The Shortest Distance

If you’ve ever lived in Chicago as I have, you know that the mass transportation in that city can be a bit…challenging. There’s the CTA “L” line, or elevated train, which gets you around downtown Chicago. There’s the Metra train, which goes out to the suburbs. And I think there’s another CTA rail line that takes you to the airports. I have to confess that during the 7 years that I lived in the area, I never did quite get the whole system figured out. The point is that sometimes getting where you need to go can be expensive, confusing and tedious.

So why do game designers feel the need to make transportation in their virtual worlds expensive, confusing and tedious? Don’t we get enough of that in real life?

My first dedicated MMO experience was Dark Age of Camelot. Perhaps things have changed since I last played the game over 5 years ago, but back then getting around in Albion, Hibernia or Midgard was a giant PITA! Yes, there were teleporters in the major hub areas, and your character could eventually purchase a mount. But the majority of the game was spent taking the public transportation, which consisted of watching your character riding a horse. For a very…long….time. Some of the longer horse routes make the flight times in World of Warcraft look like a jog around the block. It was tedious, boring and unnecessary. How much fun can you really derive from looking at the back of a horse’s butt for 20 minutes?

Speaking of horse’s butts, let’s talk about the transportation options in World of Warcraft. Here’s a quiz for you: You’re a level 60 human warrior standing in the middle of Gadgetzan. You own conventional and flying mounts, but you’ve recently used your hearthstone, so you can’t teleport to your bind point for another 30 minutes. You need to get to Zangarmarsh on the Outland continent. Quick! How do you get there? And how long will it take you?

The recently released children’s MMO, Free Realms takes a refreshing approach to game travel: Open your map, click on where you want to go, and *poof* you’re there. Want to meet up with friends in the game? Click on their name, select “teleport” and you’re instantly standing next to them. It couldn’t be easier, and it makes the game a lot more enjoyable. You can still be pedestrian and explore the world on foot to your heart’s content. But you’re not forced to do so.

Which makes me wonder, why don’t all MMOs make transportation this easy? Sony realized when they were creating Free Realms that they needed to make “getting to the fun” as simple as possible, or kids would quickly lose interest. But developers seem to think that we adults ENJOY tedium, or at least they believe that we’re willing to tolerate it. Sure, it’s fun to explore. But at what point does ‘exploration’ become an imposed potty break?

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10 Responses to “The Shortest Distance”

  1. Sheer_Falacy says:

    For the WOW question: I cast Teleport: Shattrath, hop on my epic flier, and go north for like half a minute. Bam =P.

    (Mages are SO convenient)

  2. Kameron says:

    Disney’s ToonTown, also an MMO “for kids” (I played it more than my son ever did), took a similar approach to Free Realms. Your toon would select a friend’s name, throw down a magic black hole/circle and hop in. Poof, you appeared out of another black hole next to your friend.

  3. QE says:

    Although I agree that most games could be doing a lot better, there’s a danger that making travel too quick or easy can detract from the feeling of space and scale in a virtual world. In Puzzle Pirates, for example, I realise that there’s an ocean of archipelagos and islands but since I don’t do any navigating I don’t see that: I just see the ships, shops and inns as I get bounced around them when I ask the noticeboard interface for something to do.

    I was normally fairly happy with the transport options in WoW but there are definitely some unnecessary bottlenecks, getting into Outland and anything to do with Gadgetzan being prime examples as you say. As much as I’d like to cut down on flight time I’m quite glad they’re not instant. Although to be fair, I have already walked it all at least once before I’m allowed to fly.
    The massive discrepancy between mages and everyone else is very annoying.

    To be honest, I’m really not sure what the answer is. Non-instant travel demonstrates the scale of an epic-feeling world exactly by being boring. I have to agree that it sucks as gameplay but I think there’s room for a little of that in a compromise that supports the world as well as the game.


  4. Zerotime says:

    WoW used to be much, much worse before they allowed you to chain flightpaths together.

    “So, I take a left at the Crossroads, and then straight through the roundabout at… no, wait. That’ll take me to Desolace.”

  5. Marwin says:

    Guild wars has a nice quick-travel system. Once you’ve been to a location, you can just find it on the map and click travel… poof you’re there. The size of the world is not diminished by this – as you had to walk to every location before, and you see this huge map every time you travel.

    I think that main reason why pay to play games have this time-sink travel is because publishers see your time spent in game as their money – the longer it takes to travel the slower you will level and the longer will you stay in the game (awfuly simplified, but I hope my thought is demonstrated).

  6. Visi says:

    WoW does it because they don’t want you to feel the world is small. They want you to see all the work they’ve put into it, not just hop from one quickpoint to another. Plus it stacks up your /played. Seems they’re gonna improve it soon enough though.

  7. The Stark says:

    I thought the long flight times, in WoW, were designed so I could take a restroom break.

  8. Michael says:

    That mechanic you mention in Free Realms was (IIRC) originally installed in Second Life, MMO-nongame where people create avatars and design virtual stuff, then spend real-world money to try to create a home for themself and/or pawn their virtual stuff on other players.

    City of Heroes/villains at least gives the players travel powers as an option, so that you can fly/teleport/supersprint/leap faster than the standard running speed in the game. Also, a good team will have at least one character with the “recall friend” teleportation ability to just summon you to the next dungeon entrance once they’ve teleported themself there.

  9. Chris says:

    What, no one’s tried to answer your challenge? My obsessive tendencies demand that I try. I’m more familiar with Horde, and I think this’d be quicker for Horde, but you posed it as Alliance so I’ll try.

    Okay, you’re in Gadgetzan, and you need to get to Outland. As of some number of patches ago that means you can port form any of the major cities, right? So you could fly from Gadgetzan to Theramore. Then take the boat to Menethil Harbor. Then fly to Ironforge. Then go through the portal. Then when you’re in Outland fly to Zangarmarsh.

    But not so long ago you would have had to go through the Dark Portal. Let’s see, Alliance get a flight point in Ratchet these days, right? You can fly north to there, then grab the boat to Booty Bay, then fly from there to Nethergarde Keep. Ride south to the Dark Portal, go through, fly to Zangarmarsh.

    Yeah, um. Simple, right?

    I think no matter how you spin it though, you’re probably looking at travelling as long as your hearthstone timer. So terrible. The scenic flight paths in WoW are fun sometimes, but I definitely appreciated games like Tabula Rasa that allowed you to instantly teleport between nodes.

  10. Clif says:

    They could at least have in flight movies or let you play a game of I Spy or Slug Bug or something that you would do on a long trip.

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