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I'm starting an open world game and the plan is to have a single "open world" map that should contain a medieval citadel (1.4 km/2 - taking as example Palmanova in Italy) and some countryside around it.

The plan is to delimit the map with a river and some hills.

What I realized so far is that most open-world games take a specific approach when it comes to size their areas, it's unlikely you'll ever find a realistically sized citadel, they will tend to be all pretty small, and it will take no more than a few minutes to run from one side to the other of it.

An example that comes to mind is The Witcher 3, the Novigrad/Velen map is 15.2 km2 but the city is approx 0.25km2, which is a lot smaller than what I plan to build for my map.

To walk from one side to the other of my citadel the player should take around 15 minutes (according to Google Maps), while, as I said, in most games you can run through a city in a matter of 1 or 2 minutes.

Keep in mind there will be no vehicles and I'd still like to have the countryside take most of the map area to keep everything proportioned and realistic.

The question is, is it a good idea to build such a "large" citadel? What gameplay issues could I face? How should I handle the fact that the countryside will end up being extremely huge (and empty?) if I want to keep it properly proportioned with the citadel?

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    \$\begingroup\$ Do you need your players to be able to run across the whole citadel in 2 minutes, or in 15 minutes? What does your game need? \$\endgroup\$
    – Vaillancourt
    Jul 6, 2021 at 13:56
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    \$\begingroup\$ It sounds like you understand the drawback here: getting from point A to B (eg. from wherever you are to your next objective) takes a long time. And it sounds like you've considered that drawback and concluded it's not a major problem for your game's goals and style of play. What are you hoping that a stranger who does not know your game would be able to tell you in an answer to this post? \$\endgroup\$
    – DMGregory
    Jul 6, 2021 at 14:27
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    \$\begingroup\$ @FezVrasta: The problem is not that AAA can't fill huge maps. The problem is that traversing a huge map is boring \$\endgroup\$ Jul 6, 2021 at 23:48
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    \$\begingroup\$ @AnderBiguri Maybe it's a game about going out to buy a burger, or groceries. I wonder if anyone's made that game before. No surprises, no enemies, no skills. You just walk for 15 minutes, give the cashier your money, get the thing, walk back for 15 minutes, and then reflect on what it really means to be a video game. Includes 60 seconds waiting for a traffic light. \$\endgroup\$ Jul 8, 2021 at 9:34
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    \$\begingroup\$ @FezVrasta A suggestion: Download one of those realistically-sized minecraft city maps you can find online. There are a bunch of them, in several flavors. Load one up and walk around the city to see if that's the feel you want for you player. There is a famous Minas Tirith minecraft map that is mind boggling in terms of scale and complexity. \$\endgroup\$
    – T. Sar
    Jul 8, 2021 at 12:13

7 Answers 7

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Almost no game uses realistically scaled maps for cities. The problem with creating cities which are even close to the size of real cities is:

  • Maps become difficult for the player to navigate. They can easily get lost.

  • It is very hard to make all of that content interesting. Creating a large amount of good content is time-consuming and draining. So when you want to create a huge city while you are on a budget, you have to cut a lot of corners. That means resorting to lots of copy&paste environments and procedural generation. The result will be a game which is "as wide as an ocean, but as shallow as a puddle". Lots of environment to explore, but it takes too long to find anything interesting in it.

  • Maps take a very long time to traverse. Traversal might be interesting if it happens in a new and interesting environment (see last point), but when it happens in an environment the player has already explored, or which isn't that interesting to explore in the first place, then it turns into a tedious chore. The player will wish that points of interest were closer together, so they can spend less time walking and more time enjoying actual gameplay.

  • And then there are of course technological challenges. Having all that data for a seamless city without loading screens requires advanced techniques for rendering and simulation. The larger the world, the deeper you have to reach into your bag of tricks to make sure you stay within the resource constraints of your target platform.

    And no, Unreal Engine 5 with its new automatic LOD system and world partitioning will not magically solve all your problems. When you use them in practice, you will see that they do have limitations, problems and quirks of their own you need to work around. In the worst case, you might find out that they aren't suitable for the unique technical challenges you face in your game and you will have to roll your own solution anyway. Also, LOD and environment loading are just two problems of many. There will still be plenty of your own systems which you need to adapt to work despite constant loading and unloading of world content and which are going to run into resource constraints when you try to simulate them in the whole world at once.

