As MMOs come and go, so does the topic of travel. Do we slow travel down so that the world feels big? Do we speed travel up so that you can play friends?
Questions that both boil down to “Just how much waiting should a game make you do before you can play it again?” Questions that both, I feel, that miss the point: Travel should be about gameplay, not waiting.
Let us compare and contrast some extreme examples of a couple of MMOs that have tackled the open-world travel issue:
World of Warcraft (The Early Years)
In the early days of World of Warcraft, travel was primarily done via automated flight paths that connected each town, much like a rail network. Many towns hosted Flight Masters, who would loan you flying beasts that would inefficiently wind their way through the terrain, giving you a scenic tour of the landscape and ensuring that scale of the world was preserved. These flights were also uninterruptible: You could not be attacked, nor could you stop half way and do something else.
Items and other possessions did not have a concept of location: Capital cities contained auction houses and bank vaults where players could trade and store items, though all of these were connected to each other and items were delivered instantly to the player’s current location. Players also had a personal backpacks, but the gear inside would always be with the player, even in death.
In World of Warcraft, players had to travel the hard way while items teleported instantly. During travel, players were placed on rails and were completely unable to attack or be attacked. In a game that is centred on combat, the end result was that travelling temporarily excluded you from participating in the game’s core mechanics. Travelling, in a sense, prevented gameplay.
EVE Online flips this concept of travel completely on its head: Players make extensive use of cloning, and are able to instantly transfer their consciousness to anywhere in the universe, provided they can acquire an empty clone body at that location to host them. Anything physical is left behind: Ships, weapons and even their old body stays where ever the player left it.
In EVE, it is items that must travel the hard way… And hard it certainly is.
Whether you are moving a single combat ready ship, or are hauling the raw materials needed to construct many new ships, all journeys begin the same way: By undocking from a station. Once you have done this, you are vulnerable to attack by anyone: Friends, enemies and neutrals may all freely attack each other out in open space. If your ship happens to explode, the same rules as above apply: Your consciousness instantly transfers to your next waiting body, while all your precious gear remains exactly where it was, left as spoils of war for your murderer to claim.
This creates considerable logistical overheads to even the simplest of player activities: Players must undock and travel to asteroid belts to mine minerals. These must then be carted back to a station that is typically specialised in mineral refining. From here, these minerals are again undocked and transported to a trade hub, where they are eventually bought by another player and again undocked and transported to different station for to make new ships and weapons. And once these items have been produced? Well, it’s time to load them into a giant freighter, and undock them yet again to risk another trip back to the trade hub.
In this, the primary instigator of conflict in EVE online is created: To move an item you must undock, but undocking is an open invitation for combat, where the victor keeps all. Where travel in World of Warcraft pauses gameplay, travel in EVE Online creates the gameplay.
Dust 514 – Current Status
Despite sharing a universe with EVE Online, and despite players nominally being given locations, travel is otherwise non-existent in Dust 514. As with EVE Online, players can instantly transfer their consciousness into other clone bodies anywhere in the universe. As with World of Warcraft, players who do so will find that their gear has magically travelled with them.
On one hand, travel in Dust 514 does not prevent normal gameplay like it does in World of Warcraft. On the other, it does not create any either, like in EVE Online. Practically speaking, it is not a gameplay element at all.
And yet, Dust 514 is intended to be a game of territorial conquest. Players are expected to fight over districts on different planets, and yet every district has the same production capabilities and is effectively adjacent to any other district. With every district being equal in value, vulnerability and effective distance, there is no value in strategy and very little reason for an EVE-like political metagame to form.
In fairness, the first version of the Planetary Conquest did attempt to address this issue: Conquered districts produced clones, and initiating an attack on another district first required you to move some clones to that location. With this, came the concept of attrition: The further you moved your clones, the more of them that would be lost in transit. This was to simulate the effect of undocking outlined above: That moving anything through space is risky.
There are some issues with this approach: While it did bring the concept of distance into Dust 514, only the leadership of each corporation is exposed to it. Rank and file members of these corporations simply see an available battle like any other, and teleport themselves and their weapons directly to it usual. Also, attrition is based purely on distance: All districts on a single planet continue to be equally reachable to each other. Even with this solution, we lack the framework for a strategic or political landscape.
At EVE Vegas this year, CCP announced Planetary Conquest 2.0. One of the changes they mentioned was removing attrition, and having all clone movements be performed by EVE players instead. This is a step in the right direction, but unfortunately does not address the issues outlined above.
A Suggestion for the Future
I believe Dust 514 needs a better travel system, one that communicates the concept of distance to each and every player, but not one that prevents gameplay. For this to work, I believe items in Dust 514 need to conform to the same rules as in EVE Online: They have a physical location, and must be manually moved. Dust 514 players should have a way to move items on their own within the same planet, and the act of moving these items should provide opportunities for other players to interfere.
Right now I’m thinking this could be in the form of massive automated freight trains that move items across the surface of the planet, but allow the owners of any district it passes through an opportunity to initiate an attack. The owners of the train would then need to defend it until the train reaches the next district border or until one side is no longer willing to commit more clones.
As all members of a corporation would be sending their goods by trains, they would directly experience the risk associated with moving goods. Should their train get attacked, they would then also experience the journey first hand, fending off attackers until the train eventually reached its destination. For the metagamers amongst us, train attacks could be avoided altogether through the a combination of strategically sensible land holdings and solid political relationships with your neighbours.