There’s as many ways to skin a cat as there are cats, which is a disturbing epiphany, even if it’s only a metaphor. Even in the vast and conventionally homogeneous realm of MMOs, they’re not all as similar as people’s hyperbolic spewing would have us believe.
I think the observable trend has long been that MMOs are sold on the idea that the “massive” in “massive multiplayer online” game refers to the number of people you can have online at the same time, but I’ve come to think of it in terms of the size of the game world itself. I’ll blame fast-travel for this expansion, since being able to portal from one end of the continent to the other makes the game world size pretty meaningless. There was the recent flap over flying in Draenor that to me is the difference between zig-zgging through the landscape and taking a straight line route to a destination. I was reading one player’s suggestion about how Elite: Dangerous should offer nav beacon to station “mini-warps” to cut down on travel time. It seems that in the haste to “fix” travel systems, MMOs have become too damn big for some people.
I am some of those people. Look at Star Wars: The Old Republic as an example. Step into Coruscant and you’ll get that feeling of scale, of being a very small and insignificant creature in zones that feel like they expect millions of people. The buildings are so massive that I’m surprised clouds aren’t forming in the rafters. This always bothered me. On one hand, I understand the designers wanted a proper feeling of epicness, but in practice it seems utterly ludicrous to be in such a massive environment. It’s not just Coruscant — a lot of SWTOR‘s environments are like this — and it’s not just SWTOR. I watched a video for the Pathfinder Online game, and I immediately got that same feeling: a whole lot of unused space that’s present simply to provide a visual sense of scale.
Really, it’s wasted on the experience. When a player steps into a new zone, there’s that “ohh and ahh” factor as they check out the art work, the vistas, and the layout. They notice things like the colors and the shapes, the density of obstacles, and the dynamic nature of the environment (water rushing, butterflies butterflying, and so on). Once they get their bearings, however, it’s down to work. Quest givers in a lot of MMOs tend to be clustered, and the jobs they hand out rarely take players far from their little mission hub, at least until they give out that one mission that has the player moving to a different mission hub. I’d guess that in the average MMO, there’s between three and six different mission hubs, connected by a “progress mission” per distinct zone. I’m just pulling that guesstimate out of my ass, but that’s what it feels like to me.
At that point, players are too invested in their tasks and on their progress to notice the environment as anything other than an obstacle. The visuals fade into a backdrop for the busy work, and players will rarely raise their head once they feel that they’ve gotten a handle on the zone and it’s aesthetic effects. Of course, should the player empty out her mission journal and opt to take a breather, then there’s really nothing but the environment to focus on. But that’s not the point of the game, is it?
I think about smaller environment games, or at least games where you’ve got the feeling that your in a smaller environment. Maybe just that you’re boxed out of the larger zone and are fed additional land in smaller doses. I think there’s two ways of doing this:
I’d really like an online game where it’s not possible nor even feasible to go very far, very fast, or a game which doesn’t push you through the landscape. I remember back in Ultima Online I refused to use the runebook, and spent the majority of my time in the town of Vesper…and by “majority” I mean that I ventured to Britannia once in all the time I played. It was a big deal when I did: although I was ready for the trip, it was like taking a vacation. Aside from that once-in-a-lifetime decision, though, it was another gameplay opportunity to do something new, but something I was totally in control over. When I felt I had nothing left to do, I could travel and see the world I had never seen, and it was all brand new.
I don’t know if there’s any games like this, or even can be games that are designed like this. It seems that while we can use fast travel, it’s up to us not to give in if we want that journey of discovery. It’s something I think I prefer, and enjoy spending my time localizing myself for longer periods of time these days, as opposed to covering as much ground as possible in as little time as possible.