Later on today I will be going for a short holiday and I’m currently packing for the trip. I hate travelling and am really counting the hours to get to my destination, settle and start enjoying myself. The subject of travelling in an MMO is certainly a divisive one. Those against the idea will tell you that it’s a waste of play time and that it’s included solely to artificially pad the game. The reasoning behind this is that a player who is travelling is not actually consuming content. On the other hand, those who are in favour of long travelling times in an MMO will point out that making you actually experience the journey (as opposed to instantly ‘porting’ anywhere) lends a sense of scale to the game world. Both these schools of thought have their merits*. Certainly the Gryphon rides in World of Warcraft made Azeroth feel epically huge, especially for new players, but truth be told if I had to calculate the time in hours I actually spent on a flight path I would not be surprised to find it reaches the triple digits.
The primary reason is that most MMOs fail to make the trip interesting. It holds your attention the first time since you are passing unfamiliar territory. The sights and sounds are still fresh in your mind. The second and third time familiarity starts setting it. By the fourth time you know the place like the back of your hand. At that point travelling means a quick trip to make yourself a tea or empty your bladder. And here comes my caveat. Most MMOs are happy serving a game world which is by far and large static in nature. This is curious when you consider that, by design, these games task you with traversing the same areas over and over. Areas need to change subtly to keep things fresh for the player. If you know exactly what you are going to find in a particular area because you’ve been there before, you are much less likely to check it out later on.
One of the biggest pulls of an MMO for me is exploring a new world. Uncovering hidden secrets and easter eggs, discovering quests which are off the beaten path, finding a rare mining node or chest deep within a cave, meeting a rare mob which is not usually there: These are all things which pique my sense of discovery. Some games do this to an extent. They just don’t do it frequently enough. Although not perfect, Rift does quite a good job of it. The world frequently changes due to rifts opening here and there while players are likely to come across marauding invaders. There are definitely rare mobs to find and the land is littered with resources to collect. However, the best thing about Rift are the hidden artifacts found scattered around the game world. Crucially these do not show on the mini map so it’s up to the player to be alert of their surroundings in order to ferret them out. This feature alone single handedly makes travelling in Rift much more interesting than it would be otherwise. Another prime example of how to create worlds which are a joy to explore came from Diablo III. The developers of the game understood that each environment is going to be explored over and over, so they littered the world with random quests and events which players can choose to investigate or ignore. These quests are varied and interesting and it boggles the mind why no MMO has implemented this kind of dynamicity.
There are a couple examples of this in past MMOs I played which stuck in my head (although I am not sure they were randomly generated like in Diablo III). While playing Everquest 2 I came across an NPC being assaulted by gnolls. I promptly saved him and it turned out that this NPC was actually a vendor, who then made his wares available for purchase. I remember he sold his items at a discount too. Lord of the Rings Online did something similar. While exploring I saw an upturned cart with two bodies lying next to it. I went to investigate and upon getting closer one of the guys lying on the floor raised his head and urged me to run away. ‘It’s a trap!’, he said. Sure enough he had barely finished his sentence before a number of goblins ambushed me from all sides. Sadly more often than not an upturned cart and two bodies only mean that some quest giver somewhere is going to send you back to this same spot to retrieve an item which will magically become available for you to pick up. A good example of putting the cart before the horse.
Apart from discovering the unknown there is a second component which endears my adventurous spirit: The possibility of reward. This can come in many forms, the most obvious being loot. However there are many other ways to reward players who choose to go around on foot. Coming across some beautiful vista/structure, uncovering hidden lore, getting involved in some interesting side quest, getting some form of achievement, finding a hidden fishing spot, meeting a travelling vendor – these are all things which make getting lost in the game world worthwhile.
Travelling does not need to be rote and boring. If the world around us is constantly changing and brimming with rewards a simple trip from A to B can become an adventure in and of itself. Don’t have much to add beyond this so I will go on packing my bags. However I will make sure I leave some space free for any rewards I might come across along the way.
* To be fair the way you are stuck on a flight path in WoW veers more towards it being an annoyance than a game feature enhancing for me specifically because there is little to no interaction. I cannot get off the flight if I saw something of interest so why not just let me port to my destination after I take the flight path a couple of times?