There are, let’s face it, a limited number of different ways to design real-adjacent zones in any fantasy game. At the end of the day, what we want from maps in fantasy games is stuff that feels at least close to the real world, the sort of areas where you can point to the map and say “oh, this is just like that familiar spot in the real world, but now it has elves and magic and stuff.” It’s the nature of the genre.
And thus, much like with classes, races, and monsters, there’s a certain degree of uniformity to the various zones you see dotting the landscape. Sure, a lot of games will feature a greater diversity than these, but with a bit of time you’re going to wind up seeing basically all of these in your fantasy MMO of choice. You just have to shrug and get used to it. So go ahead and see how many games you can name all of these from.
1. The gentle forest starting zone
In Final Fantasy XIV you might start in the Black Shroud. In World of Warcraft, you might start in Elwynn Forest or Tirisfal Glades. In Final Fantasy XI it’s Ronfaure with the amazingly great music. In The Elder Scrolls Online I really should have remembered the zone name, but it’s in there.
Basically, this is the place in the game wherein you get to slowly learn your way through questing and combat with things that are threatening only in the broadest sense. There might be some brigands or whatever, but you are functionally in the land of Ye Olde Battes of Softest Whiffle, so even the giant spiders are about the size of a small yappy dog. Unpleasant, but not really something you can’t handle via the liberal application of sword.
2. The gently rolling fields starting zone
It’s worth noting that not all of these zones are necessarily where your character starts at level 1, but it’s still an early zone that trades in the soft green landscape and copious trees for… few trees. But a soft green landscape just the same. Players will draw comparisons to Ireland, various parts of Britain, and a vague concept of Middle-earth informed chiefly by how New Zealand got shot in the Lord of the Rings films.
Regardless, it’s still a place wherein you are not particularly threatened and it mostly seems like you’d let your kids play around with minor supervision.
3. The rocky and unfriendly starting zone
Oh, you’re tired of forested starting zones? Well bam, complainers! Scrubby plant life! Rocks! Dirt! Hot sun! Kind of a desert, kind of just badlands, looks a lot like the less friendly parts of Utah! Bet you didn’t see that coming, did you?
Of course you did. This has become just as much of a go-to for a starter area as any of the above. Heck, this tradition stretches at least as far back as Phantasy Star IV being set in a desert when it kicked off in stark contrast to the series traditions of the gently rolling fields. The plus side is that if this is genuinely the starting area for the game, it tends to at least try to seem more genuinely threatening.
4. The snowy zone
Sometimes this is a starting zone, too. Sometimes it’s up high in the mountains. But no matter what, the place is forever covered in a thin layer of snow that lets you know it’s cold, usually has lots of furs on NPCs, and so forth. If the designers were really upping their game, there are breath effects as your character deals with the cool weather. It’s like how every single Star Wars game has to eventually go to Hoth, in other words.
When your game rolls out its winter holiday event, you’re glad to have it.
Much like how our vision of Middle-earth has forever been turned into “New Zealand with fewer sheep and more orcs,” our vision of an awful lot of landscapes has been turned into the general Vancouver region thanks to years of television productions shooting up there cheaply. So you’re going to have at least one zone that just looks like Vancouver. Just… get through it quickly.
6. The swamp
Swamps are actually really cool. I like swamps. Not to visit personally, no; they’re not exactly friendly to losers tracking through them, but they’re fascinating ecosystems all the same. And sooner or later as you hack your way across the landscape, it’s time to venture into a swamp.
If you’re unlucky, the swamp comes in pretty early and is intensely annoying, full of stuff that inflicts annoying status effects and at least one navigational hazard that makes even casual swamp exploration a gigantic pain. If you’re lucky, the swamp comes in later in the leveling process, in which case all of the above is still true but at least you have more tricks to deal with it.
7. The starting zone plus adjective
It’s your gently rolling fields, but now they’re filled with horrible monsters! It’s that pretty forest, but it’s spooky! It’s that unfriendly starting zone from before, but now… uh… the enemies are higher level! And the rock formations are different!
Two things can lead to this particular phenomenon. The first is a situation wherein one group of players goes through a zone at a lower level, but then another goes through a different portion at a higher level and thus gets a very different experience. The other is that, again, there’s only so much time to design assets and it’s easier to recolor things, make a new map, and say this is a functionally new region.
8. The ash-choked hellscape
In the real world, if you’re constantly beset by dark clouds at all times of day and the world seems to be various shades of red or black, you’re either in the middle of a volcanic eruption or you’re in Los Angeles. But in fantasy games, that’s how you know you’re in a specific kind of zone, always later in the leveling process and usually with a volcano somewhere near the center. Everything is very dark and oppressive, and usually this is where the game is starting to wrap up its storytelling.
No players really want to go back to these places if they can help it, even if sometimes they’re well-designed. They just feel oppressive.
9. The progressive rock album cover
Flying islands! Strange geography! Mystic colors flashing in the sky! The sort of thing wherein any screencap you get would not look even remotely out of place in Roger Dean’s portfolio! It’s the zone that seems to have emerged fully formed when someone noted that if this is a fantasy game you can just draw anything without having to explain it, right?
If your fantasy game gets expansions, once you have at least one of these, every subsequent expansion will include at least one more. It’s like a law of nature.
10. The nautical zone
Please pick any three features from the following list:
- Rock structures that appear identical to coral in both shape and overall texture
- Zone that is actually under the water but allows for normal movement due to plot contrivance or that used to be underwater but now got dragged up to the surface
- Sandy beaches scattered with flotsam and jetsam
- Lots of enemies you would expect to see from underwater regions, such as crabs, sharks, fish, and cephalapods, regardless of whether or not there is a reason given for why they are on land or even a reasonable means of locomotion
- Big ships with all the riggings