Take me to the river

Here’s another slippery concept: immersion.

It’s frequently flung around as both an excuse (“this will add immersion!”) and an insult (“it’s ruining my immersion!”) but as far as I can tell this is, for the most part, another subjective issue. One man’s immersion is another man’s bucket of cold water — take, for instance, the travel we were discussing the other day. I remember this was a raging debate on the Vanguard beta forums, where one side claimed slow travel was essential to immersion and the other side claimed that slow travel destroyed their immersion, because getting bored means you get disengaged from the game. You can’t get less immersed than not logged in.

You, dear reader, aren’t the usual forum fodder so I probably don’t need to specify this, but I will anyway: immersion does not equal suspension of disbelief (or sub-creation, depending which theory you want to use*). It’s pretty much understood by most games, online or otherwise, that you need an internally coherent environment just as you do in fiction; if you build a medieval-themed world and stick giant advertising billboards along the dirt roads, that’s not merely immersion-breaking, it’s not internally coherent. I’m also not going to deal with the common forum-troll argument that you can’t have coherence or immersion in a game because you’re doing stuff that isn’t possible in real life. That’s fallacious.

There’s still plenty to debate, regardless. To me, names floating above PC and NPC heads in game are immersion-breaking, in the sense that they make me more aware that I’m just playing a game, not travelling around in a world. At a basic level I find them visually distracting, possibly because I started playing MMOs in a game that didn’t have them (Asheron’s Call), whereas most of the people I know who started playing in EQ, for instance, aren’t bothered by that at all; in fact, some of them are far more bothered by not seeing names where they expect them. Some people are irked every time a rabbit drops a 6-foot sword as loot, but at worst it just amuses me a little, because to me it’s just one of those things you have to accept if you’re playing a loot-driven game; something, after all, has to drop that phat stuff you’re expecting to get. (Tabletop games weren’t all that different, it’s just far more obvious in online games. Anyway, this isn’t a loot post.)

Is the concept of immersion itself perhaps increasingly obsolete? Or is it just our communal definition of it, which has to be so loose now to fit all our different views that it may not really fit anything at all anymore? When we say “immersion” now, are we simply talking about “pleasure”? A beautiful landscape is immersive, certainly, but to me it’s primarily aesthetic — I found the LOTRO and EVE land/space-scapes stunning but the games themselves didn’t hold me for various other reasons.

I think this is what bothers me about “immersion” being used as an argument. It gets flung around to justify one point of view (or its opposite), but when it comes to the crunch, how essential is it to MMOs? Very? A little? Not at all? And if our definitions are so varied as to occasionally be diametrically opposed, how can “immersion” be used as any kind of argument? If it’s elastic enough to fit both sides of a debate, what’s it adding to that debate?

Yes, I’m being — or trying to be — thought-provoking: these aren’t necessarily all my own views. I believe immersion is essential, even if it’s subjective and fluid, because it affects our enjoyment of a game and thus ultimately probably affects a game’s bottom line. But if it’s so hard to pin down, how can game designers possibly take it into account other than to do what they find immersive and hope others will experience the same?

Immersion enhances a game but can’t make a game, especially not an online game. In tabletop games the environment is far more closely-controlled and the human actors are far less numerous, so consensus-immersion is much easier to achieve and maintain. In an online game, especially in these days where players aren’t just ex-tabletop geeks anymore but also grannies, kids, and everyone in between, you can’t control your experience as finely. Which almost inevitably implies that something or someone, somewhere, is going to break your immersion.

I have a suspicion that if a given person’s immersion is broken too often, that person will stop playing whatever game it is. But what constitutes a break and how many times it has to happen before someone is driven away is so individual, it has to be almost impossible to design for. It’s also not something you hear very often when people stop playing a game — “I stopped because I didn’t feel immersed anymore” — but that doesn’t mean it might not, in aggregate, be quite an important reason.

Hrmph. I was trying to get to a point, but I’m not sure I have one. Immersion is a subject that fascinates me because it deals with how people approach games, and I’m interested in that kind of thing; but the more I write, the more I meander and the less I’m sure there is a definitive point to me made. We can, maybe, define immersion by what it isn’t, in the sense that it might well be easier to reach a consensus on that than on what constitutes positive immersion. Beyond that though, the more I think about it, the more it seems to me that if you ask 5 gamers about immersion you’ll get 6 different answers. So what’s your take?

Lastly — I stayed away from the wiki page on immersion but here it is, for completeness. Interestingly enough, it’s not particularly definite on the subject either.

– – –

* Very tangential, even for me, hence the *. In the light of the recent Wikipedia/Threshold/MUD conflagration, I find myself twitching a little every time I give a wikipedia reference link. Seems like every page I hit has a shrill little box somewhere in the article demanding more citations, more references, more something-or-other, and I find myself wondering — are they trying to be a real reference source, or is this just more jockeying in the background from petty people who are using what should be a great starting research resource as their own personal power-trip? It disturbs me that what should be a collaborative project with genuine usefulness should be thus tainted. But then, I’ve always been idealistic and somewhat naive. Bah humbug.

50 thoughts on “Take me to the river

  1. Too much instancing is often used as the straw-man immersion breaker but what breaks immersion for me more is when I get told to walk forever or do some really ornery thing that nobody in their right mind would ask someone else to do 😛

  2. We used to call games like WoW, LOTRO, EQ2 & WAR “MMORPGs” and now we call them “MOGs”. Is that just a convenience, or is it significant? To me, these games are still ROLE playing games, but a greater and greater number of players seem to think role-playing is pretty lame.

    If you aren’t role-playing, then immersion probably isn’t all that important. If you talk about “my toons” then again, probably not that big a deal. Or am I grabbing too hard at semantics?

