Fast Travel: Balancing Player Efficiency With Open World Settings Harder Than It Looks

By | 1 year ago 

Fast travel has become a necessity—while we love the huge open worlds of games like Skyrim and The Witcher, walking from one end to the other can be a long trudge through samey scenery with little interaction. To make it easier and streamline the experience, we have fast travel—the ability to essentially teleport from one area to another, skipping the walk and getting right to the content.

But is that a good thing? Certainly we’re avoiding the same pack of wolves we’ve fought six times already, and most games only let you fast travel if you’ve already visited the place you want to get to, minimizing what you’re missing out on. But with more games taking the open world approach because we keep asking for it, why do we almost always fall back on fast travel to get where we’re going?

Red Dead Redemption Fast Travel

Red Dead Redemption has an enormous world to explore with lots of things to do, but fast travel is often more convenient when many of the encounters are slight variations on each other. Image Source: Colony of Gamers via Flickr.

A World Full of Excitement Can Lessen Fast Travel Desire

It seems like an obvious thing to say, but open-world games are big. Really big, in some cases—it can take around 45 minutes to walk across the world of The Witcher 3, and a half hour to traverse Skyrim on foot. If you’re making the trek from Riften to Solitude, you’ll probably want to use the game’s fast travel system, hop on a carriage, or at least ride a horse to save some time; while the world is beautiful, you’re probably hoping to advance a quest.

This creates an interesting puzzle for game designers—we want a large world filled with sidequests, interesting NPCs, and things that matter on our journey from place to place, but, having made the journey, we’d rather not experience the same things over and over again. Nor do we want to be punished for taking the fast travel route over walking everywhere—while sidequests are fine to encounter, hiding the main questline in random encounters on the road is more liable to frustrate people than make them willing to explore.

How can games make exploration worth it for players? Games like Skyrim and Red Dead Redemption do a pretty good job of filling rural areas with alternative stories to explore, not to mention beautiful scenery. But those encounters are limited, and there’s only so far that scenery can go—by the fifth time you’ve run into M’aiq the Liar or some Stormcloaks carting along an Imperial prisoner, you’re distinctly less interested in exploring what they’re up to. If a game’s quest sends you halfway across the map, why bother with the long walk back when you could just as easily fast travel?

Dark Souls Fast Travel

Dark Souls‘ enormous scale rarely makes players want to fast travel because there are routes and shortcuts to be found in many places. Image Source: Natty Dread via Flickr.

Filling a Game With Content is Harder Than it Sounds 

Improving the fast travel mechanic is a sticky area. On one hand, making game worlds more immersive is always appealing, and more content is rarely a bad thing. But on the other hand, stripping away the ability to fast travel or filling the roads with essential random encounters is just going to irritate people who prefer a streamlined story experience to open-world wandering. There needs to be a happy medium between the two, but finding that sweet spot between encouraging exploration and not penalizing straightforward story players is more difficult than it might seem.

Dark Souls is a game that does this relatively well—though the world of Lordran is huge and sprawling, the individual places are full of things to do. There’s significantly less “road” than other games because most of it is packed with enemies to fight and nooks and crannies to explore, which sometimes lead to shortcuts and secrets to make your journey easier. That doesn’t mean that traversing the Dark Souls world is never boring or full of grinding, but that’s kind of the nature of the game. While difficult, it does immersion well—a large part of the fun is improving your strategies and getting better, so when you finally reach the spires of Anor Londo it feels like you’ve really earned it.

World of Warcraft, on the other hand, is notorious for its sprawling landscape but minimal encouragement to explore. Sure, you can get achievements, and you’ll most likely have to do some exploring to make it to max level. Cataclysm made the world interesting again for a time—familiar areas were torn apart and scaled to new levels, meaning you could revisit areas of Durotar that used to be boring and easy but were now full of new things to do. Unfortunately, that wore off too, and with the introduction of garrisons it’s more worthwhile to spend your time alone in a familiar area than out interacting with the world. With a game as big as World of Warcraft, it’s difficult to keep people interested in the landscapes, and fast travel—portals, warlock summons, and flight paths—have become a necessity. Detailed environments just aren’t enough to keep the landscapes interesting, so few people are inclined to go exploring unless it’s for the achievement.

Skyrim Fast Travel

Skyrim‘s beautiful scenery is one draw of not using the fast travel system, but many players prefer to progress the story quicker. Image Source: Andy Cull via Flickr.

Open-World Games Hitting Growing Pains, Including Fast Travel

Open-world games are incredibly immersive experiences and very desirable from a fan standpoint, but filling those worlds with unique encounters worth exploring for. Hardware capabilities mean that we can create these kinds of games now, but it’ll take time to perfect them, including fast travel.

While we may all enjoy a virtual hike through Skyrim from time to time, fast travel saves us from having to experience the same scenery and the same few encounters repeatedly, especially because so little changes over the course of the game. More dynamic environments, consequences for choices, and a tight, compact design like Dark Souls are good incentives to make players explore rather than fast travel, but those things are difficult and costly to implement in already enormous games.

Instead, we can do game challenges and use mods to get the experience we want and hope that more games will pack their worlds full of content we want to see. Balancing the want for fast travel with the want for worlds full of content will be a difficult challenge for developers, but as games get larger in scope they’ll continue to take risks and create more engaging worlds for us to immerse ourselves in.