Teleportation in MMORPGs – or – How Instant Gratification Killed the Dream of Virtual Worlds

Instant matter-disintegration-and-reintegration

Teleportation: The ability to instantly transfer matter from one location to another without actually ever moving in the space between those two locations. Scientists have been chasing this dream for decades, and Science-Fiction writers and/or movie directors have been using it as a plot-device and/or a generic method of transportation for even longer.

In the context of MMORPGs, it is more and more often used as a way of letting players quickly “return to base” after having done some random quest in a far-off area of the game, instead of forcing them to spend what is seen as unnecessary time and effort fighting their way back the way they came. Usually it comes disguised as some sort of “fast-travel ability”, but whether it’s described as a map you use to find your way quickly (LotRO), as a special traveling ability using your knowledge of the “hidden paths between here and there” (AoC) or as magical spell that instantly transports you (World of Warcraft), the effect is exactly the same – you instantly teleport from one location in the game-world to another.

Another common feature comes in the form of fast-travel to specific parts of the game-world by the use of “space shuttles” (SWG), “wagoneers” (AoC) or just plain ol’ magic portals (UO, WoW).

In some games, you can also summon teammates to your location by magical spells, or to the entrance of a dungeon by the use of magical “meeting stones”, or open magical portals of your own which other players can step through to travel half way across the world. And as added in the most recent World of Warcraft-patch, the ability for members in a group to instantly teleport to the entrance of any specific dungeon, and when leaving said dungeon later on, being teleported directly back to one’s original location.

All of this is very handy, of course; it makes content instantly accessible to the players, makes it less of a hassle to team up with random players for a dungeon-rump, and ensures that you can meet up with your friends and guild-mates at short notice.

How exactly is this NOT a good thing?

As a long-time fan of the “virtual world“-part of MMORPGs, it seems to me that all these instant teleportation features are providing the foundation necessary to really turn MMORPGs into theme parks where people jump forth and back between rides to get short bursts of instant gratification instead of becoming the living, breathing virtual worlds I envisioned and hoped for back in the days when the first (graphical) online roleplaying-games started emerging.

Of course, my hopes at the time were crushed rather effectively after logging into Ultima Online and actually encountering other “living, breathing” players – but the dream never died, that one day MMORPGs would develop into “proper” virtual worlds where people would live out their alternative lives, everything was possible and unicorns would shit chocolate cookies all year round.

Instead we’ve headed in the opposite direction, and with each new generation (or step-brother/sister) of MMORPGs the list of “worldly” features has kept shrinking, and the focus on features that offer instant gratification has kept growing. We’ve gotten more instant teleportation instead of developing further the DaoC-style horse-routes or the WoW-style flightpaths, for instance.

Yes, I am aware that MMORPGs were developed this way for a reason. The size of the potential market has increased steadily, and there are more and more features being added to make gameplay more easily accessible by the unwashed masses who will potentially give the game a try, features that will hook them on the oh-so-famous leveling-treadmill.

I’m pretty certain, though, that in my own case it wasn’t easily accessible dungeon-raids with pick-up-groups that attracted me to a game such as World of Warcraft. It was the opportunity to experience the world of Azeroth with it’s lore and setting, being able to take a close look at a seamless universe that I had priorly only seen bits and pieces off in the Warcraft-games, and the thought of seeing female night-elves dancing topless on tavern tabl… err… hum… Let’s stop that thought right there.

Neither was it the prospect of being able to instantly teleport to anywhere in Britannia using runebooks and teleport scrolls that made me drool over early previews of Ultima Online.  It was the idea of a living world where both NPCs and characters lived their own lives separate from yours, the thought that even while I was logged off and asleep in my bed, other people from all over the world would ensure that Britannia would keep changing, never staying the same from one day to the next. And the availability of a lumberjacking-skill, of course; I never wanted to be in game development, I always wanted… to be a lumberjack!

We Create Theme-Parks

Anyhow, I find it really sad that the general development of MMORPGs went down the route it did. I now long for the days of yore when game development companies still had mottos like “We Create Worlds” and actually tried to do stick to those mottoes,  instead of constantly trying to develop the “Next Big Ride” that players will devour in a very short time before moving on to the next one…

In short, to summarize – bring back virtual worlds, bey0tches!

8 thoughts on “Teleportation in MMORPGs – or – How Instant Gratification Killed the Dream of Virtual Worlds”

  1. *pours a mug of grog for his old friend*

    Remember that time the thing happened with the stuff? Ah, it’s good to catch up with you. Brings back a lot of memories.

    I apologize for not reading your boring stupid blog enough to know if this subject has been covered before, but have you thought about making a virtual world?

    Let’s not worry about the minor technical issue of getting it onto a computer- I’m asking do you have the discipline to sit down with a pen and paper and create a rough outline for what this world would look like?

  2. Hey Talebearer! Yeah, I remember. Good times, those.

    I have indeed thought about making a virtual world, for about 11 years now I think? I’ve got some notes lying around here and there =P
    I’ve been sort of busy helping out on this other game for nearly two years now, though.

  3. What kind of nudge do you need to get those notes rolling towards a playable, very pre-alpha pen and paper test session?

  4. OH MY GOD Talebearer is alive?!?!?

    That being said, I have to disagree with the teleportation point. Fast travel does cause one issue – the world gets smaller – but it doesn’t inherently move the game toward or away worldy. Other things are responsible for that. Instant gratification isn’t the enemy, incentive structure and core mechanics are; the issue is more in the heavy focus on content as gameplay rather than interaction as gameplay.

  5. You’re right about focus on content vs interaction being an issue, but that goes hand in hand with what I said. Fast-travel/teleportation, especially in “medieval”-style MMORPGs, can “cheapen” the feeling of playing in a “virtual world”, and with too much teleportation you might as well remove all the parts in-between, leaving in place a theme park of different rides that you teleport between.

  6. Yet, UO, with it’s recall and gate spells was still much more worldy than WoW with it’s relative rarity of instant teleportation (until recently). In UO you had very little to do *but* interact. In WoW interaction actually hampers you most of the time.

    So it depends on how you structure it. Teleportation shrinks the world, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. If the rest of the world is structured around that, you don’t necessarily lose anything, and you gain usability in the process. UO would be vastly injured by removing teleportation. It would have rendered the early days completely unplayable, and the later days hugely frustrating. The rune marking system *did* encourage people to explore too, as did the housing system.

    Yes, in a theme park game, it basically destroys any need for the bits between the rides, but that’s basically down to poor level design. If every zone is a ride, you still need to go through all of them, and the teleportation just lets you skip previously viewed content. I’m not sure that WoW would be much impacted by making flight paths instant, for instance, but still requiring you to flag them, except that gold drops per hour would need to be rebalanced to take the reduced travel time into account.

    There’s a line between experience and usability that needs to be carefully maintained. And teleportation, done properly, is easily on the right side of it.

  7. Xuri and Eolirin are still alive.

    That’s neat. Though I’m starting to have my doubts that Norwegian Wood will ever be playable, it’s cool to see that you’re designing games in another environment.

    I too have joined the games industry recently, working, in fact, with one of the people that runs a design blog you link to. Interesting. Small world. I’ll drop my head in again in another 4 years, I imagine.

    Maybe Norwegian Wood will be up and running then… :P

  8. Ye of little faith! NW is just… erhm… on the backburner. Yeah. :P

    Yeah we’re both alive, still. What exactly do you do in the games industry, btw? And which company? SPEAK.

    Sorry for the slow reply, Tarinoc – hope you still get to see it! Maybe when you return in 4 years. :P

Comments are closed.