Today I want to talk about a very, very controversial topic – namely fast travel in RPG’s and MMO’s. It is controversial because most people have very strong opinions on this topic. To some people a fast travel method can either make or break a game. I figured that since it is Friday I might as well put up a poll or something an this topic fits well into poll making mindset. But first things first. I need to explain what I mean by fast travel, to the two people who come here for programming tips and mind shattering technology insights (only to find out that I’m fresh out of both).
You see, in non-linear RPG games and MMO’s you usually have huge open ended worlds. Running between two player accessible locations, one located in say the extreme North East corner of the map the other in the extreme South West corner may take you anywhere between 20 minutes to an hour (depending on the size of the virtual world, the speed at which your character moves, potential obstacles and etc). Long hikes in the wideness give you a chance to explore the game world and find many hidden little dungeons, side quests, roaming monsters and etc. But, sometimes when you are doing the Very Important Quest™ of some sort, you don’t want to be distracted with all that stuff. You just want to get from point A (usually a quest giver) to point B (usually a dungeon, spawn point or a friendly npc) in the shortest amount of time possible. Most game designers recognize this need and provide in-game means of transportation that can take you across vast distances faster than you would get there running.
Different games, implement this feature differently. We can talk about the transportation systems with regards to how it is accessed in game. Some games have public transportation points, portals, and services which create an illusion of real travel while others use the map to abstract the travel away. Some games use instant systems where you simply fade/wrap into new area (barring some loading screen wait) and some portray travel in real time – albeit faster than on foot. In general, I found out that most games will fall into one of the 3 categories listed below:
Instant Public Transportation
This transportation system is probably best represented by Morrowind. To travel between towns you have to use have public transportation services such as boats, stilt striders, guild mages who know teleportation spells and etc. This usually involves walking up to an NPC, choosing a destination from a dialog tree and paying a transportation fee. You also have to keep in mind that all these services work a little bit like buses or trains – they have specific routes they follow. So sometimes you may need to catch a stilt strider ride, then jump onto a boat, and finally visit a guild mage to get where you need to go.
Transportation is instant. The screen fades to black, you see a short progress bar and you appear somewhere else. It combines convenience of instant travel with the semi-realistic system of routes and connections which one must explore and learn. Combined with personal teleportation spells such as mark and recall (you can probably figure out what they do) and divine intervention (which transports you to the nearest shrine) it creates a very robust fast travel network that allows you to get just about anywhere in short amount of time.
The only downside is that you have to memorize the travel routes between towns (or like me, go online and print out a map that shows them) so that you can efficiently plan your trips.
Real Time Public Transportation
This fast travel method is a very popular one . Like above, it includes public transportation services or NPC’s that charge you for the trip. Unlike the Morrowind system, this method is not instant. You travel in real time, and usually you are treated to some sort of nice scenic view of the terrain as you pass above or through it.
Most people probably know this system well from WoW and its flight masters. You simply walk up to an NPC, choose a destination and then you can go out and get some coffee or take a bathroom break while your character soars above the game world for several minutes. You are frozen to your flying mount, unable to cast spells, craft or do just about anything. But the in-game clock keeps ticking.
Some people consider it more realistic and flavorful than instant travel. Perhaps it is, but it really looses it’s charm around the 20’th time you are using the same travel route.
Wow also had a silly idea of limiting your travel choices to only the places you have been before. This always seemed a bit silly to me. The in-game fluff claimed that the flying beasts are trained to follow a specific route, so it would make sense if they could take me to places I haven’t been before. But WoW is a MMO and thus is specializes in time wasting. I always preferred the established system of routes in Morrowind over this. Then again, not all games have this limitation.
Freelancer had a slightly similar concept, but instead of mounts it used funny looking acceleration rings. You would enter one of them, and they would grab your ship in some sort of magnetic field and fling it forward at astonishing speeds. Unlike WoW you could disengage and get out of them at any point, and there was no limitation on where you could go. They were pretty much a futuristic version of a railroad.
Instant Map Based (Personal) Transportation
Finally we have the map based transportation. Oblivion, Guild Wars both used this system. To go somewhere far away, you would simply bring up your map screen, click on the town/interesting location you wanted to visit, and bam! You were there. Both games also required that you visit the location before you were able fast-travel there.
This is by far, the most convenient method but a lot of people hate it with a passion considering it a game breaker. Morrowind for example gives you an illusion of this huge public transportation system that is used by the inhabitants of it’s virtual world. WoW bores you to death with the doze inducing flight sequences that never end. Oblivion and Guild Wars on the other hand allow you to zip from one place to the other almost effortlessly. This apparently destroys the illusion of a huge immersive world.
Then there are people who think all fast travel is a game breaker, and they swear by trekking long distances on foot. Seriously. I actually saw a flame war erupt over the use of Boots of Blinding Speed in Morrowind. It is a quirky item you get early in the game, that boosts your speed to over 200 (the attribute naturally maxes out at 100) making you abnormally fast runner, but it also blinds you (get it, har har!). Fortunately, you can counteract the blindness by using spells/items that give you high resistance to magica or the night-eye ability. Apparently running 2 or 3 times as fast as normal can totally ruin the game. I don’t subscribe to that school of thought. I use the damn boots all the time.
Anyway, here is my question for you – which of these methods do you like the most? Do you prefer the semi-realistic but instant Morrowind style, the very realistic but boring WoW style or the rather abstract but convenient Oblivion style? Or are you opposed to fast travel altogether?
Btw, did I miss some important mode of fast travel here? I’m not giving you a write-in option this time (due to the Chuck Norris Rule) but feel free to add them in the comments.