Fast Travel in Sandbox RPG’s and MMO’s

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?

Favorite Fast Travel Mode
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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.

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12 Responses to Fast Travel in Sandbox RPG’s and MMO’s

  1. Alphast NETHERLANDS Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux Terminalist says:

    By the way, my friend, you forgot a nice way of traveling fast: using a mount. In Oblivion, I agree with you, the traveling by the map is completely artificial and I tend not to use it at all, or only to avoid doing the same repetitive trek for the third time because I planned my trip like an arse. But on the other hand, Oblivion allows you to buy a horse, which is a nice way of making these long trips a lot more enjoyable. I guess it is the intermediate between foot going and the WoW system. And the advantage is that it is not contradictory with any other system, but completes them neatly. Anyway, I am of course a defender of the Morrowind system, and I wouldn’t mind if it was a little bit more animated, but it works fine as it is.

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  2. Jakob DENMARK Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    Uh, this is really a hard one. I want my fast travel options in a huge world because I don’t want to spend +5 min. or so on traveling from A to B again. I have no problem having to do it the first time, but it will soon become repetive.

    As for system for fast travel, I am divided. The instant is fast, but it can be game breaking. But players gets to enter the fray faster.
    Real Time Public is good. Keeping the player in the world is good. But don’t make it last as long as WoW, because that would break the game. It breaks the flow of gameplay. Otherwise, great.

    Instant public… Wouldn’t it suffer from the same problems of mere instant travel? Granted, you get to see and interact with a transportation network, but the loading bar is a gamebreaker.

    I would go with real time public, as it is the most immervise. Just don’t make it waste the players time to much.

    A quick tought on the transportation network (which is a graph):
    How about updating the player map with icons of the nodes in this graph, include a way to make a route between different nodes, so that the player wouldn’t be required to remember them?
    So, if you see you want to go from A to B, the player simply selects theese two nodes and the map shows all the possible ways that the player can travel. Maybe even include the option to let the computer calculate the route based on certain critieas. I think that EVE Online system is rather well executed and is a great one (tough it is sloooow).

    I better stop now :P

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  3. Mads DENMARK Opera Windows says:

    I think FarCry 2 does a bit of both (besides making the map a real physical map you hold in your hand (both ingame and IRL)), as there is 5 bus stops, north east/west south east/west and center.
    That way you have to decide if it’s easier to steal a car and drive to your destination or hop in the bus and steal a car there. (Is it stealing if you shoot the driver of a car and then enters it? The moment the owner is dead, the car doesn’t belong to someone, right?)
    And you can have the map out as you’re driving to see which route you need to follow to get to your destination.
    The bus transportation is free btw and instant.

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  4. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux Terminalist says:

    @Alphast: I was toying with the idea of adding it, but then I decided it was not really fast travel. It was regular in-game travel just with a use of speed boosting feature such as a mount. It would be roughly equivalent to me using Boots of Blinding Speed in Morrowind. So I didn’t include it.

    Also, most games do include this mode of transportation in addition to fast travel. Oblivion has horses, WoW has various mount options, Freelancer has the afterburners and etc.

    @Jakob: Good idea. In fact a simple overlay on top of the map that you could toggle on and off would be fine. There is actually not that many travel routes in Vanderfell – if you have the rough outline of trade routes you can easily plot your travel yourself. Someone actually made this map by hand, it it was perfectly readable. I posted it here a while ago.

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  5. Square UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Linux says:

    It’s not an MMO, but I think it fites well.

    My favorite travel system has got to be FFXII.
    Travel is mainly done on foot, but there are options for fast travel. (Possible spoilers?)
    First, you get little guys in the starting city who you can approach and use to warp to different locations in that city.
    Second, you have the option of taking instant public transportation for a small fee, which gives you the option of exploring the ship with the option to leave whenever you like, or skipping the ship and instantly arriving at your destination..
    Third, you can use teleport stones at orange crystals to warp between all of the orange crystals, but you are limited by how many teleport stones you have.
    Fourth, you have the choice to take a creature (Chocobo) and walk yourself (but much faster) for a small price. These are timed (with decent times) and have a limited number of sprints that allow you to zoom through even faster for short bursts.
    Fifth, you eventually are able to take your own ship (technically) to nearly any location.
    And lastly, you can simply walk everywhere.

