Wednesday, January 30, 2008

The Threat of Travel Time

The inclusion of travel times in MMOs has always been an issue of keeping up appearances. Fantasy worlds seem less realistic to players if every location is only a few seconds from one another. As a result developers usually include some real world time cost when you try to move your character from point A to point B. One notable exception is of course the use of teleportation and portals but these almost always come with some sort of limitation. Games that don't put a limitation on instant travel usually run into problems of too many players entering into the same zone/area at the same time.

NCSoft gets around this issue by doing automatic instancing of common areas where players tend to congregate. While this gets rid of the lag problems related to instant travel it also has the unpopular side effect of forcing players to coordinate zone and instance numbers when trying to meet up. Most other MMOs instead elect to limit instant travel skills to major common areas where more processing power can be focused. This makes the game a little bit more sociable and allows players to use common areas as short cuts. A common criticism of some games like Guild Wars is that the over emphasis on instancing and instant travel makes it not a true MMO.

Even with the strategic location of portals players can still run into occasions where they are forced into insane travel times. Poorly developed quests are one of the leading cause of this problem. Especially, those quests which require you to deliver a item from point A to point B. Often after the delivery you have to go back to the original point A to get the reward for the quest. I noticed while recently leveling up my Horde druid in World of Warcraft that I kept completing quests that required me to go back to Ogrimmar to get the reward. At the time it wasn't worth the 15 minutes to fly there and back. By the time I did find myself close enough to Ogrimmar I had 3 completed quests all green which barely gave experience.

Lord of the Rings has a very good travel system which works a lot like the flight paths used in World of Warcraft. The main difference being that the travel time between major cities in Middle Earth is instant. Thus a player can travel quickly between any starting city and some of the major ranger outposts. Instant travel does cost more but its usually well worth the effort when the player is on a major quest line. Could you imagine how useful it would be to have an instant flight path to any of the goblin cities in World of Warcraft? Nothing is worse then some of the back and forth flying that players are forced to do before they can bind themselves in Shattrath.

Another new trend in MMOs causing increased travel times are economic based games which give a local value to goods. These games basically say that goods sell for less in areas where they are produced but can be moved in the game to other areas where they might sell higher. This actually is a more realistic design for a virtual economy and it better uses the law of supply and demand. Unfortunately, games like EVE and PotBS only allow players to move goods by manually piloting ships through mostly empty space or water. While this is realistic it also is quite boring and prevents a lot of players from enjoying the best game economies out there.

Looking at all the games on the market its easy to see where travel times have grown out of control and taken over our gaming experience. While maintaining the appearance of a true virtual world is important developers also need to realize that MMOs have moved into the next generation. There needs to be a travel time limit which makes it so players don't have to spend 20 minutes doing nothing to reach their goal. Unless of course the developers are preparing the next generation of Alterac Valley participants.


Johan said...

I used to play UO and in that game you were able to mark ANY place in the world and teleport/portal there. It made a great market for the game, as players made "Tourist" attraction runebooks and sold them to player to check out the world. It was a great way to share the experience of the land.

Also, since if you joined a guild, and all guilds have their inside information, they would be able to take you to their house, secret spots, or farming areas instantly. It made traveling a snap, and I think made the game more manageable. I've tried playing some of the free servers, and traveling by foot was a nightmare, esp. since I knew about the faster transportation available.

The BEST thing about the ability to port to any area in the world were the fake portals. Since anyone could step into a portal, people would often mark extremely dangerous places (like right inside a dragons den, or an island with only enough space for you and a mob) and players would step in not knowing where they were going. This was exacerbated by the fact that there weren't labels on the portals so you never really knew where you were going if you asked a stranger for a port.

Also, off topic, I have to be honest Relm, the tone of your post was kind of confusing. At first, it read as serious commentary regarding in game player travel time, but then it devolved into a satirical piece, one that I couldn't take seriously.

I am going to assume it was the former and the latter was used as a means to make the post more light hearted. Just letting you know that it kind of threw me for a curve and I didn't know how to respond.

Relmstein said...

Yeah, I was orginally going to split it into two posts and think I might do that anyways.

UO was the ultimate free for all MMO and there are so many good stories about that game. The amount of exploits and little tricks made it very unique and nothing like it will every be made again most likely.

Johan said...

Yeah, UO was the epitome of an actual sandbox MMO. The best thing about the very visceral and raw nature of the game was the bugs and exploits. It was like real life, where if you didn't think about all the angles, you could get owned.

One of my most memorable experiences is when the houses were released, there was a bug that allowed people to enter your house without a key. This was unknown by myself, so when I was in a house and saw someone in there who tried to kill me, talk about an adrenaline rush. I eventually fought him off and made sure to place an item over the area to ensure no other strangers could get in.

It just makes me sad that stuff like this won't ever happen again. All the spontaneity is gone from MMOs currently.