17 May 2013

WildStar: The Flying Mount Frenzy

In the main, WildStar’s development is going smoothly. Led by a team of veterans who have worked on almost every MMO released, the Orange County developer hasn’t put a foot wrong. Every decision they’ve made has been warmly welcomed by an incredibly positive community.

Except there’s one decision they’re not sure about: Flying Mounts.

As Jeremy Gaffney explained to me earlier this week, the decision seemed like a no-brainer when they built the world four years ago. Now they’ve had a chance to think about it and gather feedback from the community, there doesn’t seem to be a clear way ahead. Some desperately want flying mounts, while others are dead against them.

But why? And is there a solution that can satisfy both camps?

The Failures of Flight

If you look at other MMOs on the market, there’s only one that offers flying mounts. While RIFT and SWTOR have eschewed the idea, World of Warcraft has allowed players to take to the skies since The Burning Crusade. It was such a popular move that Blizzard revamped the old world to accommodate flying mounts there as well. By all accounts, players want to fly.

There’s a very compelling reason too: WoW’s approach to flying makes it incredibly easy to get around. You can avoid mobs that you have no desire to fight, drop on top of a mining node or herb without fuss, and kill rare creatures quickly. There are a couple of other benefits, like being able to get a different view of the world or having more mounts to collect, but the overriding factor is convenience.

Permitting flight – particularly with the WoW model – also introduces a fair set of problems for games like WildStar and Guild Wars 2, where the verticality of the world is used in a number of ways.

  • If part of the game involves accessing hard to reach places, such as jumping puzzles, Explorer Path challenges, Loftite Crystal challenges and other areas where gravity may be non-standard, then flying mounts make all that trivially easy. These are significant content-breaking issues.
  • For PvP servers, a large part of the content is being able to kill (or rescue) other players. Being able to fly up and remove themselves from risk (or stalk the zone like a vulture) creates problems at both extremes.
  • For PvE servers, it means that you’re less likely to encounter others on your adventures, purely through comparing a 3D volume to a 2D plane, particularly when questing.
  • Exploration achievements become much easier with flying mounts. If there are gameplay systems that interact with how many achievements you have, that content starts being pushed from mid to elder game.

More importantly though, will WildStar actually require you to leave the city and travel anywhere? If LFD queues and raid portals are the norm, the only time you’d head out into the world is if you’re going farming for resources. There needs to be an elder game reason to travel throughout the world that’s more than digging up plants or rocks. If not, the whole argument becomes moot – mounts become a bigger version of baseball cards.

In-Flight Maintenance

Warcraft’s flying mount mechanism has a problem. Once you get past the initial joy of being able to fly around and reach all those hidden places, it actually becomes pretty boring. You fly up, you hover, you make a coffee. There’s no risk or effort to it at all. That’s part of the attraction, but it’s incredibly dull.

Also, do flying mounts actually fit in Carbine’s scrappy sci-fi universe? We’ve seen spaceships and shuttles taxi our characters around, but in an era where Nexus is full of robots and monsters desperately trying to kill you, should you feel safe in the skies? Odds are you’d be a sitting duck crashing into the ground faster than you can say Missile Lock.

And for those saying that if you don’t like flying mounts just don’t use them, that’s not really an option. MMOs are about two choices – the most optimal way, and the wrong way. Stick to your speeder while everyone else jets around overhead, and you’ll miss out on every resource node in the zone. That and everyone will be sure to whisper you about your dumb choices.

So, if we were to have flying mounts, how should Carbine consider implementing them? The WildStar Central forums have come up with a whole bunch of suggestions, some of which are better than others. I’m not going to claim credit for these, but I am going to pull them apart a little.

A favourite is to give flying mounts a gas tank or rechargeable battery that limits their range. While it sounds appealing, it doesn’t stop the problem of circumventing Explorer quests or jumping puzzles. Just mount up, hit the gas and make sure you land at the right spot. It also means that players will hop from refuelling station to station or, if the fuel cells recharge themselves, just bunny around from resource node to node. After all, they’ll all be marked on a map within a week.