    To me, the immersion problem is 100% player driven. I can toggle off floating names if I don’t like them. But in order to avoid immersion-breaking (to me) arguments about politics, or Chuck Norris jokes, I need to segregate myself from the rest of the player-base (which I often do).

    I could trot out my distaste for Ventrillo too, but that’s probably more a failing of my ever playing tabletop games than a problem with the technology itself. In fact, all of my immersion issues might be based on that. If I’d cut my teeth role-player around a table with people with their own voices and a tv on in the background and plenty of “Pass the Cheetos!” even while we were in the depths of a dungeon hunting orcs, maybe my personal immersion wouldn’t be so fragile.

    I can’t think of a lot of examples where game design busted immersion for me, aside from disjointed zones a la Age of Conan or to a lesser extent, War. But even there, it isn’t a deal breaker for me.

  3. @ Pete — fixed. Which actually felt really really weird — I don’t like going into other people’s posts (or comments, same diff) and changing what THEY wrote. I also completely missed that typo, but I generally tend to only see my own.

    I think I’ll tackle role-playing in online games soon, because it’s another thing we all approach quite differently even when we start from the same basic premise. I am a rabid role-player… but NOT in online games, because I always feel far too distanced to ever really get into the role. It’s much more “immersion-breaking” for me than hearing my male friends’ voices speaking for their female chars in tabletop ever was.

    But yeah, that’s one of the reasons I call them “online games” now and not MMORPGs. It’s not just down to the players I feel, nor is it necessarily a bad thing that online games *aren’t* just onlined-versions of tabletop games.

    We’ll get back to this. I suspect it’ll lead to some pretty cool opinions & discussion.

  4. To my mind, the term immersion means the ability to focus on what is going on in a game as if it’s really happening. I know it’s not really happening, but I can pretend it is. It’s sort of like immersion in a movie. If Obiwan stops talking to Luke to say “you know what every Jedi needs is a Coke and a smile” that would be immersion breaking. Coke isn’t part of that world.

    Then again, as you say, there are degrees. I’m not particularly immersed in crafting in any game I’ve played. Odds are quite good that as my toon is there churning out metal bars or pies or whatever, I’m actually drying the dishes or flipping TV channels. There are some things I just accept in games. Travel can make or break immersion: am I heading into a dark and horrible place to engage the forces of evil (where travel adds to the experience) or merely killing time before I get to the real battle (like travelling across lake Evendim for the thousanth time)?

    Another thought provoking post. 🙂

  5. Immersion can exist in virtual worlds, but that immersion diminishes when that virtual world becomes a game. A game has rules. Rules start to pick at immersion. Click a button combination to open up your inventory of bags…how does that not ruin immersion in some form? The very UI games implement taint immersion. Being able to chat freely with anyone in the game through the chat client. How does that not diminish the world somehow? Being able to see your avatar in the game instead of in FP can take away from being immersed in a setting.

    I argue with a couple friends about immersion all the time. They want all the tools at their fingertips to play a game, but they also want immersion. And they can’t figure out why they aren’t getting it.

    We equate immersion to reality because it’s really the only measuring stick we have. But gamers are able to acquire certain reality within a game environment. When that game play reality is broken, that’s when immersion fades.

    I think immersion is more about being engaged within the environment you are playing. A game that is compelling enough to keep you trapped within its context is one that succeeds in immersion.

  6. @ Makkaio, I’d say those things ruin *your* definition of immersion, which appears to be based mostly on a definition that relates to reading a book or watching a movie.

    Games are neither — so to me, the inventory bag button or having to type to talk to people aren’t immersion-breaking at all, they’re an integral part of the experience. For me, it’s when they are *poorly implemented* that my immersion begins to break down — if I have to mouse to a weird area of the screen and click something to open my bags, or if I have to use some arcane key-combo I can’t change or remember, and so on.

    I would also contend that immersion should absolutely NOT be equated with reality. That’s when things get even more murky than they already are. We’re all smart enough to know the difference between reality and imagination — in that sense, I think what you’re talking about when you say we equate one with the other is internal consistency (or suspension or sub-creation etc etc). You can have a really well-constructed world that’s not immersive at all (or not for some). I’m going to have to find an example now, aren’t I? 😀

  7. Screw Wikipedia, I’ll just use the only dictionary definition that would apply (as opposed to being immersed in water, or being baptized) to the word as it’s used within this context.

    Immersion: The state of being overhelmed or deeply absorbed; deep engagedness.

    I can become deeply absorbed or engaged in a good novel or a good movie. Most recently, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button turned out to be nearly three hours in length! I didn’t know that when I arrived at the cinema but the story, the characters, everything about the movie kept me so engaged — so immersed — that it didn’t seem like 3 hours had passed.

    I’ve become so engrossed in a book that when I suddenly became aware of reality again I’d been sitting in one position (or simply holding the book in one position) for so long that muscles were aching; in fact the physical discomfort is probably a contributing factor to breaking the immersion in the story.

    Yet at no point ever in my gaming history (since Pong, mind you…) have I “forgot” I was playing a videogame and sitting at a desk with the PC or at a TV with a console. Never. I might be entertained enough to put hours in, especially in an MMOG, but I’m always quite aware of what I’m doing and the passage of time.

    Why is that? Novels inspire your imagination — a “mental cinema” — that can draw you in and absorb you. Movies are more a visual medium just like video games but they’re also literally larger than life. At least in my case I can become far more engaged at a theater than watching the same movie at home.

    Is it because novels, movies, even music are all passive whereas playing games is active, thereby keeping me “in the real” and not allowing full immersion? I tend to think so. Regardless how passionate I can be about my gaming hobby I just don’t think “immersion” truly exists yet. Probably not until we’re literally dealing with holodeck or Matrix style virtual reality where we actually are mentally or psychologically immersed in the game and its virtual world.

