On the runway lights in MMOs

It took me a while to notice Guild Wars 2‘s map completion rewards.

Anyone with a few brain cells more than me would have picked it up right out the gate, what with all the Scout NPCs who conveniently show you where you can go next and what’s there to do there – and all of it neatly delineated on your world map. Those little golden hearts and red triangles and stuff might as well be so many checkboxes to tick, and there has to be something after ticking them all, right?

I hung around in my first zone to ensure I got every one. And then it happened. Heading into the next zone, I caught myself repeating an all too familiar routine: stopping, pulling up the map, and turning in place to orient myself towards nearby checkboxes. It helped that the game has a constant prompt on the top-right corner to lead you towards the nearest one.

In other words, I wasn’t exploring the labyrinth anymore. I was Theseus with Ariadne’s ball of thread, picking my way out inch by inch.

Many gripe about linear world & quest design in MMOs. But where so many leave most of the runway lights off, GW2 seems to have them on all the time, hand-holding players from point to point. Guidance – or pandering to completionism?

Every MMO has some sort of guidance in place to help players get un-lost in the world. ‘Signpost’ quests, in-character mails, map-marking through dialogue – even TESO’s annoying skyshard riddles. Given that I’ve encountered more than one MMO player who claimed they gave up on an MMO because they ‘had no idea what to do next’, any measure helping to refer people to new zones is probably quite necessary.

Unfortunately, the net result of such measures is, more often than not, a themepark atmosphere and mindset. Reducing player friction along the runway turns it into just a path to sprint along to reach the endgame. And what then? Cue all the age-old arguments around ‘old’ content getting devalued and neglected, and ‘new’ content never coming fast enough or thick enough or both…

But that’s the nature of any online game as a commercial venture. As has been brought up before, a large proportion of any MMO playerbase comes to a game looking for distraction – or gratification. (Usually both.) It’s far easier to bore or scare them off than to retain them. Thus, making the runway a path of least resistance becomes the only sensible thing to do from a financial standpoint. Save the resistance for the sideshows – like crafting. The leveling journey becomes just a means to an end, whether that end be raiding or PvP or fashion wars or hopping on tavern tables and soliciting the envy of the newbies and the undergeared.

Good for the devs, and not so good for the game.

I’m not asking why the runway – I’m asking why the lights. Leaving sandbox MMOs aside, your conventional MMO needs a structure for players to play through, but surely they need not be led by the nose. In GW2, for instance, I would have appreciated a toggle on the hand-holding, so I could discover new quests and locations on my own, Skyrim-style.

Perhaps not the best analogy, come to think of it, given that so many have chastised Skyrim‘s gameplay for being nothing but a giant to-do list – but there it is.

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4 Responses to “On the runway lights in MMOs”

  1. I agree with your sentiment completely (I WISH there was an option to turn off the markings on the map and minimap, especially the vistas), but is runway a good analogy? At least there are no quest chains, so you *can* go anywhere and do anything in any zone at or below your level. A theme park sounds about right though – one with a lot of flashing pointers and signs telling you exactly what to expect.

    • Yes, there are some who say that quest chains are integral to the MMO themepark experience. But for me, being hand-held is enough to qualify. I do like GW2’s level downscaling, and I recognize that it’s not exactly easy to make ‘go anywhere, do anything’ possible in an MMO – especially one built on vertical progression – but all the same, I wish there were options to pull the wool down further over my eyes, at least!

      • I actually think GW2 does a good job in the “go anywhere, do anything” department. If only there wasn’t an exhaustive list of “anything” put where you can’t avoid it! Removing it completely will alienate many people though, and by the way I don’t think it’s because all these people just want their path as smooth and easy as possible. I can think of at least two reasons people want to have a series of goalposts in their game: first, people tend to have difficulty following goals for which they are only accountable to themselves (New Year resolutions anyone? and how is that gym membership/writing project going?), and second, for some people competition is the point, and if there is no universal set of goals, there can be no competition. But I agree absolutely that if there was an option to hide the marks on the map, that would be great.

      • Great points. Self-driven, self-defined progression is not for everyone – hence my mention of players that dump an MMO because they ‘feel lost’ in it. But as for competition, it comes down to what kind. Comparing ‘personal’ goals – even universal ones imposed by the game – is not much different from comparing where our respective characters are in, say, Skyrim or Witcher 3. It’s only when goals grant us some sort of edge in the game itself that they appeal to people’s competitive natures.

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