Jonathan Steinhauer's MMO ColumnThe Road Goes Ever Ever OnJonathan Steinhauer's MMO Column - RSS 2.0
When Tolkien, the father of modern fantasy, wrote "The road goes ever ever on," MMOs took him at his word. A large part of online gaming consists of traveling from one point to another. Whether it is because a quest sends you on an errand, you need to return to your class trainer or you want to buy and sell goods, enormous amounts of game time are drained just getting to where you are going.
Aside from running the distance, there are three basic forms of travel enhancement and all of them could use some work. These are mounts, conveyances (horse, boat, gryphon, etc.) and class skills.
Mounts simply increase a player's base travel speed. It has the benefit of still allowing people to go where they will by whatever route they choose, though if the distances are great, even double speed makes for a long trip. Yet I wonder that time saving appears to only be a concern for high level characters. Is there a particular reason why a Level 60 should be able to travel at twice the speed of a Level 1? Is their time somehow more precious? I hardly think so! Some might argue that higher level players have further to travel, yet for greater distances conveyances are used, not mounts, so that statement falls flat. A second counterargument is more valid: prestige. I'm all for players earning perks in games, but one of those should never be time. If it just comes down to prestige, give me a grungy donkey to ride at Level 1 and let me work my way up to fancy warhorse. So long as the speed benefit is there, the basic time savings are retained across the board. The final counterargument concerns the ability to race through monsters with relative ease but this is just as easily fixed. The donkey could be made with no resistance to attack, which means a single enemy strike will unhorse the Level 1 while the warhorse requires more damage before the rider is thrown.
This brings up another point on mounts. Why do they cost a kidney? In both WoW and LOTRO, if you simply quest and level you will not have nearly enough money to afford a mount and the riding skill by the time you achieve the level where they are available. Generous guilds help out some poverty-stricken players. Those less fortunate (or more independent minded) have to turn to other options. Some who may not have an interest in game economics must resort to barter. Others waste even more time camping spawns for cash. Or they can just wait until much later when they can finally afford a mount long after the required level is reached. Then again, many resort to illegally buying gold from gold farmers. Is that what games want to encourage? And all of this is just to make better use of what time we have to game. It's absurd.
The second technique is not-so-quick travel along prearranged routes by conveyances. I say not-so-quick because all too often we are forced to sit through long rides. I recently was playing WoW and had to travel from Darnassus to Gadgetzan. It took twelve minutes. Twelve minutes of just watching a gryphon flap its wings? That's productive game play. I took out a book and read. The sad thing is that this is just one trip of thousands that occur every day in games. So why must we sit through such long rides? Why not make them instantaneous? AC did it. You find a portal and presto, you're on the other side at some distant location. LOTRO does instant travel for a few of their routes, but not for all. In some of these cases, only high levels can travel instantly, while lower levels (who apparently are unworthy of having their time saved) must sit through a meaningless gallop to the destination. EVE's warp jumps are just gruesome; I spent more time traveling on auto-pilot than playing the game. WAR has finally gone back to instant travel, but you still have to sit through a cinematic... why not let us cut that short too?
I can see why the game designers might want to make players sit through some of their routes. They can, after all, be scenic views of some of the games finest panoramic displays, especially if the mount is avian. The first time I traveled from the Moonglade to Darnassus I thoroughly enjoyed the gryphon soaring over the tall mountain ranges and then plunging down to skim across the sea. But by the tenth trip, I was alt-tabbing to check e-mail till I got there. If that is the devs' intent, then make us sit through the first trip, but after that give the option of cutting it short and just jump us to our destination.
The final major travel technique is gained through class skills such as the WoW mage's ability to portal themselves and others to major cities and the LOTRO hunter's skill that allows them to instantly jump to various towns and settlements. Is there some reason only a few character classes are worthy of having their time saved? Half the reason I enjoyed playing a hunter in LOTRO was the massive amount of tedium I skipped. This may be some twisted technique to encourage players to group together. If that's the case, though, why can mages and hunters do it on their own? Also, why not parcel it out so that mages can portal to some places, rogues to others, and hunters to still others? That would be more fair. Or better yet, find other ways to encourage grouping and treat all players like their time is important.
One of the greatest perks of MMO games are the massive worlds they offer for gamers to play in. But when it takes so much time to get anywhere, the game can become frustrating. Not everyone has six hours to devote in one sitting to play. If I'm picking up a book or alt-tabbing to web surf or check e-mail instead of playing the game then there is something wrong with the dynamics. The fixes are simple and yet if we are growing closer, it is at a snail's crawl.