmentioned, leaving most of us to predict that they were still working on the room and that additions would be made to bring things to parity. The other frustrating thing is that while I believe Blizzard is communicating the core component of their desire for the change, I think they are leaving something else out – the Caverns of Time. This is, for me and others I have seen, the most contentious portal removal. Removing it from Legion Dalaran is one thing, and I could be okay with that – but removing it from Northrend Dalaran, where many players accessed it, is not only annoying but also runs counter to their point – if they believed that removing portals post-expansion was a correct move to make, that is fine and I don’t begrudge them that. If it was an oversight, fine – mention that and let’s move on. However, the new blue post briefly mentions why the portal removal did not happen to the Shrines from MoP (vaguely mentioned “other reasons”) but does not touch upon the CoT portals…at all. They’re simply gone, and while it is but one portal, it is probably the single most frustrating one, because removing it seemingly only serves to annoy/expand the scope of the world (you still have to fly down the long tunnel of CoT anyways with the portal, so travel still happens!).

Before I get too far into the hole of my beloved CoT portal, though, it is time to discuss the cited rationale for portal removal and my personal opinion with it, to invite what is hopefully more interesting discussion.

The main reason given for the tightening of portal travel is that the world needs moments of travel between locations to feel big, to convince players of its majesty and size. This is, to me, an interesting argument, because of the two MMOs I currently play at endgame, both have fairly large worlds, but one tries to place the illusion of size in the world at the forefront, while the other allows me to spend a small amount of gil to teleport all over the face of it with nothing but a cast time and a loading screen in-between.

First, let’s talk about world scale. Is WoW a massive world? Unquestionably, yes. Most high points in the game world allow you to look out to vast horizons with multiple zones in sight and almost no end to the landmass you can see – at least in the original game world. An old post on Tobold’s Blog  used a bit of in-game exploration to attempt to establish a scale to the original landmass of Azeroth, and placed it at approximately 80 square miles or 200 square kilometers. While large for a game world, Manhattan, as a point of comparison to reality, is 20 square miles on its own. So original Azeroth is roughly 4 Manhattans large (not the drink, but if you need 4 Manhattans to make it through a raid, just make sure it’s not a problem developing). The expansion landmasses in Outland and Northrend are pretty large in their own right, and if I had to guess, between both, probably doubled the landmass of the game. However, you’ll notice something of a trend starting with Cataclysm – the world mass being added is smaller. The Cataclysm zones add to that original landmass, and in some cases (primarily Hyjal) were already a part of it, so the overall scope feels smaller, and Pandaria, while somewhat large, also feels fairly compact. Warlords of Draenor’s titular continent was pretty large, granted, and so I would give it a pass on world size. Legion’s Broken Isles feel fairly small, and that leads us to BfA and one of my bigger issues with the expansion as a whole.

BfA feels too small, to me. I know that intuitively, the two islands that split us off into faction zones mean that I can only ever see around 50% of the landmass added from any given point in the expansion, but at the same time, the islands themselves feel small. Part of it is hurt by the allocation of landmass – both continents feature egregiously large mountains, with nearly 20% of Zuldazar’s landmass being the huge green mountain on its western side, and similarly, the northern border of Tiragarde Sound being occupied by a large, snowy mountain range with little or no content on it. If I get to the highest point I can in either continent (most of the fun of playing a Demon Hunter, really), I can nearly always see the sea. That feels rather disappointing to me. There are some gorgeous scenic vistas, don’t get me wrong (I love Stormsong Valley for exactly this reason) but everything feels too compact, too small. For the first time in a while, I feel like the world shown to me is stagecraft, and not actually large, and the irony is that Blizzard’s tendencies of late towards more vertical zone layouts has exposed this.

Not too long ago, Blizzard used verticality sparingly, allowing zones to have a natural, softer flow and more gradual ramp up in elevation. Currently, Blizzard likes to make large chunks of zones devoted to platforming puzzles and shifts in elevation such that you can rarely run a straight line on the ground between two points. Even in zones where this is minimized somewhat, like Drustvar, you have large mountain ranges that serve as walls, narrowed pathways, and high-elevation bridges which all force you to engage more with the environment. That is fun…the first time through. At a certain point, however, when I’m doing world quests, I want a better way to move between points, and while the old world design philosophy would allow for it, the current design philosophy subjects me to a lot of twisting paths and extra movement – which also makes being a Demon Hunter an advantage – just jump off the mountain and glide.