In conclusion: Quality is more important than quantity! It's better to have a smaller game world which is tightly packed with creative, unique and interesting content than a larger game world which is boring and bland.

I am looking forward to exploring the world of your game.

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    \$\begingroup\$ For Fallout 3 & 4, they deliberately made the buildings smaller on the outside than the inside, to make it less tedious to walk past a building. The city of Washington was likewise much bigger to walk through than to walk around. Sometimes fun is more important than realism. \$\endgroup\$
    – Robyn
    Jul 6, 2021 at 23:53
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Robyn fun is always more important than realism unless you are making a military war simulator! But sometimes realism adds its own fun so don't discount that. \$\endgroup\$ Jul 7, 2021 at 8:31
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    \$\begingroup\$ A good example of a "quality over quantity" game might be something like Zelda: Ocarina of Time. Except for the water temple, pretty much everything in the game is there for a reason. The things that feel like they don't have a reason either get one later, or they're hints for newbies that you never visit because you already know the information. There's a lot of going back to the same areas in different contexts. The NPCs that make the village feel populated? Most of them tell you something about your quest even if you don't understand it yet. And so on. (actually a few of them are useless) \$\endgroup\$ Jul 7, 2021 at 8:38
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    \$\begingroup\$ On the remark about loading times: The ubiquity of fast storage like SSDs and recent evolutions in GPUs being able to directly access SSD storage like in modern consoles and the upcoming Windows 11 release means that it's becoming more and more technically feasible to have a large map without many loading zones. In addition, there was already tech in the PS2 era that gave the perception of a zone without loading times by hiding these loading times behind doors and in engine cutscenes. \$\endgroup\$
    – Nzall
    Jul 7, 2021 at 10:08
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    \$\begingroup\$ I vaguely remember an article about the development of Witcher 3 that described that they aimed for the player to come accross something of interest every 9 seconds or something similarly crazy. \$\endgroup\$
    – JosephWR
    Jul 7, 2021 at 14:25
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You've already removed the main negative of a 1:1 scale map by focusing it on a small area instead of an entire city or countryside, but a citadel is still on the large side. The biggest issue here is travel time. Basically, if I want to walk to the store in real life, it might take me 12 minutes (from Google maps). That's alright; a little longer than I might like, but only because I'm carrying groceries. In a game, if I get a quest to go to the store, and it's going to take 12 minutes just to get there, that's completely unacceptable. Games shouldn't waste the player's time getting to the gameplay.

So, here's how to cheat. Aside from the obvious solution of changing the scale, you can also change the walking/running speed, have rapid transportation options, cluster useful locations together, and not have quests that require the player to cross the map. For a citadel, I'd make large portions of it simply not relevant to gameplay. (A lot of the north-east portion burned down in a fire and hasn't been rebuilt. The south-east portion is gated mansions that are only accessible in one quest where you don't get to explore, etc.) I would also make a citadel that's significantly below average in size. (This is different from changing the scale in that it's still 1:1 scale, just using a smaller space as a base.)

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    \$\begingroup\$ Or: Make travel gameplay. GTA, spider-man, just to name a few. \$\endgroup\$
    – Weckar E.
    Jul 9, 2021 at 10:34
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It works if you treat most of the citadel as part of your world map

I remember an MMO I played a while back (can't remember which one) that got away with this just fine because about half the quests were actually inside the main city. So instead of a small city that you are constantly leaving and coming back to; the city itself was the quest space, and only small sections of the city were clusters of shops that made up elements of the game you would traditionally define as "the city" from a gameplay perspective.

The city was divided up into 3-4 sections; so, as a low level you would be in the residential section using a cluster of mom-and-pop stores as your home base area and going off to do quests taking down gangs and breaking into someone's home to steal something, etc. in all of the surrounding areas of the city. Then as you got higher level you would move on to the docks section of the city where there was a better small cluster of businesses, and tougher missions; so, on and so forth. This was basically the same experience as moving to a new home city you often find in games. From what I recall, you did not actually have very many quests outside of the city until you were about a lvl 20; so, while the city was the size of the world maps used in some games, it was okay because the city itself was treated as a the world map.

