In one of my previous posts this last week I started delving into MMO design issues that have been changing for the worst in my opinion. In that particular article, I talked about how having instant messaging and global channels have potentially changed how the world of players interacts with each other. I decided that I wanted to continue along with these game design issues of old versus new. In this article, I thought a good topic would be that of travel times from one place to another within a game world, and how this actually makes quite a large impact on it.
Now Raph Koster used to talk a bit about design, lately he seems to talk mostly about random junk, and he has talked more than once about travel time. He has two major theories on the importance on travel time, both of which I agree with.
First, he considers video games a kind of roller coaster with lows and highs. The Highs are the combat, the high intensity high fun times. The lows are the times where you are between combat, or those fun times. So the travel times fit into the lows. Now his theory is that you can’t always be on a high otherwise people will eventually tire of it, or become over-stimulated. (Or have a heart attack and die). People need to have the lows in order to be able to amplify the highs and to allow a cool-down time as well.
The second theory he had is that travel time also allows players to be able to converse. He figures that if players are always fighting or doing something that there would be no real time to share. After all if you are concentrating on an epic battle all the time, you have no time to sit and type something to someone and have a meaningful relationship with that person. Given that this is an MMORPG, this is really one of the more important things to be promoting about a game.
Personally, I feel this conversation time is more correct than the first, as the other theory has more natural dips in between battles anyway. Although I think he is right about the other as well, it just donesn’t factor into why having a travel time is important (not that this is his main point anyway).
I also think there is another point in travel time that is far more important. This particular reasoning is one of scope. Yes, I have recently talked about scope, but I think I just barely mentioned travel times in that particular post. Why this is a huge deal is that if everyone can teleport anywhere in just under a few minutes, well then the game just feels that much smaller and people get bored of it that much quicker.
A couple cases in point, both done to prove my point in different ways. First, Asheron’s Call had a huge world. Now granted, much of the world wasn’t worth seeing, that is a different problem. However, the travel in this world was almost instantaneous due to multiple portals, which were later added even further, and then portal merchants came about and even though by that point the world was 33% larger than the original version of it, it felt nearly half the size if not smaller.
The other example goes the other extreme, and that is Dark Age of Camelot. In DAoC, the players moved at a crawl. There was little to no transportation to make it faster. What this did was it hid how small the world really was. You see at launch, the game was far smaller than the competition, even smaller than other games at launch largely because they had to split their development time between three seperate realms. The realms themselves were small and the travel time made the world seem so much bigger than it actually was. It was actually so bad that it was annoying, but it did increase the scope. In particular, it made the trip to the opposing realm’s gates far more significant.
Now neither of these were particularly right. Increasing travel times to cover up a small game isn’t that much better than decreasing travel time and making the size of the world less. But there is a happy medium. The problem with decreasing travel time too much is that to a certain point, you want groups to be able to get together fairly quickly and be able to do something productive so that even the smallest tasks don’t take 3-4 hours. People need to feel like they are productive in just a couple of hours that they may put in in any given night after work before they go to bed.
There is an obvious balance that needs to get designed into these games, and very few games have it right. But I have seen a number of ideas that I think would work really well if incorporated. Two are related.
The first is from Horizons. There wasn’t a lot good about the game really, but one thing I actually thought was fairly cool was that traveling on roads actually increased your run speed. So in essence, those things that everyone ignores in MMOs, yeah roads… they are useful and you need do nothing to gain use from them. Plus generally, this increase of speed would be used for important locations like from city to city, which allows it to be designed around which is nice.
Related to that is the movement mechanic in Okami. In Okami, you would run faster the longer you run forward. There were three or four speeds and the top speed was quite fast. I thought this was a very cool mechanic that actually made a lot of sense when you thought about it realistically. Further, I really thought this mechanic would work really well in the terms of MMORPGs. I mean think about it, in MMOs you tend to run a lot… it would work naturally that if you are running accross long stretches that as you run you go faster. This would help give the world a feel like you are walking and running which is really lost in the genre.
Another mechanic that I think works really well is a teleport to you spell that we first saw used in the modern MMO in Shadowbane, though Everquest 2 has since picked this spell up as well. This spell allows a player to summon a groupmate to them. I loved this when I first started playing Shadowbane long ago because it really did its job well… lose a group member and had to pick up a new one? Well just teleport him out! In both incarnations that I’ve seen this spell, the recast on it was really long so that you couldn’t use it as active transport. In SB, I think it was 5 minutes and in EQ2 I think it is 15 minutes. I think this is completely appropriate.
Other viable options of transport I think are the obvious boats with long wait times (20-30 minutes), and I also was quite fond of the moongates in Ultima Online. These were static portals in the game that took you to the other cities. The catch of it was that where they took you largely depended on what the moon phases were and this tended to shift every couple of hours. So if you wanted to go to Yew from Britain you actually had to be there at a certain time. This greatly restricted the use of it and therefor was a good source of fast travel between long distances without completely killing the feel of the land being large. It did a good job of combining the world.
I never have really had a problem with horses (or griffins) on rails taking you from place to place because you actually see the world pass you by so you see how big the world is. It is also very controlled so you can choose how long it takes. Player controlled mounts I think are fine too, though in the wrong environment they could wreck the scope of the game. For instance, a horse in DAoC could be the worse thing for the game’s scope as it would really make the world seem as small as it was (Think they actually have these now too).
There are two things I would really recommend strongly against. The first is spells that players have that can teleport groups/groupmates to a place. And items that can be purchased that can transport you instantly and that are reusable (such as portal bots for guild housing like you can find in EQ2 now). Both of these are completely horrid and any dev who puts it in should be flogged. There needs to be strong restrictions with any particular use of quick long distance transport, whether it be extremely long recasts (actually think recall home in EQ2 was fine as that had 30 minute recast), extremely expensive (non-reusable items), or maybe randomness (such as moongates).