The problem with this verticality isn’t even that it is annoying (although it can be) but that it is used in place of the larger stretches of land we used to get. I’ve defended this approach to design somewhat before (see my post on flying in Argus for a contentious example) but in BfA zones, it reaches a worse conclusion. Argus had fun skyboxes that served to mask the relatively small zones we got – and it was an end of expansion questing hub, so it got a pass of sorts for size. However, in designing our main expansion zones this way, we lose a lot of the value we once got from exploration, to the point that even someone who would advocate for ground exploration like myself is clamoring for flight in BfA. I don’t need flight to see that the zones are somewhat smaller than average and use a lot of elevation changes and tunnel perspectives to mask that – I can see it for myself by playing.

So that brings us to the topic of portals, then. Do they make the world smaller? No. Do they make it feel smaller? Probably, yes. A chief concern in Cataclysm is that between portals to zones and flying right away, there was no sense of scale to the new zones and everything felt too small and insignificant, a concern which I agree with. However, my argument has always been that flying right away was the core cause of this, and not so much the portals. The portals damage immersion in one way and mainly for new players – they destroy a sense of place.

I know that the Caverns of Time is in Tanaris on its eastern edge, because I was around for all the glitch-through videos in Vanilla where we all tried to push through the wall into the as-yet-unopened caverns. A new player, however, might not know that, especially since the game funnels you through content in a way that bypasses needing to know that. With no Mythic dungeons in the Caverns of Time, you might not ever even go there if you started playing after Cataclysm!

So, that leaves us with, from my perspective, a bit of an issue. You’re really trying to serve two masters with this one, because you have new players who should find these things in the world, and veteran players who just want the portal for their 114th week in a row of farming Dragon Soul for one of its 3 mount drops. Is there a way for both to win?

I think there is – phasing. The game has so much of it now that it has somewhat lost meaning as a tool, but let’s build the portal room as-is, with space for current and future portals – because the core concept there is good. Make players complete objectives to unlock fast travel – reputation with Keepers of Time, or completing the dungeons in CoT, doing the quest chains in a zone with a portal, etc – so you have that experience of traveling to the zone or area and you have done it multiple times before the game throws you a bone. But, it is not just a passive reward, as a last bit of exploration before the portal is unlocked for you, you have to do a quest. Let’s say for Caverns of Time, the quest is to complete 3 of the dungeons or raids in there for “chrono-fragments” or something nicer sounding. Then maybe you have to do some little minor attunement – show the completed quest item to a bronze dragon in the caverns, or maybe even run to the Shrine of the Bronze in Dragonblight, attune the shard, and then you take that to the portal room and the mages there use it to lock in the Caverns of Time and open a portal to it. Now you have something that (hopefully) appeals to all – you have new players made to run through the content and become familiar with the area and how to get there without a portal, you have an objective for players to complete that ensures they have experienced a bit of the content for themselves, and then after that, they can get the portal.

The thing about this change is that I ultimately agree with Blizzard in some ways – portals do make the world feel small, and flying from Uldum to CoT or from Azsuna to Dalaran isn’t really that big of a deal. However, I think there is a compromise position that serves a lot of purpose – let players have their portals, only once they’ve had a chance to gain an appreciation for the size and scale of the world. When I first flew through Uldum to solo CoT instances, it was cool, but now, having done it 100+ times? I like the Uldum visuals, but man, I already appreciate the scale of the world.

Just let me have my portals.

16 thoughts on “Sense of Immersion – What Makes A Game World Feel Big? (Feat. A Much Calmer Discussion of Portals)

  1. I haven’t been playing much lately due to health issues, however, when I saw the stuff on the forums about the portals, I had to check it out. I’m not real happy with these changes but there isn’t a whole lot that I can do about it. I’ve watched Blizzard shoot itself in the foot so many times over the last year that I am beginning to drift further away from the game that I have loved since 2005.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Immersive ambience sounds boosts my gaming experience a lot. They nailed that in many places. But too much annoyance ruins it. Like Argus, where its just designed to be a pain to move around.
    There’s a balance to it all, and it’s leaning far too the “spend more time playing while of disguise it being done for your sake”. Especially, as you point out, the way it’s being done, again no communication.

