Listening to Van Hemlock podcast #56 I heard during the topic conversation a few people complain about travel times in MMOs. I'm going to try and explain why I think they are a necessary evil and can be used intelligently in game design to enhance the experience for the player.
Its All About Money
Why do convenience stores exist? Compared to a regular grocery store, their selection is smaller, prices are higher, and most major cities have grocery stores with extended or round the clock hours. So why do convenience stores manage to stay in business? Travel Time. Quite simply many of us are perfectly willing to spend a couple dollars more at a corner store five minutes down the road for basic needs in a pinch rather then spending 30 minutes in a car for a round trip to pick up a handful of items.
In essence what I'm trying to say is that buyer and seller physical distribution allows for local economic transactions to occur that are not optimal in a global sense due to buyers weighing price versus distance/time. In a system where physical distribution of the two groups is not a barrier to optimal economics, since buyers want the best prices they will move to those sellers. And since sellers want the largest possible market, they will go to where the buyers are. It becomes a textbook scenario of price determined by supply and demand.
In MMOs, there can be two extremes to how characters and items are transported around the game world. Due to my lack of direct experience with other MMOs, I don't know for sure of one that allows instantaneous transportation of all items but for purposes of this article I'll use Diablo II as my extreme. In that game you almost always had access to the town (i.e. market) through the town portal spell and teleportation way points ensuring that you rarely had to re-transverse parts of the world you had visited before. It was a game that essentially had perfect market access everywhere and had it been an MMO instead of a single player game, you can be sure that there would be only one market.
On the other extreme, you have something like Eve where travelling to a market has to be done physically (with some limited exception due to Jump Clones) and any items need to be physically transported by a player or a third party (i.e. there is no automated mailing system for items). In some cases this can be prohibitive in terms of time to travel or amount of time and cargo space to move something from market to where you want it. This allows for the formation of secondary markets where prices may not be as optimal as a single market would be but is closer to where the players live. In effect convenience stores are erected at points between the homes and the larger grocery stores.
This is a good thing because I feel it creates a more dynamic persistent world that makes better use of the world's area and generates local populations and cultures (even if they are fairly inoccuous). In a PvP game like Eve, the travel time also introduces the problems of logistics in a wartime environment and forcing the decision of whether or not to build their munitions inefficiently, import them from a secondary market hub for some savings, or import them from a main market hub at best savings. Furthmore, the travel time mechanic allows for a lumpy market away from the hubs such that larger than normal savings might be made for the intrepid willing to risk the dangers of the journey and the time investment, creating a mini-profession of trading. In Eve physically moving items for other people is a profession in of itself.
Its Not The Destination, Its The Journey
Beyond economic considerations for having travel time in an MMO world for characters and goods, there is esthetic reasons as well. Forced travel between point A and B can allow the game designers to introduce scenic diversions that are for enjoyment only and not part of an overall quest or objective. A scuplture on top of a mountain or a vista at sunset from a ridge looking over a valley. It enhances the world and thus the game for the player, creating an immersion into the virtual reality. On the other hand, instaneous travel would remove those opportunities and players, often being all about optmizing, would go from objective to objective turning the game world into a virtual job. Agreed, some players would go out of their way to explore the world but I think having the travel time to force players to experience world outside of their specific goals in necessary for long term enjoyment, i.e. they don't know they like it until we force them to try it.
As a side note, this is one of the things Eve is noticably defficient in: interesting anomalies in space while traveling. There needs to be more eye catching items in space that you see while warping, like large dust clouds or massive wrecks of ancient starships and stations near stargates. Spice it up Eve!
Another factor in the travel time mechanic is the encourage for players to experience less than optimal content. If instaneous travel is allowed, a significant majority of the players will go to the best content to maximize experience/income/resources so that the game designers would be faced with making all content equal in terms of reward (boring!) or designing a game that allows all players in one area to burn through the content even faster. For example, in Eve if all players could get to the 10/10 complexes without having to travel through vast swathes of hostile space, then you might find thousands of players fighting over those instead of experiencing closer 9/10 or 8/10 complexes with lesser rewards. In summary, travel time becomes part of the equation for risk versus reward calculations, another form of market dynamics.
Finally, since travel time is a disincentive for players to move about the world freely, it allows for the creation of local populations that slowly develop cultures and relationships. You get to know the people you run into a few times (or in Eve, the same pirates that hunt you for a few weeks) so that allows for a feeling of community. Your neighbours, or enemies, become known to you and you to them. In a world with instaneous travel, populations are too influx and moving about so much that there is no opportunity for neighbourhood making.
Travel times allow for the creation of a distributed economy, economic opportunities, more content experience, a more immersive world, and distinct neighbourhoods. Take it away and you have players burning through the content and using a uninteresting market in a global alienation.