Immersion is another slippery concept in MMOs. It’s not a fixed value but rather a spectrum, a particular quality of experience that varies depending on who’s talking. For some it means not doing, saying or even seeing anything but what’s in the game world, while for others it’s as simple as logging in. The two extreme ends of the spectrum tend to eye each other with a great deal of suspicion (as though only one’s own experience is valid) but most of us probably fall somewhere in the middle.
For me, game immersion is akin to reading a great book: for a few moments or a few hours I’m not merely running my eyes over clumps of words on a page – I’m there, and the story flows through my mind’s eye as pictures, not words. It’s not quite the same with games since they’re primarily visual to begin with, but the basic principle remains that for however long, what I’m doing has grabbed hold of me and is making me actively use my imagination. When it’s really good, there’s nothing quite like it and finishing the book (or logging out) leaves me with a happy/sad feeling that’s utterly unbeatable.
Problem is that imagination is a fragile process that’s easily derailed. And when it is, I’ll suddenly become aware of the strings making it all work or the zipper on the monster’s back, and *poof* there goes my immersion. Ironically, our games are getting ever more complex and the stories they present are getting better and better, but immersion becomes harder and harder to find or maintain.
Back in my first MMO, Asheron’s Call, I had one visible bar of buttons and a few quickslots for items – but that was years ago. Skills and items and consumables have multiplied tenfold since then, as have displayable hotbars and HUD elements and all the other stuff that now invades my playing screen. My monitor is still a window onto another world, but it’s as though someone has plastered garish stickers all over it; and for me, that has always been more of a hindrance than a help to imagination.
I don’t like it. It’s not just the visual impediment, which is easily enough fixed by hiding hotbars or other UI elements when you don’t need them and concatenating what you use most so that you can use it almost without thinking about it. Almost – and there’s the rub. Game UIs have improved considerably over the years and I’m grateful for the amount of customization available to me these days, but the main reason they’ve improved is because they’ve had to in order to provide coherence for the umpteen-thousand things these games tell us we need to be able to see and do.
But while the visual clutter can be reduced or almost entirely removed, the mental clutter remains, and it’s got to the point where I feel like I’m being dumped out of the realm of my imagination and into some giant to-do list. I have a really good memory for what I’ve slotted where and what shortcuts I’ve assigned to which skills or items, but still: it takes processor cycles away from my imagination, and my immersion suffers for it.
For me at least, button-mashing is not an intrinsically entertaining experience. I don’t find much joy in repeatedly hitting the same buttons in the right sequence and I don’t get much sense of self-improvement at learning to mash them ever so slightly faster. If I wanted that I’d still be playing Tetris; and while Tetris is undeniably addictive, I don’t think anyone could accuse it of being particularly immersive.
The big battles I and my friends had in AC a decade ago were just as much fun – and as memorable – as the ones I’m fighting in WoW these days. More so in fact, because I didn’t need to devote part of my mind to remembering a zillion key combinations and making sure I hit them in exactly the right order at exactly the right time. They still made my heart pound (take that, Olthoi Queen!) and they still gave me a huge feeling of achievement, because they were just as challenging, only in different ways.
I don’t want to play MMO-the-spreadsheet (EVE) or MMO-the-memory-and-timing game (WoW). And don’t even get me started on what a giant mess the “inventory minigame” has become – oops, too late. I understand that inventory management is important to some extent, though to be honest the coding and memory reasons for it are long gone; even so, there are good reasons not to allow people to keep absolutely everything they find in an MMO. Mudflation; item cycling/recycling; and just plain common sense.
But whoever first thought that providing people with too little inventory space to keep up with the increasing mountain of crap games throw at us would be entertaining should be shot, or at the very least really sternly told off. It’s not a mini-game, it’s a headache, and it’s a headache that turns into a migraine when games insist on making us keep more than we really have room – or headspace – for. Turns out that material possessions are just as binding in MMOs as they can be in real life, especially for someone like me who has rather strong packrat tendencies. What? You never know when you might need that Really Unlucky Rock!
Over the years I’ve learned to be a lot more ruthless with stuff, both in RL and in games, but again: it still takes up mental space. I don’t want to have to spend half an hour every so often pondering the contents of my bags and bank and figuring out what I can afford to get rid of; I do that enough in my ordinary life and I don’t need it clogging my synapses when all I really want is to have fun with my friends and indulge in the consensual hallucination (aka imagination) of slaying internet dragons.
Sadly, I don’t know if there’s a solution to my immersion dilemma. I do like having a million different mounts and a zillion different skills, because they’re fun to acquire and can be a lot of fun to master; but at some point all those acquisitions begin to weigh me down. When the act of playing becomes an overly conscious process (hit X now, queue up Y, move to Z) I step back into myself and out of my imagination, and that’s not how I want to play my games.
I have a feeling that I could probably lose a good third of my skills, items and whatnots and that the quality of my game-time would actually improve. It seems we’re locked into skills and chaining and button-mashing, because those mechanics work so well for online games; but I’d like them to be a little more transparent. Look at Guild Wars: you can only take a very small number of skills into the field, and yet that doesn’t seem to make the battles any less thrilling.
The loss might pinch for a bit, because I am a packrat and I don’t like to give things up, but I suspect it would be the same as when I un-clutter my personal space at home: it stings, but soon you start to realize that you’ve freed yourself up for more important things – like using your imagination. That’s my immersion, and that’s what I’d like to see more (or less) of in games.