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The Soapbox: The road (much) less traveled


Disclaimer: The Soapbox column is entirely the opinion of this week's writer and does not necessarily reflect the views of Massively as a whole. If you're afraid of opinions other than your own, you might want to skip this column.

Normally, this column is reserved for some pretty big discussions. This time, however, I would like to talk about one of my specific pet peeves in MMO gaming, or at least one of the problems that I am very interested in solving. If you have ever taken a stroll down a dirt road in your favorite digital world, or if you have found yourself literally taking the long way home, then you might know what I am talking about.

Players similar to me really and truly do not care about impressing other players or about how those other players are trying to impress me. When I log into a virtual world, I want to simply meet people and possibly go on an adventure. The problem is that MMO gaming, like any other activity that humans participate in, has become a hobby with rules and proper guidelines on how to get it all done very quickly.

What about taking the time to travel, though? What about "it's the the journey, not the destination?" No, I mean the journey -- literally. Join me past the cut and let's talk about the need for realistic travel.

I want to talk about how your character gets from one point to another and how the developer treats the player who wants to use realistic forms of travel. A little personal history might help, so here it is: Years ago I started playing Vanguard using the Rules of Immersion that essentially told me how to act in certain circumstances. If the rain came down, I would make my character rest in shelter until it was gone or else he would be forced to move around at walking speed. If I played for a particularly long amount of time, I would force him to take a break and literally eat a bit of food. In other words, I enforced rules of realism that the game, in my opinion, should have done for me.

Of course, there are no games that can do everything for everyone. Perhaps one day soon our games will have the ability to morph and adapt to the needs of the particular player, but until then, we all have to make allowances. I had to put these restrictions on my experience lest it feel a little empty. I was not able to grind up a character to max level just to grind away at the same dungeon with the same people six nights a week. Not only did that feel both physically and mentally unhealthy, but I knew people who did that, and almost every single one of them burned out, became bitter at the game or the hobby, and moved on. Watching those hardcore players complain on the forums about having to raid as though they were getting up to go to a unsatisfying job made me realize that something was wrong with much of modern game design -- and with the modern player's mindset.

The point is that a lot of game design these days seems to respond only to the players instead of to the imaginations of the designer. While I can understand this need to listen to your playerbase and to play it safe with proven systems, designers need to remember that at one point there were no games. Someone, somewhere came up with the rules, the settings, the story and everything else. Designers don't have to put orcs or dragons in their games for those games to be "true fantasy." Designers don't have to include classes or raiding or even gear. Those first designers, writers and artists had guts, so why not now? Many of us have seen the few games that do not follow these rules, so it can be done, and done well. There should be no excuses.

But to those designers who continue to push out the most expensive MMOs that will go on to define the genre for years to come: Please remember that you do not have to continue to ignore realistic travel. Yes, yes, I know... the players do not have the time nor do they want to be bothered with actually walking or riding somewhere in your game. They need to get to that dungeon, now.

So I'm not asking to remove those quick-travel options. I never have, even back when we used to go back and forth on the Vanguard forums about the "riftways" -- magical teleportation stones that acted as Telon's fast-travel system. Many players would start massive threads about them, complaining about how they took away from the immersion of the game and about how they devalued the world. Ironically, 99% of them would admit to using them every night. To them, they were too hard to resist. Players are great at blaming developers for their own weaknesses.

My path was to ignore the riftways but also to leave them be. I like to leave the options for the players who do not care about realistic travel or for people who might have neither the time nor the physical ability to play for very long. My solution was too simple and would never work, the others said. They continued to complain while using them, and I continued to act like a jerk and argued with them until we were all blue in the face.

"Of course, the developers could switch priorities in their games to make realistic travel something worthwhile."

Deep down, though, I knew what those other players meant. I actually completely understood what they were saying. The developer's job is to tell the gamers where the boundaries are. If the developers give the gamers very high boundaries or no boundaries at all, the boundaries will be pushed to exactly that point. With travel, players will take advantage of whatever they can to get to their destination. Of course -- and this might be getting too much into game design for this particular entry -- the developers could switch priorities in their games to make realistic travel something worthwhile.

I'll use Vanguard's in-game card game, Diplomacy, as an example of a non-typical system. During Diplomacy, players "argue" with NPCs by playing a card game. The NPC might throw down a "reason" card that would need to be counter-punched with an "interview" card. During the arguments, players learn a great deal of lore that can be found nowhere else. It's a brilliant design in card games and one in a million in MMOs. Of course, not everyone enjoyed the game or played it. It was popular enough, and the few hardcore Diplomacy players were enjoying themselves. The system was not perfectly executed, but it was a perfect example of an unusual system that still rewarded players officially.

"Wurm Online and Ryzom encourage realistic travel by making it exciting, worthwhile and recognizably valuable."

Imagine if the devs had designed a travel system, one that was complete with its own set of rules for weather or food, and gave out an entirely separate tree of experience for the job. Players could do "exploration" missions, delivering letters or packages to ordinary NPCs. Or better yet, to unsuspecting players. Imagine the surprise and the opportunity for roleplay! Imagine a fleshed-out system seeming normal in every MMO.

There are a few games that have this kind of experience built in -- Wurm Online, for example, and Ryzom... these games encourage realistic travel by making it exciting, worthwhile and recognizably valuable. Almost every player in those games must travel at some point, so everyone has experienced the thrill of non-combat activity.

Think about it: Why do our favorite games have weather effects or mounts? Why do the games we love often have a walk or run speed built in? What is the point in having massive, beautiful landscapes if we are not rewarded -- in an official way by the developers -- when we explore them? I tend to believe that almost every player would enjoy a long walk in the woods if the game gave them something for their efforts. I know developers design repeatable systems like raiding or reputation grinds to keep players glued to the game, but realistic travel could fill as many hours and be much more dynamic.

I'm somewhat afraid for the future of MMOs, but not because of the normal reasons you might see here on Massively. No, free-to-play is not going to ruin the games we love. No, it's not raiding or grinding, either. What's going to do the most damage is developers who design slight variations of systems that are in demand alongside players who value only the systems that the almighty say are valuable. This neverending cycle of bland design will only continue if we participate in it.

It would be nice to see exploration and travel rewarded the same as killing 10 rats or conquering a dragon.

Everyone has opinions, and The Soapbox is how we indulge ours. Join the Massively writers every Tuesday as we take turns atop our very own soapbox to deliver unfettered editorials a bit outside our normal purviews. Think we're spot on -- or out of our minds? Let us know in the comments!

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