Can MMO desert zones ever be cool?


Hope you like sand, because you’re in for a lot of it!

The other day an unnamed party and I were recording an unnamed podcast in while we were discussing the music that played in MMORPG desert zones. I can neither confirm nor deny that you will hear this conversation in the future, but boy did it trigger a few nasty memories. In Syp’s hierarchy of most-disliked video game biomes, the list goes:

  1. Volcano & lava zones
  2. Desert zones
  3. Jungle zones

There are different aspects I hate about each, but what sets desert areas apart is simply how boring most of them are. There’s only so much you can do with a desert, since its very definition means “lacking anything cool.” Developers probably can’t be blamed for dumping the desert area design on the interns, because the their toolbag is pretty limited here. Cacti? Sand? Scorpions jumping up out at you from the ground? A tan rock? A brown rock? Spiders? The one token oasis? TAN. BROWN. BROWN. TAN.


I guess I can’t blame MMO devs for working deserts in — after all, it’s easiest to draw upon actual earth biomes for inspiration, and deserts are pretty prevalent on our planet. But can they ever do anything neat with them? I doubt it. At least, I can’t say that I recall any that have made me go, “Ooh, that’s cool, I want to spend a whole bunch of time questing here!” No, usually I feel like I’m being punished for some unknown crime that dogs me from game to game.


Now of course, I’m mostly speaking of a classical desert that seems to be the go-to type for video games. When devs aren’t being totally lazy by creating zones with a whole lot of nothing in them, they attempt to emulate two popular desert concepts.

There’s the Egyptian motif, with pyramids, more green (thanks, Nile!), large statues, and all of that ancient world feel. It’s not a terrible theme, and it’s probably the one desert type that I will gladly tolerate. I kind of regret that I never got to see Warhammer Online’s Land of the Dead, which was (from what I understood) old Egypt meets undead horror. Often this gets paired with the Indiana Jones/archaeology flavor.

Then there’s the Arabian Nights collection, the enjoyment of which depends on how much you like that source material. Me? Not really. I don’t like the architecture, the over-reliance on camels, and genies who have never really granted me the wishes I wanted in video games.

My preferred desert, although it is rarely labeled as such, is the western Utah badlands design. Lots of picturesque rocks, a wild west feel, deep canyons, and the like. Maybe it’s the addition of a wider color palette — especially those dusky reds — that helps make it a more enjoyable desert.

Still, if given a choice between a desert zone and anywhere else (save Volcano Land), I won’t give my exit from the desert a second thought. Luke Skywalker couldn’t wait to leave Tatooine, after all, and I don’t blame him.

Can MMO desert zones ever be cool? Can’t see it happening. Include it so that you have the whole earth collection if you must, but you’ve got a massive uphill climb to ever getting me to gush about such an area.


15 thoughts on “Can MMO desert zones ever be cool?

  1. Dibs September 26, 2016 / 9:09 am

    Final Fantasy 11 has a neat desert zone that mainly consists of a number of entrances to a fiendishly complicated underground area call Quicksand Caves. In fluff terms, it’s a kind of lost civilisation type deal. In crunch terms, it’s a nightmare for low level players :/

  2. Nonsensicles September 26, 2016 / 9:31 am

    I do appreciate Thanalan in FFXIV. The entire region is desert, but there’s a tremendous amount of variety. They certainly didn’t forget that deserts can have plants and water, and the cliche rolling dunes only make up a small part of one zone of the region.

  3. jameshateswordpress September 26, 2016 / 9:32 am

    Star Wars Galaxies.

    Nuff said.

  4. Rowan September 26, 2016 / 9:33 am

    Gotta call out your geography education here: the Utah red rock desert you prefer stretches from eastern central Utah (Arches Nat’l Park/Moab region) into the southern border with Arizona. The very south western corner near St. George has some red rock, but already becomes the more familiar tan sandstone—even in the canyons—as you head toward Las Vegas. Beautiful region, though, as you say, inspiring my favorite zone from Wildstar, Algoroc (which apparently means Red Rock in ancient Cassian).

    I agree, though. Temperate forest biomes are much more preferable than deserts and volcanos (which are usually mostly desert, as well).

  5. Aywren September 26, 2016 / 10:02 am

    I came for the pun in the title. 🙂 Anyhow, I’m right with you on your list of least-liked biomes.

    As mentioned above, Thanalan in FFXIV has a desert and is considered desert, but they designed it with a lot of variety. In fact, sometimes I forget it’s supposed to be desert. And the little bit of the real rolling hills of sand they have (complete with sandworms) was pretty neat because they isolated it to only part of a zone. I think they realized a little bit of desert goes a long way.

