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6 reasons why MMO devs need to give up on underwater environments


Yes, I’m going to start the new year with a bold command for MMO developers everywhere: cut it out with underwater content. It’s not an issue that’s plaguing online games, really, but it is almost uniformly awful when an MMO decides to make you plunge underwater to do quests or explore zones. Why? Here are six reasons that developers need to give up on diving underwater (I am OK with us swimming across the surface as part of the exploration of the world, however).

(1) Nobody is ever clamoring for underwater zones

Do you remember how terrible underwater bits were in old platforming games? The stage in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles alone sent more kids to psyche wards than anything else in the 80s, and that was just one. Even the level in Super Mario Bros. was annoying.

Yet this is a concept that developers won’t let die, even though it’s been proven to be a mood-killer and anathema to the players. I’ve never once seen an MMO player, when a new game is announced, ask with breathless hope if there will be underwater zones. You know how angry some people get when they talk about how devs are wasting their time making personally unwanted content instead of stuff everyone can enjoy? That’s how I always feel when I see a dev team go, “Hey guys! We’re going to go underwater in this next patch/expansion!”

(2) It’s a wet speed bump

I’m sure there is someone out there who desires to cosplay in-game as an ancient turtle, languidly flapping through the ocean, but it sure ain’t most players. The thing about water movement is that while you get the freedom to move in three full dimensions, you’re going from running at a fair clip to slowly, oh so slowly, doggy paddling through the ocean depths. The game can’t win with this: either you hit the brakes when you dive underwater or you retain the ability to move at 25 mph and destroy all immersion.

(3) You know what’s fun? Drowning!

Here’s another immersion vs. gameplay decision to be made: Do you throw in a breath meter? If you do, then congrats, you’ve created an irritant in your audience’s journey, as they’ll have to be constantly surfacing for air like a well-armored whale, interrupting whatever quest they were doing. Of course, they can always forget that there’s a breath meter there and then just die all of the sudden, which is gangs of fun.

Or you could do away with a breath meter entirely and give players the ability that modern SCUBA enthusiasts would die to have. You do that and why have underwater zones at all? It’s just a slower, crappier version of land-based adventuring.

(4) Can’t see nothing — and there’s nothing worth seeing

The ocean, on occasion, can be a beautiful place. But it’s also a murky environs that’s mostly devoid of notable features other than this liquid wet stuff that surrounds you and gradually cuts down on visibility. I’ve seen MMOs emulate the murk (ugh, why) and ones that make water so crystal clear that you might as well be swimming through air (again, why make it at all). But unless you’re down at the bottom (land) where stuff to look at usually is, you’re most likely swimming through visual nothingness, your eyes withering through a lack of stimulation.

And how much visual variety can devs make in underwater areas anyway? Once you’ve done the prerequisite “pretty coral” zone that you can also see in any expensive saltwater aquarium, what’s left is sea mounts, sand, rocks, sea weed, and… not much else.

(5) Fighting in water is as silly as it sounds

There’s nothing dignified about underwater combat. I’ve seen many MMOs try and none of them pull it off. Using the same moves as you do on land while wading (?) thirty feet under the surface is goofy as all get out, and even if new moves and weapons are made, there’s still the problem of 3D space. Fighting underwater always seems to involve whirling a camera around constantly to see if a bad guy is up, down, behind, in front, and trying to judge how far away each is for their aggro radius (which is hampered by a lack of visual landmarks between you and them).

It’s also a real treat to be given the opportunity — wanted or no — to look up the skirts of our characters as they swim and fight about. One of my earliest WoW memories was how robes gave my characters no legs but detached feet frantically kicking in the water.

(6) It feels detached from the world as a whole

I think this is my biggest complaint. Any time I am given the task of going into water to do a quest, it feels as though I’m stepping out of the MMO and into a second one that isn’t quite connected to the first. I don’t get that with flight or other environments, but going underwater is like flipping a switch between one game mode and another.

Underwater exploration, questing, and combat doesn’t add to an MMO as a whole, it detracts from it, and that’s why I don’t think it’s worth including. In small measures it can be used to enhance something (such as SWTOR’s underwater base on Manaan) but it isn’t strong enough to be able to stand on its own.

Agree? Disagree? Sound off in the comments!

19 thoughts on “6 reasons why MMO devs need to give up on underwater environments

  1. I am no fan of under water zones either. I find them blurry and disorienting and, as you point out, the idea that you’re going to carry on fight below the surface in the same manner you did above is a bit silly. Of course, so is the idea of swimming in a full suit of plate armor.

  2. I used to be awesome at the TMNT Dam Bombing. I also loved Vashear (sp?).

    Ecco the Dolphin was garbage though.

  3. You did play both Rift and GW2 fairly extensively, didn’t you? Did you not notice how fluid and easy underwater movement was in both? Did you not notice the rich, fascinating, beautiful, fully art-designed environments? And how you could clearly see everything since visibility was as good as on land (better, in fact, than in some overland zones).

    You may “never once seen an MMO player, when a new game is announced, ask with breathless hope if there will be underwater zones” but I can affirm from personal experience that many players were eagerly anticipating new underwater content in Heart of Thorns and there was considerable annoyance expressed in general chat when it was learned there would be none. (Actually there is some, as it turns out, and it’s rather good).

    I think most of your points would have had some merit a decade or more ago. Underwater zones in EQ were rightly feared and the early ones in EQ2 were just dull, for example, but with current graphics and the ever-increasing flair and brilliance of gaming artists and designers there’s no reason why underwater zones should be any less wonderful than dry air.

