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Vicarious Existence

To blog about what is going on in the MMO genre from a casual MMO player's viewpoint.

Author: UnSub

Moving Beyond Kill 10 Fedex Princesses: Building Immersion in MMOs

Posted by UnSub Tuesday February 24 2009 at 2:45AM
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After creating a list of the different mission types available in MMOs, I was challenged to find a solution. What can be done to make MMOs feel more immersive for players?

The broad (and obvious) answer is to increase the character's involvement in the narrative of the game. This can be direct, through making missions more engaging, or indirect, by making players feel that they are part of a much bigger world (but still an important part / driving force in that world). This is most likely to be achieved through illusionary sleight of hand than through really letting the player change the world, but in the end it is what the player feels they have accomplished rather than necessarily requiring a definitive shift in the world.

First off, I believe that in order for a player to feel immersed, they have to operate in something that resembles a living world. Single player games like Grand Theft Auto and The Witcher do this by having the world move around without the actions of the player - the sun rises and sets, people walk the streets, other acts of violence occur without the player being involved. Such worlds look like they existed before the player arrived and will continue to go on after the player leaves.

Some MMOs attempt this - CoH/V's cityscapes are filled with a population who walk the streets, run away from danger, get mugged and need saving, and so on - while other MMOs with enough players (or player build structures) in an open world - WoW, EvE - can also make things seem 'lived in' for other players.

City of Heroes / Villains has civilians that walk around and do their thing, regardless of what you are up to.

City of Heroes / Villains has civilians that walk around and do their thing, regardless of what you are up to.

However, this illusion of a living world is often punctured by the actual mission contact / quest giver system. The popular MMO convention is to have the quest giver stand in one place at all times, 24/7, come rain, hail or shine. This reduces one of the key points of interactivity to a humanoid kiosk who appears to have the sole function of waiting around for a player to poke them so they can tell them about some "urgent mission". A living world would let the poor contact go to sleep, have a meal, or even perhaps attempt the quest they are trying to hand off. Yes, this would mean that players would sometimes need to track down contacts if they have to talk face-to-face, but given that most MMOs have a solid magic / ultra-science background, then it probably shouldn't be necessary to run back to the contact every time. A phone call (or equivalent) would suffice.

Secondly, having the world react (or give the illusion of reacting) to player is another big step forward in immersiveness. Going back to Asheron's Call, they had a system in place where player actions actually changed the course of the game. However, this isn't popular because it involves developing and discarding content (more work for the developers) that players following the event will never be able to get involved in. Some titles allow you to control an area / build a house, but this is a fairly minimal (if popular and problematic) impact. What is more likely is that players will be given the illusion of changing the world. For all its faults, The Matrix Online did have a long-running storyline that players felt they could get involved in (even if they couldn't change the outcome in reality).

Open instancing / phased instancing has also been used by some titles (most recently WoW) so that players will see different things once they have completed certain goals. This has some design issues - players can be separated into "before" and "after" areas, for instance, stratifying the player base - but it does give the illusion of change in the world based on player action.

Being able to actually change the world is something that can be done in single player games because it doesn't impact on anyone else. MMOs have a challenge in that department because they have a lot of players to serve and letting one player change the world would mean that the west was won probably two weeks after launch. However, something that single player games do that MMOs rarely do is to throw a narrative curveball during a quest.

The Witcher uses this mission giver in a way MMOs haven't to date.

The Witcher uses this mission giver in a way MMOs haven't to date.

For instance, a curveball in The Witcher is *SPOILER* that the Detective you speak to in town has been murdered and replaced by the very mage you are trying to track down! There are a number of ways of finding this out, including finding the body of the real detective in a crypt that is entirely unrelated to your overall quest *END SPOILER*. In short, to make you think you are going down one path - doing quests for one purpose - and finding out things in another quest, making it so that what you discover and experience is more important than the actual objective. Most MMO quests are thimble deep - kill ten rats means kill ten rats. The mechanical means dictate a very direct (and basic) pathway. However, if when killing rat #6 he begged for life and promised to show you a great treasure if you spared him... well, that is something different. Add in some branching paths - kill the rat or see what his treasure is - to let the player make the choice, giving them greater control and you've already started down the path to greater immersion in the game. You don't have to think if you kill ten rats. You do have to think if you are asked to make a choice, or if things don't go in the way that you expect.

