Are We There Yet?

Posted: July 25, 2007 by Kendricke in Everquest 2, General Game Concepts, SOE, Uncategorized

Time passes slowly up here in the mountain
We sit beside the bridges and walk beside the fountains
Catch the wild fishes that float though the stream
Time passes slowly when you’re lost in a dream.

-Bob Dylan

Just weeks ago I booked my flights to Las Vegas for FanFaire, and bemoaned the fact that I’ll have to spent around 3.5 hours in the air flying from Minneapolis.  Seriously – three whole hours!!

Well, a flight that long demands some new reading material, so it’s off to the bookstore with me.  I’m a bit of history buff, so I head right over to that section and start poring through the titles.   Though a lot of the books I  read might seem pretty dry to most people, I find myself completely engrossed in the titles.

One fact I find myself continually fascinated by is the amount of time spent travelling throughout history.  When Julias Ceasar took his command in the provice of Baetica in  “Farther Spain” in 61 BC, it took him 3 weeks by litter from Rome.  In 1820, it took nearly 4 months time for the whaler Essex to travel from Nantucket to the whaling grounds of the central Pacific.  Even at the turn of the 20th century, it could take weeks for a steamboat to travel less than a thousand miles up the Congo river.

Compared to all that, my meager 3 hour flight seems fairly meaningless.  And yet, players still complain today that it can take 20 whole minutes to travel from one end of an MMO’s online world to the other.  Seriously – 20 whole minutes!!

There’s a constant debate across different MMO’s to determine whether longer travel times immerse players or unnecessarily hinder gameplay.  I can see good points on both sides of the argument.  And though I don’t pretend to have all the answers to forever bury the discussion behind a definitive answer once and for all, I do think it’s a good subject to touch upon once again.

For one thing, I don’t buy into the argument that travel time is a meaningless timesink.  Many game designs seems to refute this idea at every turn. 

In Everquest 2 alone, virtually every class has a spell, art, or other ability designed to somehow affect travel times.  Whether it’s a Warden’s Spirit of the Wolf, a Swashbuckler’s Smuggle, or a Templar’s Odyssey, there are dozens of ways within the game to dramatically alter how one gets from point A to point B, and how safe the journey will be.

Of course, then there’s the myriad of potions and totems created for the purposes of easing travel.  An entire economy has been built around the idea of travel.  Remove travel times and how many woodworkers suddenly bemoan the loss of the Wolf Totem market?

Those items exist for a reason.  Those spells exist for a reason.  Not every encounter within a game need be immediately related to combat.  Travel serves a need within many games, just as it serves a need within the stories we like to read.  Apart from those historical tomes I’ve been immersed in, how fun would it be to read “Gulliver’s Instant Teleportation Home”.  Even in such settings as the as Star Trek universe where teleportation IS a reality, an entire series was built around the idea of a lost ship just trying to get back home (Voyager, ya clods!).  Of course, imagine even those stories as the starting theme began to quietly build and the narrative voice of Shatner or Stewart began with “These are the instant teleportations of the Starship Enterprise…”.

Sometimes the journey is more important than the destination, even if it serves no immediate purpose.  What it does do is help set the stage and create a sense of scale.  Eventually, the scale may shrink a bit as new features or abilities are introduced, but removing travel outright isn’t a very exciting proposition for me, and possibly a reason I seek out games where sometimes you just have to hoof it the long way. 

Even then, should those new features or abilities be given out freely?  When the griffon towers were introduced to Thundering Steppes, it was created as a serverwide task – players had to work together to gather construction materials and create the towers from scratch.  Even then, individual players had to go out and collect griffon eggs in order to complete a small mini-quest just to use the towers at all.  Eventually, you found a faster way around the Plains of Karana, but you had to work for it first.

The same thing happened with Echoes of Faydwer when it launched.  You wanted to use the horses in Lesser Faydark?  Sure thing…once you’ve acctually been to the different stable locations, you could use the horses to rush through the area again.  Wanted to use a Druid portal to get from Ring to Ring?  No problem…provided you’d managed to make it to the portal first to actually harvest from the sacred shrubbery at each ring first.

Even the griffons and the horses require some interaction within the zones, though.  You don’t just hop on a griffon and find yourself *POOF* at the next stop.  No, you have to take the ride itself, over and around the land you’re travelling through.

Personally, I’d have been happy to see griffon towers charging for the privilege, but I’m a bit of an old spoilsport like that.  I remember walking both ways uphill in Butcherblock, and when the new Griffons are put in with Update 37, I’ll raise my cane and shout at those darned kids who don’t know how easy they’ve got it these days. 

So why does this subject come up from time to time?  Because we’re human.

No, I’m not being flippant. Because we’re human, our minds play tricks on us. This isn’t just my opinion, but has science backing the process:

According to Joel Warm, Professor of Psychology at the University of Cincinatti:

“A watched pot never boils. You are in the slowest line in the grocery store, and your boyfriend is never ready on time. It’s true that when you want time to go fast, it goes slow. It has to do with anticipation, expectancy and increased vigilance. The more you pay attention to time, the longer it seems.”

