Ysharros at Stylish Corpse has an interesting discussion going about travel in MMOs.  She differentiates between meaningful travel (as in “I am exploring the area so travel is part of the fun”) and meaningless travel (as in “I just need to get to the next bloody town, already”).

Travel options are important in any MMO.  Run speed, fast travel, mapping / hearthstones, etc., all effect how big the world feels and can contribute to either the fun or the tedium players experience in games.  If travel is a pain, players may be less likely to want to go out of their way to explore.  If travel is too easy or too immersion-breaking, the world feels tiny or trivial.

Of any MMO I’ve played, I like LotRO’s travel options the best, that is: I like the range of possibilities the best.  I still have issues with some of the offerings.  Player mounts are too weak and take too little damage before players get knocked off of them.  In some places, stealthed mobs on the roads make mounting up a waste of time.  Durable reputation mounts are an improvement, but not by much.  I like the swift travel and regular travel horses.  They function like eagles and wyvrns in WoW but you can hop off them whenever you choose.  There are also hunter ports and various types of summons available.  Overall, the list is impressive.  The one thing I’d really like is a player sprint ability available at level one so we could get our lowbies around faster.

While the different abilities and options are important, the way those abilities enforce or break immersion in the world is critical.  Travel can serve to make a quest feel epic or, alternately, silly.  A quest line in Dol Dinen (sp) (LotRO) was served well by travel.  Players need to travel across the North Downs.  As they progress, the landscape becomes more foreboding.  Trees become sparse and the ground more inhospitable.  Dol Dinen is a series of bleak, rocky hills surrounded by jagged cliffs; traveling reinforces the danger of the quests in the area and the feeling of being someplace dangerous.

Conversely, there are several travel sections in the Epic Books in LotRO where travel is just silly or tedious.  In one quest I had to travel to the Shire to get honey for the elves in Rivendell.  As a hobbit, I can instantly travel to Michel Delving.  The whole trip, for honey of all things, was just silly.  Book ten, I think, has players repeatedly traversing the lake in Evendim (a zone nicknamed “Everswim” by players tired of crossing the lake).  Due to terrain and mobs on the roads, player mounts are impractical and the only horse travel route requires Annuminas rep (it was also added after Book Ten).  Travel for Book Ten was annoying.  Rather than focusing on whatever it was I was doing, I was more intent on ending the swim-a-thon as quickly as possible (and this is from someone that actually likes the Book quests).

Lowbie travel also suffers.  Lowbies can seldom afford to take the regular mount rides, cannot ride a mount of their own, and are consigned to running everywhere.  In some areas, like the Shire, it’s not a big deal: there’s a lot to gawp at in the Shire and traveling there is usually interesting.  Breeland, on the other hand, is horrid.  A sprint ability would definitely help as there are long stretches of open ground between quest areas with little to do besides run.

Why better travel options aren’t available at level one in many games is beyond me.  I’m all for having things to work towards in games, but a cheap mount at level 1 would be handy.  EQ2 and WAR were the only MMOs I’ve played that, right at level one, gave all players a means to get places faster (sprint).  LotRO, WoW and CoX all require many levels of just running from place to place before players see faster transport systems.

From the comments on Ysharros’ post, I think the main thing players want is options.  Let us travel slowly and explore if we want to or move quickly past stuff we’ve seen a million times already if we choose.  Since players experience content differently (one person’s “slow” is another person’s “just right” is another person’s “blazing speed”) having a variety of options and speeds would benefit all players.