Skyrim’s world is an enormous sandbox full of caves, forts and villages. The player can spend dozens of hours exploring without even finding half of the game’s locations.
Once you’ve discovered a location you can fast travel back there instantly and for free. This saves the player a lot of time, which is always nice. But it comes at a great cost.
Skyrim’s biggest draw is the enormous, detailed world. But once you’ve seen each area once you’ll have very little incentive to trek back over it. Even when you need to return to a region, you can just visit the closest available fast travel point and walk for perhaps a minute towards your destination.
Worse still, every step of every quest in Skyrim directs you towards a waymarker. If you go where it points (and perhaps interact with a person or object) you’ll trigger the next step of the quest. When combined with Skyrim’s powerful fast travel system, the game often reduces to teleporting from location to location as you follow the little arrows.
Some players have created mods that attempt to solve this by disabling fast travel entirely. But Skyrim’s world is so enormous that this often creates more frustration than it solves! A game of this scale really does need a fast travel system. In my opinion, a better approach would be to place some limits and costs on fast travel so it can’t be mindlessly spammed.
Spread it Out
The world of Dark Souls III is filled with danger. Everything wants to eat you, crush you, impale you or otherwise kill you. Just moving from one bonfire (checkpoint) to the next is a major accomplishment.
Back to the bonfire we go!
Much of the world is interconnected in a complex maze with hidden treasures lurking around every corner. The game wants you to explore – but also wants exploration to be very difficult. Fast travel helps it balance these conflicting goals.
Dark Souls III’s fast travel system is superficially similar to Skyrim’s: you can instantly travel between any checkpoints you’ve visited. But there are some key differences.
In Skyrim you can fast travel to virtually any point of interest. This means not just towns and villages, but also the entrances of caves and dungeons. By letting you travel straight from safety to a dungeon’s entrance, Skyrim cuts out a large part of what makes the world feel interconnected. But in Dark Souls III you can only travel between points of safety. This means that, even after fast travelling, reaching most parts of the map is a real challenge.
Another difference is that Skyrim lets you travel from anywhere in the wilderness (so long as you aren’t currently in combat). But Dark Souls III only lets you travel from one bonfire to another. If you’re out in the wilderness you’ll have to fight your way back to the nearest bonfire before travelling somewhere else. You could kill yourself and travel instantly back to the bonfire – but then you’ll also drop all the souls you’re carrying. To explore safely you need to learn the layout of each area and develop your skills.
In summary, Dark Souls III balances its fast travel system by spreading out the travel points and building challenging obstacle courses in the space between them.
Hollow Knight takes inspiration from the Dark Souls series and expands on the fast travel system in some interesting ways.
“Benches” replace bonfires, acting as rest stops where you can refresh your health and save your progress. But they don’t let you fast travel. Instead, the game provides you with an elaborate series of shortcuts.
The most substantial shortcut system is the Stagway, a connected set of subway tunnels. The stations needs to be unlocked, but once you’ve done this you can freely travel between them.
So far, that’s a pretty standard travel system. But these stations are few and far between, meaning you can’t rely on them in every situation. Luckily, the map has many other kinds of shortcuts to activate. Doors can be opened, walls can be smashed and elevators can be powered. Opening these shortcuts makes it far easier to explore Hollow Knight’s labyrinthine world and also contributes to the player’s sense of progression.
Here you can see 2 possible travel routes. In this example, using the Stagways (red) is actually slower than using a more direct shortcut (blue) that the player can open.
Eventually, you can also find a tram card that lets you travel between a handful of tram stations. This tram network is entirely separate from the Stagway network, adding another level of shortcuts to the world without lessening the importance of existing ones.
Hollow Knight’s interconnected networks of shortcuts turn fast travel into a puzzle. Moving around efficiently requires a degree of planning and effort.
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild has a fast travel system similar to Skyrim. But it also does something much more interesting – it provides the player with a set of tools to make regular travel much more exciting.
The Paraglider lets you jump off of any tall object and glide through the air at high speed. While gliding, you might even spot new locations to explore or treasure to collect. This item is backed up by the game’s generous climbing mechanics that let you ascend even sheer rock faces with a little time and effort.
Similarly, shield surfing lets you shred down hills at a speed even faster than the paraglider. This ability is a little more situational, though, because your shield will take damage at different rates depending on the terrain type.
