Invisible Walls Kill Immersion

I’m going to talk about Oblivion again today. Friday post will be something entirely different – I promisse. Please keep in mind that while I complain about this game a lot, I continue playing it. It’s not bad – it’s just not Morrowind. Besides, today’s topic is not entirely about Oblivion. It’s about video games in general. Oblivion is just the latest offender in the long list of games that committed the crime of using Invisible Fucking Walls.

I’m telling you, nothing breaks immersion more painfully than bouncing into an invisible wall. Insurmountable waist high fences are bad, but at least they provide you with some visual clue as to where you can or cannot go. But sometimes game developers just
put an arbitrary border around the game world and simply prevent you from going further. We all know that borders are necessary. You cannot have an infinite game world. There have to be explicit bounds that players cannot cross around the game play area. But clever design can mask them. Take my favorite Morrowind for example: the game surely was bound by some arbitrary borders, but I have never seen one. In fact, I never felt compelled to find one. The game took place on an island surrounded by sea on all sides. To actually find the invisible wall, one would have to swim really into the open sea. But there was never any incentive to do so. All the interesting stuff such as shipwrecks, small islands, and sea flora were close to the shore. Open sea was empty and barren. It was a natural barrier that I did not feel compelled to cross.

Some other games are less subtle about this, and they bound the game play area using other geographical features such as deep chasms, tall mountains, rivers of lava and etc. Oblivion however does none of that. I actually bounced into the invisible wall by an accident. When I got my first horse in the game I went on a crazy ride across the wilderness. Since horses are awesome at scaling steep terrain, I kept climbing all the bigger and smaller hills just to see what was behind them. I actually found some interesting stuff on my way: bandits, some ancient ruins, couple of random chests with a little bit of gold, and some cheap items and etc. That was until I hit the in game border.

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As you can see above, there is nothing there that would stop me from proceeding. There is more generated terrain beyond the invisible wall, I just can’t go that way. This, ladies and gentlemen is not only wrong, but just lazy. Why didn’t they put a chasm or a mountain here? It’s probably because mountains or chasms are not supposed to be there. Bethsheda fell into a classic world-building trap. Anyone who either designed imaginary worlds and drew intricate maps for them, or adopted existing maps for already made worlds and tried to use them in some narrative knows this feeling. Sooner or later your story, adventure scenario or plot requires the characters to visit a swamp or a forest of some sort, and then you realize that the closest one is hundreds of miles away.

This is the downside of using pre-made worlds. Oblivion takes place in the world of Tamriel – the same imaginary world as Morrowind, Daggerfal, Arena and Redguard games. Bethsheda already drew and published the maps for the whole continent, despite the fact that each of it’s takes place in a different province. The playable area of Oblivion is the province of Cyrodiil which lies smack dab in the middle of this huge map:

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This is not the most accurate map. There are maps out there that include topographical detail such as major rivers, mountain chains and etc. Cyrodiil just doesn’t have high hills, impassable chasms or rivers of lava along most of it’s borders. The consistency of the world with previously published materials prohibited Bethsheda from building these artificial barriers. So instead they went for illusion of continuity. As long as you don’t actually bump into the invisible wall, you can see the terrain stretch away into the distance.

Invisible walls are bad, but in this case they are somewhat excused by Cyrodiil’s geography. How could they make the game play area finite without them though? The geography of the area does not really depict any high mountain chains, chasms, canyons or other natural barriers across most borders, so these are out. The neighboring provinces are not desolate wastelands, but more or less heavily populated areas. This means that procedural terrain generation is out of question as well. In some games where the playable area is bordered by sea or wastelands you could get away with generating random terrain devoid of anything interesting into all directions. This way a player could wander off the map and continue walking as long as he wanted, but it would never find anything. This works especially well for islands. Procedurally generate empty sea all around and allow players swim out as far as they want.

Still, that wouldn’t work for Oblivion either. Randomly generated emptiness all around it would totally mess up the scale and create an illusion that Cyrodiil is the only populated province on the continent, which it’s not. Still, simply telling the player he “cannot go that way” is wrong, because it immediately begs a question of why.