How about having no-fly areas around puzzles? While it sounds simple, it’s actually horrible to immersion. Aion did this with their flight system, and every so often you’d smack into an invisible wall like a wasp hitting a window.

Another suggestion is to allow free flight, but have designated take-off and landing strips. It sounds tempting, but in reality it just becomes a taxi that’s under player control. Sure you might want to take the scenic route once or twice, but after that it’s just a dash to your destination.

There’s also the suggestion of disabling flying mounts on PvP servers, or asking players to complete all missions in a zone before they gain flight certification, or have only certain safe zones allow free flight. Again, these feel like inelegant kludges to try to allow a scrap of flying somewhere – it’s like having a car that you can only drive on the racetrack.

Flying Hazards

The big question is: do flying mounts (or any mounts) need to be off or on? Can they be made more interactive or riskier? Should there be effort involved in keeping them airborne, and does that need to be limited? Should the skies be filled with danger?

The idea of having living skies full of warfare is an incredibly tempting one, and pulls back memories of X-Wing vs Tie Fighter. But is that the game that Carbine’s trying to make here? Start off down the slope of flight physics and weapons systems, and that’s coders and designers pulled off from making other cool stuff. While I’d love asteroid belt space battles, I also want them to finish the game.

There’s also the option of fixing flying mounts at a maximum altitude to keep them in range of monsters (and players) on the ground. While it’s great to be able to take pot-shots at someone and knock them out of the sky (my hours clocked up in Planetside 2 can attest to this), it still doesn’t stop the puzzle shortcut problem.

Which, in the end, leaves one option.

Earn Your Wings

Being airborne in Aion was great – it involved skill to keep yourself above the ground. You could actually flap your wings to fly in some areas, but it was possible to glide almost anywhere. And it was gliding where the biggest challenges lay – using judgement to push yourself out as far as possible.

It’s a method that FireFall uses too. Leap on a glider pad and you get fired off like a paper plane, using your own judgement to keep going as far as possible. You can’t hover or hang in the air with a glider, and actually staying off the ground requires a fair amount of skill.

Gliding could be incorporated into WildStar as well. With a little bit of work from the existing physics engine, it should be possible to simulate gliding as a temporary buff granted to players. By allowing players to rock forward and back, or tilt side to side, they should be able to control where they head towards. And, because it’s more skill-based, there’s the social aspect of showing off your control to friends.

Of course, hitting the ground shouldn’t be without risk. If you mess things up badly, you should expect to play a visit to the Holocrypt. Such is the risk of going airborne.

There’s also the path integration. Allow sufficiently advanced settlers to drop down a glider pad, either in fixed locations or anywhere in the world, for other players to use. You could have an extreme sports circle climbing the highest peaks just to glide jump off them. There’s the potential loftite and low-gravity interaction which makes them more interesting as well.

And going back to the Explorer path and jumping puzzle issue, it becomes less of a problem. Because gliders don’t give much altitude, it’s going to be tough to start a quest and glide to the endpoint unless you’re very skilled, and in that case you’re rewarding skill anyway.

The key thing is that flight becomes challenging. And in becoming challenging it also becomes fun, not just the first time you do it but every time you do it. And that is WildStar.

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7 Responses to WildStar: The Flying Mount Frenzy

  1. Telwyn says:

    Good article. I’m generally against flying in MMOs, it’s a fun mechanic for a short while but generally, as you rightly pointed out, it trivialises way too much gameplay. Playing SWTOR again recently I have no desire for flying in that game, it would just shortcut too much of the actual game. It’s especially interesting that you mention the issue of raid portals and other ‘jump to content’ variants. Carbine seem to be carving a lovely world, full of different types of content. But do they actually have an answer to that fundamental problem of players sitting and queueing for instanced content as the easy/quick way to progress? For many soloists this isn’t an issue as they probably prefer an emptier world devoid of resource competition. But I play MMOs to at least see other player characters running around, regardless of whether I see them again the little moments of contact are important for me. Flying takes away from this to a greater extent since, again as you point out, a truly 3D world has so much more room than a mostly 2D one.
    Telwyn recently posted..SWTOR: Bounty hunter first impressionsMy Profile

