Perfect Ten: 10 reasons MMOs struggle with underwater content

Perfect Ten: 10 reasons MMOs struggle with underwater content

In Final Fantasy XIV, players could fly before they could swim. There’s no joke there. The game’s first expansion added the ability to fly through the expansion zones on a mount, but it was the second one that added the ability to swim anywhere. And there are still a lot of places where there are bodies of water you can’t swim in, or spots wherein you can see beneath the water’s surface but not descend to explore it.

This is not really a fault of the game, per se. Lots of games have gone in on underwater content, including Guild Wars 2 offering a pretty developed underwater combat system and World of Warcraft even giving us an entire underwater zone. Yet somehow underwater stuff keeps being kind of… haphazard. It doesn’t seem very well developed and tends to get shoved off to one side and also people hate it. Why is that? Well, I can think of some reasons. A good list’s worth, even.

Not water.

1. Some MMOs are exempt just by concept

Look, let’s be realistic right off the bat. Some games make no sense going underwater. Auto Assault could never have really featured you driving your car into underwater areas because if you drive your car into a lake you are now down one car in the best scenario. There is no situation where the titanic spacecraft of EVE Online could slice their way into deep waters, recalibrating weapons as they seal against new pressures before jumping backing into space and…

Wait, what was I talking about? That sounds awesome. But it’s still not going to happen.

2. Humans cannot breathe underwater

I know, in many games you are not playing a human. However, even in those games your fantastical races generally operate the same way as human beings do, with a few rare exceptions when it comes to underwater life. The net result is that any underwater content has to immediately deal with the fact that your character cannot breathe and thus has immediate restrictions on operations.

The usual result is giving characters somehow more lung capacity than most normal humans even as you still watch your breath meter decrease, and I do not want to imagine what it’s like to play that as someone who has a deep fear of drowning in real life. Heck, even just people with traumatic memories from Sonic the Hedgehog.


3. Interesting environments are even harder than with flight

One of the big problems with designing zones that are still neat when players can fly is, well… flight means that you can just go up and over most obstacles. Underwater, this issue is compounded. It’s not that everything and everyone can fly, it’s that three-dimensional space is easier to move in all directions even once you fix the breath issue.

Often, this means forcing you to swim into shipwrecks or narrow cave systems, which means that you immediately are stuck in claustrophobic spaces that are difficult to navigate and about as clear as mud even as you try to find which way is up. This is not conducive to fun times.

4. Fighting requires special consideration

Underwater regions mean that every single combat encounter now has to take careful note of elevation in addition to other facts when managing positioning. It also involves dealing with the fact that water does not behave like air [citation needed] and thus will affect things like fire magic, electrical abilities, blunt weapons, projectiles, and so forth. There’s a reason that GW2 basically designed a whole separate weapon system for when you’re underwater.


5. Moving in water is slower

All of these facts are usually present in single-player games with underwater segments, of course; often these segments are just as loathed by players. They exist as equalizers in a way, forcing you to contend with environments that obey different laws from the majority of the game’s content and fighting things that move naturally while you are hamstrung.

Yes, some of this slowness can be mitigated with fun things like seahorse mounts or riding dolphins or whatever. But you note how these things are added to make underwater content feel less like underwater content. Which points to a problem…

6. The suspension of disbelief gets harder

I am absolutely never going to strap on a full suit of plate armor and charge at someone with a sword. Most people probably won’t. I’m never going to be able to fly under my own power, I probably won’t be able to shapeshift into a bear, and I place low odds on the likelihood that I will one day be able to teleport. But I have been underwater, and that is not terribly unusual; swimming pools alone give us a basis for understanding about what being in water is like.

This is where the suspension of disbelief gets a little bit harder. It’s not overwhelming most of the time, but it’s easier to believe in something unrealistic when it’s an experience we haven’t actually shared. Heck, an awful lot of people in Victorian times died just by falling into water wearing heavy clothes that got soaked. I know how hard it is to swim in what is basically a piece of underwear; it’s harder to believe that I could just as easily move in a floor-length robe while fighting off fish with a pair of swords.

