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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