    I didn’t mind Egypt so much in TSW, but mostly because I like the lore. The City of the Sun God was a huge pain to navigate, and I’m happy I did it duo because I could see that place tearing me apart solo. It’s still my least-liked area of the game, but I liked it more than most desert zones in MMOs.

  6. Syl September 26, 2016 / 11:46 am

    Like we discussed on that unnamed podcast (:P), I think AoC and BDO are the two MMOs that really pulled the Middle Eastern vibes off well enough, without butchering the source material. generally speaking, I like it when MMOs do their own spin on deserts; the best examples here are Wildstar with its Firefly western style zones and any game that goes desert = arctic desert / Tundra. I personally find cold weather deserts much more appealing than hot, sandy ones. I think LOTRO had some zones like that.

  7. romeomoon September 26, 2016 / 11:54 am

    The most interesting desert zone I’ve seen in an MMO so far has been The Cinderlands in Blade & Soul. Lots of enemies and a varied landscape of cliffs and dunes with the occasional oasis. I wish there more interactive elements such as more caves to explore or relics dotting the landscape that could lead to more side quests, but then I wish the rest of the game was more interactive as a whole.

    I actually kind of like the Wailing Wastes in Anarchy Online. Even with a Yalm, the zone felt expansive and mostly empty but also pocked little surprise rock formations and valleys that sometimes contained quests or dina bosses. Wondering around there was time consuming, but still rewarding.

  8. Tyler F.M. Edwards September 26, 2016 / 12:02 pm

    I think deserts can be interesting, though generally I’m with you that they’re one of the least appealing biomes. I think developers just don’t put a whole lot of creativity into them. They all end up looking the same, but in a fantasy setting, there’s a lot you can do to spice them up. Fill them with fantastical ancient ruins (beyond Egyptian inspired stuff for once) or unique geography.

    I know I’m in the minority here, but I did quite like City of the Sun God in TSW. It definitely has a unique personality that sets it apart from most desert zones. Also, while not an MMO, I remember being very fond of the Cliffs of Fire in the original Dungeon Siege. All the winding clifftop paths and beautiful vistas and waterfalls made it a lot more appealing than the average desert.

  9. Nick September 26, 2016 / 12:16 pm

    Luke may have wanted to leave Tatooine, but I’m going to guess that’s because he didn’t get to wander around his planet a few millennia before hand. SWTOR did a very nice job on capturing the beauty that’s possible in a desert, with that stark blue sky and otherworld prettiness of the desolation around it.

    Most of the time, though, I find that desert zones in MMOs are more hampered by their size and scale, which for technical reasons tends to be on the small size. The Sahara desert, for example, is almost larger than the continental US. Most of the zones seem to take their inspiration from that, over, say, the Mojave Desert, which is a lot smaller but full of a lot more life than one would probably expect.

    I suppose I chalk up the problem in those deserts as a lack of understanding on what a desert is, and how it can exist and still be interesting. Just making it all sand and cacti is boring, but making it an ecosystem and biome with stuff and its own special type of life isn’t.

  10. Shintar September 26, 2016 / 2:17 pm

    Hm, I can’t think of a single desert zone I didn’t like. I love Tatooine in SWTOR and when I think of WoW’s deserts… Tanaris used to be one of my favourite zones, pre-Cata Thousand Needles was beautiful as well, the Badlands were a bit boring but not terrible. And Uldum I disliked for its quests, not for its zone design. I think I like how they naturally feel like places that hide secrets and were regular people wouldn’t go, making them a logical domain for adventure seekers. Plus, it’s always sunny!

  11. bhagpuss September 26, 2016 / 3:37 pm

    I really like desert zones. I spent many, many happy hours in Scarlet Desert, the EQ zone in your screenshot (did you play EQ? Can’t recall you mentioning it if you did) and Scarlet Gorge was my favorite zone in original rift. I also love the Deserts of Ro and Oasis (not the band – I can take them or leave them) and Egypt was my favorite zone in TSW, although only for the fighting, really, which always seemed easier there than anywhere else…

    Anyway, I like desert zones. But then, come to think of it, I like all MMO biomes. Except those extra-planar ones with weird lighting and no real geography. They’re the worst.

  12. Hebbe September 27, 2016 / 7:28 am

    I kind of regret that I never got to see Warhammer Online’s Land of the Dead, which was (from what I understood) old Egypt meets undead horror.

    Fanserver Return of Reckoning is up and though they haven’t yet got to’s probably coming at some time..

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