So taking 15 minute to walk from one side of the citadel to the other is not a deal breaker at all as long as you have enough things to do along the way. As long as you are never spending more than 1-2 minutes to get from one Point of Interest to the next, how big the citadel is is not important.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Now that I think about that, the original Guild Wars Nightfall map used the same approach, there was a very large urban area, but the shops where focused in some defined squares. \$\endgroup\$
    – Fez Vrasta
    Jul 8, 2021 at 18:14
  • \$\begingroup\$ @FezVrasta You mean Factions, surely? \$\endgroup\$
    – Weckar E.
    Jul 9, 2021 at 10:36
  • \$\begingroup\$ Yeah, probably, it's been a while since I played them :-) \$\endgroup\$
    – Fez Vrasta
    Jul 9, 2021 at 13:04
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I don't think most players really think in forms of scale when traversing a world. It's more about interesting stuff relative to times spend.

If your player has to run for 2 minutes between to interesting points, they'll be bored for 2 minutes. The world may feel vast, but the boredom will make this a negative.

So, how can you work around that?

  • You could make your game about free-running or other traversal. Make the getting from A to B a challenge. The better the player is the faster he gets there, or the more points he collects on the way.

  • Spread smaller points of interest in between those points. Collectathons are an entire genre build upon the idea of spreading small things to collect between actual interesting points. But you're not limited to collectibles. It could also be NPCs to talk with, or enemies to fight.

  • Fast travel. If you don't want vehicles you could just have the player select the point of interest on a map and teleport him there. But then you have to ask yourself how the player unlocks the fast travel points. Get there once? Gets it from a quest? Scanning/binoculars minigame? A good fast travel system completely negates the need for a city between the points, though.

But those don't really solve your issue, I think. You should not do something in a game because "it's realistic". If players want realism they don't play games. Instead you should think about what purpose a vast region serves the player/gameplay.

  • Are there animals roaming the area to hunt?
  • Are there treasures hidden?
  • Is it a big sandbox with NPCs the player can interact with, and/or quests take place?
  • Houses to rob?
  • Are there some sick ramps and rails to skate on?
  • Is the player a giant robot and the city will have some really nice effects when he tumbles through it fighting a Kaiju?
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When you start modelling, is easy to think that using realistic distances to normalize your world with will be awesome! However the first problem comes with the insane amount of detail real life has, and then, how boring moving in real life really is. Maybe the reason why people play games, instead of going "out there"?

However, when you are making your own world, you usually change the scale to somewhat that makes sense. For me, that happened to be 3.5 M as the minimal sphere, streets are 14 M, including 2 lanes, and opposite sidewalks. This kind of dimensions "make sense" when you look through the game camera...

The other thing you need to keep in mind is to minimize the max distance at which opposite objects can be. You calculate this with the mesh density: if too high, FPS will take a dive down, if its too low, the content may be a little stale.

But the most important is: you put what you need in your Citadel, and if you don't need it, you don't put it. Maybe there is no direct path between one side of the Citadel to the other? Perhaps you need to choose going into the Market, which will add ten minutes to traverse? Or maybe the other route is through the mud pit, which may present you with a terminal encounter of the wrong kind?

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Another point that I don't see in any of the answers: in some engines you will start to run into numerical precision issues when using very large maps.

For example, the Unity engine uses the 32-bit float type for all floating-point engine functions, such as position. At large distances from the world origin, the precision limitations of a 32-bit float start to cause glitches such as jittery movement. I've also seen some visual effects (e.g. ambient occlusion) glitch out at similar distances.

The Unity Editor displays a precision warning when any object is further than 100km from the world origin on any axis. This means that the maximum safe playable area is 200km x 200km = 40,000km. That's much bigger than what you'd find in a typical first-person or third-person game, but can potentially be an issue in endless open-world games (e.g. Minecraft), flight simulators, naval simulations, etc.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ This limitation can be over come quite easily with cleaver instancing. If your game engine can't support a single environment more than 200km, you just break up your world into smaller maps. So, if you for example have a world with a bunch of 50-100km islands, you can make it so that as the player is out in deep sea with nothing much to look at that he does not realize that he's just been moved from the left side of one map, to a loading screen that looks like being in the middle of the ocean, to the right side of the next map. \$\endgroup\$
    – Nosajimiki
    Jul 19, 2021 at 15:47
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Nosajimiki That is possible but I would not characterize it as "quite easy". It requires very careful planning of your world design and adds new technical challenges; for example, ensuring that the engine doesn't stutter during the transition and everything (even the waves of a procedural ocean) is lined up after the transition. \$\endgroup\$
    – Kevin
    Aug 3, 2021 at 22:32
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GTA, Cyberpunk and other similar open world games have city maps of mostly correct scale. MSFS has a kind of realistic world map. The key - these games didn't require devs to build every single house and players to walk all those distances.

