I have a bunch of questions about gaming that tend to begin, "Why can't I..." Today I was wondering such a thought. Here's the thing about videogames: they're games. Let's just make sure we're all clear on this. They're games. Not work. Not obligations. But games. So just exactly why is it so many of them behave like some sort of strict teacher who will only let me run around in the playground once all my work is finished? If I want to go hit the Giant Elves of Elvington on the other side of the Countryland, why the bleeding heck can't I just be there?
I love big, explorable worlds. They're by far one of my most favourite things about games. Running off in a direction without any idea what I might encounter is a rare pleasure, and one far more likely to result in an exciting discovery in a game's world than the real one. In the real world you're more likely to reach a barbed wire fence, impassable road, or a murderer. In a game, you might discover a magical castle, sea of floating islands or enormous dungeon full of unicorns. Not knowing what's coming up is huge and exciting, and I'd not want to take it away from gaming, not ever.
But you know what? Once I've been there, that moment's gone. I've discovered it already. I did the exploring. I don't need to spend half an hour of my time that I've allocated for playing games trudging at whatever stupidly slow speed a game's decided to impose upon me. There is no good reason, whatsoever, to not just let me be there.
And we all know this already. In fact, worse, developers know this already. So desirable is the ability to just teleport to any location in an MMO world that we're teased with silly, tiny morsels of it, a little amuse-bouche for a meal that's never coming. Soul stones, heart pebbles, hometown rocks, whatever they may be called, it's possible to bind yourself to a location and then instantly beam yourself there. It can be done! It doesn't destroy the game! But oh good heavens, you greedy little pig, you want to do it a second time? Wait an hour!
No! Stop being so utterly ridiculous. Stop treating me like your subject, your employee, who has to run around endlessly to get to do anything fun. Treat me like a paying customer who just wants to enjoy himself right now, but not necessarily right where he is.
There are of course examples of games that let you do this. All Guild Wars fans will be very angrily pointing out that their game lets you. (And all praise to it for this. Now add jumping and walking on inclines and you've got my attention*.) And of course City Of Heroes eventually lets people willing to train in the power to teleport their buddies. But the vast majority certainly do not. Thinking about why not I come up with two suggestions.
1) They want to slow you down so you spend longer in the game and thus spend more money on it.
2) They're just being dicks.
I'm fairly certain it's not 1. It's far too tin-foil-hat, and doesn't seem enormously realistic. And it certainly doesn't work in my case. Even with paying through the nose to ride on a pretend griffenbat's back to sit through an in-game cutscene of the same scenery I've seen ninety million times already to speed things up, the whole process is so agonisingly drawn out that I'm far more likely to turn it off and play something single player that will let me enjoy myself immediately. But number 2 doesn't make much sense either. I've met all sorts of MMO developers, and in the main they've been splendidly friendly types, not the sort who seem likely to pour milk in your gym bag, or kick a tramp.
So what's the missing 3? Is it because most the others don't let you, so they won't either? That's not a reason. That's just silly. I decided to ask whichever industry types were on my MSN on a Friday night to see if they knew, without warning them or giving them time to think of an answer. This is journalism, people. Why don't they let me teleport?
First I pestered Gamasutra and Sexy Videogameland's Leigh Alexander:
"Because they don't want me to play them, ever. I think it's old level design sensibilities at work. Ones that people don't realize don't apply in open worlds like that. With GTA, say, part of the gameplay is the travel. You are supposed to drive from place to place, that's how you play the game. So I guess MMO designers are like, 'Well why don't you run from place to place so that it feels REAL?' There's been a failure in general to understand what about console design principles don't work online. And then if Blizzard does something, everyone else does it exactly like that."
Then I nagged Splash Damage's Ed Stern, who I appeared to catch unawares.
"What are you doing in my bathroom. And what are you doing with/to my towel. And are those real?"
He calmed down and continued.
"From what I can understand, the infrastructure/backend/serverthings are just very very very complex and complicacious. So once a player is somewhere, you want 'em to stay there a while, I suppose. It should be made very very clear that I have no idea what I'm talking about. I'm the least tech-savvy employee of a completely other kind of dev. I burn salad and spill Marmite. Machines are not my friend. And you're asking me about MMO back-ends? You're just cruel."
Ste Curran of One Life Left fame came next. After this question apparently caused him to fall over he recovered and replied.
"MMOs are thinly-painted stat-grinds, right? What you do at level 1 is the same as what you do at level 30, only with fewer buttons and fewer sparkles. So you have to make those sparkles as pretty as possible, spin out the journey from 1 to 30 for as long as you can. because as soon as there's no more reward, no more illusion of the next-great-thing-around-the-corner, the players lose interest. I would imagine. I guess also there's the second life thing. Which is second life in lower case, not the furry-fucking dystopia of the capitalised version. These places are meant to be otherworldly. Players subscribe to them, either with their time or actual cash, to feel part of something vast. If they could just click their way to wherever they wanted in half a second, not only would they experience everything the subscription has to offer in a heartbeat, this world they have to conquer would seem much, much smaller too. And who wants to be the hero in a shoebox? Also there's probably some clever psychology point about spreading out the excitement with periods of monotony. Because if you let the players just have the 'action' bits all the time those will become the monotonous bits."
So why do you think it is? Why can I insta-hop to any part of Fallout 3 once I've trekked there, but not when a game goes online? Surely as a customer I should be offered the most fun, the most immediately? Especially when I might want to meet up with my friends who are growing increasingly impatient at the entrance to a dungeon as I sluggishly wheeze along some path through a distant field in another realm. "I'm coming! Don't start yet! I'm (pant pant) coming!"
*Sorry Guild Wars fans.