    On a side note, most of the “immersion people” are usually just the “my way of thinking is the only correct one and I want to force everyone to play my way” type. Vanguard for example had the aforementioned “meaningful travel” folk who were so upset at the introduction of the riftway system for faster travel. Is anyone forcing them to use it? If they want their “meaningful travel” then do it. But if they’re in my group and they force us all to wait an unnecessary amount of time so they can have their precious “meaningful travel” they can also expect me to boot them from the group.

    Same with the “zomg loading screens break my immersion!!1!” trolls. While instances can be over-used and sometimes unnecessarily so, I still have yet to see non-instanced content that was the least bit compelling in a story-telling sense. (This is probably leading into your upcoming role-play vs. roll-play article.) But to me RPGs have always been about telling stories. I put a heavy emphasis on that in the games I enjoy, which probably explains why LOTRO is my current favorite MMORPG and Guild Wars is still my favorite multi-player RPG. Everything else makes poor attempts at story-telling from poorly-written, dry and boring quest text that most people (including myself) tend to skip if it’s not engaging. Maybe scripted story-telling could work in Vanguard because it has such a low population of players there’s little danger of interference from others. But somehow I doubt any developers would intentionally aim for a small player base for the sake of cinematic story-telling in a non-instanced world…

    Oh and I just love the guys who demand XYZ for their precious “immersion” and then play AC/DC and Metallica for background music. Because, you know, modern heavy metal rock music is sooooooooo immersive in a high fantasy RPG… /wrist

  8. Hoom hrum. I used the word ‘immersion’ recently when describing an idea for tattoos as armour slot items on WAR’s dwarf Slayers. I had to go back a read it again, but I think the way I used it is consistent with my view of what it means, which is generally along the lines of rabbits dropping six foot swords, mobs aggroing when you run close to them but not aggroing when they find the corpse of one of their friends whom you just killed, and tattoos as armour slot items having huge amounts of armour value: “Yes, I ink all my tattoos using a mithril-adamantium alloy”.

    So for me it’s about all the “Oh come on! Even in a fantasy setting, in a game, I can’t believe this”. It’s about those things that are so ludicrous that you have to feel that either someone didn’t think about it a great deal, or they’re actually doing it on purpose to mess with your head.

    Oh, and wildlife parrying my attacks. Deer. Parrying. My great axe. That one got to me so much I wrote a post about it just to vent the pressure.

  9. @ Melmoth — heeheee. But see, I think that reinforces my point (one of them, such as it was), that we all seem to know what BREAKS our immersion, but it’s not always obvious what makes it.

    @ Scott — in a purely definitional “forget the outside world” sense, you’re absolutely right, and I don’t think I’ve experienced it much in online games either, certainly not in the pure sense of the word. But lost a chunk of time because I was having so much fun? Sure, lots of times. In that sense maybe it’s closer to being at the pub (assuming no drunken blackouts) — I can lose track of time and have a GREAT time but I’m not likely to forget where I am or what I’m doing.

    Does that make playing an activity whereas reading or watching something are… whatever you’d call something more passive?

    Bring on VR, I agree, it may well help redefine immersion. I expect I’ll be dead before we truly see it though. /sniffle

  10. @ Melmoth: Hehe, a hunter friend of mine in LotRO had one of his shots blocked by a squirrel. He was not amused.

    I did a bit of rummaging myself about immersion (or a better word for what we’re all trying to describe). Immersion strikes me as being completely subjective. Even rabbits dropping halberds don’t really break my immersion in games. Perhaps it’s just because I’m numb to it. Meanwhile, someone else could take a look at the mini-map in the corner and decide that it ruined the game for them.

    And also, where’s the line between acceptable immersion breaking an non-acceptable? I can ride my horse off a hill taller than my character and not break the horse’s legs. It’s completely unrealistic, but if players had to get a new horse every time they rode off a hill that was too high, players would probably leave that game in droves. I guess if you’re not willing to complain about mounts that appearently have built-in shock absorbers, you can’t gripe too much about arrow-blocking squirrels.

  11. I can give an example because I’m playing such a game right now…Grand Theft Auto IV. But, again, everything would be subjective. The game world is very well constructed. Some of the best virtual world construction arguably. But the constant CGI interruptions, mission system and, in some cases, the UI take you out of the game, so to speak.

    I agree that immersion should not be equated with reality, but what I’m saying is that people do. Reality for humans is a point of reference. Reality infects everything we do. So people will judge at least some of their immersion based on reality.

    I think we’re on the same page, though. More of my point, or where I stand personally on immersion lies in the last paragraph of my last comment. A game that keeps you engaged within its context succeeds at immersion. And by game, I mean any game. Whether it be the first known game of Ur or the modern game of WAR.

  12. @ Khan — the thing is, not only *can* we gripe at the weirdest things, we do. If it is 100% (or at least 99.9%) subjective then there doesn’t always have to be a reasonable reason for it. Shock-absorbing horses, check — halberd-blocking squirrels, WTF?!?

    It’s definitely very subjective, though I’m sure we tend to fall into broad groups as humans always do (to marketing suits’ eternal evil delight).

  13. @Ysh – “@ Melmoth — heeheee. But see, I think that reinforces my point (one of them, such as it was), that we all seem to know what BREAKS our immersion, but it’s not always obvious what makes it.”

    Very good point.

  14. @Khan – Fair point on the mounts, but then, summoning them from out of a trouser pocket (is that a mount in your pocket or are you just pleased to see me?) kills any immersion I might have relating to them immediately, after that they’re sadly just a transportation game mechanic. So much more could be made of mounts in game terms: feeding; grooming; training. Alas, they’re just the MMO equivalent of scooters, that’s why you see all those adventurers riding around pointing and winking at NPCs and saying ‘ciao’.

