Tobold's Blog
Saturday, April 18, 2009
Virtual traveling

The Lord of the Rings would have been a rather short book if Frodo had had a flying mount to travel all the way from the Shire to Mordor, or if he had used a teleport to cover most of the way. The last perilous journey I did in a MMORPG was running at level 10 from Freeport to Qeynos in the original Everquest 9 years ago. Since then a desire to reduce "downtime" has led to more and more, easier and easier, ways of travel, with zero danger involved. And while it is understandable that people consider long travel times as an obstacle to grouping, removing travel from the game is nevertheless cutting out an important source of adventure.

I was thinking about that when reading Keen's latest comment on Darkfall, where he says: "I can travel from one side of the map to the other, but why would I? There is no destination, purpose, or incentive. Players have no reason to congregate anywhere publicly outside of their own Clan or alliance circles. There are no regions of the map which someone would say “I need to go there to get x or y or z”." Because this isn't limited to Darkfall or PvP games. There are a lot of games where it basically doesn't matter where you are, and which are huge, but feel empty. And other games, with a densely populated world full of content, where it is far more important where you are, but then the developers provided you with some fast and risk-free way to get there.

When Wrath of the Lich King came out, I felt a burning need to level up my mining/jewelcrafting and herbalism/alchemy fast, faster than I could level. So I was sneaking through zones with mobs 5 levels higher than me, searching for ore or herb nodes, and that was great fun. There was a sense of both exploration and danger, paired with a reward for finding the resources I wanted. Today the two characters in question are level 80, have epic flying mounts, and gathering the same resources is extremely boring: The exploration is over, there is no danger, and the resources are less useful, because my tradeskills are already maxed out.

There are some single-player games, often SciFi spacefaring games in the Elite tradition, where you need to get resources or trade goods at some place, and then transport them on a perilous journey to another place of the universe, where they are rare and worth more. That is a concept I'm missing from MMORPGs. You not only travel instantly and without risk, you can also transport goods the same way, so most wares aren't worth much more in one part of the world than in another. The closest we get is EVE, but even there there is only a difference of resources based on how dangerous the space is, there are no resources that are abundant in one corner of 0.0 space, and rare in another, worth trading, smuggling, or waging war over. But the next couple of years will bring more spacefaring MMOs, so I still hope that there will be elements of trading by transport and perilous journeys (PvE, not PvP) involved.
Interesting post. I think fast travel can be a problem, but the offhand comment about lack of destination or purpose strikes me as more important.

If you look at a game like WoW, almost every interesting element of its gameplay is contained within your character. There's never really any reason to go anywhere, because you ARE the game in many ways. It doesn't ever really matter much where you're playing at, as long as it's a reasonable level for your character. Playing on a PvP server is a bit different, because you'll find yourself venturing across to the other continent to go hunting, or running around to where people are calling for help. Or in theory you will if your server still as any world PvP in the old world.

A game like Shadowbane or DAoC or Planetside takes this a bit further, and makes certain objectives around the world essential at certain moments. In games like that, getting to the fight quickly never seems fast enough. Those can also be the most dangerous worlds to get trapped alone in. Probably the most scared I've ever been in an MMO was getting separated from my squad far behind enemy lines in Planetside. PS had fast travel to the battle in some ways, but you also had to wait around for it to leave. Once you were out in the field, there wasn't much in the way of fast travel. If you got stuck walking around on foot suddenly the game was very big, and very scary.

In the earlier days of WoW I remember running down to duskwallow marsh to pick up the mid-level first-aid training book. That was the only place it was sold, and most people didn't know that. You could get there as a low level character, and you could sell several of them on the auction house every day for a handful of gold. I remember making that trip very often, although even then I usually ended up flying. I think you're right that adding more elements like this would give more of a reason to travel around, but still not as much as PvP can. Even when Blizzard does place trainers out in the wilderness and the like (the enchanter trainer in sun rock retreat in stonetalon), I really just find it annoying rather than interesting. Stalking around alliance cities and outposts always felt much more exciting.