    I just… why not move all portals to the new room, make everyone happy? Why miss that opportunity? It’s time things are being done to make us happy, not being done to keep us in that hamster wheel.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. No communication beforehand makes this harder to swallow. But that is the curse of PTR. But imagining not knowing this before you are in Dalaran, and there’s no portals in front of you, hah 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Oh I just thought of something in relation to what you wrote. They want to make the world feel bigger. Yet we are not flying, boat riding from one continent to another this expansion. This expansion is three zones for me, except the odd Incursion here and there…

    Liked by 4 people

    1. This is a clear case where I think they made a mistake. The two islands together make the same number of zones and a similar landmass to Legion zones, and yet, we don’t even get to take an actual boat, we just talk to a captain and appear in the other continent. If they were a single server instance with sea between them you could boat (or run on a water strider, the EXPLORATION!) then it would feel really cool and lead to a better sense of cohesion. Instead, we have two small continents that might as well be instances because they are separated from everything else by loading screens!

      It also worries me for new zones. If we had water between the two islands to make a contiguous “continent” then there would be a good place for Nazjatar to go. As it stands now, I am willing to bet that Mechagon will be behind a loading screen and Nazjatar will too – for the rest of the expansion, we are going to be going a bunch of places that are all hidden behind loading screens. In that context, the crocodile tears about the big world illusion falls a bit flat for me!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. That is my exact fear too, that the rest of the zones introduced will be just another set of portaling around. But then their “less portals, more immersion” falls flat too.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. If they didn’t literally just build an expansion where our main access point is a portal, and we portal between continents, and we’re likely to portal between the current zones and new ones from 8.2+, they might have a high ground to claim, but as it stands, they built an expansion that stands counter to the ideal of a big world illusion by fragmenting it into small pieces only accessed via portal with no sense of actual geography or belonging to the larger world. Oops!

        Liked by 1 person

      3. That is the best possible play and the one I hope they make, since there is a lore reason for it to work too (Azshara is supposed to end up levitating Nazjatar out of the sea!).

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Perceived world size and the immersion that goes with it has always been a tricky thing in MMOs.

    Personally I love a huge, seamless world like in Black Desert and ArcheAge very much. It very rarely bothers me that I have to ride everywhere in BDO, and although ArcheAge has the option to port yourself to places I deliberately chose not to most of the time back when I played it.

    I do realize that this wouldn’t work just as well in every game though, and I, too, was very happy with FFXIV’s Aetherite network. There’s definitely enough travel time left to make that game’s world feel big to me.

    At the end of the day the approach to travel has to fit the game’s design as a whole I think.

    In any case, taking stuff that they’re used to away from players without a damn good reason is always a surefire way to really piss them off, and rightly so. It’s baffling that Blizzard still hasn’t got that memo after all these years.

    Actually, they must have known what kind of reaction they’d get. There’s just no way in hell that they really are that stupid and ignorant. Which makes me wonder why they still insist on pulling stunts like these over and over again. Maybe they’re all sick and tired of their own game by now and *want* enough people to stop playing so they can shut the damn thing down…

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Thanks for the comment – my MMO experience isn’t quite as expansive so it is good to have a non-WoW/FFXIV look at the topic!

      It’s an odd one, this change, because I find myself finding some degree of desire to like the idea, given that during vanilla, I got used to navigating the world largely on foot/mount/flight path and it worked so well for immersion, but the problem I see is that the game has given the convenience of some of these portals for so long now that taking them away feels ham-fisted and awkward. I’m still of the belief that if I was enjoying Battle for Azeroth more, the change would not have felt as bad, or if they had communicated the idea during the panel at Blizzcon where they brought up the room or put a blue post out at the beginning of PTR instead of the end. It’s a baffling decision!

      Liked by 2 people

  6. A good analogy I saw was it is like taking away subway lines in big cities.

    Actually it’s like closing down all the subways and justifying it because you can still take a bus, but have to make 4 transfers to get across town. It doesn’t make it more engaging.

    Imagine if to fly someplace you stopped at every flight point along the way and had to pay to make the next connection. I’ve ridden from Booty Bay to Silvermoon. Once. That was enough. It did not feel a special connection to the zones I was riding through.

    Liked by 3 people

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