Practical Design Considerations: Water

A few people have talked about swimming in MMOs.

While I largely agree with the premise that not many (if any) MMOs have implemented water combat/exploration particularly well, I have yet to read the (rather obvious, IMO) reason so many different MMOs try: practical design space. Or more specifically, not having swimming means your world will only ever have ankle/waist-deep water, and all the cascading design restrictions that follow from that.

There are two things I immediately notice when playing an MMO for the first time. The first is whether my character can jump. A non-jumping character means that every action I perform will be anchored to a 2D plane, there will be zero verticality elsewhere, the majority of the game world will be skyboxes, and I otherwise may as well be on rails.

The second is whether my character can swim. If the first river you come to only serves to get your boots wet, that’s an immediate clue that swimming doesn’t exist in the gameworld. Which means the gameworld will be populated with large amounts of invisible barriers and/or incredibly unlikely mountain ranges. Which means the designers don’t particular care for crafting an immersive environment, as how can that possibly exist with a surface only sparingly covered with puddles?

So, yes, most MMOs don’t do underwater sequences justice. But the alternative can’t be “not implementing underwater areas.” I would much, much rather a MMO (or any game) toss in a half-hearted, empty seascape than imprison us in Flatland.

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Posted on January 6, 2016, in Philosophy and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 15 Comments.

  1. Oddly enough you never get water bodies that are impassible, not because of an ankle deep barrier but because of the physical properties of water.
    Your heavy armor should drag you to walk along bottom while the sea-beasts nibble you to death because the water extinguishes your fire magic and stops your sword from swinging.

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    • Ha, yes. It would be difficult, I think, for people to accept a game in which certain classes (e.g. the heavily armored ones) would be at such a disadvantage over the others. Perhaps in a more classless scenario in which anyone could wear any armor, and thus strategies develop with dealing with water traversal and combat.

      Then again, it would be a bit silly if you could unequip your full plate into your backpack and swim just fine, so there is all sorts of cascading design issues that would arise from physics.

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      • Maybe it’s a game in which every bag is a bag of holding.

        It would be hard to pull it off though, because the act of putting your heavy armor in your backpack makes you so aware of the fact that it’s hard to suspend the disbelief.

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    • Well, to be entirely honest I don’t think that armor would ever be a problem.

      I mean, in archeage I can go swimming with an inventory full of enough stone to build a freaking CASTLE. Enough mass to sink me together with any ship which tries to carry me…. so I tend to avoid thinking about this problem.

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  2. What about games where you can swim but not get underwater? Like ESO. (And then add invisible slaughterfish to not give you too much freedom.)

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    • ESO was perfectly fine, and that’s a good distinction insofar as that doesn’t have to be underwater per se. The existence of swimming means that the devs can at least include believable terrain like rivers, ponds, lakes, islands and so on. Hell, I didn’t even realize that you couldn’t swim underwater as I never tried beyond the starting beach area.

      To me, I can understand and accept “fatigue” mechanics like invisible slaughterfish much more readily than a game that simply has an literal barrier around the beach. One is gamey, the other immersion-breaking.

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  3. After the great way that GW2 did underwater, I did find myself slightly disappointed in ESO when I could swim sure, but not go underwater. My exploration gene felt somehow stifled.

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    • I think in the scheme of things, GW2 has probably done underwater the best out of any I’ve played. Certainly, they made it a full-fledged deal with separate water abilities for everyone. It still isn’t terribly fun, but I appreciated the effort.

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  4. dachengsgravatar

    No MMO implements flowing water in a realistic way. Characters swimming in full armour should sink and drown. Characters swimming in clothing should also start to sink and it should require a lot of strength/stamina to avoid drowning. Water currents are far stronger than us, and should decide where we’re going, with us having only a minor input.

    Have you ever tried getting out of a fast flowing river? You can take a lot of damage when you reach the bank. In the sea, waves can dash your brains to pulp on sea cliffs.

    If you want an immersive environment, surely at least the idea of not being able to swim in full armour with sword and shield in hand is a part of it?

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  5. You’ve identified my only real dislike regarding FFXIV (well, other than the map…but you get used to it eventually). I do miss swimming and a fuller world. FFXIV uses a *lot* of invisible walls and it’s pretty annoying.

    I do miss the world Blizzard built, it’s too bad they took out any real reason to spend time in it.

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  6. I wouldn’t be opposed to an Ultima Online-style, explore the high seas adventure. I don’t think underwater zones are necessary or even underwater content. Maybe still allow players to traverse some water, but combat shouldn’t be a part of that.

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  7. ArcheAge water.. I mean jesus, you can build your housing on water, and mine and farm underwater stuff. Not much exploration down there like Valjir in Wow, but still. Worth mentioning.

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    • Actually AA has en entire minigame which revolves around underwater exploration: the treasure hunts, where you locate sunken ships and chests around them. You can then craft air balloons to bring those chests to the top and open them for loot.
      Unfortunately, it was too much gold for Labor Point invested, so it was nerfed out of existance. This was the golden age of underwater exploration, as noone was doing it and you could just do it for fun.
      Then they had the wonderful idea of massively increasing the rewards… net result: a widespread texture hack which abuses the cryengine to make chests visible from the surface. Add in a teleport hack, and as you can easily guess the entire underwater exploration is now a dead minigame played only by bots. RIP

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  8. That’s a smallish detail that really impressed me in Wildstar when I played. Rivers have current – if you jump in a river deep enough to be swimming, the current will drag you downstream unless you actively resist it.

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