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Urban exploration in MMOs


Urban exploration and free running are activities normally associated with the real world. In recent years, however, MMOs such as Everquest 2, Age of Conan and World of Warcraft have become a digital stage for the arts. With entire new virtual worlds to explore, no risk of injury and no physical fitness required, it's understandable that many would-be free runners are going digital.

In this article, I take a visual tour of the world of urban exploration and rooftop running in MMOs and explain how you can learn to clamber onto the rooftops in your favourite game.

Gallery: Urban Exploration | 19 Photos

What are free running and urban exploration?
Started in the 1990's by Sébastian Foucan, the discipline of free running involves moving through urban and rural areas in creative and often acrobatic ways. Walls and other structures are used as obstacles in an urban playground. The art focuses on the freedom and beauty of movements and not necessarily the length or difficulty of a particular jump. Urban exploration is another activity involving the exploration of normally unseen areas like roof spaces, sewers and underground utility tunnels. Both of these activities exist in their own form in MMOs and come together in the art of rooftop running.

How it began for me:
My interest in rooftop running and urban exploration in MMOs began after watching the show "Jump London" many years ago. Inspired by seeing people jump from rooftop to rooftop, I tried to replicate the feat in Everquest 2. Three hours and many failed attempts later, I finally managed to get onto the roof of a building in the Baubleshire. When I showed a friend my long and convoluted route to the rooftop, he asked if there were other places we could climb on to. From then on, it became a competitive race to find routes from ground level up to the tallest points in each zone. We shared information on routes and played ninja, leaping from roof to roof and spying on the people below.

The ultimate goal of any urban MMO explorer is to reach parts of the game that aren't normally available. In most cases, this means getting onto the rooftops and city walls but in some cases it could mean breaking into an unfinished area of the game. While other players are doing quests and killing monsters, you'll be climbing around buildings and seeing sights that most players will never see first hand. There is something incredibly liberating about playing a game your own way that hints back at how the discipline of free running formed in real life.

For rooftop runners, the ultimate goal is to reach the highest rooftops in a city and be able to leap between them. These are areas that were never intended to be seen and can house some pretty odd things. In my travels, I've seen buildings that aren't solid, stairs leading nowhere, walls that you can walk through from behind and many other oddities. My advice when setting a goal is to set your goal high and never give up. That building you think is impossible to climb may just require a creative solution.

Planning your route:
In order to reach your lofty goals, you'll need to plan a route of achievable jumps that starts on the ground and ends at your target. The full route will not be immediately apparent, instead you should plan only a few steps ahead, trying to get higher with each jump. Some key structures you may miss on first inspection are small ledges, window frames and doorways. Depending on how the game engine is designed, even a ledge that only sticks out from the wall a tiny bit could support your character.

The key to reaching your goal is learning to recognise potential jumps. Just like in real life free running, visualising possible jumps and knowing your limitations are key. Since each game has a slightly different movement and control system, it may take some practice to get acquainted well enough with the controls. In addition, each game will have its own building design style and world geometry that you'll need to become familiar with.

Unconventional moves:
Unlike in real life, minor details included by the artists to give a model character can be used as foothold. A piece of fabric or a screw sticking out of some wood that wouldn't support your weight in real life can sometimes be stood on in an MMO. Signposts and lamp posts also have their part to play, making unconventional but effective platforms. After some practice you'll begin looking at buildings with an analyst's eye, seeing ledges and footholds instead of windows and walls.

Another issue that you may come across in an MMO but not in real life is that of invisible walls. These are a tool that map designers use to stop players getting to places they shouldn't be. Usually only the most obvious jumps are prevented in this manner, leaving plenty of more creative routes available. To avoid wasting time attempting impossible jumps, it's important to recognise where the invisible walls are. The most reliable test is to try moving the camera through the area where you suspect an invisible wall may be. The wall will block the camera just like a normal solid wall would.

Race, class and gear:
Every MMO offers different benefits to movement, jumping and speed. World of Warcraft and Everquest 2 both offer relatively easy movement schemes. Everquest 2 also allows characters to change direction in mid air, which makes some seemingly impossible jumps a reality. In contrast, Age of Conan's movement system is much more realistic and tricky to handle. In addition to basic movement and controls, every MMO will have its own gear, potions, abilities, skills and spells which can help. Items which increase your character's speed or jumping ability will make some enormous jumps seem a lot shorter.

The race and class of your character may be of consideration to the urban explorer. Any race with bonuses to speed or special movement abilities is preferable over those without. Classes with speed-enhancing abilities and spells also make excellent free running and exploration characters. Other traits to look out for include those that slow your rate of descent or short range teleport abilities.


To me, urban exploration or free running in MMOs shows the versatility of online virtual worlds. It shows that despite the intentions of the game's developers, players are free to play the game their own way. Rooftops, buildings and city walls can be corrupted, turned into swings and slides in your own virtual playground. In the next of this series on urban exploration, I explore the skyline in Age of Conan's world of Hyborea like you've never seen it before. Until then, why not give this unconventional way to play an MMO a try yourself? The skybox is the limit!

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