Why cant I go there?

What is there?

As Steve Yegge noticed, the answer to this question is problematic to say the least. If you try to think like the character in the game, you won’t be able to figure it out. The question makes no sense. The wall is the end of the universe, and what lies beyond is incomprehensible.

It is something other than the game world. It is undefined! But you don’t want the player to think this way. Thinking about the end end of a playable area break immersion. You want them to think that there is stuff out there there. Real stuff like more of the game world – but it’s just inaccessible at the moment. In Morriowind players knew that there is a vast empire of Tamriel just beyond the ocean. But they also knew they could not get there by swimming. It was logical – you can’t swim across the ocean in real life, so they wouldn’t try it in the game either.

Could we conceive a similar logical, life-like barrier for Oblivion? I was thinking about a magical barrier. Cyrodiil is the imperial province, right? We could say that one of the paranoid emperors in the past, ordered to erect a magical barrier along the borders of the province to protect it from raids, and keep outsiders at bay. Something like Ghost Fence from Morrowind, but larger in scale. It’s not perfect, and little bit shaky fluff-wise, considering that the the upkeep of Ghost Fence tied up most of the combined power of the Tribunal. Still, something like that could have been better than an invisible wall. The player would consider the wall an in-world obstacle, rather than an abstract game mechanic.

How would you solve this issue? How would you avoid the invisible walls around Cyrodiil, without invalidating existing maps, and contradicting the existing lore?

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22 Responses to Invisible Walls Kill Immersion

  1. Alphast NETHERLANDS Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux Terminalist says:

    Well, there is a mod in my list which just removes the borders. It was a modding tool to allow modders to create landmasses outside of Cyrodiil. I haven’t reached it yet, so I can’t tell what happens if you cross and there is no land mass behind…

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  2. Alphast NETHERLANDS Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux Terminalist says:

    This said, and to answer the question, there is a possibility of solving the problem relatively easily. Remember that there is no flying or levitation allowed in Oblivion (and even if there was, it wouldn’t be such a big deal). North and East of Cyrodiil, are Skyrim and Morrowind. Both are separated by chains of high mountains. It would be a lot less annoying to make these mountains impassable (ending in high cliffs) except through heavily fortified passes. Having these fortifications is easy to explain in the Tamriel lore, considering that the Empire conquered these lands only relatively recently. It could have left these barriers to control trade and levy taxes. Forbidding the player to go through (unless a mod exist with a land mass on the other side) would be easy to explain in a bureaucratic way: “you don’t have the proper paperwork, bye.” It would even allow an easy way of creating extensions for the game: create the landmass, unlock the gate (or make the paperwork suddenly available easily) and hop, voilà, you got a whole new land to explore.

    On the South-East border, there is the Black Marsh. It is even easier to explain. Create quicksands all over the place, with the same exceptions than in the mountain and suddenly, the Black Marsh border becomes nothing else than an Ocean of mud.

    As I understand it, the border with Hammerfell should be a large river, flowing from the Northern chain. Again, it should be made fairly clear that the players can’t cross this highly dangerous and very large river without a boat, a bridge or any similar way. Again, this could provide future extensions with ease.

    Valenwood and Elsweyr are a forest and a jungle respectively. I don’t like the idea of making impenetrable forests, but I am at loss for any better solution here. Maybe make a combination of rocks, trees, quicksands and bushes that forces the players to go to the main passage points…?

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  3. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux Terminalist says:

    @Alphast: Actually, I just read somewhere that you just need to change one value in Oblivion.ini to remove that annoying “You can’t go that way” message.

    I’m not sure what happens when you continue going “that way” once the barrier is removed though. Will have to try that one of these days.

    Good points on the natural barriers. For the remaining two provinces I guess you could use mildly slopping hills, rock formations, rivers and etc.

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  4. Matt` UNITED KINGDOM Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    Post signs at regular intervals around the border saying “Here be dragons”. If they don’t heed the warning they get eaten by a dragon :P

    Or think of some other in world obstacle… heavily armed raiders, dangerous animals, a magic kill-stuff zone… I don’t know, just something to discourage anyone from persisting in trying to go that way far enough to find the actual wall.

