Jonathan Steinhauer's MMO Column

Steinhauer’s Opinion: The Long Road


“No, no this won’t do at all,” Braiglam said. “You must go back to my brother and tell him to reconsider.”
“But I’ve already been there and back three times,” Lomthalion argued.
“The fourth time will resolve all,” Braiglam replied. “Hopefully.”
Lomthalion stared down at his feet. He’d thought being a hero meant using his sword for good, not wearing out the soles of his shoes. As he turned away to make yet another trip to Braiglam’s brother, he wondered why the two didn’t just use their towns’ postal systems and leave him out of it.

As game worlds become more and more advanced, they also grow larger and larger. The by-product of this improvement is the long distances that must be traveled between locations. For some reason, with this increase in world size, there is not a corresponding improvement in traveling systems. Indeed, there seems to be almost a perverse joy in sending players on quests that involve running back and forth between two distant points with no other objective but carrying a bickering message between a pair of NPCs.

We’ll begin the analysis of this problem by doing a study of an older set of single-player RPGs in comparison with a relatively new MMO. First series we’ll look at the Baldur’s Gate series. While these games are eight and 10 years old and are not MMOs, they provide an excellent example of the positive evolution of world travel. In comparison, we’ll look at Lord of the Rings Online because it is one of the most recent fantasy MMOs with a fairly large player base. Admittedly, it draws much of its mechanics from previous games like World of Warcraft, and it still suffers from the same shortcomings.

The geographical layout of Baldur’s Gate was a series of about two dozen rectangular maps screens that abutted each other. The player’s party initially could only travel between screens by traversing the map to the edge it wanted to cross and then move to the next screen. Once a map screen was discovered, however, the party could return there simply by traveling to the edge of any map. This world layout is very similar in concept to the zoned MMO (except, of course, for the faster travel BG had to old areas). Indeed, as per our previous discussion on the Dangerous Wilderness, BG I had various encounter locations on each map that would end in fights for the player. While not random and often not respawning, these encounters are similar in their basic nature to those of MMOs. To make an analogy, many of these battles are comparable to the old “random encounter tables” of classic tabletop games. The system functions but it can be very tedious, as well. In order to experience the full content of BG, every part of the map had to be explored. The repetition of this on every map became tedious.

In contrast, Baldur’s Gate II map screens were not necessarily geographically adjacent. From the thriving Docks District of Athkatla, one could travel immediately to the distant Trademeet without having to traverse the remainder of the city or even the wilderness areas in between. This instantaneous transit made the game much more user friendly without eliminating the random encounters associated with travel. From time to time as the player jumped from zone to zone, combat would interrupt the journey as a group of bandits or a swarm of spiders descended on the party.

Looking at LOTRO, we see that it (and all MMOs) follow the same basic format as BG. If you want to get from Point A to Point B, you have to hoof it. The base reason is that, obviously, MMOs involve complete geographical areas and so usually can’t incorporate the jumps of BG II (although LOTRO does make you jump all the way from the Grey Mountains to the Shire, skipping everything in between). But even so, why must the primary travel method throughout the game involve wearing out the soles of shoes? I know that the panoramic scenery of modern games are incredible, and have no doubt that the designers are justifiably very proud of the worlds they’ve created, but do we have to slag through it every time we want to run to and from a town?

In a broad sense, the methodology of BG II is unfeasible in MMOs and is undesirable because players want to be able to travel anywhere. However, BG II does imply a methodology that was much more heavily incorporated in Turbine’s earlier MMO, Asheron’s Call, than is used in LOTRO, the ability to jump easily from one part of the world to another. The AC world had an extensive portal network that tied regions together. Knowledge of portal routes made travel quick, easy and relatively painless (except for the dead bodies of newbies who couldn’t survive the Subway jump). Recent MMOs like LOTRO and WoW have Stable and Flight Masters that allow for faster travel between settlements. While graphically and stylistically appealing, this innovation has actually made travel more time consuming and tedious. Unlike AC’s instantaneous portals, travel by mount is only marginally faster than travel on foot, the only benefit being that you don’t have to steer. I don’t know how many times I’ve set my character on auto-pilot then left the computer for five to 10 minutes while the journey takes place. Players can purchase mounts, of course, but are slower and have to be directed. There also is a quick travel mechanism that takes you instantly between locations, usually at increased cost or with level restrictions. But why is the very tool that removes this tedium so rare?

Ironically, LOTRO and WoW both saved one class much of the monotony of its travel system. The Hunter and Mage classes, respectively, can instantly jump to a large number of towns without a cooldown timer and without a prolonged delay. This is a great idea, but why give it to only one class? With the exception of the hunter’s Desperate Flight, these skills don’t give the class any tactical ability that would directly affect a combat situation. So, since it’s only purpose is to make gameplay easier, it is incomprehensible to me why this should be limited only to a fraction of players.

Ultimately, the solution to the Long Road question is quite simple: Make quick trip travel readily available and practical to use. The possible ways to implement this are multifaceted, whether it be the classic portal routes of AC, purchased trips from stable masters like in WoW and LOTRO, or the quick trips available to the mage and hunter classes. The recall ability that WoW and LOTRO provide back to inns and milestones are handy, but the hour timer serves no valuable purpose (especially when the Mage and Hunter classes suffer no such penalty).

The only place where quick travel becomes a tactical problem is in the case of PvP play and certain epic quests where a quick retreat can drastically change the combat situation or disrupt the nature of the quest. But the solutions here are also simple. Any or all of the below would resolve the issue:
1) Provide a lengthy and easily interrupted wind-up time of 20-30 seconds for all quick travel.
2) Prohibit quick travel if you are within a certain distance of an enemy (be they NCP or PC).
3) Tag certain dungeons, caves, fortresses (or even regions) where quick travel is not possible.

Ultimately, the limited travel systems in most MMOs force players to spend a frustratingly large amount of time running to and from locations with no other ambition but to get as quickly as possible from point A to point B. There is no reason games can’t institute systems to minimize this tedium in ways that won’t damage the value of the wildernesses they’ve created or the combat systems that the games use.

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