Friday, 5 October 2012

The Wanderer

Tobold brings up an excellent subject: travel. Let me let you into a secret: I love and I hate travel portals in MMO games. I love them, because they're so convenient. I hate them because they shrink my world, and break it up. What to do about this dichotomy? Well, let's look at the kinds of MMORPG travel we commonly encounter.

  1. Slow dangerous travel through the game world. Running, walking, riding. Is there a more boring way of getting from A to B? You travel slowly, and the player must be present to guide you, and avoid threats along the way. Oh, but therein lies the fun. There can be threats and adventure along the way. I love what Guild Wars 2 has done for running: as you move from zone to zone, you are levelled down to that zone, so that you are never free from danger. You must always be alert. The same is true of PvP games (e.g. EVE, Darkfall, even WoW on a PvP realm), where you might at any moment encounter another player who wants to do you harm. Sadly, in many other games, you face no peril in crossing zones you out-level. Then this becomes the most boring method of travel ever, slow safe travel.
    All the same, you don't want to be spending half your game time on this sort of travel.
  2. Faster, safe travel. Flying above the threats of the game (I'm thinking of WoW flying here, not EVE flying). This is travel without danger, above the world, but where the player must still be present to guide the character. This can be fun, from time to time, for sight-seeing, like a drive down the coast, or through the mountains on a sunny day. As a means of transportation in a game world, it's not the most interesting. You still must be present to guide your craft. Of course, you may spot something on the ground and choose to land and find adventure. I wish WoW had not introduced flying. I'm really enjoying travelling through Pandaria on my ground mounts, risking death, and I'm not surprised that neither Rift nor GW2 sees any need for flying mounts. Safe travel is dull.
  3. Fast, safe automatic travel. Here I'm thinking of WoW's air taxi services. You travel safely and quickly between fixed locations and because it is automatic, players can take a break and stretch their legs. I like this style of travel, precisely because of the change in rhythm introduced. Games need pauses, times when you can let down your guard and let your mind stray to other things. Even including abandoning the game for the rest of the day.
    Of course, you may (on rare occasions) stay at your post, and watch the scenery if you want. Even though this is fast travel, it is not so fast that the world seems smaller because of it. Because it is safe travel, time dilates!
  4. Instant travel. Portals. Hearthstones. This is the most convenient form of travel, but of course, it makes the world feel disjointed and definitely smaller. Nothing to see here. I fell sleep in Whiterun, and woke up in Markath.
These modalities of travel can be found in lots of MMORPGs. What can be done to make them fit your world?

 Peril is the fundamental driver of most fantasy worlds. We adventure to experience peril and to triumph over it. Those heart-pounding, sweaty moments are the ones you remember. I already mentioned GW2's simple expedient of levelling you down to the zone you're travelling through. EVE, with no concept of levelling, takes the approach of making one part of the game universe safe and the other part dangerous, and only provides the first modality: slow dangerous travel (or slow safe travel)*. 

Eve's predecessor, Elite, actually made the whole game about slow dangerous travel. It's sauce was to add trade to travel. Its gameplay is all about trading. EVE has dipped deeply into the same sauce. Trade is a great reason to travel.

Most MMORPGs have gone in a different direction. Trading goods aren't carried by caravans or spaceships, and  hauling goods from A to B is not present in most games now. For instance in WoW, the postal service invisibly and efficiently transports all your goods from one character to another. The banks have your goods at all their branches. Guild Wars 2 has gone to the extreme of allowing immersion-breaking access to the auction house from wherever you happen to be. Nils had some interesting ideas about haulage in his series on travel.

Exploration and Discovery
Running around the world discovering what's out in the world is one humanity's primal joys. It's part of our nature.

A mechanic that I love in WoW is finding flight points. It doesn't make sense from an immersion point of view, of course: why do the taxi-service's gryphons only fly to the flight points I know about? Surely they must know them all? All the same, I don't care, because I love the mini-game of discovering the flight points. Rift and Guild Wars 2 avoid this problem by having me discover non-sentient portals (all the same, you wouldn't want to think too deeply about how the actual mechanics of travel from portal to portal works, and why I can't travel to portals I've never been to before).

This allows us the fun of discovery along with the convenience of fast/instant travel when there is no fun to be had from discovery.

Dungeon-finder tools often make exploration and discovery irrelevant. No discovery is required. This removes the idea of "world". How many people in Azeroth know where Dragon Soul is located? Many Cata-born people don't even know where Wyrmrest Temple is!


Using portals and taxis for travel removes the fun of peril and trade/haulage. How could we improve on that? How can we allow the use portals without encouraging them above all other forms of transport? GW2 has the idea of allowing mobs to capture your portals, preventing you from travelling to captured portals. It's an interesting idea, and fits well into the world simulation. Just as fitting, though, would be to allow you to travel to captured portals, and find yourself in the midst of a bunch of enemies! That would certainly make you think twice about using a portal, re-introduce peril, and let us consider whether a particular journey might be better made by other means.

A portal is powerful magic. Not the Guild Wars 2 type, of course, where they are at every turn and corner, more common than bus-stops in a city; and where using them breaks my immersion (instead of interacting with the  portal device, instead you must open your map!) But when portals are rarer, their value is perceived. People already pay mages for their portal service in Azeroth. How about increasing the cost of portals? When you must pay for your portal, you will again consider if it is worth using or finding other means of transport. Even better, what if you could own one of these portals, and charge people for its use? Now we can have either PvE or PvP emergent gameplay, as different factions vie for control of each portal.

What if the payment was in the form of a mechanism for powering the portal, like dilithium crystals in Star Trek? Maybe the only known source of these is in a galaxy, far, far away. Owning that source would be very important to you! Or perhaps, like high-end tailoring in WoW, you can only create a crystal at a particular place  and time, and in small quantities. There are many ways to make portal use rarer without discouraging their convenience.

What are your ideas?

* Of course, I know that travelling in EVE is never 100% safe. Same as on Earth.

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