Time to play Dunk the Lalafell. With a gun.

7. Awkwardness isn’t fun

I always did kind of like the way that alcohol impaired movement and visuals in WoW, and I still do to this day. It’s a neat bit of verisimilitude, making the game just a little bit harder to play if you decide to imbibe. Of course, the flip side is that your choice to use alcoholic beverages in the game is… well, a choice. Having to go underwater for a quest that requires it is not a choice except insofar as you can opt to not do it at all, and that may not be a realistic option.

Imagine if for a given quest you had to get absolutely smashed and then had to deal with it for several quests. You probably wouldn’t think of that as a fun moment. Awkwardness forced on players is generally unwelcome.

8. Everything is different (and that’s hard to model)

By now, I think the point has been made. Underwater content is not just “above-water content but with more water.” What you really need to do in order to make this content work is to design entirely different mechanisms to navigate, fight, explore, survive, and so forth. In other words, you need to design the game for two different systems from the top down.

The game that has gotten the closest to doing this is Star Trek Online, which has two completely different ability layouts for space and ground combat. Go ahead and ask players if that means both sides are equally beloved. Seriously. Ask.

At the boondocks.

9. It’s not universal

Even if you do all the work to make the best underwater content possible within your MMO so that everyone can enjoy it, the simple reality is that “lakes/oceans full of quest objectives” are a distinct minority of the game world. For a lot of the game, players will probably be in the world of surface and air because, as mentioned, humans live there. We live above the surface of the water. We don’t breathe underwater.

So do you really want to spend all that time designing underwater content when it’s not even going to be the primary way of interacting with the world?

10. Fishing is easier

Yeah, fishing. You throw a line in and catch a fish. There, we’ve justified all the bodies of water out there. 10/10, we have found something good about fishing after I have spent years dragging it. Congratulations, fishing, you’re sort of all right in this one particular circumstance I guess.

Everyone likes a good list, and we are no different! Perfect Ten takes an MMO topic and divvies it up into 10 delicious, entertaining, and often informative segments for your snacking pleasure. Got a good idea for a list? Email us at or with the subject line “Perfect Ten.”

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Guild wars 2 is the MMO I felt captured camera/movement best, though WoW captured atmosphere better sometimes. There was a point in the BFA Horde-side war campaign where you had to go underwater that was done really well as a slower-paced one-time event, and I enjoyed Vashjir and how it captured a sense of desperation, panic and survival (though the inability to leave the zone was understandably frustrating for others and I might not enjoy it as much today, I personally felt like it added to the RP and loved it at the time).

Outside of MMOs, I feel Depth is the king of underwater cameras, though Subnautica, Abzu and Maneater did a decent job with a faster pace underwater segments as well. Games like Tomb Raider: Underworld’s opening segment or RE: Revelations’ ending chapters did a fine job in terms of camera as well, though they slowed the pace down, limited enemies and used a targeting system that locked-on zelda style. Bioshock, SOMA and KOTOR showed us that we can capture the atmosphere and feel of underwater danger without needing to fully submerge ourselves or change combat systems completely.

I love underwater segments in MMOs, though I realize I’m in the minority.
Are there any MMOs that have other system changing states than just air/water though? I wouldn’t mind a downhill skiing segment where you fight off enemies bond style for a mini-mission, or a surfing/skateboarding/skating mini-game with points for tricks. A holiday event where you queue for a tony-hawk style minigame timed contest for cosmetics/coin would be sweet. DDO has a longjump contest for Christmas in the Harbor, if I remember right.


IDK the original EQ had some underwater dungeons that were interesting (and dangerous if you didn’t have water-breathing items or a caster who could cast water-breathing).