After all my comments about how PvP games usually don't have this problem, I do find it pretty surprising that Darkfall is suffering from this as well. Maybe it's a bit freeform to support much in the way of concrete goals.
"there will be elements of trading by transport and perilous journeys": abandon your hopes. There will be nothing perilous in these games except in small games like Darkfall. Remember: casual friendliness. If the wolves of Elwyn or the cats of Mulgore could pose any threat to the low level players, WoW would have 2M subscribers :-)
Vanguard started off by trying to get people to travel the slow way with the intention of allowing for trade. The downside was that people ended up doing long, repetitive rides along the same routes and players hated it. The Riftways were introduced pretty soon.
"The Lord of the Rings would have been a rather short book if Frodo had had a flying mount to travel all the way from the Shire to Mordor..."Seriously... Why didn't they just ride the giant eagles there in the first place?
Tobold with regards to EVE there are plenty of good that are rare in on corner of the universe and plentiful in another. You can make a good living as a trader buying stuff in one region and ferrying it to another and of course the journeys can be very perilous. Bringing ammunition from empire space into 0.0 is just one example but there are plenty of others.
"Seriously... Why didn't they just ride the giant eagles there in the first place?"Had to get the flight point first ;)
You need BOTH. You cannot ask a casual player who just wants to log in to do a dungeons with his friends to travel there for 1 hour.
And you cannot ask players to do one specific journey over and over again - it becomes boring.
Trade and dangerous traveling still need to be implemented in an MMO. It's too much fun to ignore it. Of course, the problem with trade is that the economy in general is such a tricky thing (not only in MMOs :), that it is indeed very difficult.

We all fear that Blizzard next-Gen MMO will be WoW with with a better graphics engine, do we ? :)
Tobold, have you considered the new wormhole mechanic in EVE? With the latest expansion, wormholes randomly appear in systems, both high and low/no security, that connect to one of 2500 new systems in EVE. The destination is random as well and there is no way to know where a wormhole might lead before one enters it. Moreover, each wormhole has a mass limit; try to take too many or too big a ship through it and it will collapse. The new wormhole systems can be any where in the known galaxy and so one might inadvertanly go from a system on one side to a system on the other and have to make a very long, perilous journey back. Alternatively, the wormhole systems might serve as a bridge to systems like JITA; instance and lucrative trade route. Most of these new systems have valuable asteroids and a new and very dangerous NPC race that is the source of Tech 3 ship components. I haven't gotten around to trying it myself but by all accounts it has made for interesting and meaningful exploration.
This is why flying mounts are bad. You have probably seen the funny Lord of the Rings alternate ending where Frodo drops the ring from an Eagle, as you mentioned it. :)

I love(d) my flying mounts, I was especially fond of the white snowy Griffon. I wonder if we ever see medieval merchants hauling materials in carriages through MMO worlds...!
This is such a tricky subject. I think people will always want the easiest way to advance and will yell for it endlessly, I was for the portal stones in VG but now I think the better option would have been to leave them out and actually group same lvl content together. VG has a huge world that is pretty much pointless now. I look back at my EQ days trying to sneak my cleric to the camp half way across the zone in PoD knowing that if one mob saw me I was dead and death was a big deal! That was so exciting but if you tried to get me to do that now I would probably yell for the devs to make it easier so more people would group. I think maybe the devs need to protect us from ourselves a little more and make games that challenge us knowing we are going to cry and yell but we will be having a blast anyway.
"We all fear that Blizzard next-Gen MMO will be WoW with with a better graphics engine, do we ?"That's exactly what I'm hoping for!
@ Sven:
No innovation ?
No housing, no trade, no better AI, .. nothing, just nothing you hope for ?
Like a lot of parts of game design, it seems to me that the most fun type of travel time will depend on how the rest of the gamer works. I do agree that, in general, places that players will travel over and over again should have faster travel times, since taking a long time to, in effect, go on errands will get quite boring quickly.
If you are going to make a player travel the same route, you need the route to be more dynamic so that the unexpected can still happen. The problem with games like WoW is that the monster placement is static.

I suspect that most players would be happier with a steady stream of new content instead of making traveling more exciting.
I'd be a lot more down with non instant travel if I hadn't had to fly to that one instance in the middle of nowhere on the elf continent. The one with all the ogres.

Here's the problem in the end: everybody wants different things from an MMO. And they want all the stuff they hate to be at least somewhat containable. And for a lot of people, any given thing is that thing they hate, so all of it has to be containable (i.e. nerfable).

Ergo, a popular mmo that puts a lot of weight on being popular (and who wouldn't, that's where the money is) will inevitable nerf itself into a gruel like mediocrity.
Well, one solution would be that you can teleport and fly, but only if you aren't carrying tradegoods. So as long as you are adventuring, travel is fast, but if you go gathering, or transporting goods that are common in one area to another place where they are rare. And of course the random bandits or pirates would attack the slow merchands, not the fast adventurers.
The easiest solution that does not feel artificial would be to have most of the world be harmless with fast travel, but some area(s) are dangerous to travel in, disallow fast travel and supply goods that can only be gathered/bought there.
This way those who like to travel dangerously can go there and make money by selling the acquired goods in the safe towns/AH.
Frodo only had to bear the ring once. I'm betting from qeynos to freeport was a one-time noob run also. People don't mind risk early on, but if every run is a hazardous journey, people will soon find ways to hedge that risk. There's only so many times you are willing to lose 30 minutes because you got killed on the way to an event and had to start over from your home point.

