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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: Practical Steps in Building Immersion in MMOs

Posted by UnSub Friday February 27 2009 at 1:55AM
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So, after listing the 10 basic quest types seen in MMOs (and most RPGs, for that matter) I then did a slightly academic ramble about how MMO quest systems could be more immersive. However, it wasn't practical. So, let's try to rectify that (well, as much as armchair design can, anyway).

Things that can increase player immersion in a MMO include:

  • Living Worlds: Other NPCs walk around, chat to each other and look like they have a life outside of waiting for the players to show up. Animals wander, some group together in herds / flocks, some act as predators, some as prey. The sun rises and sets. Lights go on and off. It's an illusion and if a player watches long enough they'll probably break through it, but it serves well enough to suspend disbelief as the player moves through the world. Ironically, open world PvP can make a world feel more alive - you can get ganked anytime, anywhere, so even walking through a field can be an exercise in danger - but it's a little too life-and-death for most MMO players.
  • Mission Branching: Letting players choose what path to take through a mission, either by picking a certain path through the mission 'map' or by choosing via dialogue options what route they want to take. This involves developing more content (e.g. if one mission has 3 different paths, you've go to create 3 different sets of content) and eventually can lead to players disregarding certain paths that are seen to be less rewarding. However, allowing choice (and hopefully meaningful choice) makes players more involved (at least initially) in the route their character takes and, hence, more immersed in the game play.
  • Destructible Environment: Characters that can summon up living hellfire but can't even set the straw beds they find in the dungeon alight end up breaking the feel of being involved in a living world. Being able to pick up things and throw them at opponents - as some MMOs are starting to allow - or being able to break things all over the map - as some MMOs currently let you do - is a good way to make players feel consistently powerful. Obviously there has to be some limits - fully destructible environments would see players go on a path of destruction that would level the world in mere hours after launch. But being able to break more than just the bones of opponents means that players feel they can have a greater impact on the world.

The Wrecking Crew (Marvel Comics Style)

Too much destructible terrain and the player base risks turning into this guys.

  • Client-side changes: One big problem with changing the world to reflect player action is that MMOs have a huge number of players in them, so letting one player break every window in town is actually vandalism that can impact on a much wider group. However, letting some changes be handled client-side, so that only the player who does the action can see the result is a way around this - to the player who broke all the windows they have the illusion of lots of smashed glass, but to everyone else the windows look safe and intact. It's not ideal - it confuses players when they can't actually see the same things - but it can be an illusory step of making the player feel that they can interact with the world.
  • Instancing: Some players hate instancing and there are certainly issues if instancing sucks all the players out of the world and into that instanced content, but it does allow for special events to occur that can't be done elsewhere. Cutscenes that temporarily stop the play for a bit of narrative, special opponents that would otherwise be one-shotted by higher-level players, special goals that are tailored to the number of players in the instance and more - instancing can make the in-game narrative seem more personal since the content can be better shaped to suit the player.
  • 'Pull' Missions: Most quests in MMOs are pushed on you - go talk to this person, who you have to find, who then tells you want to do. However, if the character is so important, why aren't these mission givers finding you? Quest / missions should try to pull the player into them rather than pushing them onwards - have an NPC run up and beg for help from the big strong hero makes a lot more sense than the NPC standing on the street corner waiting for someone to come up to them.

Boy, these people look desparate for help, don't they?

Boy, these people look desparate for help, don't they?

  • Mission Curveballs: Most MMO missions are highly mechanical - if you are sent off to deliver a letter to the Kobold King, that's exactly what you have to do. There is no surprise in it at all. However, being given a mission to deliver a letter to the Kobold King only to find out on arrival that he's dead and you're being blamed for the assassination - a twist to the mission early on - makes the content a lot more interesting. From my experience if a MMO mission has a twist it is 1) usually very late in the mission and 2) telegraphed by the mission objectives, regardless of what the flavour text says. Surprising the player with content is one way of getting them more involved in playing the game (providing the surprise isn't too far fetched, of course).
  • Character Customisation: Personally, nothing kills my immersion in a non-realistic MMO is getting to a point where everyone looks exactly the same due to the equipment they are wearing / their presentation. I know it is realistic - mass produced armour isn't know for its fashionability - but in fantasy / sci-fi titles, magical helms / space ships come in all shapes and sizes. Being able to make my character 'mine' is a big thing in making things feel more personal to players.
  • Sensible-in-Context Quest Narratives: Nothing makes a quest feel more irrelevant than when it is completely out of context to everything else in the game. If you are strapping barbarian hero raised on the blood of slain enemies, does it really make sense to be sent out by a shepherd to find his lost sheep? Or, if you are the finest fairy floss crafter in all the land that your quest giver wants you to go out and slay an Ancient Death Dragon of Death? No. If developers are going to give players character development options then they need to provide quests / missions that suit those options, rather than just providing single streams of content for all. It probably isn't feasible for every character concept to be provided for, but enough paths to cover the basic options is a big step in the right direction.
  • Owning and Developing Real Estate: Letting players build and own their section of the world is a fantastic involvement mechanism. There is a reason that house building was so popular for UO and why The Sims is such a successful single player title.