    Now, if you want to go off on a rant about volcanic zones, then I might be tempted to come along with you…

  4. One of my best EQ memories was soloing at the bottom of the Lake of Ill Omen. The muffled sound, murky environment, slow movement. It was a giant sensory deprivation tank filled with death. Fortunately, it was rarely mine.

    After that most MMOs I played couldn’t even dive underwater. Until Vashj’ir, WoW’s underwater combat didn’t feel much different except from EQ, except you don’t solo by methodically killing 4 camping spots underwater. You swam around killing quest mobs in a less satisfying and more frustrating manner. Vashj’ir was a decent compromise. Very fast mounts, running on the bottom, with a little bit of combat while swimming, with some caves thrown in for dialog.

    MMOs underwater isn’t something that should be done often. And for a whole zone, it needs an alternative like they did in WoW. But once in a while, if done right can be an enjoyable experience with beautiful views for those that enjoy that sort of thing.

  5. I hate them for a different reason: I’m directionally challenged and suddenly having to navigate horizontally and vertically in a video game is a nightmare!

  6. WoW is really my only MMO of note. As a Druid, being underwater is okay. As any other class it’s just awful. Though zones like Vashj’iir are beautiful, they’re a bitch to get through. The combination of moving slowly and having to navigate 3D space is an exercise in frustration. I can’t even count the number of times I went to loot a corpse, couldn’t, then swiveled my camera around and found I was swimming 10 feet away from it.

    I think some scripted underwater events could be okay, like some existing vehicular quests, but as a whole zone? No thanks.

  7. I’d also put it out there that Vashj’iir in WoW was absolutely the best underwater zone I’ve ever seen. I actually enjoyed it. And it was beautiful.

  8. I seem to remember that Vashj’ir in WoW was okay, except when they made me play a naga. Wasn’t a fan of that change. But the giant turtle was awesome.

    I’ve played a ton of games, some with underwater scenarios, but I can’t remember a game with water as murky and blurry as in Fallout 4. I didn’t want to go exploring underwater there at all, even though I could breathe forever in a power armor suit. But I actually didn’t mind because there was more than enough to check out on dry land anyway.

  9. An MMORPG that deserves the name must allow players to swim and dive because otherwise it has to place an invisible wall around every body of water (see SWTOR). And we all know that invisible walls of all kinds are the no. 1 immersion breaker in a virtual world.

    But this does not mean a lot of content has to be placed below water. It’s perfectly fine if most of the time there is not much to be seen under water; then something like an under water cave will feel special, which is how it should be.

    imo, WoW has the best balance (not considering Vashjir). GW2 has probably the best engine support for under water content, but I think you have to go under water too often (in the zones of the base game; I haven’t played HoT).

    tl;dr: add simple support for under water content to your engine, but don’t overuse it.

  10. I didn’t mind the implementation of the underwater stuff in EQ2 back in the day. Each “class” of priest had a water-breathing spell with a variation on the theme. I don’t recall the specifics anymore other than Shamans had you drop to the bottom and run (though you could super-jump due to the buoyancy, iirc). I honestly only really remember that since early on that spell counted as “falling” through the water, so you could kill yourself and/or your group with it. I think Clerics got some sort of speed boost so that they and their group could swim faster, and I don’t recall what the Druids did with their at all. Such is life.

    As I recall it, there really wasn’t too much done underwater early-on anyway. It was sort of an optional “you can go in the water if you want, but there’s not much reason to do it. The estate of Unrest then made it necessary to go into the water to get a key, and then the Rise of Kunark expansion you needed to swim to a couple of dungeon entrances in a big lake. They were doable without a water-breathing spell if you knew exactly where to go, though, so …..

    I agree that water in general was a pain, but it was always optional, I felt. Since EQ2, seems like water’s been either wade-able or invisi-walled off in any game I’ve played, so it hasn’t really been an issue.

  11. I dunno, I think some of the prettiest damn MMO swimming I’ve ever witnessed was in Landmark. Them oceans are damned lovely, yo.

    As far as underwater combat, though, I agree. Most MMO’s don’t really lend themselves that well to it. GW2’s underwater combat didn’t exactly thrill, and WildStar’s underwater combat was literally “land combat under the water”. Neither implementation was exactly a barnburner.

    I think the very first comment had the right of it–make underwater feel like a unique and magical environment. Have unique enemies and encounters (GW2 had this much right, at least). Also, maybe make underwater combat have a sense of momentum. You’re in fluid, and energy travels. Maybe make that part of the combat animations to make underwater combat feel less like you’re doing the same thing in a 3D space and more like you’re fighting underwater.

  12. What about the wide open seas of Archeage, where traders and pirates alike plied their trade? The underwated farms just off the coast which players diligently farmed for all sorts of goodies? Or the wrecks of sunken vessels which were plundered by opportunistic scavengers?

    I like water zones, both over and under, but the devil is in the details. For me the best memory of AA would be sailing out on the great sea between the continents. I liked knowing that the water beneath my ship was not just show, but also an MMO space I could venture in if I was so inclined.

  13. The Red Fens capstone quest in Dungeons and Dragons Online, Into the Deep, features underwater combat and is one of the best quests in the game. I hope that DDO adds an underwater raid in the future, to introduce the aboleth.

  14. Kedge Keep in Everquest was a stressful and tense exercise in trying to navigate using questionable controls – there was no way you could ever forget the zone. Also, as others have mentioned, in the early days of EQ2 Templar’s had a group underwater breathing buff which allowed their group to navigate underwater environments for quests. Although items such as “a luminous azure shard” allowed players to jump, breathe, and walk underwater for 5 minutes. EQ2 definitely has numerous underwater adventuring areas interspersed throughout the game, although their ability to immerse the player in the world is questionable.

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