    Personally I’d be quite happy if jumping from heights were punished, it would make people more cautious, and running along a rope bridge over a ravine would actually be a precarious and thrilling prospect, rather than a brief time penalty for alt-tabbers or drunks, as they try to find a way to climb out of said ravine.

    @ Ysh – I think for me immersion is, selfishly, about being able to expect a virtual world to operate within some set of bounds for what we know to be natural, with the understanding that it is just a game, that fantasy worlds often bend and break the laws of our world, and that sometimes the game has to take precedence. What I need is consistency, rabbits that variably drop martial weapons, armour and coinage but never seem to have any eyeballs for the quest I’m doing are ludicrous, even for a fantasy game world. In that example it’s the game mechanic of “Grind! Grind you fool! Grind for the sake of the grind!” stepping out of the game and slapping me in the face.

    Immersion is not ever having to go WTF?! with regards to your environment. Different people have different levels of tolerance to WTFness, though, it’s very subjective and I don’t believe it’s something that could necessarily be categorised, stuck in a jar and put on a shelf for MMO students to study.

  15. @ Melmoth — “it’s very subjective and I don’t believe it’s something that could necessarily be categorised, stuck in a jar and put on a shelf for MMO students to study.”

    Oh not, indeed, but it’s certainly fun to try. I like to stick things in jars and study them. Especially if they wiggle. 😀

  16. Excellent thoughts and post, Ysh! I’d like to post my own thoughts on this but the time it would take to clarify it mentally and then even further to make it coherent for *others* to read…would take awhile to say the least. I’ll post about it eventually, just not today >.>; Great post though!

  17. @Ysh – “I like to stick things in jars and study them. Especially if they wiggle.”

    I look forward to seeing your toe collection some time!

  18. @ Enric – Hehe, that’s what I’m going though as well … though it’s never stopped me from posting before! Ha!

    *Imagines people recoiling from their monitors as I post again.*

    I suspect that game “immersivicity*” is at its best when the internal logic of the game is consistent. Why are some aspects of a game “realistic” and yet others (like the horse in my pocket) are so silly? Like a comment my friend made after doing the Zhevra quest in WoW: ‘Why do we keep getting hoofless Zhevras? They all had hooves when they were kicking me!’ If I can keep a horse in my pocket, what’s the reason for it? Or like the engineers in WAR that can suddenly build a full-fledge siege cannon from a kit they appearently hide in the same place they keep their little helicopters: where’d it come from?

    I think a lot of this stuff represents a bunch of missed opportinities for mini-games by game companies. Want a happy, healthy horse? You’ll need to feed it good food. And if you have a horse, you have to park it somewhere before going into the dungeon and get back to it afterwards (this is a common occurence in Oblivion – me wandering around with full bags because I can’t remember where I left my friggin’ horse).

    Perhaps it’s the odd confluence of “game” and “world” that causes so much of the rub. You’re a knight and can ride into battle on your mighty steed (world) but you have to dismount to use combat skills and when you do your horse dissappears into your bags (game).

    * Given the subjective nature of the topic, I figured I’d create a word too.

  19. Oddly enough, there’s an alpha that I’m not in and therefore won’t name where you do have to look after your mount… and it’s a HUGE pain in the ass. I’d have to say that how something is implemented is at least as important as what that idea actually is, because on the whole (as a pony person) I’d be all for looking after my mounts.

    But as with so many other things in games, if it’s something you want to do, it’s fun. If it’s something you *have* to do or something that stops you from doing other stuff you want to do (must find food for horse then get to stables and feed horse or I can’t ride to meet my group for the big booze-up– err, dungeon crawl we had planned), suddenly it morphs from entertainment to paper-cuts.

  20. @Scott…..as I wizz through WoW listening to Sisters Of Mercy (I know……. I’m old) the music actually helps with the ‘immersion’…. seems a lot better than the ‘in-house’ music.

    Not having done the role playing /dice.. real people (eek) thing, there has never been any immersion probs for me… it’s a pc game that I am sitting in front of on a LDC screen.

    As with all games I play what matters to me is whether it draws me in.. gives me that break from reality that I fired the game up for in the first place.

    Truely this topic is a subjective one as all people want all things and they are all different.

    Excellent post though…. even made me think 🙂

    P.S. Dropped WAR now……. just not enough *stuff in it to justify any time on it

    *stuff = any sense of actually progressing other than grinding (dont shoot me I know WoW can be accused of the same… they just do it better than WAR for me)

  21. @Ysh – “Oddly enough, there’s an alpha that I’m not in and therefore won’t name where you do have to look after your mount… and it’s a HUGE pain in the ass.”

    Or you could go back and play UO.

    I’m constantly interested in how much stuff that people want in new games was in UO, but so many people jumped into the MMO pool with EQ or WoW that they totally missed it.

    To elaborate, in UO, horses were wild. A character had to become an animal tamer in order to capture and ‘break’ a horse to domesticate it. They could then sell the horse to someone else. That someone else would have to keep the horse fed and happy (or it would a) die, or b) run away). Petting (a kind of generic ‘take care of action’) was almost as important as feeding. (The same mechanics applied to dogs or any of a number of other animals.)

    Nor did you pull your horse out of your pocket. It was with you, unless you put it in a stable (and paid the stable to take care of it). And yes, it absolutely could be killed, permanently.

    Trust me when I tell you that I (at least) formed a deep bond with my horse. When I fell prey to a gang of PKers and they started killing my horse (“immersion” was broken enough that it took more than a single sword blow to kill it) I bartered everything I had just to get them to spare the animal. The fact that I remember that conversation and the passion I put into my negotiation 10 years (?) later says a lot, I think.