    The game offers many modes of travel, and it takes the use of all of them to get places. For many places, you can take one out of a few options, but other places make you take either one method or walking. It’s entirely up to the person to decide how he wants to get where he is going, which is great.

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  6. Jakob DENMARK Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    @Square: I myself hates when a game forces a player to give up resources for something as simple as fast travel. Fast travel is needed so that a player won’t get bored, since running from A to B and back to A over and over again is rather tedious. Craving resources for avoiding this is not fun.

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  7. Square UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Linux says:

    [quote comment=”11212″]@Square: I myself hates when a game forces a player to give up resources for something as simple as fast travel. Fast travel is needed so that a player won’t get bored, since running from A to B and back to A over and over again is rather tedious. Craving resources for avoiding this is not fun.[/quote]

    Ah, but it’s not difficult to gaining these resources. That’s the key.
    Teleport stones can be purchased in a few locations (mainly by the sterwardess on a public transportation vehicle) for a small price, and gil (money) is obtained through killing monsters. Also, teleport stones are given to you for completing necessary quests simply by visitng your clan. Also, the cost for any method of transportation is so small it’s almost negligable. Your leftover change will help you get to your destination, which once you get there you’re going to be gaining more gil anyhow. Once you get far enough, your personal ship costs nothing and can be used instead of anything else. It’s not tedious or destructive to the gameplay at all.

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  8. Jakob DENMARK Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    @Square: I figured it was something like that :) But it is a principle and done well, I most likely just mention it, but not be to bothered about it.

    But I just thought about a massive advantge that public travel systems has. Developers can restrict a players access to them if they need it. Let’s say the player has to retive the kings favorite ale from the bar in the next village. But they also want the player to defeat the evil guinea pig army that is on the path between the players location and the bar. So they neeed to disable fast travel. Doing this with an instant travel will piss the player of, since he has learned that you just can do that.
    Public, on the other hand, has learned the player that fast travel is a part of the world. The execuse for why fast travel is prohibited could be that the man who owns the fast travel wagon is allergic to guinea pigs and now the player more readily accepts that he has to slaughter thoose little critters.

    Public basicly allow them to give the player a better gaming experience.

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  9. mark harding UNITED KINGDOM Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    Interesting subject. I’ve often noticed it debated on forums but somehow I never faced the issue until Fallout 3.

    Throughout my Morrowind career I never once questioned the use of silt striders. Half the time I was in the mood to explore and deal with any random challenge; the other half I simply couldn’t face the walk up to whichever isolated cave, paid my fare to the closest town and walked the rest of the distance.

    With Fallout 3 I was determined to squeeze out every ounce of atmosphere. I felt the randon encounters with Raiders or Scorpions were significant. I didn’t want realism but did crave authenticity and a sense of accomplishment for my character (incidentally, this was also the first time I had chosen to play using a female avatar).

    Thinking about it now I wonder if the level of immersion I felt was a contributing factor. I never really ‘lost myself’ within Morrowind. I loved the overcast, rainy days and the transition from night to dawn, but on the whole it looked and felt like a game world. I can’t say I every felt my avatar was a part of me. Fast travelling did not feel out of place.

    F3 (on the 360) has raised my expectations to another level. The desolate post-nuclear landscape was something I could and wanted to believe in. I was inspired to put more thought into the creation of my avatar. I really connected with the game. Therefore the notion of clicking on the map and materialising at a given location became anathema to me. I haven’t done it once and anticipate it would feel like I was cheating both myself and my avatar.

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  10. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    [quote comment=”11212″]@Square: I myself hates when a game forces a player to give up resources for something as simple as fast travel. Fast travel is needed so that a player won’t get bored, since running from A to B and back to A over and over again is rather tedious. Craving resources for avoiding this is not fun.[/quote]

    Same here. I’m ok paying for fast travel in the in-game currency though, since it is usually easy to make. Morrowind had very reasonable prices for fast travel, and unless you were really, really broke (as in 0 gold in pockets) you could totally afford it.

    Scarce items that get used up whenever you travel are sort of discouraging. But as @Square explained these stones don’t seem to be that scarce which is good. Still, paying for your fare is actually much better solution.

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  11. Name SWITZERLAND Internet Explorer Windows says:

    I’m OK with public transport fast travel i.e. Morrowind but can’t stand the insta-travel in Oblivion and disabled it prettymuch straight away.

    Personally I prefer to walk/run everywhere on foot. It feels much more immersive and I get a better feel for the world, getting sentimental about particular spots etc.

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