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Environmental Storytelling Part III: Lessons Learned in the Virtual World (20 Sep 2004)
My first encounter with designing for a multiplayer online world was the challenge of learning to come to terms with these limitations, and finding clever ways to design in spite of them. Most single-player, or even limited multi-player games, needs to accommodate the possibility of a dozen or so additional characters or avatars that might appear in any given environment. This leaves a budget that allows their designers the luxury to build detail-rich spaces, which takes advantage of the effects today's powerful 3D cards can deliver. Furthermore, most game companies can depend on an audience that is routinely willing to upgrade their systems to meet the demands of cutting-edge titles. In our case, our product needed to potentially accommodate the arrival of 50 to 100 avatars in an environment, and was marketed to a demographic of computer owners that have never even heard of a 3D card. With a budget of 1500 or more polygons per avatar, and the potential of hundreds congregating in any given space, this left the environmental designers a budget of no more then 10,000 polys per any given virtual location.

Reeling under these limitations, we worked to become the living definition of "less is more". Equally hard hit was our texture budget, which insisted that since our member avatars could show up wearing countless numbers of diverse clothing textures, our building textures would need to be just as minimal as our structures. Under these constraints, we developed a graphic style which chose visual consistency over complexity, and immersion through suggested context rather then spelling out every detail. Although our efforts were applauded, this choice made visiting each annual E3 Conference a painful pilgrimage of what is possible for every 3D game but ours.

One comforting realization came when exploring the 3D worlds of other companies attempting similar online multi-player environments. Whether you are visiting the streets of or the planets of Star Wars Galaxies, you begin to see that each game has come up with solutions based on similar limits. Whether they chose to allow their trees to render only when you are right on top of them, or they limited vertical movement because their props are flat textured "billboards", each design team did their very best to immerse their audiences despite how little they have to build with.
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