    I find it kind of sad that no one in this thread seems to find immersion in their MMOs on the same level as they find in a book or a movie. I certainly do (not always, but sometimes). I get so sucked in that when I finally stop it gives me that “waking from a dream” kind of feeling I get when I finally stop reading a book or at the end of a movie.

    Maybe its because I generally solo, turn off all chat channels and I’m not on vent chatting with other people? When’s the last time you got immersed in a book or a movie while having a side conversation at the same time?

  22. @ Pete — I wouldn’t say I don’t get immersed in games like I do in books, but rather that it’s a different kind of immersion. I can be aware that I’m playing a game and still be immersed or, to use another word, engrossed. The same goes for other activities like tai chi (where I call it getting Zen 😉 ), or ski-ing back when I did that, and certainly — to be on the horsey topic — when I was riding. Hell, I’ve gotten quite immersed in cleaning the bathroom if it comes to that; there’s pleasure and concentration to be had in any task you do carefully and mindfully. Now we really *are* getting Zen.

    However, when you read a book it’s all in the mind and there’s no concurrent physical activity involved. To me, even when I’m just playing a game (as opposed to physical exercise or whatever), I remain a little more aware of the framework (body or screen).

    Different qualities of experience. Same end result, I’d say, at least for me (immersion).

  23. It just occurred to me that moments of intense immersion seem to lead to durable memories, as in that attack Pete describes above. I made my previous comment and suddenly started recalling all manner of good memories related to the examples I gave of intense involvement with ski-ing, riding, certain books, and other stuff.


  24. @Pete – I loved the skill-based system in UO. I felt like it made the world more broad. It’s weird, but I kind of appreciated the way they handed failure in that game. And the mob system was great. If you couldn’t tame a horse yet, oh look, there is a rabbit across the screen. None of this “horse area” and “rabbit area” stuff. Mobs were mixed in with each other.

    You might be right. As 3D environments emerged, some of us in UO were looking for full 3D with similar systems to UO. Maybe that’s why current games don’t measure up to the nostalgia?

  25. @makkaio — We gotta prompt Ysh to do a post on failure, now that you mention it. As death penalties get lighter and lighter, how does it impact our gaming experience?

    I was reading about DC Universe Online today and apparently the ‘death penalty’ there is 10 seconds of downtime, then you respawn with full health right where you dropped.

    I used to be a huge proponent of lighter death penalties (I hated losing a level in EQ1, where you’d lose experience on dying) but I’m thinking now the needle has swung *too far* in the direction of easiness.

  26. @ Pete oooooooo failure and death penalties, good idea! I also wanted to do one on decay systems and forgot! I need to make a note of these things.

    Haiku Sunday tomorrow, because I’ve decided I deserve post-free weekends (especially when I’m working, as I am this weekend), but we’ll tackle some more stuff on Monday.

    Everyone who has commented here in the last few weeks has certainly given me food for thought, which I totally love. I’m so cerebral 😀

  27. [tangent]
    Ysh, I’ve found that the best game designers are “Renaissance” people (men, women, whatever). A wide range of interests and proficiencies synergize in ways that mere EQ raid rats can’t begin to fathom. I really have to wonder what WoW would be like (especially the end game) if Wil Wright were at the helm instead of EQ vets.

    …Some will castigate ye old “Lord British” for Tabula Rasa’s failure, and more, for his wish to return to making fantasy games, but think about it for a moment. Here’s a guy who has been neck deep in fantasy, and then took a ride on a space shuttle. He’s seen both sides of the science/fantasy coin, and now, he wants to go *back* into fantasy.

    How many times have we heard that seeing Earth form space firsthand is a breathtaking experience? Yet, Garriott wants to go play in a fantasy world again. What is it about fantasy worlds that makes them even more compelling than our own? Is that related to immersion? Say, immersion being a function of how much we have to stretch ourselves to fit into the imaginary world?

  28. Wow, lots of interesting ideas here!

    The current crop of MMOs certainly are ‘safe’; they have low penalties for failure and make it difficult for people to interact in ways that could curtail someone else’s progress. I can get killed in PvP, but all my armor and items will remain mine. All I really suffer is ‘use’ damage on my weapons, I don’t even get death penalty damage like I do in an instance.

    As for horses disappearing into a player’s bags, I guess they have to draw the line somewhere. If horses stick around, can they be stolen or killed? More recent MMOs would probably have them standing around and unkillable / unusable by anyone besides the owner which can also be immersion-breaking. Also, if they can be killed, how much work goes into getting them in the first place. If horses are a dime a dozen, it would be a minor inconvenience to have one killed. If it takes months and months worth of effort to get one, it could really suck to have one die.

    Personally, I am a fan of things like not losing levels at death (or some penalties like CoH used to have where you had to pay back penalty XP). Dying and then rezzing in a game is an unrealistic occurance anyway.

    @Ysh: I like the term ‘engrossed.’ If I can lose myself in what I’m doing, with nothing too major to burst my bubble, then I’m happy. Rabbits dropping two-handed weapons doesn’t really ruin anything for me (in fact, I’d probably laugh). As long as killing the rabbit wasn’t dull in the first place. (Don’t worry, Ysh. I only kill evil rabbits.) 🙂

    @Tesh: I wrote a piece a while back about fantasy and sci fi. I suspect that it’s the fact that we deal so much with technology in our daily lives that makes fantasy desirable for many players. Technology breaks. Technology is hard to understand. Magic (fantasy) doesn’t break and understanding isn’t usually required for it to work. It just does. I suspect that most people enjoy fantasy worlds for immersion over sci fi because sci fi is just an amplification of that with which they already have experience.