For travel, first option would be to limit players to certain zones, making full map size irrelevant. While this is a huge citadel, you are in outer ring of defenses in chapters 1 and 2, travelling around in a circle or something, trying to get suitable clothes to be allowed inside. Then you get nice clothes and reach inner parts ... but all your newfound wealth makes you a target in outer areas. There is still a long 10 minute walk from one side to the other but you would do that walk just once - while you are fleeing the citadel after killing the noble, rest of the time would be spent in smaller areas you can traverse easily.

To keep world open and especially when you get to the countryside you might want to ditch the "no vehicles" policy and use carriages, magic portals/maps and similar that get you from point A to point B (nearly) instantly. This takes out some exploring, but you might give players these options only later to preserve initial mystery yet not bore them to death in later stages of the game. For example they might require suitable clothes to get in a carriage - initial beggar won't be allowed to ride one. Or they need to find the magic map, or the wizards created/allowed magic portals later. Or whatever else fits.

As for countryside, it will be and it should be boring if you are making something realistic. Yeah, this is an endless field of wheat, what else would it be? From inside the citadel it would look like uniform "field" texture with "forest" texture in the next part etc - as if you were building a view from citadel that doesn't let you walk in those fields. While players could explore these fields and forests in detail, few would. A quest or two along "interrogate farmer", "catch that wolf", "fight bandits that blocked the road through the forest" or "notice path through the field and investigate where does it lead" are mostly all things you would realistically do there. You obviously need to get to those quests by faster means than walking for an hour to reach the bandit ambush in the forest.

Even if 95%+ of the map is "boring areas", this isn't a problem by itself. Our real maps are mostly "boring areas" too. Just make sure that you don't require players to spend any significant amount of time there, and don't spend any significant amount of time on them yourself either. As a simple rule, amount of time you spend building an area should be proportional to player time spent in an area. But this doesn't restrict size of the area.

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    \$\begingroup\$ GTA map scales are still far from reality. The city of GTA V is loosely based on real-world Los Angeles. Just compare the scale of those two maps by counting the number of city blocks between the harbor in the south and the mountain range in the north. \$\endgroup\$
    – Philipp
    Jul 7, 2021 at 11:23
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    \$\begingroup\$ And the argument "the real world has lots of boring spaces, so game worlds should have lots of boring spaces too" is a very bad game design philosophy. Reality is only a valuable guide to game design as long as it makes the game more accessible or more interesting. As soon as it stops providing that service, it's time to take breaks from reality and start to think like a game designer, not a simulation designer. \$\endgroup\$
    – Philipp
    Jul 7, 2021 at 11:30
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    \$\begingroup\$ I think 95%+ of the map being boring is indeed a problem. You have lots of content that you don't even want the player to bother with drawing computing resources and player attention. Players will inevitably wind up in the boring zones on purpose or by accident, and will be frustrated when they do. Purposefully building most of the map to be unsuitable for player use seems at best pointless and at worst counterproductive. \$\endgroup\$ Jul 7, 2021 at 13:15
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    \$\begingroup\$ If you could have a 100% interesting real-life-sized map that would indeed be pretty cool, but you can't. It would also be a lot of wasted effort. Have you even explored the whole city you live in? On the other hand, players would be able to share interesting locations with each other. \$\endgroup\$ Jul 7, 2021 at 21:22
  • \$\begingroup\$ @user253751: Bard's Tale has hundreds of buildings in the map, almost all of which can be entered, but entering vast majority of nondescript buildings them will simply call up an "empty building" screen. There are a few nondescript buildings which have surprises in them, which could perhaps be found by grinding, but could be better found by employing in-game or real-world rumors. \$\endgroup\$
    – supercat
    Jul 9, 2021 at 19:17

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