It's been awhile since my last blog. Right now I'd like to approach a problem that has been creeping up upon us since 2003. The problem, as we all know, is immersion. The games have been becoming less "worldy" and more "gamey." Progressive zones, linearity; all of those things that remind us from time to time that the worlds we see aren't real worlds are now a staple of MMO design. I see a lot of posters on MMORPG.com talk about how the industry needs to give us more immersion, but making and selling immersion is a challenge.
We all want more character customization options, bigger terrain, housing, objects d'arte, etc. The problem with all of that is that it's very labor intensive to create new art, fully rendered maps, or a robust enough 3D morphing application. Combat, loots, balance, and all of that is important too, don't get me wrong. The difference between "immersion" coding and "mechanics" coding though is the difference between the icing and the cake. Without the mechanics, all you have is Zwinky, and so if you have to cut some corners, you have to take it out of all that "neat stuff" we used to expect in MMOs.
Besides, you have to think about the problem from a marketing standpoint. Think about that list they always put on the website with all the features. How do you really give the consumers a perspective on immersion, when they really won't know about it until well within their gaming experience? 1,000 hairstyles won't sell a game on its own, but promises of "fast action combat" do.
So given the high costs of development, and the relative unimportance of immersive elements, it's no wonder why immersion is disappearing. And I, like you, think it's a shame. I still believe that the power of the MMO is found in its richness. It certainly isn't the multiplayer aspect. I can get all the multiplayer I want on X-Box Live, Counterstrike, and Diablo II--and not only that--but peer to peer multiplayer works better than MMO multiplayer. You can screen your own players, and game within constraints agreeable to all parties. Group play also has more meaning in peer to peer, since you can actually get something resolved within an evening when all of you are together and in the mood to play. It certainly isn't the length to complete the game. Sim City and mamy RTS and TBS provide just as many hours of play, if not more, than MMOs.
But I would argue that the richness, the details, the immersive elements are the things you can only get in Massive Multiplayer Online. Its not for the sake of playing on a team. You want that, play Madden on X-Box live. It's not about separating winners and losers. Counterstrike is free, and it's much easier to actually determine such things.
In a sense, playing an MMO is a personal journey, played together. The limit to how well an MMO can be a personal journey is directly related to the degree a player can make the journey personal. It could be as simple as one's own personal "hideaway" at a place so obscure, nobody would ever run into it. Of course, in order to make it possible for everyone to have their own "hideaway," you need a pretty big map; one that is so large, you can get lost. This all takes development time though, and development time on things where the actual payoff isn't well defined. Same goes for clothes, hairstyles, character customization, and housing. Yeah, it's neat to have, but when is the last time you heard a complaint about hairstyles, clothes, customization, or large worlds? You don't, and that because of the other reason the industy isn't giving us immersion: we don't appreciate it when it's there.
Every time the devs add immersive elements, they pay the price. Not only are new art and animation resources some of the most expensive and time-consuming aspects to develop, but they hardly ever go over well with the peanut gallery. "Why are you working on this when (insert class here) has been broken for two patches now?," or "you want to make the maps bigger? All I do is travel, and it's boring!," or "we don't need this foofoo crap dancing and clothes! I came here to fight and earn phat loots." Given the high cost of bringing us immersion, and the low payoff, it's no wonder why immersion is taking a backseat.
A word to the wise though. There are only a limited number of things that can be done to keep combat fresh, and only so much they can dangle the loot carrot, before the whole rat race becomes meaningless. When that happens, the only thing that is going to keep people logging on and maintaining a subscription are all of the "worldly" elements that are disappearing from our games.