    I have heard that sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. But, calling it ‘technology’ in the first place allows players to extrapolate between it and stuff they already know to be flawed, prone to user error and likely to require maintenance – in other words: not magic.

  29. Old-school SWG kept your vehicles where you left them. I forget if they did that to the creature mounts or not. On the one hand, yes it’s realistic and did have a certain degree of overall coolness. On the other, you had to remember where you left it. For explorers with attention spans measuring in nanoseconds like myself, finding my speeder often became more frustrating than those “find [insert NPC/item/location here] with no directions” quests we complain about.

    On a more technical level I’m sure it becomes difficult for the servers and databases to keep track of player-placed items in the world. For players, it became difficult when many people put their speeders in one location. Trying to click your own became a chore of hunting that single free pixel that would register and let the player interact. How to fix that? In our fantasy games I suppose each town could have a stable post to tie your horse to. Then you have hundreds of horses tied to a single stable creating lag and making it impossible to click your horse. So the stable will only show *your* horse which not only removes the extra “massively multiplayer” ambiance but now only serves as an inconvenience if you’re forced to go to the stable every time you want to mount or dismount in a town. After a short while that feeling of inconvenience could quickly turn to a feeling of punishment.

    Caring for your mount could be viewed the same. If it was a drawn-out minigame it could be viewed as a pointless time sink, perhaps to the point of players avoiding mounts or worse, avoiding your game. Turning it into a simple “pay the upkeep for your mount” like we have for player housing turns a mount into Yet Another Money Sink. Personally before adding new realisms to mounts I’d rather get rid of the casting bar. Why do I have to wait 5 seconds, standing still, to “summon” my mount from my pocket yet I can dismiss it instantly?

    At the end of the we’re playing GAMES not virtual world simulators. Turn the attention to extraneous features back to your character. Do we want to be forced to eat, drink and sleep? If we eat and drink, we also need to urinate and defecate but I can’t say I’ve ever read a call to implement that particular bit of realism in a game… What if we had to walk most of the time, and running would tire us? What if we only had X energy during the day and every hour we “stayed awake” beyond that we incurred an increasing debuff until we finally slept? How do we handle sleeping? This isn’t a single-player game like GTA4 where sleeping means a quick loading screen as time fast-forwards and I keep playing. In a persistent game I can’t play that character for X hours while it’s sleeping. Won’t that make us happy? Is sleep tied to the game’s day-night cycle? For example, if “daytime” in LOTRO is roughly 1.5 hours do I get the debuff as soon as it becomes night? Is my character “awake” during daytime when I’m not logged in so if I login and it happens to be night it already has the fatigued debuff?

    Should the NPCs in these fantasy towns close up shop and go to bed? I’d certainly think those quest-giving NPC’s would tire of standing in place holding those golden icons over their heads, so they’d also be sleeping. Now not only are our nocturnal adventurers tired and debuffed but they’ve suffered a significant reduction of content as well until the townsfolk wake up again.

    Death penalties. I never did UO or EQ so every time I used to read posts by “those people” who desire harsh penalties and making death something to fear rather than the mild inconvenience it usually is I would wonder what world those sadomasochists live in and what they’ve been smoking. Then I experienced a degree of it in DDO and Vanguard last year. At the time each had pretty nasty XP penalties upon death. I won’t say it made the games constantly exciting but yeah, when you notice your health bar going down and you know what it means if you don’t survive, you certainly get more of an adrenaline kick. DDO has since patched out the XP penalty altogether. I play so infrequently that I usually forget and I get all excited and try not to die then when I do it’s nothing short of anticlimactic when I’m brought back to the present game where death has little meaning again. Vanguard still has an XP penalty but it’s less than it used to be, plus Vanguard is still an open world DikuMMO with respawning mobs so regaining the XP doesn’t take as long as it did to regain XP in DDO. Those two games at least gave me somewhat of an insight to those grizzled old sadomasochist’s perspective but unlike them I am not demanding that every game be harsh and punish the players. In those two games the death penalty felt like it fit, and while it’s been lessened in Vanguard that hurt less than in DDO where it’s outright removed. The advantage is now characters can actually level faster in DDO so you don’t feel like you’re beating your head against a wall and being set back rather than progressing. The disadvantage is that dying has less of an impact upon the individual player.

    I think that’s a key element right there. We’re still a very “me” oriented society. I want the loot. I want the titles. I want the fun and excitement. I want, I want, I want! Gimme, Gimme, Gimme! Now, Now, Now!

    Let’s compare DDO to Left 4 Dead, though. Both are essential forced-grouping cooperative games. Dying in L4D means you are out of the game for a few minutes and your three remaining players are that much more in jeopardy because either the four of you fight as one unit or your brains become hors d’oeuvres for the zombie horde. The same *should* be the same in DDO because the adventure is instanced for your group so losing a man lessens the group’s chance of success. Yet because it’s also an RPG, players also want to see their own advancement and get their own XP, gold, loot, etc. either in synchronicity with the group or not.

    How’s that for a tangent? And I’m not even sure I made a point… /sigh

  30. @Scott: Maybe not a point many interesting ideas! 🙂 I still play Elder Scrolls: Oblivion once in a while. In that game, NPCs do disappear into their homes at night, shops close, etc. Oblivion allows both wait states and a sleep state to advance the clock until NPCs are available. While that would be impractical in MMOs, they could implement something where the quest giver isn’t as important as the quest giver location. So if you had a quest to get something for the blacksmith and you arrive to find him out to lunch, you could also do your turn-in to the blacksmith’s assistant instead. (That’s not how it works in Oblivion – you’d have to find the Blacksmith and where he had lunch or wait until he comes back.)