  2. Telwyn says:

    Oh and I can’t resist adding that EQ2 and Vanguard both have flying mounts ;-)
    Telwyn recently posted..SWTOR: Bounty hunter first impressionsMy Profile

  3. Yakzan says:

    Thanks for the article that does a good job of summarizing a lot of the insights and observations I’ve made through the countless threads I’ve made (and been slacking with making.) Also, thanks for the critique on the launchpad idea I suggested, which I guess is what I wanted to get at with this comment (I had already lauded you with praises on IRC. :D )

    I definitely understand the critique with the launchpad idea making flying mounts nothing more than controllable taxis. However, that is more or less the idea I was going for. To be fair, I made some assumptions that I didn’t clearly voice. I’ll try to list them here:
    1) The flying mounts can go at least as fast as taxis.
    2) Flying mounts are only available at elder game (level cap.)
    3) Flying mounts are readily available.

    I actually considered whether if dismounting should be allowed anywhere, as long as the ‘takeoff’ was restricted. There are a few pitfalls with this like getting stuck in areas and having to ‘hearth’ out all the time. That’d just drive people insane. Alas, here are the reasons why I consider flying mounts still a worthwhile feature despite the restrictions:
    1) Able to set your own path and not restricted the curvy, scenic paths taxis seem to take.
    2) Related to above, taxi points could also act as launchpads, so you could theoretically use them simply as taxis. However, you can’t just auto-run/afk with them because you could miss the mark. You use the taxis for that (Assuming taxis work like in WoW and such.)
    3) Launchpads will be more abundant than taxi points and can be used as a method of unlocking content. You could have plateaus in low level zones or high altitude mazes in elder game areas, and the only way to access it is by flying there and finding the ‘launchpad’ to begin your trek in these new sub-zones. (Think of how flying ‘unlocked’ Skettis and Ogri’la in TBC.)
    4) As a method of exploration, you could find ‘hidden’ launchpads to find new fun little areas (Perhaps an explorer path thing?)
    5) Settlers could, much like with taxi points, create launchpads in certain desired areas (The desire for hunters for the Rift in vanilla LotRO was the idea in the back of my head when I thought of this. The only ‘port’ there past all the elite masters were hunters.)
    6) You are able to freely explore from the skies if you want but without trivializing the ‘mounting climbing’ idea of exploration.

    I know not everyone would like this idea and see it as controllable taxis, but I think a lot more could be done with it. I’d definitely love to see further ideas tossed out about it and further refine it. I’ll also be posting this comment on the forum thread as well, but you get the ‘exclusive first’ for a while before I do so. I’m such a great contributor, eh? :D

  4. Lethality says:

    Like most, I’ve played many MMOs. But also like most, I’ve played World of Warcraft more than any other. To this day, I’m a subscriber even though I don’t play very much. Why? Because of the feeling it gives me of not playing a game – but being in a virtual world, and there is no greater contributor to that feeling than the freedom to fly.

    Anywhere I can see, I can go. That. Is. Liberating.

    And the interesting thing? None of this even has anything to do with transportation or convenience! :)

    Now, for some pros and dismissing some cons!

    Pros

    Scope and Scale

    There’s nothing like soaring over zones that you know every nook and cranny of, and being able to see them from a whole new perspective. It provides a sense of place, and in a seamless world the scale feels enormous.

    Customization

    Mounts have incredible potential for character customization. Think about the implications of role-play utility. With a choice between mechanical and organic mounts, a whole guild of ace star-fighter pilots, flying in formation to the a raid to thwart the menace? Yes please. How about emergent player-driven events like air shows? Heck, even being able to park them visibly on your housing plot would be epic!

