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.