Lately, I’ve been venturing into Deepscrave in Lord of the Rings Online’s Gundabad. And if I was hoping that the expansion would knock it off with stairs, I had another thing coming. If anything, this zone is ridiculous in asking players to go up and down skyscrapers’ worth of height. And in doing this, I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about how verticality ends up being more of a liability than an asset in online games.
Now, I kind of get why designers go with this, because creating structures and spaces with crazy amounts of height and depth are visually impressive. In the real world, we’re awed when we stand at the base of a tall structure or peer over the lip of the Grand Canyon. Since it is much easier to whip up something like that in a virtual space, why not and get an echo of that emotional impact?
Yet verticality comes with a host of problems, most of which are related to navigation. For starters, when you create zones with enormous jumps in height, how are players expected to get up and down? Are you going to ask them to memorize where the staircases are or put elevators everywhere? Do you add other navigation aids — grappling hooks, ladders, etc — to assist with this? Do players have a way to safely descend via parachute, glider, or something similar?
Of course, if the game already has, say, flying or climbing, this is less of an issue. But that’s not always a given.
Not only getting where you need to go with vertical space can be a headache, but even figuring out where that is can be quite annoying. The associated problem here is the limitations of 2-D maps. If your zone is a flat space, then a 2-D map is perfect. But when you start adding new layers, floors, and great differences in height, then such a map becomes inadequate, fast. How do you portray multiple levels on a map? How do you tell your players to go up or down for objectives? Do you have level access points (elevators, stairs) clearly marked?
I’m not saying that vertical zones can’t be done, but the hassle of them isn’t worth the payoff. I’ve never met an up-and-down zone that is more interesting and satisfying than your standard flat zone.