Vague Patch Notes: The problem with flight and flying maps in MMOs

    
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I can show you the world.

The other night, I found myself inevitably funneled into a mistake. There wasn’t much I could do about it, sadly; Guild Wars 2 had decided that I was going to go into the Heart of Maguuma on that particular night, and protests that no one likes those maps were not going to do much of anything besides making me feel better. I had been scrupulously avoiding most of the Heart of Thorns content up until that point, but circumstances being what they were, this particular night I was pushed into it.

What a dang nightmare.

Lest you think that this whole column is going to be just dragging on Heart of Thorns, let me disabuse you of that notion right up front; for one thing, all that’d be doing is echoing things people have been saying since the expansion originally launched and people already disliked the new maps. No, what I want to talk about are maps designed for three-dimensional exploration, particularly with flight. Because that’s what these maps were designed for, and they provide a case study to think about flight in MMOs in general.

You might be tempted to point out that Heart of Thorns does not actually feature freeform flight, and you would be right! This is part of the problem. The maps are clearly designed around a level of three-dimensional movement that simply didn’t exist back then, and the result is a layout that’s confusing, winding in weird places, full of confusing switchbacks and unclear navigation. Indeed, a lot of people who I talked to even said that they completely eschewed these maps until they had their Skyscale mount, introduced after the next expansion, which does allow for flight.

That’s not to say these maps are inherently bad, though. The result is an appropriately messy and unclear set of platforms in which you spend a good chunk of your time slightly confused and a touch disoriented, mirroring what characters are supposed to be experiencing at that point in the game’s storyline. The whole purpose of the expansion was to spend your time learning to navigate the area and gain the ability to use map-specific functions, like bouncing mushrooms and gliders, therein. It does, in fact, make logical sense as a story idea and an extended jumping puzzle.

The big weakness is just that it’s not very fun to make your way around much of the time. Being lost and unclear on how you get to where you’re trying to go might make for a notable challenge, but it doesn’t exactly inspire a great deal of moment-to-moment desire to keep exploring amidst the irritation.

But if you look at these maps as an example of how to design flying maps, they’re outstanding. And therein lies the problem.

Oh, hey there.

I’ve mentioned before that part of the problem with underwater content is that when you get right down to it, designing maps to be interesting in three dimensions of navigation is part of what makes underwater content tricky. There are a lot of reasons for that, but the simplest is that when you can just go over or under everything as needed, you have to design some rather unique obstacles in order to keep navigation engaging.

But the problem when it comes to designing flying maps is that you don’t actually just need to design flying maps. You need to design a map that’s possible to navigate on a flying mount and while you’re still stuck on the ground because with very rare exceptions, that’s where you’re going to be starting in basically every game that allows flight.

Some games are better about this than others. It’s not very long before you have the option to fly in Champions Online or City of Heroes if that’s your preferred means of travel; by contrast, at this point it’s an open question for players in World of Warcraft when the newest expansion will let people fly once again. But it’s still somewhat expected that you will start out on the ground and unlock the ability to fly as something of a reward, whether that reward happens earlier or later.

And the stuff that makes navigation interesting while flying – multiple layers of a map to explore, unique geographical features, and areas only accessible once you’re airborne – are all things that make maps absolutely miserable to explore for anyone still stuck on the ground. Which means that at best, you’re deciding to make some of the map functionally unpleasant or inaccessible for people until they have the option to fly. At worst, you’re making the whole map unpleasant for players to initially navigate.

By contrast, designing the maps to be slightly easier to navigate while flying but fundamentally pretty straightforward even when you’re locked to the ground is, well… easier. It means that the maps aren’t unpleasant when you’re still on the ground, and it keeps the feel that there is a significant reward when you can start flying after all. It’s not the best of all possible worlds, but it winds up working out better on the balance.

Aside from the fact that people will get annoyed that maps don’t make flight more interesting, of course. Which is where we get into the actual meat that got me thinking about all of this again. Because it’s such a little thing, and yet you can also see all of the complexity that gets layered on top of itself, one step at a time.

Of course, this is... naturally going to be designed for walking.

It’s entirely fair and accurate to say that a lot of MMOs don’t really design zones to feel all that different when you have access to flight. That is kind of an issue in the long run. But it’s also something that happens for a good reason. When you design a map for vertical movement when not everyone is capable of it, you wind up… well, with the Heart of Thorns maps, and I am hardly the first person to note that these things are miserable to navigate. Heck, I’m not even in the top 20.