Admittedly it it all an illusion - things are fixed between a set number of options, regardless of what the player does - but it is that illusion that is lacking from a lot of MMOs. Set in a static world, the player is left to run the ever unchanging, unsubtle content with no difference from one character to the next. Without doubt, this is the true killer of immersiveness in MMOs. We'll never be able to get away from the basic ten quests I've outlined, but they can certainly be used in more interesting ways than they have to date.

UPDATE: Added in a few extra things about 3 hours after originally posting - had to post the entry or lose it at the time!

Jamkull writes:

this is one reason i think Guild Wars is so great, entire zones and areas can be altered and still remain a MMO in many respects.  Just like the first game where the nice town you are adventuring in, gets destroyed by a Charr attack and the face of the landscape changes... of course you move on into an entirely different zone where friends from the "pre-searing" region you will not be able to adventure with until they complete it and move on to "post-searing".

But I find that aspect very appealing and the whole concept could be something that MMOs could use as a steping stone to bigger and better story elements such as you have stated. 

But the sad part is that i think Guild Wars 2 is stepping away from the whole instanced zone idea and trying make their game more like "normal" mmos.  which is sad to even hear.  They are going from innovative to jumping on the band wagon.  With a little hope, this may not be the case.  but if GW2 ends up more like evey other cookie-cutter MMO it will be a sad day indeed.

Tue Feb 24 2009 12:37PM Report
OddjobXL writes:

Eve Online allows players huge freedoms in creating and changing the map and generating content (whether desired or not in the case of conflict) for each other.  Admittedly the non-player elements in "safe" Empire space don't do much to sustain the illusion and the PvE is very dry and repetative.

A favorite concept of mine is indirect PvP.  Players using NPC elements in the form of both actors and module-built content to challenge other player factions.  This would create an unpredictability that's lacking in PvE currently, thus enhancing immersion, while removing the annoyances of direct PvP (mainly the kind of players who gravitate to it and the immersion breaking behavior associated with them) from the picture.

For the best single-player model of an immersive experience I'd recommend an obscure old PC game called Terminus.   This was a realistic, newtonian, space sim that had both competing military AIs (who fought each other dynamically and in the course of the war generated missions on the fly for the player) and a real time economy where the activities of traders could impact the buying and selling prices of goods including ship modules.  

As if that weren't enough the AI ships were persistant with unique identities and memories.  If they had a favorable impression of another ship (player or not) that had helped them before they'd help in return regardless of faction.   If hostile they'd attack, along with whatever friendly ships happened to be around, or in extreme cases put a bounty on a player's head.  Each AI pilot played the same game, had access to the same options and missions and friends and foes, as the player did.

All in all, while there were definite issues here and there, it created a sense one was part of a living, breathing, ecosystem in space where trade was cutthroat and thetides of war were unpredictable and realistic.

Tue Feb 24 2009 1:26PM Report
dcostello writes:

  I think you're right.  The PvE content is very dry and tedious.  I was just wondering (OP) what your solution to it is, unless the beginning paragraph was more of a introduction than a thesis.

Tue Feb 24 2009 3:21PM Report
UnSub writes:

Heh - the solution is to build the illusion of a living world and fill it with narratives that let the player think they can change the world or have control over what they do.

But you're right - I really didn't make any direct practical suggestions up there. Guess I'll doing a third entry on this! So, branching paths, destructible terrain, client-side changes to reflect decisions, missions that find you...

Tue Feb 24 2009 8:00PM Report
penandpaper writes:

Remember it's not just options to a changing world or environment that lets quests feel alive.  There's also the charecteristic of time, the cut scenes that set up specific circumstances, the dialogue used to pull you in, the originality of the quest, and the realism factor. (For example: why would a farmer in a town that has a problem with giant ants be worried about finding seeds or some other nonesense.  He would be worried about ants coming in and eating his wife and kids and crops.)  Great post. 

Tue Feb 24 2009 8:47PM Report writes:
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