Frustrations of a Gamer: Underwater Gameplay in MMOs

[Editor’s Note: Frustrations of a Gamer is a new recurring feature on GameRevolution where our staff discusses game design elements or recurring themes in gaming that are often problematic.]

It’s been 22 years since the release of the first 3D MMO: Meridian 59. Since that time, thousands of games have followed in its footsteps, hoping to create believable online worlds that players can explore.

Though, for as much as these virtual landscapes did a great job of emulating the expansiveness of the real world, water would serve as an unexplainable boundary for many years. That was, until World of Warcraft came around in November 2004.

World of Warcraft is commonly attributed as being the pioneer of underwater gameplay in the MMO space. At a time when water was nothing more than a facade, Blizzard demonstrated that it can play a major role in the gameplay experience. A portion of its quest offerings would send players into fresh and salt water alike to combat enemies, and explore interesting environments that ranged from sunken ships to coral reef. One of the original dungeons, Blackfathom Deeps, went as far as to make swimming and underwater battles required.

WoW’s Blackfathom Deeps was one of the first MMO dungeons to incorporate underwater gameplay.

There were positive implications for this expansion of MMO boundaries, but underwater gameplay was always considered cumbersome among players. Quest objectives involving interaction with objects and battling sea creatures were notably frustrating, especially for caster classes who relied on mobility and distance to be effective. As a Warlock main during Vanilla World of Warcraft, I always found myself deeply frustrated the moment I had to step foot into water, as the class had very few ways of dealing with enemies that got too close for comfort, a common theme with underwater combat.

Despite this, Blizzard chose to invest a wealth of resources into expanding upon the feature during the development of Cataclysm, initially announcing that the expansion would incorporate instances that were entirely underwater. These instances were said to utilize unique abilities and even exclusive mounts similar to Ahn’Qiraj’s battle tanks, allowing for a host of new potential.

Among the results of this investment was the second wing of Abyssal Maw, a five-man level 85 dungeon that received a lot of attention during the hyping of the expansion, being listed as one of the core features that set it apart from other products. The entire dungeon would finish its design phase and near completion before Blizzard found that “people didn’t like underwater zones”. This area would never be released on the live client, although remnants of its existence have found their way online in video and screenshots.

Footage of the second wing of the Abyssal Maw was later released, showing what could have been.

Blizzard didn’t scrap all the fruits of its labor: Vash’jir, a level 80 to 82 leveling area that is entirely underwater, arrived on day one of Cataclysm. Known as one of the most unique zones in the now 13 year old game, it is also one of the most commonly avoided due to the difficulty of movement throughout the zone; players usually defer to Mount Hyjal, a comparable leveling zone without underwater gameplay, instead.

Guild Wars 2 similarly placed emphasis on underwater gameplay. Unlike World of Warcraft, it incorporated gear ranging from aqua breathers to harpoon guns. Some consider this implementation better than what World of Warcraft offers, but players similarly try to avoid water if they have the option; combat on land is preferable.

Despite these shortcomings, Square Enix has recently taken interest in water gameplay for its multi-million subscriber Final Fantasy XIV. In just over two weeks, the Stormblood expansion will usher a new era to the game, and along with it the ability for players to swim for the first time ever.

This gameplay won’t be anything more than swimming, though. There will be no underwater enemies, or deep sea dungeons. Instead, water will be a place to move around if you want, but nothing more. That’s probably for the better.

Final Fantasy XIV will add swimming in its upcoming Stormblood expansion.

Unlike with other games, this has been received by players with open arms. Currently, Final Fantasy XIV has an overabundance of invisible walls that prevent players to venturing outside what are reasonably small zone boundaries. Being able to head into the water might make the new zones feel more open. Thus, underwater gameplay might not always be problematic, as long as it’s kept simple.

At this point many developers similarly incorporate surface-level swimming, but don’t expand further. Such was the case with Star Wars: The Old Republic, which was a source of controversy for a while, until many MMO fans learned just how unenjoyable underwater gameplay really is. More recently, The Elder Scrolls Online has shown that surface-level only water gameplay might just be the safest bet. In more extreme cases, such as with Neverwinter, if you try entering the water, then you’ll quickly find yourself without any health.

It’s difficult to tell whether these shortcomings are the result of underwater gameplay not getting enough development attention or limitations posed by today’s MMO conventions. What is for certain is swimming in MMOs is frustrating, and no matter how many big time developers have tried to solve the issue, that hasn’t changed.

What do you think of underwater gameplay in MMOs? Let us know in the comments below.