When you’re playing a character in a huge 3D world, you want to go to wherever the interesting stuff is happening so that you can have fun. Yes, it’s a trivially true statement, but it lies at the center of many debates in MMO design.
The obvious design decision is to make players walk or ride or float on clouds or fly with their wings (sometimes) through every foot of the world. They have to do this manually, because if they aren’t logged in and staring blankly at their computer screens, bad things must happen.
Bad things must happen, right? Obviously this is the case because no MMORPG allows you to AFK travel. Hell, few MMORPGs allow you to do much aside from various guises of waiting around (watching progress bars, walking on a safe road, riding on a gryphon, watching your character auto-attack an enemy to death). But what bad things would happen if you let your players skip the boring parts of their character’s lives?
If we’re going to follow the industry-wide pattern of streamlining MMO gameplay, we should take the obvious but oft-overlooked step of allowing the players to be offline or AFK during as many boring or trivial tasks as possible.
EVE Online lets you queue up manufacturing tasks and log off or do something else while they complete. This is an important step towards automation, but a small one. EVE’s mechanics are based around largely non-interactive fundamental activities: combat involves a lot of waiting and gathering is almost entirely non-interactive. In most combat and gathering activities, less than one-third of the player’s time is spent interacting with the game—and those interactions may not actually involve making interesting decisions.
MMOs will be more fun to play if as many boring parts as possible are stream-lined out of gameplay. Keep travel time appropriate so the world can be big, keep production time appropriate so items can have meaning, but don’t make the player pay for this by making them stare at the screen needlessly.
When you’re addicted to an activity, the most intense moments are usually when you desperately want to fulfill the addiction, not when you’re sating your urge. By that logic, it superficially seems that having a lot of dead time your MMO is justifiable. But if we extend the logic further, we have no answer to the question “why must players be logged at all while their character does mundane and boring tasks?” The more time a player spends bored or disinterested in a game, the more boring the game appears. But if being bored in-game is optional (and actually sub-optimal), players won’t stay in your game to be bored—they’ll stick around to do what’s fun and they’ll only remember that your game is fun.
What would you prefer? Four hours spent in-game where only one is spent having fun, or two hours spent in-game where one is spent having fun? MMOs these days lean towards the 1-in-4 ratio.
So why don’t we ditch the boring stuff?
This suggestion is not one that can be implemented with little change to the theme-park model. It requires a rethinking of how MMORPGs engage players. But if the average player is going to put in 1,000 hours of play time, I’d rather have those hours in concentrated bursts of fun lasting around one hour, not in five-hour slogs.