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  5. Square UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Linux says:

    Personally, I’d make a combination of guards and traps to prevent people from venturing along that path. Perhaps fences as well, but to a lesser extent. This way, you are stopped by guards in some locations for trying to pass, or physically damaged by trying to pass by an impassable number of traps.

    For the forest situation, I would suggest some sort of catch-all creature that is suggested to be Imperial-trained (or physically mounted) who will either snatch up the player and take them back or land in their way. At least then some in-game dialog will notify you that you cannot pass.

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  6. jambarama UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    Lazy is the right word. This Gamer’s Manifesto from back before all the current gen consoles, made the same point. I see it is linked to in the “invisible wall” link above, but the whole thing is awesome, and still relevant.

    Immersion means soothing to sleep the part of our brain that remembers we’re not intergalactic bounty hunters or world-class athletes. And that part of us is rudely jostled awake when our snowboarder bounces off an invisible wall in midair because he strayed from the race area. I understand you can’t have infinite space, guys surfing right off the mountain and taking a snowboard tour of Asia. But put a cliff there. Cliffs are solid. Empty air is not solid.

    Almost every game does this. In the Lord of the Rings: Return of the King game there’s actually a “run out of a crumbling building” level where stones rain down on your head and block your path. So the biggest difficulty in the level is that you can’t jump over a knee-high stone because THERE IS NO JUMPING IN THE GAME.

    The article goes on to complain, rightfully, about stupid stuff like putting words on the screen like “Orc Hewer” or giving you the ability to shoot a rocket launcher, or summon a fireball, but the inability to kick in a rickety door without a key.

    I don’t think it is hard to avoid this mistake. Put a ravine there, a cliff, a river, an ocean, a steep hill, make a flat earth with edges you can fall off, use a high fence, incredibly thick forest, or just some “auto death” or “auto move” feature.

    I just got through Twilight Princess, and for all its same-ness to every other zelda ever, the series has always known how to box in a player without **feeling** boxed in. Just look at what every other game without this problem is doing – how does WoW deal with it?

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  7. IceBrain PORTUGAL Mozilla Firefox Debian GNU/Linux Terminalist says:

    I would make a ring around the land “supposed to be” and fill it with bandits and such, making it impossible to cross. It could actually be made into a “dead man walking” mini-game :P And it wouldn’t be that difficult, either: just place a couple “spawn” points around the map for the AI controlled bandits.

    Neverwinter Nights 2 has “little fences” around the zones, but they don’t feel much natural, imho. It’s better than invisible walls, but it’s not good either.

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  8. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    [quote post="2819"]Just look at what every other game without this problem is doing – how does WoW deal with it? [/quote]

    WoW doesn’t have invisible walls. They use high hills and impassable terrain to divide the zones. Also, each location is populated by monsters designed for a different level. So it is simply to dangerous to go into some areas until you level up.

    The way they prevent people from swimming out into the ocean, is by having deep water regions that cause your character to fatigue. If you stay in the deep regions to long you will die. Fluff-wise I think this is explained as strong currents and etc.. Either way, it works better than invisible wall.

    @IceBrain: Ok, here is the problem with populating borders with strong enemies: players may get the wrong impression. When they see how heavily these borders are defended, they may think that there is something there to see. Or even worse – they will start grinding in that area collecting high level loot from the constantly respawning enemies. It could introduce a balance issues.

    If I was making a sandbox RPG game I would place it on an island, and then procedurally generate sea around it. Players could swim out into the open water, but there would be nothing there – just more water, and maybe some fish here and there.

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  9. Tino SWEDEN Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux Terminalist says:

    I’m with the people thinking very strong enemies where there are no natural barriers. You can prevent grinding by making sure the enemies are so strong there is no way out alive.