The reasons for not doing more of this doesn’t come down to laziness or a lack of ideas on the part of designers; quite the opposite. It comes down to designers looking at the world as it has been designed and what players are expected to be doing for most of their time in the game and determining that, well, it’s more important to ensure that these maps are at least somewhat enjoyable to navigate without having freeform flight. Moving in the opposite direction has some consequences downstream.

In other words, a lot of what we think of as “laziness” often has more to do with thinking through problems and complexities from different angles. It’s really easy to look at certain things and wonder why developers aren’t doing something, but it can be just as important to look at all the different angles of a given design and ask why something has been designed in that particular way.

That’s not to say that every aspect of design is above reproach or that you can’t observe and reasonably ascertain that something may, in fact, be poor design. But sometimes the reason you’re not getting more interesting flight maps is because we have an example of what that looks like, and it’s significantly less interesting when you’re trying to navigate on foot. More “frustrating” than “interesting,” in fact.

Sometimes you know exactly what’s going on with the MMO genre, and sometimes all you have are Vague Patch Notes informing you that something, somewhere, has probably been changed. Senior Reporter Eliot Lefebvre enjoys analyzing these sorts of notes and also vague elements of the genre as a whole. The potency of this analysis may be adjusted under certain circumstances.
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elenie

I love flying in MMOs (I don’t love underwater worlds as much because they tend to be murkier and movement through water tends to be less fast). I would love to see zones that are designed to be a delight when flying through them, rather than having to do all of the zone and then afterwards getting flying when you’re done with it. I don’t get why traversal on foot is “engaging” or somehow better design, nor do I particularly value an abundance of jumping puzzles.

If anything, I would prefer a mix of flying and no-flying zones (which can then be designed quite differently) rather than zones being designed for foot traffic first and flying only at the end.

Corey Evans
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Corey Evans

If an MMO (really a fantasy MMO because this already exists in space games) were made which were truly huge, it would require fast transport like flying. In such a case, the world need not be fully designed around the traversal being interesting. We only think in terms of traversal being interesting if the traversal itself is the only “content” that happens while you fly. But that is simply not looking at the picture with a wide-enough lens. Content, even very simple “event triggers”, could be easily designed for flight.

I think of it kind of like a DnD game. While you’re traveling, if your GM is so inclined they might roll a die to see if an event happens to you. Similarly in an MMO, if you were on an airship jaunt across the realm, perhaps the game could toss a flock of wyrms (or air pirates, etc.) your way, such that your party needed to defend itself atop the ship’s deck as mobs assaulted them.

That way, players are not simply “skipping the only content” when flying across a map, and neither does it require a major re-thinking of general fantasy MMO map design. The bulk of the interesting stuff can still happen on the ground, just with a few wrinkles tossed in for flying: the aforementioned event triggers, and perhaps a larger aggro radius for an airship (so that, if there’s a cool mountain, players don’t just fly straight to the top of it without consequence. If they want to skip the perilous climb, a much larger horde will be awaiting them at the summit. Etc.)

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Schmidt.Capela

The big issue with 3D maps, IMHO, is that as far as I can tell only a minority of persons can handle truly 3D environments well enough to have fun with them. Which is why almost every “3D” map in gaming is just a 2D map with heights for different parts of it and perhaps a few tunnels, even when a true 3D map would be more logical such as in space sims.

Incidentally, this seems to be an evolutionary trait. Our ancestors needed to navigate 2D environments, so our brains developed the capability to easily handle 2D, while our capabilities for 3D navigation remained scarce. Which creates some interesting situations in PvP when you can move in 3D; for example, when playing PvP in an old Aliens game as an wall-crawling Alien I almost always managed to (literally) get the jump on my opponents by simply waiting in a shadowed patch of ceiling, where ground-bound humans almost never think of checking for enemies.

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Arktouros

Maybe it’s just the explorer in me but I was absolutely thrilled about the map design of Heart of Thorns. The verticality and challenge to progress through specifically on foot and learn different routes of travel other than simply falling through or looking for updrafts to glide from. Tangled Depths is probably one of my favorite MMO maps of all time because it’s basic 4 lane design is there on the map to see but people miss it or all the little side entrances from lane to lane. It’s all visible, but complex at the same time.

Fun is entirely subjective. For the directionally challenged these maps are nightmare fuel and for someone like myself they are pure joy. I think HOT as an expansion did a great job balancing things out as Auric Basin and Dragon’s Stand are fairly straight forward “flat” maps while Verdant Brink is basically two layers while Tangled Depth is 3-4 layers in a sort of maze.