These are only a few suggestions (and some can certainly be combined for extra value), but there is plenty of scope for MMO content to be just as immersive (if not more so) than that of single player titles. Although players in MMOs might not be able to change the world as easily as a player of a solo title, there are certainly options for how MMO players can be more involved in their game world.

Now, it's completely true that pretty much all of these suggestions will fall apart over time as players see through the illusion and / or learn the optimal reward path through the game. This isn't a reason to avoid using such techniques, however - titles that suck players in early are a lot more likely to stick around than those who have no things to hook players at all.

qombi writes:

I think to make a better MMORPG is to make more player interaction and dependency on each other to make it a living breathing society. some of the suggestions you make are great don't get me wrong. You can only go so far with making a more vibrant "game".

What I find sad is that with all this potential we had with MMORPGs, the technology for people to virtually come together .. developers keep making our experience more game like, more linear, more single feeling to these new exciting worlds.

What I want to see is the developers to provide the tools for our online societies to become just that a society. Let's mimic real world. Let' us go to war, let us form boarders, let us build armies, let us create countries, let us build economies, let us elect leaders, let us have trade and commerce with other formed countries, let us make allies, let us have enemy nations, let us have an online world. This is what is needed for a game to thrive for years. The players have to have the tools to make a world.

We really are not utilizing the technology to it's fullest. Right now we are just using this new MMORPG technology as a linear game. Actually they have evolved technically with graphics but deevolved in some part with turning them into more of a game than a world.

Hope someone can read what I wrote and see what I am getting at. I am not the most wordy person around but think of the potential of a real virtual world where you are being handed npc quest any longer. You are part of a society in struggles and alliance with our real virtual societies all with different cultures being formed and taking different paths of growth.

Fri Feb 27 2009 8:54AM Report
qombi writes:

What I was suggesting would give you an always dynamic world where the world would be a different place over time. At one point it would go from small tribes to countries, countries could fall and others rise. Country boarders would change with war .. you could be in game one day able to travel through the boarders harm free with a ally doing trade and the next week after a war be kill on site with the new occupying force .. or perhaps the country split into smaller countries after a uprising?

Endless possibilities in this ever evolving "real" virtual world.

Fri Feb 27 2009 9:06AM Report
dcostello writes:

I agree with both qombi and the OP.  I think immersion is crucial to a game's success.  I feel like developers just tack on names to their layouts instead of designing their game around a famous name.  What I mean is that companies take famous Fantasy titles such as Lord of the Rings and they place it onto their own format.  They should really create the game around the title.  So, instead of a bunch of small maps and "Monster" fights, or w/e that trash is called, they should develop an on-going war of the ring (each side trying to capture it and destroy or use it).

Fri Feb 27 2009 3:27PM Report
Antioche writes:

Great post. I've said a lot of these same things in posts on other sites, or maybe here. I can't remember sometimes. Back before SWG came out I was yelling about players being able to affect the world they inhabit through creation and destruction of it's basic elements. As far as I know the best example of this kind of system has been Wurm Online, but I've never played it. (The graphics are simply too terrible looking to me. And it actually costs money to play it.)

All of the things you mentioned concerning mob programming (npc's having lives) has been done for a long time in text-based games (although usually the people who made them were lazy and didn't do much that was elaborate. So all of those things are possible. It is the matter of how to implement it. Do we really want those npcs to walk home in the evening and be unavailable for our use?

Mmorpgs are suffering from a conflict of whether to be more realistic (what people call sandbox), or more game-like. The more an mmorpg plays like a game the more developers will want to cater to the desires of people who want things to be convenient, because it's a game, not a world. Yet this is not how mmorpg's should be designed. They are virtual worlds, not games, and ought to be designed with this in mind. While there are activities within the mmorpg that may mimic the gameplay of non-mmorpg games, this does not make them a game. Sadly most developers don't see it this way, and we are given games isntead of worlds. And quite frankly these games are subpar to ones I can play by myself.

Sat Feb 28 2009 1:29PM Report
UnSub writes:

I'm actually fine with it being a game and while virtual worlds are fine in theory, you really need a critical mass of players who are willing to play like it is a second job (such as in EvE).

If someone went the whole hog and developed a fully working virtual world, more power to them. However, we aren't even getting the illusion required for greater immersion in the "theme park" MMOs that sell themselves as "worlds".

Sun Mar 01 2009 9:41AM Report
Zakane writes:

A good example of a virtual world and closest I can think of is Second-Life. While it lets your pretty much do anything and build anything there are some glaring problems. Since I've played it the lag keeps on getting worse, the bugs are everywhere, you have people building things just to grief people, building things that would make you wonder what the heck.


Course this doesn't mean you can't  have a world were players "control" the flow of events. They just have to be careful, also alot people like ti to be a "game" because thats what it is. You make a game for fun - and the line of fun and job can easily be stepped over.

Thu Mar 19 2009 12:54PM Report writes:
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