Rant: Travel Time
When word comes of a new game going into open Beta or hitting retail, one of the most important questions to this old gamer is how large is the world? World size is very important for the fact that a larger world will hold attention longer. The bigger the world is, the more there is to see and do. That epic feel of a large world really comes down to one thing, travel time.
World builders will literally spend months and years trying to design the worlds of tomorrow which will eventually become our virtual playgrounds. What usually can end up happening though, is that all the hard work of these world builders can be flushed down the toilet due to how travel is introduced. The real world we live in is pretty large, but perception of its size has been altered greatly in the last century due to the invention of faster forms of travel like cars and air travel. The same goes for MMOs.
For the most part the virtual worlds are large, but the perception of these worlds has been seriously marginalized due to the fact that developers are making it overly easy to get from one side of the world to the other. When we think of the epic quests and adventures of high fantasy, we must remember that the journey is half of the adventure. Killing the mighty dragon if he is living in a 2 minute walk from town doesn't quite seem as epic as the dragon who lives in a far off land inside a volcano somewhere.
The way it was...
In Everquest 1, they made a massive world. I remember when the game came out and I started my MMO career there, it was simply staggering to me how large the world was. As someone who started in Qeynos, the trip to Freeport, or even Faydark as a noob was almost impossible to imagine. The first time I hoofed it across the continent to see Freeport for the first time took me all night. The boat ride in Everquest was enough to make your ass cheeks clinch together in sheer horror as you watched cyclpose wading close to the boat, and in some cases too close as it was not uncommon to be smashed into oblivion on the deck of the boat.
One day they released an expansion called Planes of Power, which added a new area that had teleports to many areas scattered across the old game. This area became the main huddling point for most of every servers population and sucked the life out of every other city in the world. It also totally trivialized the world size making it seem much smaller even though its size had remained the same if not grown.
In Asheron's Call, the world was the size of a small American State. There were no boats, no mounts, just your feet and the portals. The portal system was very large and extremely complex. They would wisk you away to far off places in most cases without a way back unless you knew how to manipulate the system to your advantage. This required a knowledge that could only be gleaned by a mastery and understanding of how the hundreds of hidden world portal were interconnected into a series of loops and circuits. Eventually someone had to make an almost mandatory third party program to help the average player educate himself on how he could use this system to his advantage. Due to the somewhat complicated nature of the portal circuits and massiveness of the world, this system in now way diminished the perception of how big the world was.
Dark Age of Camelot brought us mounts. These mounts were not really able to be controlled by the player, but acted more like a shuttle bus to take you a certain town. You were given the option to hop off the horse at any given time if perhaps your destination was along the way to where the horse was going. This helped players get to the far reaches of their own realms while still having to wait a few minutes, and did fine to not trivialize the realm sizes too much.
Final Fantasy 11 has an interesting take on travel. For the first time players were able to ride a mount they could steer, the infamous Chocobo. Once completing a quest which allowed a player to ride them, the Chocobo was completely steerable to the players liking while at the same time playing one of the most horrific songs ever written ;) After about 10-15 minutes however, the Chocobo would kick you off and leave you. In most cases, it was enough time to get where you wanted to be given you rented the bird at the closest stable to your destination and didn't waste too much time. FFXI also had the Everquest 1 style of teleporting but I thought it was clever how they approached it. You could not be teleported to any of the spires which you had not previously visited and collected a crystal at.
They also very cleverly decided to give the group teleport spell to the healer class, which had previously been a staple of the mage type classes in other games. This made it more enticing to play a healer, which as we all know is not widely viewed as one of the funner classes to play in most MMOs. The world of FFXI to this day is massive and still growing, and they still have the only other game with a good boat ride next to EQ1. On any given boat trip, a player may find his boat being attacked by giant sea monsters or even being boarded by pirates! Airships eventually become available to allow players to travel between capital cities which are otherwise a great distance apart from one another.
The way it is....
Now we find ourselves in the era of EQ2 and WoW.
EQ2 does not have a lot of fancy transportation, but honestly doesn't need it. The games overworld is designed in such a way that it is chopped up into little island worlds which personally I was not a fan of, but with all of its expansions, they have greatly fixed this problem in their newer content making the world seem very large.
WoW on the other hand has some pretty good world design as far as how its continents are layed out. For a seamless game I would have liked to see a lot less mountains walling me in superficially. The real tragedy of WoW is how their nicely crafted world has been totally destroyed and poorly utilized because of their travel system. There are griffin towers in practically every area you walk into. This makes the world seems massively smaller then it actually is. Not only does the travel make getting everywhere far too easy, but it sucks the life out of the overworld even further. Most travelers can only be seen flying above all the content and world they spent years making. Only a first time visitor to an area will usually be seen walking on the ground to get there. As a result, there is a lot of the overworld that will see almost no traffic once they are visited by first time travelers. It is a shame because WoW has a lot of zones that are very interesting an scenic, but now are simply just flown over on the way to where they are going. A zone like Thousand Needles or Ungoro Crater are classic examples of zones that have a unique and interesting atmosphere, but unfortunately will seldom be seen short of a fly over to somewhere else.
The way it should be...
I seriously have to wonder if the world builders making these worlds have any say in how travel will be in these games. I would be furious as a world builder if I spent months building up areas of the world with magnificent scenery only to be bitch-slapped by some whiny ass Dev who think that players should be able to get everywhere instantly totally bypassing and ignoring the entire world. The journey is half of the adventure, so please stop trying to take it away from us.
Sure there will be whining bitches who will cry on how they had to sail on a boat for 5 minutes to reach another continent, but hey, its another freaking continent! If we didn't have air travel in real life, and you were going to sail to Europe from America, its going to take some time. I understand that nobody wants to spend a day on a boat and I don't expect anyone to make it that way, but there needs to be a middle ground where we as the adventurers still get to experience the journey. As a developer you need to ask yourself if you are willing to compromise your entire world and the scale of your game because some whiner can't handle the trip. These are the same little kids who sit in the car asking "Are we there yet?!" on your road trips. They deserve the same smack in teeth now as they did then.
The size of the world in eyes of the gamers is not the actual size of the world as made by world designers. The size of the world is based on our perception of how big it seems with the forms of travel. The larger the world APPEARS to be, the more exploring we will do, the longer the game will hold our interest, and the more money we will pay you because you will have earned it by providing us with a truly epic high fantasy world they we wanted.
Co-Leader of Inquisition