The environment is, in some ways, like the graphical user interface – it isn't something you normally notice until it is done badly and gets in the way of your enjoyment in the game. But when it is done right, it is absolutely conducive to one's enjoyment of a game, and yet transparent at the same time. It doesn't get noticed in particular, but is enjoyed because it blends seamlessly with the rest of the game. And when a good environment or GUI is noticed, it becomes nothing short of a miracle that it works so well. These details, so seemingly mundane, are anything but trivial to come up with. The central point is that some of the most ordinary elements of a product – some of the most easily missed aspects of a game – are foundational to getting it just right.
Now what of the case of New World?
So far, we only have some demo footage showcasing Lumberyard's rendering capabilities along with some clips of pre-alpha scenes from New World. However, it is also known that New World is being developed within Amazon's proprietary engine called Lumberyard, which is derived from CryEngine (more specifically, CryEngine 3). CryEngine and its various derivatives have been used in the development of many games, including the Far Cry series (which was built from the Dunia branch). This series, hailing from the FPS genre, is characterised by its foreign settings which typically take place in lush landscapes. Indeed, it is the vibrant detail which goes into rendering the landscapes – and ultimately the overall appearance of the gameplay – that distinguishes its environments from other games and gives them a particular presence. It is not simply that the environment is there as a "base", for which other elements are propped on top, but rather that the environment becomes an essential part of the game itself. I bring up the Far Cry series because they are good examples of what is possible in terms of environmental development from a CryEngine derivative. The same should be capable from Lumberyard, as it is also a highly-modified adaptation of CryEngine – and being that New World is a game which also requires utmost emphasis upon its environment, we can expect similar quality of treatment in this regard.
But a closer look is warranted as to why environment is important for New World. Surely, it is important for any game, but insofar as games are different, they would be important for different reasons. For this, I would like to emphasise three points about New World: that it is an MMORPG, that it is a survival game, and that it is an exploratory one at that. Insofar as it is an MMORPG, it will have lore, a history, and a background to it – for this, getting an environment which can resonate with its narratives and tell a story on its own (e.g. without the use of words) is important. But above all else, the environment is what instills the atmosphere – the feeling – of a setting and allows the audience to better appreciate the actions that take place within the game. The environment is what allows the game to feel more like a full experience rather than a disparate set of actions. The connotation which the environment effects then ties quite nicely with the other two points because it allows for a sense that there is a world of depth to be explored and experienced in all of its enchantment, wonder, and mystery. But what is also needed is to instill a sense of danger would give excitement to that same notion of exploration, and this is where the survival aspect comes in. If the game is to truly feel as a survival game should, then the environment would too have an irrevocable role, as it would need to lend a sense of danger to every action one takes in the world. If that feeling of ever–present danger is not there, then the obstacles of survival would quickly feel more as an endless list of dull chores which only serve to irritate than challenge.
In conclusion? Though environment may seem like a “merely artistic endeavour,” it too plays a critical role in the design of a game. Though it may not directly have any impact on the hard mechanics and inner workings of a game and its gameplay (e.g. combat), the impact on these aspects is still very real and tangible. To put it one way, the way one conceives of a game depends on how one conceives of its environment, and the way one thinks about a game’s mechanics will influence how the game gets implemented. Where one imagines an environment, one imagines its implementation. A skill that subtracts 100 points from the target’s hitpoints just isn’t the same as a magical fire-casting spell which deals 100 damage to the target.
And so, how New World goes about creating its environment will be one of the most foundational endeavours which can either make or break the game. I have the utmost confidence that it will be done well – and that it will make the game – precisely because the background and theme of the game simply necessitates attention to detail in this regard. But just as it will be one of the most foundational layers, it will also be one of the most invisible layers; that means it will also be one of the most difficult aspects of a game to get just right: invisible, yet appreciable.