    In your Oblivion example I would let the first person your talk with (and then here and there onward) tell you that Cydrodiil is currently isolated since its borders are patrolled by bandits and wild animals. Let them tell you that even full troops have disappeared, so there is no chance for a lone traveler or small group to pass. And then, if you try to cross the border anyway, out come a pack of wolves or bandits — too many and high level for you to handle regardless of level. (And then put an unreachable invisible wall beyond them, just in case…)

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  10. Lars UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    /shrug – Invisible walls themselves don’t bother me. What I would prefer is if you hit the border and your character just stopped moving (or alternatively the computer took control and turned you around) and text popped up that said “Your mission is too important to abandon it now.” or whatever; basically, just say your character WOULD NOT go there, no matter what roleplaying excuse you have to take a five month jaunt across Cyrodiil while the end of the world is nigh.

    I’m more bothered by the fact that at most invisible walls, if you keep running, you just sort of run in place. Since I didn’t actually see the invisible wall in Oblivion, I don’t know if that happens there, but in many games, your running animation keeps playing, but you stop moving. To me, THAT is immersion breaking. The invisible wall itself, well, that to me is no different than all walls you can’t destroy or doors you can’t break down or unpickable locks or sewer grates that can’t be lifted five feet away from ones that can be that litter the rest of the game. Your character simply has no reason to go there. There is no need for any further explanation or silly in-game obstacles.

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  11. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    [quote post="2819"]The invisible wall itself, well, that to me is no different than all walls you can’t destroy or doors you can’t break down or unpickable locks or sewer grates that can’t be lifted five feet away from ones that can be that litter the rest of the game. Your character simply has no reason to go there. There is no need for any further explanation or silly in-game obstacles.[/quote]

    I guess I’ve been spoiled by the good old Morrowind where there was no such thing as un-pickable lock, or a plot driven door. For example if you wanted, you could pick the lock on the door to Vivec’s chamber and go have a chat with the living god long before you were supposed to.

    All these things you mentioned annoy me to no end. Why put a door texture on the wall, if you are not planning to make them lead anywhere? Why put a sewer grate on the floor if you can’t open it? Why litter the ground with crates, boxes and small items if they can’t be looted? That is just lazy design!

    A lazy designer will paint door textures to spruce up a long, monotonous corridor. A good designer will design the game space in such a way that there will be no need for that.

    Great games have no invisible walls, fake doors and waist high fences you can’t jump over. Morrowind had none of that. WoW doesn’t have any of that either. The WoW universe is HUGE, and I have not seen a single fake door, or invisible wall there. That’s why people love these games. Because they feel like they can go anywhere and do anything in them.

    Every time you encounter an invisible wall, or a fake door your mind is taken out of the game world, and you start thinking back in terms of game mechanic. Instead of wondering what is behind this or that door, you start wondering if is actually a door or just a texture. Immersion is lost.

    I’m not saying this is a game breaking offense – it’s just a small annoyance that mars an otherwise very pleasant game play experience.

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  12. vacri AUSTRALIA Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    I loathe invisible walls as much as the next man, perhaps even moreso. EQ2 had plenty of zones with invisible walls, sometimes along the crests of hills you could walk on both sides of. Ugh.

    But in Oblivion, it’s pretty clear where the gameplay is. You really have to go out of your way to hit the wall. Sure, they could change the text to something like Lars said, but given the pre-existing world, the immense play area, the obviousness of where the limits are, and the general lack of hitting those limits unless you’re trying to, I don’t think it’s that bad in this case.

    If there wasn’t a pre-existing world, then there’d be no excuse – plant a mountain, visible wall, cliff, whatever.

    Though I must confess that until I read it in your other post, I didn’t realise that I missed the silt striders…

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  13. vacri AUSTRALIA Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    @jamba:

    I had a look at that manifesto (it’s actually a wishlist, not a statement of intention – the guy fails his own “don’t bullshit us” theme) and there’s a lot of hit and miss, but the end of the bit you quoted made me smile:

    We’re to the stage where it should be a minimum requirement in the game universe: rock should act like rock, air should act like air and humans should move like humans.

    This always makes me smile – rare is the game that has humans jumping like humans. Most people can’t jump up to an object a little above knee height and land on their feet. Even very fit people can’t jump up to a waist high object landing on their feet without a gigantic run-up. In order to jump something that’s around your eye-level, you have to be very good, sail over it horizontally, and land on your back. All of the above is totally unencumbered to boot – forget trying it carrying around your bag of provisions and loot.