You can also catch, tame and ride horses – which move at several times your regular running speed. But horses can’t climb, so you’ll often have to find different routes up hills and mountains if you want to keep your horse. The desert area also lets you hitch up a Sand Seal and shield surf behind it. These animals are essentially vehicles, but themed for Zelda’s fantasy setting.
Zelda’s movement mechanics are very comprehensive, have different sets of advantages and disadvantages and (importantly) are loads of fun to use! Even when you aren’t fast travelling, you can still travel fast.
Charging a Fee
Horizon: Zero Dawn lets you travel between any two campfire’s you’ve visited – but the twist is that it isn’t free. You have to spend a Fast Travel Pack each time you do this.
These packs can be looted and crafted, so if you play carefully you shouldn’t have much trouble keeping a few backup packs. But even so, they act to discourage fast travel in situations where regular travel isn’t too difficult. Do you really want to use a pack just to travel over that hill? Probably not. But in other cases it will make a lot of sense and the player gets to choose when they think the fee is worthwhile.
Having said all this, the game also contains an unlockable infinite-use Golden Fast Travel Pack. Having this in the game kind of undermines their whole fast travel system. The player is obviously going to want this golden pack once they know it exists (and remember: we live in the age of wikis and YouTube). Not getting it would mean deliberately handicapping themself.
It seems to me like they didn’t have full confidence in their limited fast travel system.
The argument could be made that, since this pack is optional, they’re giving the player more options. But personally, I’m not a fan of giving players the “option” not to use a massive shortcut. Human nature will compel most people to take it anyway. I’d like to see more games that fully commit to placing a price on fast travel.
In Patch Quest, my own game, you can freely travel between any two Checkpoints you’ve visited – but not from out in the wilderness (similar to Dark Souls III). This system is functional, but it could be much better.
In the next update I’ll be adding a new feature: Recall. After pushing the Recall button you’ll instantly be taken back to the last Checkpoint you visited.
The Recall button sits prominently on top of your Health Jar.
Patch Quest’s world is partially randomised (the landmarks are always in the same locations but the obstacles between them are regularly shuffled), which means forcing the player to backtrack doesn’t make a lot of sense. It would be much better to let them quickly return to a Checkpoint, reshuffle the map, and then let them explore again from fresh. It also reduces downtime after finding the things you’re looking for.
I got what I came here for! Now let’s head home with the spoils.
Recall is a very powerful ability – which means it needs to be balanced out by some other changes to the fast travel system. The catch is that Recall can only take you back to your most recently visited Checkpoint. If you want to fast travel to a different Checkpoint you’ll now need to spend fuel proportional to the distance being travelled (you fast travel using your personal Balloon Ship).
Travelling one Patch requires one fuel (this player will have 12 fuel left after travelling to the Clamurai Dojo)
You can gain more fuel by collecting various kinds of plants and minerals that are scattered all over the map. Rarer sources will grant you extra fuel and might even encourage the player to step into short-term danger to collect them.
One cool thing about this system is it ties into the game’s core mechanics: traversing a dangerous map. Just by playing the game (looking for treasure, avoiding hazardous terrain and outsmarting hostile wildlife) you’ll also be picking up fuel. As a result, you’ll be able to fast travel fairly often but you won’t be able to spam fast travel. After travelling to an area, you’ll want to explore it for a little while as you build up your fuel reserves.
This makes fast travel a strategic decision. The player will want to put some degree of thought into their next destination as they can’t just keep teleporting from one quest point to the next.
A fast travel system with no restrictions will trivialise your game. The player can hop from goal to goal, skipping most of what actually makes your world interesting. In this article we covered some ways to balance this:
- Spreading out your fast travel points forces players to regular travel at least some of the way to their destination.
- Shortcuts let the player put effort into unlocking and following faster routes.
- Movement mechanics like climbing, flying and riding let players move faster through a world while also having fun.
- Fees discourage fast travelling in situations where regular travel would work just fine. The fee could be binary (like travel packs) or granular (like fuel)
Of course, there are doubtless many other ways to make interesting fast travel systems. This article is just meant to provide a springboard for creating a system that works for your own game. Remember to experiment and remember to have fun, too!
If you liked this article, why not read some of my other ones (like this one on tips for making procedurally generated worlds).
The changes discussed here will arrive in the next update for Patch Quest – but in the meantime you can get the current version for free over here. This video will run you through the latest changes:
Thanks for taking the time to look at Patch Quest. Your support helps me find the time to write more articles!