Disney-esque House Magic

I’ve been surprised by the number of people who don’t realize this little bit of MMO trickery: most houses in MMOs are Disneyland fantasy houses, tiny models that couldn’t possibly have an interior.

I’m working on one of the villages in the MMO, and here’s one of the houses in it:

It’s supposedly a two-story building with at least four rooms (judging from the windows along the sides). I don’t know if you can tell how tiny this building actually is from the screenshot… but it’s tiny. However, when you’re just walking through the village, you really don’t notice it among all the other houses.

You can’t enter this house, it’s too small to have an interior.

Compare that to a house that you can actually go into (from version 1 of the village):


This thing is gigantic compared to the other building! But it’s actually not that huge if you look inside:

That’s me standing in the doorway. Obviously it needs some interior walls and decorations, but more importantly, this “huge” house still takes only one second to walk from end to end.

MMOs play a lot of games with perspectives and speeds. A slow walking speed in an MMO is still twice as fast as a real person walking. In my MMO you can sprint 4 times faster than a real-world sprint, and it still feels kind of slow. (Gotta leave room for travel powers!)

The other problem is that games with a third-person camera need extra space for the camera. The door on the old house is giant-sizedĀ in order to make sure the camera can easily fit inside without bumping into things and jarring the player. FPS games can get away with much smaller spaces, but third-person games need pretty big areas to work in.

The up-shot of all this is that if that tiny house above actually had an interior, it would be about the size of a small bedroom, and players would traverse it from end to end in a fraction of a second, and the camera would barely fit in there with them anyway — it would be bumping along the walls and doors. And you would really be hating life if you had to go up the stairs.

This is why so many MMOs have houses without interiors. It’s a lot harder to make houses that LOOK the right scale on the outside and FEEL the right scale on the inside, always leaving room for the camera yet containing enough internal walls to give the place a sense of space.

And even if your interiors are great, there are still drawbacks. AC1 did their houses really well, with great interiors. But AC1’s cities ended up feeling like little hamlets with a dozen buildings in them. Other MMOs can put entire mega-cities in the same amount of space, because they fill them with miniature houses and facades. (Imagine if the mega-cities in WoW were the size of real-world mega-cities! They would take 10 minutes to traverse even at superhuman speeds. Instead, they just try to convey the feel of a mega-city without actually modelling one.)

No real point to all this, just something interesting to share. If you’d never noticed this before, take a look at your favorite MMO next time you log in. You’ll probably be able to spot the buildings with interiors from a mile away, and you’ll soon notice that there are a whole lot more Grand Palaces than Tiny Hovels because the former is way easier.

Old-school WoW had noticeably weird heights: their building interiors were super tall (to accomodate the camera), so that jumping off a two-story building was a pretty far drop. I haven’t played much WoW after Cataclysm but the screenshots suggest they fixed lots of these buildings (by using more clever modelling, I expect… or by removing the interiors).

The other common trick is to have separate maps for the interiors, like Lotro — where the facades for inns and shops are far smaller than the interiors! Since you teleport into a separate map for the interior, they can get away with it. I think it’s pretty noticeable in Lotro, actually: some of those inns are insanely big inside. But eh, nobody really seems to care.

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10 Responses to Disney-esque House Magic

  1. Azrapse says:

    LOTRO also uses some kind of visual trick when you open the door to one of those buildings from outside. You can see part of the interior when the door is open, but when you attempt to cross the door threshold, you are teleported to the real interior.

    The part of interior you can see from outside is not the real one. It’s a fake, generic, one that the engine renders in such a way that it seems to be inside the building model, but it is not. It is something like a hologram sticker put on the wall, but better done, of course. The outdoors building models are actually totally empty.
    It has the effect of making the building actually feel bigger. And you can actually see, in a couple of places during the game, that some of those doors lead to TARDIS-esque places, that look to be wider while looking through the door gate than they actually are from outside.

    What leads me to a question… Why not go beyond and make the “portals” that teleport the players inside and outside actually behave like Portal’s portals? LOTRO is just almost there, anyway. Let the engine render the interior map from the doorstep outside, and let the player walk inside and outside without loading screens. You could have little houses with huge interiors like that if you want. And I bet it could lead to interesting stories and twists. Haunted houses, magical mazes, Super Mario pipes…

  2. Kdansky says:

    I was about to suggest the identical thing to Azrapse: Use the bigger on the inside trope, slam a portal on the door, and you’re done. If you don’t have to support physics puzzles, portal mechanics are actually relatively simple. Prey did that 6 years ago, and their portals also support resizing of characters and differing gravity, all features which you don’t need in an MMO.

    If you model with some care, it can be really hard to spot from the outside, as long as you cannot see a second door from the outside of the first door.

  3. Vatec says:

    You touched on one point that has become pet peeve of mine: camera control. At some point between Asheron’s Call and Everquest 2, camera control suddenly became part of the “gameplay;” and it’s not a “fun” part, either. It’s an annoyance that causes more issues for me in MMOs than any other single gameplay element.

    I imagine it must be tech-related, but I really don’t understand why modern games can’t do what the old games used to do: have the walls and roof become transparent so as to avoid all that jarring due to the camera relocating itself (or getting stuck in walls, or suddenly switching involuntarily to first person view, or any number of other quirks).

    I mean, just look at something like Baldur’s Gate or Jagged Alliance (1 or 2): when you’re outside the structure, you see the exterior of the structure; when you step inside, the roof and walls simply fade and the parts of the interior that have entered line of sight become visible. There’s no jarring camera teleportation, no sudden involuntary change of viewpoint. It’s all just nice and smooth.