A lot of these perceptions can be exacerbated by repetitive tasks.  For example, the first few times you ran the length of Nektulos were probably pretty interesting, even possibly harrowing affairs.  Now, running from just the docks to the Commonlands gate seems irritatingly long – especially with a griffon tower right there for your convienence. 
Additionally, Whole Foods recently quoted a recent retail industry study which showed that our perception of time is pretty good up to around 3-5 minutes.  Beyond that, our minds start to exaggerate the time we’ve actually spent.  Ask someone who’s been waiting in line for 7 minutes how long they’ve been waiting, and they’re likely to complain they’ve been there for 15 or 20 minutes. 

It might only take 10 minutes to get from point A to point B in a game, but the complaints on the forums will start talking about 45 minute run times!  Once you get estimates that players talk about with a grain of salt.  Ask to see some logs or screenshots before you start taking such statements at face value.

Even with such skewed observations, we have to remember that perception is reality. 

You might convince someone that running across Butcherblock only takes a few minutes, but if they’ve got it in their heads that it takes 20 minutes, you’re already fighting uphill.  You might show them a video with an embedded clock that shows how long the run actuallly takes, and you might even get them to admit that it’s not as long as they thought it was…but you’re not likely to convince someone that the time on the screen isn’t a long time. 

Time is a perceived process.  We measure time in units.  It’s those units we observe, but what we actually perceive is much less tangible.  It’s that intagible idea of time that becomes so heavily subjective. 

Which brings us back to design.  When you’re in a good group and having a ton of fun, an hour goes by “quickly”.  When you’re trying to find a group in the first place, an hour is takes “forever”.  It’s not that the hour for one group is suddenly literally faster…but the value on how that time was spent is seen to be far different. 

When you’re having fun, time “flies” because the value of your minutes seems to be quite high.  When you’re not having fun, time “drags” because our the value of those minutes seems to be quite low.  We don’t literally spend time, but we do place value on the time we have available to us.

Just as some of us might see $10 in terms of how many beers that can buy, or how many songs on iTunes, we place a tangible perception of value to that intangible process of moving time.  The time itself in this becomes currency, which we talk about “spending”.  We “spent” the night raiding or we “spent” the day at work. 

When you’re having a good time, then the value of that time was high, only because we compare that time against other activities we might have performed during the same passage of time.  If the hour we spent online was considered to be more valuable than say, vacuuming the carpet, then we had a very valuable time indeed.  If we instead spent our time online accomplishing nothing, then suddenly we find ourselves realizing we should have spent the time vacuuming the carpet instead. 

When travel is fun – say the first several times we wander through an area – then the value we place on that time is high.  We don’t notice the actual time spent as much, and indeed, our perceptions become skewed to notice the actual passing of time less, because our minds are occuppied with the act of travelling.  We’re not as worried about the destination, because we’re so wrapped up in the act of getting there.

When travel is not fun – perhaps when we’re late for a raid – then the value we place on that time is lowered.  We’re very aware of the actual time we’re spending on travel, because the destination is much more important and we’re not very interested in the journey at that point. 

In short, the more time we have to think about time, the more time seems to slow down. 

SOE combats this concept within games such as Everquest or Everquest 2 by opening up areas first, then later introducing more convienent means of travelling those same areas. 

In Everquest II, this means areas that have been available for months might have access restrictions eventually lessened or removed, or have griffon towers added, or have new spells introduced for travel reduction. 

However, all that does is reduce the time between A and B.  It’s not reducing our attention to the time spent travelling.  Instead of being grateful that we’re now able to jump a griffon instead of footing it the whole way, now we’re only a few more trips away from realizing how long the griffon ride takes!  It’s not as if we’re suddenly going to realize that the trip only takes 62% of the time it used to.  What came before is irrelevant. 

Just as I don’t care that it once took weeks to travel the distance I’ll fly in 3 hours (OMG!  3 whole hours!), it’s not going to take long for players and their selective perceptions to start noticing time once again.  As Mr. Warm stated, “The more you pay attention to time, the longer it seems”.

Eventually, SOE will combat this with even shorter time expenditures on journeys, I’m sure.  Just as they eventually brought out the Plane of Knowledge, so too can we likely expect similarly compacted travel hubs or options in the future. 

After all, given the choice between reducing time spent and reducing the perception of time, it’s always easier to code for the former over the latter.  It’s not necessarily better, but it is certainly much more effective at getting the kids in the back seat to shut up.   

  1. Staranah says:

    Very timely topic. It’s true we do perceive ‘time’ depending on our needs – the boat ride to/from BB can be a blessing or a PITA, depending on what you’re doing.

    I hope they don’t change it too much – being in the world and the travel makes it more of a world not a grind from quest to quest or mob to mob – at least for me.

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