    Then again, with enough content for day and night cycles, why not make it so you’d have to wait until shops open to turn in “day time” quests?

    With regard to the horses, it would be neat to add a whistle command so if it’s within x-hundred feet, it will come to you. As you say, though, there are limits to how much realism we actually need and realism has some consequences in games which we may not like (ex: crowding in parking areas, etc). Having our characters take bathroom breaks is probably not a good gaming mechanic – at least there’s better places to put dev emphasis. (You forget to put the seat down. -10 significant other faction. Report to doghouse immediately.) Much of immersion is subjective: people allow their own immersion to get broken; games can only assist or hinder it.

  31. @Scott

    I for one would *love* to see more meaningful day/night cycles and NPCs that aren’t always standing in the same place. You could design around the inconvenience factor somewhat by having the NPCs have a ‘drop box’ that you could turn quests into or something, but think about having areas of a city that are ok to be in during the day, but dangerous at night, as the pickpockets and cutthroats come out.

    And, to point out the obvious, plenty of games *do* include food and drink.

    “Caring for your mount could be viewed the same. If it was a drawn-out minigame it could be viewed as a pointless time sink, perhaps to the point of players avoiding mounts or worse, avoiding your game.”

    This applies to everything we do in games. Why isn’t combat a 1-click process? Why is it a drawn-out mini game? Well, because its a fun drawn-out mini game. Why couldn’t caring for your mount also be a fun drawn-out mini-game? If you just see a mount as a speed-buff then I can understand why that has no appeal, but then…why have a mount at all? Why not just make it a speed buff and be done with it? I think there’s room for both kinds of games.

    Crafting is a good example of this. In some games, crafting is a mini-game while in others, it’s basically a 1-click process. Depending on our likes and dislikes we all tend to gravitate towards one kind of system over the other.

    The distinction between “Game” and “Virtual World” is a good one, though, but I don’t think its a binary choice. I think a given product falls somewhere on a scale between the two. Some of us prefer products that are closer to Virtual World, and some prefer products that are more pure game. Clearly, Scott, you’re closer to the game end of the scale.

    I like both; UO was very close to Virtual World and it was a blast, but then I had an awful lot of fun in the very Game-like WoW for a good long time, too. Generally speaking though, I lean toward Virtual Worlds.

    Although I’d put something like Second Life or There in a different kind of Virtual World class…and those I don’t like much at all.

  32. Second Life is *only* a Virtual World, though. It’s not a game at all.

    I’d have to say (ask me in ten minutes and I might give a different answer) that right now my stance on what I want is a fun *game* but with enough different virtual world options to allow me to immerse myself in it.

    SWG did the best job of it in my opinion, with the player cities, the non-combat professions, the emphasis on player-crafted items and economy (and you could buy the same item from two different players and have different stats depending on the crafter’s abilities and how they chose to experiment, unlike post-WoW games where [Super Duper Sword of Swankiness] is always the same regardless who makes it) but it was clearly lacking in the fully fleshed-out and fun game department.

    LOTRO has it to a degree but it’s much less social “in person” than SWG was. Plenty of chat going on but not so much in terms of gathering together in public like we did in the cantinas. We have housing neighborhoods but no incentive to actually do anything “virtual worldy” with them. They’re extra storage and discounted armour repairs.

    Give me a FUN GAME in an Earthrise/Darkfall sandboxy virtual world with SWG social elements to provide extra (and meaningful) means to live vicariously through my character with LOTRO-quality story-telling and WoW-quality character control and responsiveness. Give me all that and let me choose with each session — with each moment — how I want to play and to what degree I choose to immerse myself.

    As for exploring day/night, LOTRO does that with a handful of night-only quests and you should listen to all the whining… And, at most, you’ll need to wait 1.5 hours for night. It’s not like the game has a lack of other quests that would take up that time. But they have THAT quest and they want to do it NOW NOW NOW and they’re being punished wah wah QQ ZOMG Turbine is the Devil!

  33. @Scott – Caring for your mount could be viewed the same. If it was a drawn-out minigame it could be viewed as a pointless time sink, perhaps to the point of players avoiding mounts

    And over 70 million Tamagotchis say perhaps not. It does entirely depend on the implementation and whether it clicks with the general gaming populace. I’m not saying it’s an easy thing to judge, but it’s evidently possible.

  34. But Tamagotchi isn’t a mini-game, it’s the entire game. In our RPGs combat is the entire game and they add a crafting mini-game off to the side.

  35. Excellent post. MMO wise I find that LOTRO is the only game that I have had a real feeling of immersion, but for me single player rpg’s are what I find to be the most immersive.

  36. For me, immersion is simply a feeling that I’m invested in the game’s world.

    My first serious MMO was EQ’s Tallon Zek server – the horribly broken Team PvP ruleset that Brad McQuaid came up with just before he left Verant/SOE.

    What a cess-pit that place was. And, yes… we liked it that way. 😉

    There was nothing about that game’s design that was even remotely “immersive” – as a modern gamer would see it. But in an environment where a single “experience death” could set someone back a solid week, connecting with guild and team was serious business. Even the cultivation of “good” enemies was important. All one had in that world was his reputation – and that reputation made the difference between being allowed to “loot and scoot” or being “exp-killed” and “corpse camped”.

    We made the rules. We punished those that broke ’em.

    We were “invested” in that world. There was a lot of RP (my old guild, Shadoewatch, insisted on it), but it was the feeling that it was “our” world that clinched it for me.

    Of course, ultimately it wasn’t our world…

  37. @Scott – But Tamagotchi isn’t a mini-game, it’s the entire game. In our RPGs combat is the entire game and they add a crafting mini-game off to the side.