    I’m not sure how big those rocks are in the LotR game, but if they’re bigger than knee-height (almost guaranteed), then, well, the humans are moving like humans :)

    I’ve always found comparisons between techie gamer (or in the case of the jumping human, physiologist gamer) and non-techie gamer greivances very interesting. Non-techies seem to think that AI is just a matter of twiddling some deep setting somewhere, when in reality it’s a very difficult, multifaceted thing and tuning it is a bastard. Non-techies are much more unforgiving when small bugs persist through patches. Things like that. It’s all good fun.

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  14. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux Terminalist says:

    [quote post="2819"]Most people can’t jump up to an object a little above knee height and land on their feet. Even very fit people can’t jump up to a waist high object landing on their feet without a gigantic run-up. In order to jump something that’s around your eye-level, you have to be very good, sail over it horizontally, and land on your back. All of the above is totally unencumbered to boot – forget trying it carrying around your bag of provisions and loot. [/quote]

    Very true, but then again you do have to admit that most people out there would probably have no problems whatsoever climbing over a waist high wooden fence. Even while wearing a backpack full of crap and bulky clothes/armor.

    I believe that “manifesto” (and you are right, it is a wish list not a statement of intent) is partially wrong on this one. Or rather, he probably worded it wrong. For me the point is to create a game world where things act the way player would expect them to act. So if you see a door, you should be able to open it. If you see a window, you should be able to break the glass and see what is on the other side. If you see a waist high fence, you should be able to climb over it.

    This does not always mean realistic. It means never breaking the fourth wall, and never reminding the player he is playing a game. Fake doors, invisible walls, unbreakable panes of glass and insurmountable waist high fences are painful game mechanic devices that brutally jerk you out of the game world each time you encounter them. They don’t destroy the game play, but they do destroy immersion and by extension the mood and tone of the game changes. It is hard to be afraid of the scary monsters or scripted events if you are to busy figuring out how to navigate the maze of fake and real doors, and fences you cannot scale.

    Curiously, stuff like seemingly super-human jumping powers that let you hop over barriers that are taller than you doesn’t break immersion that much. Especially if you don’t have a climb button of any sort. It’s just that player expects to be able to get over that obstacle in some way because it would be easy to cross in real life. If he is able to do it, then immersion can be maintained even though he is force-jumping or levitating or whatnot.

    Similarly when the player sees a body of water, he expects to be able to swim across it. No matter that he would never do it in real life. No matter that jumping into freezing water during a snow blizzard would probably lead to hypothermia. Being able to swim across is still more “realistic” and immersible than watching your character drown instantly in a knee deep puddle.

    My rule of thumb is this: if it is fun, and adds to the game play experience it should be allowed. If it breaks immersion and takes the player out of the game, it should be dropped.

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  15. Lars UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    Well, I guess I’m the opposite of everyone else here. I think invisible walls ENHANCE immersion. You know what I hate? Walking into a “city” that only has four homes in it. All the homes in Oblivion were small. Why? Because if you have to make it so you can walk into every single one there aren’t enough developers in the world who could ever get a game out in a reasonable timeframe. I’d prefer to see the city have four homes you can interact with (whatever the developers have time for, focus on the important story-related ones, etc.) and the rest can be behind some invisible curtain somewhere where you can’t access but can see.

    You know what else I hate? Stupid cliffs and lava barriers everywhere. How does this nation function when you can’t get goods in and out of it??? So, yeah, just have the road continue onscreen and stop the player from going. Now we have the illusion of a REAL world where countries are not separated from each other by impenetrable barriers and can actually trade with one another, its just your player won’t go there because he doesn’t need to.

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  16. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux Terminalist says:

    @Lars: You know, I don’t actually mind small towns with only few buildings across. I’d take that over a sprawling city maze with hundreds of fake doors that cannot be interacted with. Stuff like that just annoys me.