All the maps in GW2 are designed be navigated by on foot or with limited gliding. I know this because I literally used to run HP trains for guildies that did just that. What Masteries (gliding, mushrooms, etc) enable is largely skipping a lot of the legwork or bypassing dangers entirely and for that, well, there’s mesmers baby…

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Hikari Kenzaki

The heart of the article is 100% correct. Having flight in your game is fun. It satisfying as a player and a developer. We have flight and I fly everywhere.

Unfortunately, as said, the balance between making one aspect of the game more interesting vs making the rest of the game playable and fun has to land on the side of the latter.

If flight suddenly trivializes all your puzzles, quests, and maps, then it’s bad. Really bad. If flight becomes required to complete basic tasks. This is also really bad.

It’s not easy. It’s never lazy. It’s worth it.

On to individual points:

As was pointed out, the Layer Cake maps in City of Heroes were certainly not made easier by any travel powers, nor was the Perez Park mess (early version, not the final revised version).

For Heart of Thorns, I don’t think you need a Skyscale to complete it. As a matter of fact, I would not encourage anyone to rush to get a Skyscale. They are a pain in the ass to get and not for the faint of heart.

However, certain parts of HoT just didn’t work. Particularly, the mushroom jumps. They were often the only way to get somewhere and not always easy to find. Add to that you spend an inordinate amount of time stuck on the ground trying to unlock the damn skill.

Get the Raptor and the Springer. This is really all you need from PoF to complete HoT without having to futz with the mushrooms.

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styopa

It’s one of the reasons my advice in Gw2 is to go for the skyscale rather than the griffon. Skyscale you can hover and look at your map. IIRC you can’t even hover on the griffon. It flies much more authentically (damned right it does with zooming and swooping, and the animations of the griffon are leagues better than the skyscale in all sorts of details that are practically sexy when you really notice) but not being able to look at a map (among other things) makes it more of a ‘drive for fun’ ride than a utility one.
Sky scale’s a bit of a grind though, that’s for sure.

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Arktouros

Thing I remind people as well is that these are all mounts of their particular time. Griffons were there at Path of Fire launch. Skyscales took literally to the end of Season 4 to come along (as did the Roller Beetle). Having a superior version of the Glider in a mount was pretty amazing when there was no alternative.

EmberStar
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EmberStar

I don’t remember much of the specifics of playing City of Heroes. I remember the “Cake Cave” though, and that it sucked to get a random mission there no matter what travel power you had. It was a three dimensional “layer cake” maze, where you *could* fly or jump up or down between levels. But doing so was a bad idea because you could set off an aggro train (I think?) of enemies from more than one area catching sight of you. And didn’t help if you had to “find the glowy thing,” because sometimes they would be in random places down the labyrinth of hallways on each level.

It feels like devs very rarely handle flight all that well. Either it allows people to skip massive chunks of the map and bypass enemies, or they put in random roadblocks to *prevent* you from flying because arbitrary reasons. Warframe kind of does both in its open world areas – you can fly over most everything with an Archwing, but if anything does aggro on you ever single enemy there has an “archwing disabler” attack to instantly ground you. Which is *really* fun if you’re playing Titania, since one of her powers is to turn into a tiny flying version of herself – getting hit with a grounding attack just instantly kills her. Whee.

And even in Archwing specific missions, the game’s map system isn’t actually set up to portray a 3D environment. When they tried to make “flight sim mode” where you could turn upside down the default, it was possible to flip the minimap or turn it edge on, with no indication you’d done so. Not only was the “six degree of freedom” flight disorienting, it made the one navigation tool you had somewhere between “not helpful” and “actually impossible” to use.

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Peregrine Falcon

You don’t want to say it? Fine, I’ll say it then.

HoT was a felgercarb fest and I’m glad that the executive producer got fired afterward. Because getting fired is the only thing that developers actually listen to anymore. They sure don’t listen to customer feedback.

We famously gave EA some very strong customer feedback awhile back and their response was “Don’t like the game, don’t buy it.” So we didn’t and that guy got fired and now suddenly folks are changing their tune and actually trying to listen to the customer.

Same thing with GW2. After the EP got fired suddenly GW2 was all about giving the customer what we’d been demanding for years. Mounts. And then Flying mounts. And they toned down the stupid difficulty of the HoT critters.

And the maps in GW2 are all garbage in general. They look really nice but they’re difficult to decipher and not very useful for actually finding things. So basically they fail to do what a map is supposed to do.

