When I first heard about GW2, it was my understanding that it featured a single, persistent world, like World of Warcraft does. I was mistaken about this. The zones are sectioned off, with loading screens between. WoW was my first and longest-played MMO, so I wasn’t aware what a grand feature cohesive worlds are, but Tyria feels so much smaller than Azeroth (even though I don’t think the worlds differ much in size). I believe the loading screens have quite a bit to do with this, but also that ArenaNet made several other design decisions which dramatically limited Tyria’s perceived size: linear zones and pervasive fast-travel.
First off, why do loading screens affect the perceived world size? My contention is that they exaggerate the borders between zones, which do exist in Azeroth, for instance, but are not quite so crisp and clear as in Tyria. This allows players to section the zones off easier in their minds, and interrelate them more simply, as separate parts instead of as a whole. However, the zones in Tyria are knit together. Players do (or may) move from one zone to another in a way that makes sense spatially. In comparison, there are large sections of the world of Warhammer Online which are almost completely unrelated spatially (outside of being placed in spatial relationships on a world map); these are much easier to section off than Tyria is, and do not actually feel like a single world at all. Tyria’s loading screens act like a less extreme version of this sectioning, but still allow players to perceive the world as a series of interconnected maps, rather than one large map (though I suppose this perception is accurate).
Another way Tyria reduces its size is through the linear feeling of its zones. Many of the zones in Tyria are elongated rectangles which the player moves across from one end to the other while levelling. In a broad scope of gameplay, the zones end up being 1-dimensional: line segments. The zones squeeze out their spatial nature and (artificially) shrink world size, simply by not forcing the player to navigate the world in a second dimension on a larger scale than individual questing.
Whether or not other games fail in this same way is arguable. But WoW’s zones do tend to be more square in shape, and have more circuitous (and therefore disorienting and harder to reduce in dimension) progression-traversal lines. In general, I believe this results in fatter, more 2D-feeling zones in Azeroth.
GW2 does not have mounts, like WoW does. This makes normal world traversal longer, and walking on foot across Tyria takes quite a bit of time. Of course, this means that Tyria is effectively larger, at least in feeling and as relates importantly to game mechanics. However, perhaps in order to allow convenient travel across the map, perhaps to act as a money-sink, GW2 players are permitted to pay a fee to portal immediately to almost anywhere they’ve travelled before. This completely annihilates the grandeur of Tyria, because players are always effectively just about everywhere they’ve ever been. Moreover, this form of travel has almost no spatial relationship (admittedly, travelling further does cost more, and this does help a bit). Tyria has been shrunk to an infinitesimal size.
The analogue in Azeroth, flight paths, which allow relatively fast travel between cities, do a much better job of preserving world size. For one thing, unlike teleportation, flight takes time, and takes longer for longer distances. For another, it takes the form of literal travel, in the game world. Moreover, the player can watch as their character moves across the world. If anything, flight paths probably exaggerate the spatial relationships and terrain of the map, although they do still reduce the effective size of the world, in terms of travel time.
January 24, 2013