Monday, September 13, 2004

Roads in MMORPGs

Roads should not be considered some mere "nice to have" feature appealing only to a few players who keep asking for "immersion." Roads are important to creating memorable game experiences because they serve double duty as both a storytelling and a gameplaying device.

The concept of The Road (as the alternative to the concept of Home) is one of the most enduing concepts in all of human literature because it is symbolic of all journeys. Homer sent Odysseus out on the road 2500 years ago in The Odyssey because that was how to make interesting things happen to Odysseus as he tried to return home after the fall of Troy. When Chaucer looked for a setting that would cause a group of very different people to interact, he set them on a road in The Canterbury Tales.

Roads are still crucial to modern literature as well. Jack Kerouac's On the Road is a literal example, but The Road has served more symbolic purposes. When Tolkien wanted to tell a tale about how ordinary persons can find themselves capable of extraordinary deeds, he set Bilbo Baggins on the road out of the Shire in The Hobbit... and then sent Frodo down even greater roads in The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien even has Bilbo singing a song called "The Road Goes Ever On." And as Frodo remarks wistfully, "Sam, remember what old Bilbo said, 'You have to watch yourself, Frodo. Once you've stepped out onto the Road, there’s no telling where your feet will lead you!'"

As forms of literature, MMORPGs similarly benefit from having roads or paths that are safer than the areas "off the beaten track." This is important in a story-telling sense, because journeying farther from home by taking roads to far-away places is the outer journey that mirrors the character's inner journey of personal change. But it's also useful in a gameplay sense, because players know they can find adventure by stepping off the safe road and traveling into the deep, dark forest.

Whether implemented for roleplaying or for pure gaming, roads are invitations to adventure!

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