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styopa

I think you’re being a little harsh. I have lots of gripes about GW2 maps, but most of them are crappy-UI related, not the design of the maps themselves which are pretty well done, actually. You can barely notice their shrinking budgets/staff as LWS chapters progress and the zones (generally) get smaller and smaller. :)

I don’t think the maps THEMSELVES are as bad as you say.
Yes, I thought Tangled Depths was like cancer and still have issues (mostly with invisible walls) but have come around a little bit that sometimes the map ITSELF is a character of the zone, one that you can’t ‘defeat’ by simply applying more dps.

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Ardra Diva

Being glad somebody got fired, lost their job and income, which could impact their family and well-being greatly, over a video game that you “didn’t like” is one of those moments where maybe you should take a long look in the mirror.

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Peregrine Falcon

The guy was the executive producer of the company and a multi-millionaire. Losing a job isn’t going to hurt him, or his family, in the slightest.

Oh, and don’t even talk to me about looking in the mirror about someone losing their job now days. Half of the people on the internet will go out of their way to get ordinary folks fired from their jobs simply because they said something 10 years ago that isn’t PC enough for current year.

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Danny Smith

flying is usually a sign of if the dev give a shit about the world from the players point of view and not just as a sandbox to facilitate content.

The most obvious comparison i always make is WoW and classic Zelda games. In Burning Crusade flying was the end reward in terms of unlocks and it allowed you access to areas you could not access without it. Operating like something like the Zora flippers in Zelda that lets link swim across water he otherwise couldn’t to access new areas. Its all about getting an item unlocked that expands your world and allows you to access new areas in existing locations to reveal more content is there.

Thats when flying is done well. When it is a reward and not a convenience.

But nowadays the lazyman option is “i want flying to skip content, because thats all the devs design flying for” and suddenly things like jumping puzzles in Ardenweald or Revendreth? bugger that just fly up to the reward and loot it. Don’t want to deal with the world? just fly in a straight line to your checklist of daily objectives and then leave.

Flying more often than not is just a case of diminishing the players interactions with the world when originally it was intended to expand upon them.

EmberStar
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EmberStar

If the “content” like jumping puzzles was engaging and enjoyable, people would want to do them. I can’t speak for anyone else, but if I had the option to teleport past the BS “jumping puzzles” in games like SWTOR and Guild Wars 2, I’d do so in a heartbeat. That “content” is boring, tedious, badly designed, and depends on precision platforming skill in a game where lag can happen (and in SWTOR’s case, where jumping at all is floaty and imprecise and basically feels like crap.) And in GW2’s case, feels like it was barely (if ever) tested with the larger races like Charr. I just *love* bouncing off and falling back to the start because a random hanging vine has a collision mesh for some reason and hangs down *just* enough to clothsline my Charr.

I don’t have much experience with modern MMOs and flying. I haven’t played WoW since they tried to add RealID. I do have experience with Ark: Survival Evolved’s maps and flying, which isn’t at all the same thing but it’s the only example I have. In that game I fly a lot because I want to do “A Thing.” (Get resources, move to another part of the map, or especially if I want to tame something.)

I *could* get there on foot, constantly fighting creatures that attack me for no reason other than existing within their Line Of Sight. And also navigating around terrain like uncrossable gorges and bodies of water filled with various kinds of deathfish. But hopping on Typhoon and flying there is faster, and my crystal wyvern is big enough to pick up most critters I’d want to drop into a taming pen. (Not all of them, which is why I also have a bigger fire wyvern and a quetz.) I can spend a few minutes getting to where I need to be, and then focus on what I *actually* want to do for the night. Which normally is NOT “get my face ripped off by an endless supply of raptors and dire wolves.”

Sometimes I *do* just want to ride around and see what’s out there – that’s why I have Dune the morellatops, who is big enough that Raptors mostly can’t reach me to yank me off the saddle, and a pair of carnotaurs set to follow her and wreck anything that does try to take a bite. But generally speaking, I’m inefficient enough on my own without the game “helping” by forcing me to walk everywhere forever.

PlasmaJohn
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PlasmaJohn

So much this. The constant whine about flight making open world irrelevant and games less social grates just as much as “But we have to go back to the office for those spontaneous collab sessions by the watercooler”

In my 30 years of office life I can count on one hand the number of those that yielded anything valuable and have fingers left over. And exactly none would not have happened anyway.

Same thing in MMO’s. I have never formed a lasting relationship with any other player in the open world that would not have happened for other reasons.

Flight is not to blame for me skipping your content. Either I have no interest in it or what’s been designed sucks. Usually both.

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Ardra Diva

ArcheAge has a good balance with Hang Gliding. It isn’t completely unfettered, free flight, but it sorta is – dependent on height and gliding distance is affected by that, as it should be. So it’s useful and fun without being TOO powerful as a travel option.