Loading screens and zone borders

Playing World of Warcraft again I have been reminded that the game world is remarkably free of loading screens compared to newer games. Naturally I’m not talking about instanced dungeons or raids here, I mean the actual world of Azeroth. This is in marked contrast to, say, Tyria (Guild Wars 2) where every zone has loading portals to separate it from the next.

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Thinking more on this contrast in-game design I started thinking about loading screens and zone borders in games. The above screenshot from GW2 certainly shows that a loading screen can offer a pleasant view while you wait. Fortunately this game has remarkably short load times so you rarely have to dwell on any screen for long.

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The above loading screen from Tera also shows they can be informative and aspirational besides!

Most of the MMORPGs that I have played do actually have zone borders at least, to minimise the load on the individual player’s computer of rendering the visible game world. Guild Wars 2, despite its more open world design, still inherited a heavy use of portals like the first game. Just like in the first game, zone border portals in GW2 do offer an escape from an encounter gone bad if there’s one close enough.

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Star Wars The Old Republic makes heavy use of instances (and thus loading screens) to separate off the class story or planetary story scenes from the open world. SWTOR in particular highlights a downside to this technique, loading times can be long in this game. When you group up at the start of a session it is doubly frustrating that different party members are probably on a different ‘layer’ or version of the current zone – and the load time to join your friends is just as long as the first time you load into the zone!

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Although I’ve posted before that I dislike the negative impact of flying on explorative gameplay, from an expansive world perspective it can be very impressive to simply fly around the world almost without hindrance. In WoW I can ride or fly from one end of a continent to the other and watch the world unfold around me with no loading screens to interrupt that.

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An old-school MMO that I tried last summer has a unique take on avoiding loading screens – the zone border. Vanguard Saga of Heroes, pictured below, uses ‘chunks’ or squares of the game world that are loaded as you adventure through it. As you hit a zone border the game will stutter as the computer thrashes its hard drive loading in the content for the next chunk. You can see beyond a border naturally, but the game doesn’t load all the assets and models until you hit that border.

Time to run for the border...

Time to run for the border…

The chunk border also represents a reset opportunity for the very tenacious monsters of Telon. Often a creature will chase you to the border, at which point you can pray for a reset – if your computer doesn’t stutter so badly that the creature catches up with you and slays you before the computer can recover!

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5 Responses to Loading screens and zone borders

  1. seth says:

    I remember the first time I took the boat from Ratchet to Booty Bay in WoW. I think that was one of the first times I’d seen a loading screen in-game, and the continent jumping felt more significant for it.

    • Telwyn says:

      That’s actually a really nice example of a loading screen that has deeper meaning! I’d forgotten about that, it’s such a rarity to need to take the boats anymore…

  2. Alxyz says:

    The loading screens in some games are great, as they show great fanart or concept art, but the loading screens from SWTOR were the bane of my existence ever since I starter testing in for EA.We used dev codes to teleport and we got even more loading screens than necessary xD

  3. Shintar says:

    I don’t find the SWTOR loading screens too bad from an immersion point of view actually, since most of them occur at points when there’s also a bit of a “time jump”, e.g. as you travel from one planet to another. I think that’s less grating than being faced with a loading screen every time you pass an arbitrary zone border. They are agonisingly long though, I’ll admit that.

    I also agree that this is one thing that WoW still seems to do better than anyone else.

    • kiantremayne says:

      LotRO also has a pretty open world – while there are some transitions that require a loading screen, such as entering Moria, you can go all the way from Hobbiton to Rivendell and down to Eregion without a loading screen, for instance. Dark Age of Camelot also had a wide open world, with the only transitions being on entering a dungeon, a capital city or travelling to an enemy realm’s frontier. GW2 and SWTOR, however, are both in the Everquest tradition of distinct zones with a loading screen every time you cross them.

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