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Bill Murphy: Hiding the Game - Immersion

Column By William Murphy on February 02, 2012

I look at all the games we see coming out year after year, and I find a lot to be proud of in each of them even if many ultimately underwhelm our increasingly high expectations.  But there’s one new trend that’s been bothering me, even though I didn’t realize it until recently.  There are far too many “shiny things” on my screen, announcements, pop-ups, and reminders in general that I’m playing a game for me to feel like I’m lost in a world at all.  This isn’t always a problem, and in many other games it wouldn’t be an issue at all (FPS, fighting games, and the like).  But in an MMO, at least for me, I want to feel like I’m a part of the world I’m WASD-ing about, and there’s a sharp focus on in your face UI elements that’s taking this away from me.

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Recently, in our re-launched Game On Podcast, I spoke of Skyrim and its own sense of immersion.  This is one RPG which really gets most of it right.  The UI is minimal and only “gets in the way” when it needs to (health, mana, inventory, quests, and so forth).  The rest of the time, I’m left to my own devices to explore the world, and even when I level up all I hear is a sound.  No bright flashy text.  Loot doesn’t drop all over the ground and shine glowingly waiting for me to pick it up.  Achievements are there, but presented with a minimal amount of game-interference via Steam (on the PC) and even this can be turned off.  The only time I really found myself getting pulled out of the world of Skyrim was when I realized how to make my character level his skills up and then my achieving nature took over and I focused solely on this.  It prompted me to take a step back and I hope to reenter the latest Elder Scrolls afresh soon.

Raph Koster put it well recently when he said on the same topic: “The moment you realize it’s all a dream is the moment you wake up.”

I did just write a joking List about how we’re beating the immersion topic to death, but it’s true.  MMO-immersion is going the way of the dodo in favor of bright lights and flashy scrolling text.  I can’t remember the last time an MMO made me feel like I was “in the world”.  Actually, I take that back: Ultima Online did this way back when. Even World of Warcraft originally did at its launch.  But somewhere, somehow, it was decided for us that what MMOs need is glitz and glamour when all I really want is to feel like I did when Britannia was new.  

I don’t think there’s going to be a game in the near future that gets away from this trend of UI saturation either.  That’s really the core of the problem.  The UI gets in the way of our immersion.  Perhaps it’s unavoidable, due to the sheer nature and scope of what we must manage in an MMO (skills, inventory, character sheets, skill trees, maps, quests, etc.  But I can’t help feeling like there must be a way to keep this stuff in the background until we need it and not shove it in our faces the entire time we’re online.  I look at a game like Skyrim, even with its faults, and I know an MMO could adopt similar virtues if a developer wanted it to.

I know we need the paper dolls, the grids, the maps, the quest trackers… it’s a double-edged sword.  But do we really need them always present?  Do we need them right there at all times, or can we safely put them just a keystroke away and make sure users know how to access them when needed?  Can we get rid of quest trackers and use a compass mechanic like Skyrim (and make even that optional for the hardcore)?  Most importantly, for me, can we stop the endless reminders of “achievement” on my screen in general and just let me enjoy the scenery?  If I level, I’m sure there’s a better way to tell me than taking up my entire screen.  I also assume there’s a better way to tell me I’ve completed a quest, killed 500 gnolls, or saved the freaking princess from the rapists at her door.  Put all of that into the game world and its NPCs, and let me feel like I’m a part of the adventure… not just a bouncing robot loot-hound that gets coins and flashy loot for adhering to some prescribed goals. 

Leave that for the Diablos and Torchlights of the world, where the mechanics seem more appropriate.  In my MMORPG, give me the quiet calm of an expansive wilderness where I can explore and meet others, and maybe go on an adventure without having a bright glowing circle tell me where the goal is.  It’s not an adventure when this happens, it’s an errand.  And I do enough of those in my daily routine, thanks.

William Murphy / Bill is the Managing Editor of MMORPG.com, RTSGuru.com, and lover of all things gaming. He''s been playing and writing about MMOs and geekery since 2002, and you can harass him and his views on Twitter @thebillmurphy.

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