Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Travel Times In MMOs: Why They Are Important

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.


  1. I know a lot of people (myself included) complain about the time it takes to travel around New Eden, but you make very valid points about why it is necessary and the benefits it creates in-game. I've learned to use that time to catch up on chats and eve-mail.

  2. I disagree pretty much completely with the justifications for lengthy travel times (economic, scenic, content consumption, and community) as put forth in this article. I'll blog my reply soonish.

    (It's not that you argue your points badly, but simply that I disagree.)

  3. Back when I played UO, I stayed in the city of Vesper for about a year because I didn't want to "shrink" the game world by relying on teleportation. When I did move out, I did so on foot.

    A lot of MMOs which feature the time compression mechanics do so because traveling isn't part of the game. It serves no purpose except to get you to the next quest hub (ROFLCOPTR travel in WAR only exists to get you to the battlefield faster). Several try to balance the idea of travel with scenery by allowing you to take real-time autopilot travel (WoW, VG, LotRO, etc).

    In DDO and CoH, you can instantly leave instances once you've completed them because traveling back through them serves no purpose; you've cleared it all out, and if it's a large instance, it would be extremely boring.

    EVE's purpose, however, demands that there be times that lull you into security. When traveling in real time, you ARE playing the game: scanning for reds is something you must do CONSTANTLY if you intend to get to your destination in one piece. It's a tension game, not a mechanics game.

    It's also a perception tool. New Eden SEEMS to be amazingly huge. When you think about it from a technological perspective, however, each grid in a system is pretty darned empty: players, station, asteroids and NPCs. Compare it to WoW, with buildings, props (trees, rocks, etc) and even MORE NPCs, and EVE starts to look very sparse. But the travel time makes the game world seem so much larger then it really is.

  4. Anonymous1:20 pm

    The travel times are needed to give you the idea that the virtual world you live in is actually pretty big.

    In eve I spent a lot of time warping about, grabbing morphite there, some t2 component there, etc.. For me it's just part of the game, I don't really mind it.

    In wow, some flight times are pretty long if you travel from one end of a continent to anther, which is good, otherwise you'd have the idea that you're in a miniscule world. But even there, mounts are getting an upgrade with the new patch and flight was introduced, with the 1st exp. pack.

    But you can go too far. The travel times in LOTRO were enough to not keep playing the game. So it has to be balanced well !

    Very nice thoughtful article btw :).

  5. I agree that travel time is a major influence on the economy and market prices. With a single, game-spanning market there is little opportunity to undercut prices or corner the market beyond simply being the cheapest, but EVE Online shows that having to move items to each location physically exposes each small region to fluxes and individual competition that would otherwise be absent.

    Many times capsuleers choose to pay a little, or a lot, more for an item that is cheaper elsewhere, deciding that the extra ISK is worth the time saved from not travelling. If it weren't for this, small industrialists would not be able to compete with established business empires and would be a much different game.

    In EVE Online, I also think travel times make for a more threatening experience. It simply isn't possible to get anywhere quickly, so much care needs to be taken when travelling anywhere hostile. Escorts need to be arranged early, as there is no guarantee that anyone can come to help you if you get in trouble. It makes for a more cooperative game, much as any PvP game I imagine.

    Being able to get to any location quickly would make a PvP game much less thrilling and dangerous. I remember being able to port to Shattrath then fly quickly to help out a guild member being corpse-camped in WoW, which helped him out but made the world too small to feel particularly threatening.

    As for aesthetic or content reasons, I'm not sure I fully agree. I can understand making some content harder to get to, but I see the 10/10 complexes more as equivalent to progressive-raiding territory, the arena of the most dedicated, rather than simply being too far to travel. I think if the content is made to be good enough players will experience it, and forced content is the wrong way to achieve the experience.

    You make some good arguments and I enjoyed reading your points-of-view.

  6. I find this blog to be obsurd and trying to compare real life to a video game is a horrible example. Here is why. People play video games to get away from real life. Not to have an imaginary real life.

  7. I disagree RainFall: people play games to enter a different reality, not to necessarily get away from real life. In these virtual realities they are built with rules to govern how one can interect, and a lot of MMOs, model their rules on the real world, hence the effects in real life are often mirrored by the effects in the virtual world. It all depends on how the world is set up.

    Thanks for dropping by.

  8. So you're saying people enjoy being the 7-11 manager in games as much as they do in real life?

  9. I don't believe that was my point in the original post, but I will say here that yes, some people enjoy doing things in games that in real life they would never do.

  10. That's not what i said. I asked if you actually believe people want things in a video game because they want to emulate them. For example when i have to travel for business i have to commute 30-45 minutes to meet clients. I would never want that in a game. That would be obsurd. But you are saying that people enjoy the commute and it's a good thing. That seems so preposterous. I mean what happens when in reality we can teleport to any location. Will then people want to teleport in gaming as well?

  11. "I asked if you actually believe people want things in a video game because they want to emulate them."

    I believe that people often want to inhabit virtual worlds with similar rules/conventions to the real world.

  12. Sure. People want the uber epics in a video game because they don't have uber epics in real life. I definitely believe that is true. Video games, especially MMOs, provide people a chance to have in a game what they cannot in real life.