Meaningful Travel: Can a Magic Formula for MMOs Be Found?
The concept of meaningful travel is something that is argued to death on the forums of any MMO during its creation and launch infancy. Without fail, there are two camps of players that join in this ever-revolving argument. There are those that want travel to take a very long time, and those that want to be able to port their way around the world instantly. Both sides have legitimate reasons for desiring travel act in the manner they wish, but I think a happy medium can be found. Or to be more accurate, I think the idea for a perfect system was created years ago, but due to technical difficulties at the time, it was never fully realized nor implemented.
When EverQuest launched, travel between areas was an adventure in and of itself. Getting between continents required taking a 30 minute trip on a boat. During the course of the ride, there was little more to do than chat with your fellow passengers and watch the water go by. As an added hazard, players would regularly get bumped off the boat in the middle of the Timorous ocean and then be required to swim for an ungodly amount of time until they either died (which was an incredibly cruel fate anywhere in an ocean) or managed to make their way to the single island in the zone. Even if a player were able to make it to land, getting off the island often proved to be a nightmare in and of itself.
Overland travel in EverQuest was also no picnic in the early days. Depending on where you were when you decided it was time to go sell your wares, the trip back to town or the tunnel in East Commons could easily involve a trip through numerous zones that took an hour or more. As a result, players would normally enlist the assistance of a friendly Wizard or Druid that was willing to port them to a small selection of strategically placed zones that were scattered throughout the world. It may not have gotten players to their final destination, but it would get them pretty close.
Travelling in such a manner may not have been the speediest method developers could have given players access to, but it did ensure that those players understood the layout of the land. They knew where zones and cities were in relation to each other. They knew when they were on a different continent, knew when it was shorter to just run to the next zone than it was to get a teleport to a different zone that ended up being three zones aware.
When the Planes of Power expansion went live, all this changed. All of a sudden, there were tons of new players that had no idea how the world was put together. The expansion introduced a central plane that had gateway stones to a large number of zones scattered throughout the world. While it may have allowed friends that were in different zones the means to gather together quickly and exploring new zones with little difficulty, it instantly destroyed any sense of geography. It also put Wizards and Druids out of business in the blink of an eye.
As time went on, an entire new generation of players became “spoiled” by near-instant travel to wherever they wanted to go. This idea of travel also became a staple moving forward in many games and as I mentioned earlier, has become a point of contention between players ever since. Some games have made an effort to give players the best of both worlds, but none have found the perfect mix… yet. There is one that if the plan had been implemented as intended, would have revolutionized in-game travel as we know it.
Vanguard: Saga of Heroes may have had a dizzying array of technical issues when the game was released (and if we’re being honest, probably for a good year or two afterwards), but it introduced some new concepts to the MMO genre that have become staples since. One idea that was never fully implemented was a combination of Rift Stones (teleport points) and something called Caravans. Rift Stones were a different take on teleport stones. Blue stones were scattered throughout the continents and allowed travel between multiple points of a single continent. If you wanted to hop between continents, you needed to find a red stone. These were normally placed at major hubs such as capital cities. Arguments can always be made as to whether there were too many or too few stones, but it was a system that still allowed players to keep a sense of geography of the land and I was a fan.
The major idea that I think should become a staple though is Caravans. The concept of Caravans always seemed to be changing and being tweaked and were even very briefly in the game, though they were horrifically bugged. The basic thought behind them though was pretty simple though. Imagine you and our friends find this game and fall in love with it. You each start characters of different races, play through your initial starting area, and then realize you’re all hundreds of miles away from each other. You could create a caravan. This was something akin to a permanent group and allowed you to travel to the location of one player.
For example, if Player A is in outside a dungeon, Player B is sailing on a ship in the ocean, and Player C is doing some travelling the open road between cities, any of them could be used as the focal point of where the others could instantly travel (for a cost). This would allow groups of friends to play wherever they wanted on their own and then pick whoever was closest to where they wanted to go to hunt that night, and all be there in a moment. Before you think that made things too easy, keep in mind it allowed players to group together instantly but it didn’t send them back to where they were when they were done. That still needed to be handled the old-fashioned way. It was a brilliant idea and I think it needs to be revisited by other companies for sure.