Links, Reviews, Roundups

Last week was a first for me with the blog. First time I’ve written a whole week of blog posts in advance and pre-scheduled them, because I was off visiting Arb (not that I didn’t have net access, we are civilised folks after all).

I’m not sure how other bloggers organise their writing but I usually note down ideas when I have them and write one up either the evening before or early in the morning. So that was my brief flirtation with being organised, I promise it won’t happen again :) And if I was a bit slower with replies then that’s why.

So Champions Online and Aion have been out for about a month now. How are people finding them?

Melf has a great Aion review up at Word of Shadow. I prefer reviews where people list both good and bad things about the game, especially when the reviewer basically liked the game, because that means they probably ‘got’ whatever it is supposed to be about and can hopefully explain it to readers. Evizaer also had a look at Aion and gave it a straight no.

Girl Unplugged posts a Champions Online review, again this is a review from someone who likes the game and can explain why.  And Syp has a solid point by point comparison between CO and City of Heroes. I do find it interesting that people who have bought a lifetime subscription are much more likely to take a longterm view of a game – ie. Oh it’s a bit rough now but it’ll be great in a year’s time. If I’d paid $200 up front, I don’t think I’d be too thrilled about having to wait a year for greatness.

And still on the superhero theme, I have a basic disagreement with Muckbeast in the comments on his post about attracting women gamers, about whether the superhero genre is more popular with women than fantasy or sci-fi. (Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Twilight … I’m just sayin’.)

Other Stuff to Read: Twelve of the Best

  1. Make Your Own Zombie Game – the zombie game experience gives you a chance to throw in $10 and participate in some game design. I’ll be curious to see what they come up with.
  2. Wolfshead explains why scaling content should be our future! Why do we have to stick to group and raid sizes that are predetermined? Couldn’t the content just scale, like it does in CoH or Diablo?
  3. tor.com is a blog that deserves a spot on any geek’s newsreader. This month is Steampunk month and they post a Steampunk 101 guide with an incredible shot at the bottom of a steampunked up laptop that has instantly become my object of desire.
  4. Jaye at Journeys with Jaye explains why his exercise bike is an MMO and the scary thing is … he isn’t entirely kidding. Edited to add: Mea Culpa and sorry Jaye for getting the gender wrong, that should read SHE.
  5. Jormundgard tries to psychoanalyse Garrosh Hellscream and explains why he’s disappointed with how that character has been developed.
  6. Andrew Doull finds Puzzlequest quite traumatic and a lot of his reactions could apply equally to any quest based game. What does it mean if we’ll go commit (virtual) genocide just because an NPC in a position of authority told us to do it?
  7. And although this may possibly be the least subtle link between links ever, I thought it was absolutely fascinating that The Anne Frank House were able to post up an actual video of Anne Frank on youtube this week. This is (obviously) from before the family went into hiding.
  8. Keen writes a sharp, well observed post asking whether MMOs are being designed for too many players these days. And what do you lose when you decide to go for the mainstream?
  9. And two thematically related posts: Tobold wonders how people like their games to be paced – if it’s all excitement all of the time then there’s never any downtime in which to socialise after all. And Andrew@Of Tooth and Claw asks how people feel about difficulty in games, and particularly about ‘cheating’ to sidestep the difficulty if it is getting in the way.
  10. Hudson splits the CO community into two parts, conceptualists who try to stay true to a character concept and minmaxers who design their character concept around whichever powers work best at the time. Which are you?
  11. Larisa wonders if it’s OK to apply to another guild while you are still guilded. After all, it’s OK to apply for new jobs while you’re still employed (at least until your employer finds out).
  12. And another tor.com link, this time to a fantastic report on a reading and Q&A session with Michael Chabon (another of my favourite ever living authors) who is a dyed in the wool geek and proud of it. I’ll end with a quote from him:

… he goes on to describe the way fandom binds people together:

“For in playing, or writing, or drawing, or simply talking oneself deep into the world of a popular artwork that invites the regard of the amateur, the fan, one is seeking above all to connect, not only with the world of the show, comic book, or film, but with the encircling, embracing metaworld of all those who love it as much as you do.”

What is immersion

I’ve been reading a few reviews of Darkfall in other blogs this week. If you don’t follow small/ indie MMOs you may have missed this one — it’s a fantasy MMO which is all about hardcore PvP. There’s a big world to explore, you can stake out pieces of it with your guild, and when you kill people you can loot all their gear.