    As for the original topic, yes, the LOTRO solution is probably the most elegant solution given current tech.

  4. Kiryn says:

    This “needing room for the camera in third person” thing bugs me quite a bit in STO, even if you don’t get the same outside comparison shots that you do in fantasy MMOs. You can visit your ship’s interior, but everything feels HUGE. Each and every hallway is two or three times wider than what I’m used to from watching the shows, and the door to my captain’s personal office is ten feet tall and ten feet wide. It’s the main reason I don’t like visiting my ship. I feel like I’m on an “oh no, we accidentally shrunk the crew” episode.

  5. Eric says:

    @Vatec – for the most part, camera problems are a factor of level complexity and free-moving camera options, not an attempt to make camera control “part of the game”.

    At a general level, the more constricted your game layout and camera movement, the better the camera can be. Baldur’s Gate has extremely constricted game layouts AND extremely constricted camera (one angle, forever). This is the best-case scenario for having good camera experience. If there’s an obstruction, it’s easy to tell what walls to blur, and the display always ends up being pretty intuitive to the gamer.

    MMOs have the worst-case scenario: arbitrarily complicated levels mixed with completely mobile cameras. You can’t gray the walls out very well in this case — for one thing, it becomes extremely expensive to figure out what should be translucent in the scene and what shouldn’t, and it ruins culling algorithms designed to optimize performance by tossing out things that aren’t in the scene.

    But even if you leave performance aside, the arbitrariness of modern dungeon layouts causes lots of problems. Imagine that you are backing up to a wall, so the camera goes through the wall and it becomes translucent (along with everything behind the wall, too). Now suppose there’s a monster on the other side of the wall. Now you’re seeing a shadowy version of that monster even though it’s not anywhere near you. That’s either really confusing or else it’s an exploit, take your pick. :)

    But now imagine you zoom your camera out as far as it will go (typically a good 30 meters away from the avatar), and then spin in a circle while in a tight dungeon. The camera will fly through wall after wall in rapid succession, causing all kinds of visual distortions and confusion, and letting you see glimpses of things you shouldn’t be able to know yet, to boot. The more complex the dungeon, the more disturbing this is. And the more “fake” things in your game, like the fake houses mentioned above, the more disturbing it is to fly through them and be jarred by the realization that they’re hollow inside.

    Isometric-camera games (a la Baldur’s Gate) are still popular because they’re intuitive. The camera is easy to code, too. The whole experience is rather nice, from a coding perspective. But that design has its own drawbacks, such as reduced immersion, the inability to use the up-down dimension (you can’t even see the ceilings of rooms, after all), and often a lot of difficulty with designing levels that work well with the camera. Decorations tend to have to all be on the far side of every room, for instance, because otherwise you don’t notice them. It does subtly weird things to level design.

    But cameras are definitely taken seriously. Many games assign developers to just making the camera work — and that’s their only job for the whole game development cycle. In my MMO I’ve already spent longer on the camera than I have on monster AI, for instance. It’s really hard. And also tedious.

    I don’t disagree that cameras often suck, though. But it’s not because game makers have forgotten anything, or because they want the camera to be part of the gameplay, I promise!

  6. Eric says:

    @Kiryn – yeah it gets quite large, especially in areas where fighting is expected to occur. I had to scale the corridors of my dungeon to ridiculous size to accomodate large-group combats. That’s not really a function of the camera per se, but due to how entities move and how much space they need to fight. But it definitely makes the dungeon less plausible. “Why is that door frame wide enough to fit three people?!”

    Another factor of the over-the-shoulder camera is the weird perspective problems it causes. If you’re ever fighting a melee monster in WoW or EQ2, the fight will look correct when viewed from behind, but if you pan the camera to get a side view, you’ll probably see the monster is a good meter away from your character, and they’re swiping at open air. This isn’t a bug, it’s done intentionally because otherwise it feels wrong when you’re viewing it from behind. (People scream “I should have been able to hit him!” when in fact he’s a lot farther away than they think.)

    First-person camera fixes lots of these issues, but of course brings its own big batch of troubles.

  7. Azrapse says:

    Why not a Mario Galaxy kind of camera?
    I mean, the WASD keys (or the arrows) control the character in directions relative to the current camera angle, not relative to where the character is looking at. The content designer for the dungeon would establish zones-angle pairs. When a character enters a zone, the camera goes to the paired angle.
    In that way the content designer can always set the optimum camera angle for each piece of dungeon.

  8. Vatec says:

    @Eric – Thanks for the reply.

    It sounds like dealing with the camera has become a hassle for both players and developers. I sure hope someone in the graphics parts of the computer industry is working on a solution, because I suspect they could make a lot of money licensing it as a turnkey solution for developers (along the lines of PhysX and other plugin game engine components). Not only would it make the games better for the players, but it would also reduce development costs: pretty much a win-win for everyone involved.

    Strange thing is, I don’t remember Asheron’s Call (or even Dark Age of Camp-a-lot) having as many issues with camera placement as newer MMOs: that could be nostalgic thinking on my part, or it could be because most newer MMOs have more complex layouts. It really only started getting on my nerves with EQ2 and has gotten progressively worse since.

    Conversely, it does explain why Bioware games tend to have extremely limited camera distance options: the less customizable the camera, the easier it is to optimize the layouts.

  9. Yvon says:

    Haha I did notice the nice work on them, but I never seen Disney land in my 45 years except for TV and such so i never made the connection there :)

    Although i though some looked like a few houses in AC2

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