    I respectfully disagree; I believe that in current MMO RPGs the Tamagotchi-esque character development is the game, and that combat is a mini-game within that framework, with crafting being another mini-game. Combat is the primary mini-game, I’ll grant you.

    I don’t think this rules-out the fact that one could have a Tamagotchi-like game applied to mounts. Indeed, mounts could level-up with care and use, could be used in combat, and could be equipped with items to improve their abilities, i.e. they could become a secondary character, and more than just a travel mechanism.

    However, whether that would actually add to one’s immersion in a game is certainly open to debate, and probably, like all such things, highly subjective.

  38. “As for exploring day/night, LOTRO does that with a handful of night-only quests and you should listen to all the whining…”

    Yes, but as with all other things gaming-related 🙂 you can’t judge overall acceptance by the whining, since the people who are content don’t feel the need to constantly vocalize it.

    I’d also speculate, and this *is* pure speculation on my part, that people whine about those quests because they are so unexpected. If “time of day” related quests were common, people wouldn’t get so tripped up over them. And you could make them less cut and dried than waiting for the ghost to pop in Bree… say you had a “Hunt 10 bats” quest. In the day time, you’d have to find a cave where they went to roost, but at night you’d find them out and about hunting.

    That’s kind of a boring example because you’re still hunting bats… but the same could be true for hunting vampires.


    Coincidentally, I was reading an article on the soon-to-be-released Darkfall Online, and what I read all sounded very UO like. Full PvP, your corpse is lootable if you’re killed, and so on. It’ll be interesting to see how it is received, but for their sake I hope they’re economic model supports having a small, dedicated audience, because I can’t see it being a mega-hit in today’s MMO climate.

    I mean, I speak fondly of UO…but you’ll notice I don’t still play it. 🙂 When it was the only game in town it was awesome, but it was a game that you had to really devote yourself to fulltime.

  39. One of the problems I have with Darkfall is that it appears to be trying to be UO3D, built by fans of the old game without actually learning from its mistakes. [Disclaimer of not following the game, etc. so could be wildly wrong on that.]

    The other is the community. Some of the concepts of Darkfall is very appealing to me. However the vocal community is enough to make me not want to play in that world and have to tolerate them.

    And I’m with you on the population. I’d say it will settle right around where UO is today: 75K-ish. They claim their servers can handle 10K concurrent users so hopefully they won’t need many servers to keep their costs down.

    I would love if developers would take Vanguard’s philosophy of gaming spheres and do it right. Make crafting, adventuring, diplomacy/faction, etc. equally important and their own separate mini-game without putting emphasis on one single sphere. If each sphere is fully developed the players will have the freedom to choose how they utilize each sphere.

    Melmoth’s mention of leveling mounts made me think of an F2P game I’m playing where mounts do level simply by riding them. Each level gives them more HP so they can take more hits before being dismounted.

  40. Mount&Blade? If so, I’m going to have to check it out. Lots of people seem to be getting in to that one at the moment.

    Couldn’t agree with you more with regards to Darkfall, and Vanguard’s gaming spheres.

  41. I’m playing Mount & Blade. So is Crimson Starfire and Ardwulf… but I don’t think that’s what Scott is talking about, since M&B is a single player game

  42. Good lord, I really must pay more attention, I thought it was an online multiplayer game! I’ll hand in my gamer card on the way out.

  43. Yeah I saw everyone talking about M&B recently too but it’s just a single-player… thing… so meh not interested.

    Just for the opposite side of that particular sentiment, I picked up Fallout 3 a few minutes ago… LOL

  44. @ Melmoth — you’ll just get yer coat.

    I really need to see if I can find the Fast Show on YouTube or something, I’m jonesing.

    /tangent off

  45. I’ve given immersion a lot of thought and I’ve come up with three different aspects as they relate to MMORPGs: GAME, STORY and REALITY and the balance between them.

    Examples:DEATH: If I die in real life (REALITY) I’m gone, forever! In (STORY) *fantasy stories* I may find redemption and be raised from the dead by a cleric or something to that effect. But after the third, fourth, fifth time you would think the gods would consider me a hassle and decide to just take me into their bosom where I shan’t bother them any longer. (GAME) Permanent death *though a cool concept* would definately affect subscriptions. So, death and rezzes are a GAME concept and really don’t follow STORY or REALITY.

    CRAFTING: In (REALITY) how long does it really take to make a steel sword? Days, weeks even. (GAME) Click button sword appears in bag. (STORY/GAME) A brief time hopefully with a cool animation of your character pounding on a anvil accompanied by the sounds of ringing metal and then sword appears in bag.

    Let’s put it in a different perspective. Growing up I lived my childhood inside my head exploring fanatsy worlds. I often thought how cool it would be to fall asleep and wake up in said fantasy worlds. Now, I’m an adult. I’m more aware of reality.

    So I ask, what would happen if I fell asleep and woke up in my favorite fanatasy world now? A world without dentists, cheetoes, cars, internet, my favorite computer chair. In respect to MMORPGs I raise the question: At what point would the reality and immersion have to stop before the game became a drudgery. “I rolled a blacksmith as my main. All I do online is pound steel but I have to feed my wife and 12 kids so I can’t go on an adventure with you, sorry.” or imagine if, to complete a quest, you had to walk your character from one end of the continent to the next in real time. “Well, I had this quest but after walking for 10 weeks of real time, not to mention having to camp every night and watch my toon sleep next to the camp fire, I gave up and went back to playing game X.” There is a balance of REALITY, STORY and GAME and each MMORPG is balanced differently. You just have to find the one thats balanced the way you like.

    -Nosmo King (…pulls his 800 pound horse out of his backpack and rides off into the sunset)

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