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!