    That’s the thing: it’s not about realism – it’s about fun. Morrowind and Oblivion worlds are not realistic. The towns are to small, and to close together. But I’m willing to accept that because it makes the game more fun. For example, in real life it would probably take me more than a day to hike from my house to where I work. In Oblivion I can hike from one end of Cyrodiil to the other in a matter of minutes. This is a good thing, because it keeps the game interesting. Making the game to scale would basically make normal travel incredibly dull.

    I’m not that fond of strategically placed lava pits and cliffs either. This is why I think island worlds are actually the best model for avoiding invisible walls. Then again, mountain chains have acted as natural borders for ages now precisely because they were nearly impossible to scale. People used meandering and dangerous mountain passes to get through them and you could effectively close your mountain facing borders by controlling those few access routes that existed. So using mountain chains as game-world borders is not as un-realistic as one would think.

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  17. Lars UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    @Luke: That’s the thing: it’s not about realism – it’s about fun.

    I know that having everything to scale wouldn’t be fun. I agree. But having developers create backdrops that imply the village goes on even though you can’t go there for me is more fun because it maintains NARRATIVE immersion. Having the roads and valleys go on even if you can’t go there maintains narrative immersion.

    You seem to prefer immersion of control (if I can see it, i should be able to open it, explore it, etc.), and I prefer narrative immersion which necessarily means having movie-set-style backdrops that make things APPEAR to be realistically sized when they aren’t. For example, all the doors in Grand Theft Auto you can’t open sitting next to doors you can. It makes the city feel bigger (which to me is immersive, because its a CITY) even if it isn’t fully interactive (which to you isn’t immersive, because there’s a door that can’t be opened).

    Of course, both of our opinions are as valid as the other, but this does show you can’t please everyone. Knowing that, I certainly don’t envy game designers. =)

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  18. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux Terminalist says:

    @Lars: Interesting! Funny that you mention GTA because I always had this love-hate relationship with that series.

    I love how huge the GTA cities seem to be. You can drive around for hours just sight seeing. Unfortunately, that’s pretty much all you can do if you are not following the main quest lines.

    At any given time there are probably only 4-5 people in this whole immense game world that will actually talk to you. Most buildings can’t be explored, and those who can are usually tied to a specific mission and remain empty until you trigger it. In effect, there is really not much to do in this immense game world. I find that while GTA San Andreas playable area is much, much bigger than that of Oblivion, it actually contains less interactive features available to the player at any given time.

    Oblivion has a small world populated by hundreds of named NPC’s and more loot than you could ever hope to sell – all available to you right from the get-go. San Andreas has huge, sprawling city full of fake buildings with only 10-15 active areas of interest that you could interact with at a time. Driving around that city bore me to tears, and I could not stand the Reply  |  Quote

  19. Andrew LITHUANIA Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    The invisible walls in Oblivion were only around the ‘boundaries’ of the world, so that really didn’t bother me much. It does bother me however when MMOs like Age of Conan have invisible walls everywhere :(

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  20. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    I never played AoC but that sounds awful. Guild Wars had similar issue – invisible walls, insurmountable waist high fences, and artificial walls everywhere.

    WoW on the other hand avoided this issue completely – no invisible walls in that game. They avoided invisible walls up to the point where people could “wall jump” into areas where they were not supposed to at one point. Maybe that kind of design approach is why it is the top MMO on the market?

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  21. jordanboncz UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    Ok first i like these points ur making its just dumb to have invisible walls al over the place.
    i good example of a wall that is ok to be there is in a game called city of heroes i stoped playing a while back but they had huge walls of energy that u could no get thorugh and u could fly teleport run jump and all that fun stuff.But the reason for these walls :wich is exsplained in great deatail in the game it self is the fat that there r many super high level monster lurking out there……… that ur arent rdy for yet……. notice YET like later mabye u will be able to go there O.o so it leaves u thinking still wuts out there . just my thoughts

    good post BTW

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  22. Heidi Google Chrome Windows says:

    Not sure if you were being factitious or not, but WoW does it by adding in fatigue. If you go too far out into the ocean, you get fatigued and die. Also, lots of cliffs. A lot of players have found ways around the cliffs to explore places, like the disappearing waterfall. And if you did already know how they deal with it, sorry for the mini explanation. :) @ jambarama:

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