I once heard it said that a popular studio – I think it was Blizzard – made it a point of asking prospective developers what the best-designed MMO zones were and why, by way of testing their understanding of what makes a good map. Now, I have zero – negative, actually – desire to ever be a game dev, and I’m quite certain that if asked this question I would inadvertently pick something that offended the interrogator, but I always thought it’d be a fun exercise to answer this kind of trapdoor question anyway.
So that’s what we’re doing in today’s Overthinking! I’ve asked the MOP writers to pick out the three best MMO zones or maps of all time – any MMO, living or dead – and justify why those zones are ideal examples of how to build a zone that people want to stay in forever (or at least remember fondly years later).
Andy McAdams: Picks!
- WoW – Grizzly Hills – In Wrath it had the best music (I still love the music in that zone, and it was like a piece of relative normalcy in the dumpster fire that was the rest of Northrend.
- Guild Wars 2 – The Grove – It’s gorgeous and I love the fact that it’s just a giant tree. The lower levels have the slowly drifting down sparklies and you can find places without a lot of light to watch my Sylvari glow.
- Wildstar – Algoroc – I dunno why. This zone always felt huge and expansive and really immersive to me — maybe it’s a proxy for Wildstar as a whole as a “favorite” zone.
I’m going to answer a question you didn’t ask too: most hated zone. Guild Wars 2 Heart of Thorns. Literally all of it. It was impossible to get anywhere and so infuriating to navigate I stopped playing altogether.
Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): This turns out to be a much harder question than I thought when I asked it. I feel like a proper list would have 20 or so zones on it just from me alone. So I’m sort of picking randomly from my top 20 here.
- World of Warcraft Zangarmarsh – Nobody else ever will pick this, but I personally love this zone to bits and always loved bringing my characters through it. Everyone else picking something from Burning Crusade will pick Nagrand, but for me, ZM had perfect ambiance, well-laid-out quest hubs, and not a lot of pointless running. It was perfection for 2007, and I know WoW has only gotten better in this department since, but this is the one my brain goes back to and thinks, yes, here is where somebody first nailed a themepark zone.
- Guild Wars 2 Frostgorge Sound – Again I suspect a lot of Guild Wars 2 players never even needed to go here because of the way leveling works and because of gamers’ general distaste for snowy zones – heck, I’m not usually a fan of these zones either! – but I absolutely adore the Kodan themes and logical layout of what’s an otherwise messy but super unusual map.
- Lord of the Rings Online The Shire – An obvious pick, since I just mentioned it in a Daily Grind, but for me, the entirety of The Shire gets points both for being a decent questing and exploring area and for being the kind of place in an MMO that I just want to hang around feeling cozy and warm in forever.
- Shirogane Housing District, FFXIV: This housing area absolutely enchants with its sense of Japanese style. It exudes a sense of tranquility, has a couple of hidden little nooks and crannies, and does a good job of combining aesthetics with functional spaces like shops and auction house access points. It’s gorgeous.
- Blighthaven, WildStar: The Strain is an all-consuming infection in pastel purple, like The Thing in cartoon form. It also meant the devs could get ultra creative with monsters and zones. Blighthaven was a joy to navigate from a narrative standpoint, with quests that broke the mold like those that had you swimming inside a giant gelatinous… thing. And then, when it was all too oppressive, it opened up to a golden land touched by Drusera. It had awesome story beats and gorgeous views. And of course, that soundtrack.
- The Ski Chalet of Pocket D, City of Heroes: This only opened in-game once a year, and every year it was always an event. The ski slopes were wonky at best, the background music was weird, and I am embarrassed to admit how long it took me to Super Jump over to that floating box truck for the badge. But more than that, it was the best social location in a game that already had incredible social locations, getting you into the holiday spirit and offering the perfect roleplay space for seasonal shenanigans. This annual treat was always worth it.
- The Lord of the Rings Online – The Shire: I respectfully disagree with Tyler’s recent article: Running around delivering pies and defending farms from bandits is exactly what I want to do in Middle-Earth. And nowhere does LotRO make me feel more at home in Middle-Earth than in The Shire. It’s just so wholesome. From settling disputes between squabbling neighbours to quelling a Hobbit’s fear that Golfimbul’s ghost has returned (and stumbling upon an impending goblin invasion instead), everything about this zone is perfect to me.
- Guild Wars 2 – Dragon’s Stand: This one is kind of cheating, since it’s less of a zone and more of a… world boss? Minigame? Open-world raid? Whatever it is, it made pushing through all of the frustrating Heart of Thorns maps worth it. I love that this map’s meta event takes several squads of people working together, but doesn’t require so much coordination that you can’t do it without a guild on voice coms.
- WildStar – Farside: This zone was so cool! It was set on Nexus’s moon, so the whole zone had low gravity, allowing you to jump really high and far. At first it was disorienting, but once you got the hang of it and it was really fun. Plus, there was a memorable cartoon horror storyline involving adorable mind-controlling squids. What’s not to love?
Tyler Edwards: Only three, huh? That’s gonna be tricky to narrow down… Presented in no particular order:
- The Storm Peaks from World of Warcraft’s Wrath of the Lich King expansion. The story is epic and heavily influenced by Norse mythology, which I adore. The music is absolutely enchanting. And the environment’s have this harsh, untamed edge while still being incredibly beautiful. I love going up to the Snowdrift plains, staring north at empty ocean and vast bleak sky, and feeling like I’ve truly come to the edge of the world. That’s the kind of experience I play video games for.
- Blue Mountain from The Secret World. All of Solomon Island is a masterpiece, but as the conclusion of the arc, Blue Mountain is the one that sticks with me the most. There’s this perfect balance between the beauty of the woods, the homey familiarity of the houses, the terror of the mine, and the surreal horror of the Draug taking over.
- The High Heavens in Diablo III. It’s not an MMO, but it’s MMO-adjacent, so I’ll throw it in anyway. We’d gotten used to Diablo games sending us to Hell for the climaxes, so doing the opposite was a brilliant twist.