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

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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