I didn’t think they were all that difficult or immersion breaking (come on were talking a world with magic that can send you to different planes of existence to fight gods).

I also don’t think underwater content is any more ‘segregated/unknown’ IF there’s good gameplay to be had (IE it’s fun/interesting gameplay that makes players replay content; and if they like it, they’ll do what they need to to return to it; and tell others where it is.

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Space sims are underwater games with the more annoying physics removed.

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Number 7, I’m thinking about WoW’s BFA dungeon run of Freehold, in which you have to drink some pirate’s grog (and put on a tricorn hat) to fight the Council of Captains. (I say “have to” because every time I do that dungeon, everyone drinks and gets the hat, so I do too. One time, our tank even instructed us to drink first. I think the drinking might change the con status of the Captains, or something).

Robert Mann

Verticality (3d environment) and slower pace in games that have embraced a faster pace. Those are the lethal aspects.

Why? Well, when was the last time your MMO put in flying mobs, and not just as a “No fly zone here” mechanic? They haven’t, generally. Because they have problems with density, pulling extra foes, patrol paths, etc. when it goes 3d. Yet, if they don’t have those problems from spacing things out, it feels like the area is sparse.

Sparse placement of foes is anathema the primary MMO design, as the entire point is to fight nigh-constantly.

Add in that slower movement, when the norm is to give players faster movement (often too fast, in most cases, resulting in other issues for some people)… and it’s a complete anti-thesis to where MMOs have gone. *Note, the movement speed thing is not MMOs alone, and actually partially bugs me due to having done real life sparring with weapons and finding the movement with games to jar against that so harshly. However, it’s also a source of things like motion sickness and disorientation that people find annoying without such background.*


You alluded to it in number3, but I think one of the big issues with underwater gameplay is … camera control.
With normal movement (which is essentially 2d), our 16:9 monitors and lateral movement give us largely “good enough” ability to see where we are and what is meaningfully happening around us (noteworthy exception is when stuff IS happening above us, which is when non water situations are equally awkward), but in water, camera handling is even more important but worse than usual.

Imo this has the follow on effect of enhancing the awkwardness of an unusual situation.


I don’t remember any games at all where I truly enjoyed underwater gameplay, be it MMO or something else. It can be a nice change of pace or change of scenery if it’s just a short passage, but not something I’d want to do repeatedly or for long stretches of a game.

Jon Wax

Because the economy is built on a bubble!!


In reference to the EVE/space and water comment…actually spaceships are already starting off sealed, so what actually factors/is different is things like crush weight in relation to gravity pressing the water onto(And into, with enough force), the sides of the vehicle, thus imploding it if it is not able to maintain it’s structural cohesion/integrity (Think submarines)…there was a great reference to all of this when they did one of the original Star Trek movies…when they had to take a Klingon Warbird into the past and scoop up a whale to return it, or whatever that story was (My memory mixes things lately.) and you could literally hear the stress sounds on the hull. The other thing that is different, is stuff like ‘drag’, where maneuvering through water creates different effects than space would, much of space has no/little resistance, but various things IN space can effect another object’s reaction to it…like solar wind can very incrementally (Or with enough gathered, very quickly) push something, which would create ‘resistance’/drag. Most of the drag you think of is more in planes in air, but it definitely still can effect vehicles in space and water makes it respond differently. As for weapons, if they are projectiles, they too would be effected way more (Thus slowed), and if they are for example pew pew lasers, they would actually boil the water as they went through it, and thus, would be more likely to overheat(And possibly damage) their source more quickly…

I hope I made sense there, this is stuff I have studied/explored/thought about, and my brain understands concepts like this better/on a different level than others…so it’s hard to convey into words/images for someone to understand.


One tiny thing in GW2 helps a lot – swim speed infusions. Even a modest one means you speed past mobs and exploring is a lot more enjoyable when you’re not constantly getting tagged and dragged into combat.

Also: Quaggans.