If you want to make travel with risk common, you'd probably have to shape the game around it with some sort of caravan system. Otherwise people will just get annoyed and find easier alternatives instead of running the gauntlet.

Admittedly I phrased it in a somewhat flippant way, but I don't see the changes needed as being that great. Sure, I'd like to see better AI, public quests, player housing, better guild tools etc, but these are fairly minor things that would maybe warrant an expansion, but not a major upheaval in the gameplay.

The problem with innovative ideas that sound good on paper is that they don't always work too well in reality. VG's travel issues are a good example: sure, it's fun to take your merchant caravan through dangerous territory the first time you do it at low level, but it becomes rather boring on the 27th run when al your guards are fully raid-geared. The first time I made the run from Metnethil to Ironforge was exciting. Doing it with the subsequent alts was just annoying. Another example: the cut scenes with Arthas were great for my first alt in Northrend. I'm starting to think "get on with it" now, though.

Ultimately, i like the core gameplay in WOW and a similar game with new content and classes would suit me fine.
For those who have not seen the LotR "How it should have ended" video, it is hilarious :)
As many have said, the greater the need to travel long distances, the more repetitive this task will become, and the greater the cry for insta-travel alternatives.

Mark Asher said: "If you are going to make a player travel the same route, you need the route to be more dynamic so that the unexpected can still happen. The problem with games like WoW is that the monster placement is static.

I suspect that most players would be happier with a steady stream of new content instead of making traveling more exciting."

I think that's the key thing here: make the travel aspect fun and challenging, a part of the game, rather than a tedious timesink.

On the other hand, MMOs do tedious timesinks *so well*.
Back in my MUDing days, I used to play Medievia. One of its most compelling gameplay devices was the trade system, where you could acquire a mule or a wagon, buy some goods, and, usually in a caravan with other players, trek to another town. You really never knew what you would run into along the way; sometimes you'd be ambushed by bandits... sometimes a dragon might make an appearance. Occasionally you'd get through without a fight. The risk is what made it more than a grind.
“The closest we get is EVE, but even there there is only a difference of resources based on how dangerous the space is, there are no resources that are abundant in one corner of 0.0 space, and rare in another, worth trading, smuggling, or waging war over.”

Moon mining – different systems and regions have access to various forms of moons. Some regions have abundant “rare” moon types that make owning them more beneficial than a neighboring region.

0.0 NPC types – certain areas of 0.0 space are considered part of an NPC nation (pirate territory) but are still claimable by player corporations. These areas of space have better NPC spawns which can drop better loot.
The remember running from Ironforge to Southshore. That was long and epic for a level 20 something. Passing through Arathi was quite dangerous back then and the mobs were close to the road. Running for raptors and giant spiders was frightening. Not to mention the Courier and his guards on the road.
Traveling in MMOs should be a journey, not a destination.

I would like to see the following ideas implemented to make travel more rewarding and less of a grind...

1) Open PvP with some form of an alignment hit for attacking your own kind (Murder / PK system). I don't care what monsters you put in the game; there is no PvE that scares me or gets my blood boiling. Nothing makes travel more intense than the risk of being attacked by another player.

2) Full loot. If I risk nothing by dying, then traveling with my items is a grind, and not intense at all.

3) Geographical resources. If all resources can be farmed all over the world, then why would anyone pay more or less in a certain area. There might be slight price differentials, but nothing enough to encourage the movement of goods.

4) Local banks. None of the above suggestions mean anything if banks are universal. You can have the most severe death penalties, and the most savage PKs in an MMO, and if I can just bank at one location and nude run to the next bank, then none of it matters.

I would immensely enjoy travel in a setting with the above mentioned. There has to be a risk vs. reward, otherwise traveling is nothing but a grind.
As another commenter said, EVE does have significant variation in supply over space. But, as with most things, my favorite reference has to be A Tale in the Desert - very noneven distribution of trade goods, very limited travel. The experimentation with different forms of fast travel on different tellings is interesting, both for direct player reaction and for the way it shapes patterns of settlement. The telling I played most, there was a central merchant organization that I'd travel to for major trading (since longer-distance teleports were much more expensive - charged in offline time), and a local merchant group with narrower selection & less availability (since, with only a few principals, you were less likely to find somebody in their camp to broker the trade) but much easier to get to. There aren't any monsters, but there's also been an interplay between the spatiality of challenges and travel; if you're working on finding crickets that other players have hidden in out-of-the-way places, you probably don't mind making a long run by an obscure route to get to another site.
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