    Machinima

    How about machinima? Carbine wants to support machinima artists, potentially even with special tools. Having flying mounts helps this endeavor both in front of and behind the camera. Using it to get the right shot from the right angle is obvious, but including epic flight scenes in your movies add a whole additional layer of complexity and storytelling potential.

    Gameplay

    Flying mounts can be the basis for future advanced game systems. Whether that’s as robust as a flying-combat battleground, or something as simple as quest content requiring you to haul some precious cargo across the planet in a certain amount of time… while facing “complications.”

    Crafting

    A tradeskill profession could provide a progression path for players interested in helping players customize their mounts, either esthetically or mechanically depending on the system. And maybe even the very elite crafters could build flying mounts themselves.

    Progression

    What about progression? Providing multiple tiers of skill that could be divided into Organic, Mechanical, Surface, Water and Underwater mounts. Earning the right to pilot those crafts, and possibly even various classes within those categories would be an achiever’s dream come true.

    Context

    Flying mounts can provide epic context. I remember the first time I had to fly up to Tempest Keep for the Eye of the Storm raid in Netherstorm. Traveling there, to these huge crystal fortresses in the sky, set the sense of awe perfectly for what we were facing – no less than one of the major characters in all the lore.

    Money!

    Of course we don’t yet know the business model for WildStar yet, but I can’t think of a more perfect thing to fit nicely into some sort of “cash shop”. With the emphasis on style and aesthetics, fans would be tripping over themselves throwing money at the screen.

    Cons

    None (j/k)

    Skipping Content

    Folks like to use the argument of skipping content as a reason flying mounts shouldn’t exist. I never understood this because the decision to skip content is in the hands of the individual player completely. And if you’re worried about OTHER people skipping content, I think that really has nothing to do with how you play your game.

    World PvP

    Similarly, “World PvP” is often cited as “dead” because of flying mounts. Bullocks. (I’m not English, so not sure I can pull off “Bullocks” but there you go.) Anyone that actually *wants* to engage in World PvP isn’t going to fly away. And if it’s the people who ARE being griefed? Kudos to them for having a way to avoid it. If the PvPers think the definition of “World PvP” means swooping in and ganking someone while they’re AFK, and are upset they might be AFK on a flying mount instead… well…

    Explorer

    In relation to WildStar specifically, the Explorer path seems to be built on the idea of getting your character to places that are otherwise hard to reach. Flying mounts might be used to circumvent this… unless having a flying mount depends on completion of these things in the first place… even on zone by zone basis. This could similarly be tied to each path.

    Suggestions

    Make flying mounts the exception to the rule. Make them very hard to learn how to fly. And then on top of that, hard to acquire.
    Make them active to use, possibly with a small set of 2 or 3 abilities that give you a chance to dismount another PvP player, or escape from one. No real combat, though.
    Create an upkeep system for them. You want to fly your star fighter? That isn’t cheap. Feed your flying… whatever? Not cheap either. Both of those would be welcome sinks for gold and/or materials in the game.
    Create “Refueling” rebuff that requires you to wait a certain period of time before re-mounting your flying mount. The more times you mount and dismount, the longer the refueling takes. This would help mitigate cheesing too much content (Explorer or otherwise) and really encourage players to mount up when it’s time to travel, for the most part.
    Alternately, a “Terra-Firma” debuff must be in place to interact or achieve certain objectives. This debuff would stack over time allowing for flexibility in the conditions of its use.
    Have Mechanical, Organic and (although not related to flying) Water and Underwater mounts In addition to standard ground mounts.

    Conclusion

    This got more long winded than I intended… but I hope my passion for this topic has come across. I’m not exaggerating when I say that flying mounts are darn close to a make-or-break feature in MMOs for me.

    So needless to say, I’m a huge fan of flying mounts and see little if no effective downside.

  5. Ald says:

    I’m generally not a fan of anything that makes a game world smaller so I’m not a fan of flying mounts at the inception of an MMO. Ones that are older and have the “been there done that” feeling, i tend to be ok with.