So here’s a couple of positive reviews from Keen and from Syncaine.

What struck me, and has also struck me with various reviews I have read about EVE, is how immersed the players were in the game. Something about full-on hardcore PvP makes the experience more immersive for people.

Having real players to fight, a stake in the game world, and being constantly on your guard adds up to more of an emotional rollercoaster. The buy in from players is higher. They care more. And because both you and your opponent do care about the outcome of a fight, it makes it more meaningful.

So what’s immersion all about

When gamers talk about immersion they can mean several things. How ‘real’ the game world feels to them, how easy it is to relate to their character, how exciting and emotional a game experience they had.

There are two main types of player who care deeply about immersion. Hardcore PvPers … and roleplayers. It’s kind of ironic because usually those two types don’t see eye to eye and don’t even like each other; with all due apologies to any roleplayers out there who do relish hardcore PvP. Although they favour immersion for different reasons (RPers want to experience a living breathing world, PvPers want to feed on your tears), it is an important part of a game’s appeal.

Immersion is what makes a game experience memorable, and it is all about having an emotional connection with your character and the (virtual) world in which it lives.

And as to why these two groups of players experience most immersion:

  • Fighting other players is always more immersive than fighting NPCs. No one really cares about the NPCs, they’re like animatronic models, And you know they say the same thing to everyone. Players on the other hand are very real. When they smack talk to you, it’s meant for YOU.
  • Good RPers can roleplay past all the inconsistencies in lore, the robotic NPCs, and the unimmersive mechanics. They can create a living breathing world for themselves despite all the obstacles in the way.

This has all been done before

Unsurprisingly, pen and paper RPGs faced this problem of immersion many years ago. Because there is NOTHING immersive about sitting around a table and rolling dice. Absolutely nothing at all.

Some of the ideas people have used:

  • Emphasis on good interactive storytelling. Draw people into the story by making the story much more about their characters and using their backstories.
  • Mechanics which make it easier for players to control parts of the story. Maybe you can decide when you want your character to be lucky or unlucky. Maybe you can suggest that an NPC has a personal connection with your character and have the GM roll with it.

Both of these are all about building a framework in which players have more of an emotional stake in the game.

But more interestingly from a design point of view, some of the smaller indie games get more experimental with game mechanics. Instead of having to fight against  the mechanics to feel immersion, the mechanics encourage it.

One of the oldest and best well known examples of this is Call of Cthulhu’s sanity points. Cthulhu, if you don’t know it, is based on H P Lovecraft’s horror stories. In these stories, it’s very common that when people learn more about the eldritch  horrors that threaten them, they go mad.

In the game, you have to balance your desire to learn about whatever you are investigating with your need to  keep your sanity. Discovering anything about the Mythos is often accompanied by a SAN loss. And eventually, you can lose your character to insanity (traditionally often accompanied by wigging out on your friends and trying to shoot them but that might just have been our games).

What it meant was that people actually cared about their sanity, and the danger of discovering too much of that which should not be known was always on the players’ minds.

A couple of other more modern examples:

Dogs in the Vineyard (a Western themed game. Players are lawmen in the Midwest. Read the ‘actual play’ links on the site to get a feel for how it works)

My Life with Master (hammer house of horror game. Players are ‘Igors’ in service to some evil overlord. The mechanics here are all about telling melodramatic, tragic stories, and they work very very well.)

So why can’t MMOs get more immersive?

I think it’s about time MMO devs stopped (re)designing MUDs. MUD combat in particular is usually dire. Here is a typical example.

kill monster

kill monster

kill monster

And you can keep on with that until the monster dies.

MMO combat is a lot better than this. You can move around, use lots of different abilities with appropriate graphical effects. But  circle strafing is not really a much better representation of combat than typing ‘kill monster’. It may be fun in its own circle-strafey way, but it’s a mechanic that gets in the way of immersion.

I’d like to see more games where the mechanics are designed around the game world and the themes which that game in particular is all about. I’d like to see games where I can feel more than excitement at a good kill or glumness after a bad session.

Why not have a Vampire game where you have to guard your humanity like a hawk and try not to give into the monster inside?

After all, why shouldn’t we have a game based on Georgian Romance Novels which is all about melodrama, romance, social climbing, and politics? And if we do, ‘combat’ better not be about circle strafing.

It’s easy to blame other players for ruining immersion. Hardcore PvPers show us one way out of that – harness other players to help immersion instead. More creative mechanics is another.