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Sanya Weathers's MMO Underbelly: Immersion

What breaks immersion for people in MMOs? Sanya runs through some of her pet peeves and lets off a little steam in this week's column

Immersion

The great irony of MMOs is that nothing destroys my sense of immersion like events and activities designed to make me feel… immersed… in a living world.

That’s what immersion is to me, by the way. I want to believe, insofar as it is possible, that I am going about my life in a world different from my own. I want to pursue hobbies, talk to friends, go on adventures, and make some small mark on the world. I don’t necessarily want to think about the fact that it’s all being controlled by a computer and hosted in some charmless server farm.

That’s not to say that I want the world to be too realistic. For instance, I do not want to pay taxes, or suffer unduly because I didn’t have enough money to do something. Gold sinks are one thing, and I recognize that “paying rent” is just a gold sink. But if I fail to pay my rent, I want all my stuff to be waiting for me somewhere. Ultima Online’s old school solution – if you didn’t pay upkeep, the house crumbled and people could have your stuff – was way too real world for me.

But I’d rather have Ultima Online’s unforgiving reality than to have my nose rubbed in the fact that I’m playing a computer game, and it seems like the things that do the rubbing are things designed to please the immersion nerds like me.

Crafting, for example.

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I was never really a crafter in EverQuest, because honestly, it was a fast track to carpal tunnel surgery. Plus, if you made metal bits in sufficient quantities to show major improvement in one sitting, you would be too encumbered to move. Nothing is quite as funny as a crafter plaintively crying out “Can someone come to the crafting area in Freeport and buff me? I can’t move.” But there’s nothing quite as annoying as BEING that crafter. And the first three hours of killing gray bears in order to get a pelt to sew up a ten slot backpack is one thing, but the next thirty hours is another, even if the tedium is broken up by killing that flying thing that terrorized newbies.

And crafting in Camelot was a challenge for me, because I knew too much. I also knew the guy who did the original design document, and he was a little too excited about making it “realistic.” He was going on at length during lunch one day about his plans, and my better half interrupted him to say, “So you’re taking the parts of life that suck and making them… the game?”

But every MMO with crafting/hobbies since then, including games currently in beta, I’ve had the bug. Too bad they’ve all had the same bug, er, feature, and that is that a maxed out superstar with all the trimmings and buffs in the world can still fall over a bucket of fail.

Oh, sure, it’s not as bad as EQ Original Recipe, where “failing” meant losing all of the materials. It’s not as bad as several of the old MMOs, where failing could actually kill you.

But in an MMO I can be a master fisherman who fails to catch fish with astonishing regularity. Listen, I actually know how to fish. I’m no master trout angler, or anything, I’m more of a “let’s sit on a shady dock or on a sunny boat and drink beer” kind of fisherman, but I do grasp the basics. And I stopped catching weeds more than once an hour as soon as I figured out how to cast. But I catch weeds all the time in my video games because A) I am dumb enough to enjoy virtual fishing, and B) the tables are set by someone who likes numbers, not someone who likes fishing.

Having “catch a weed” on a 10% frequency setting even for a master fisherman is annoying, but real rage is reserved for attempting to make an enchanted item and failing – losing the rare drop, magical enchanting thingy in the process. Losing materials in general is just stupid. It’s purely because somewhere a developer is getting his ass all clenchy at the thought of some crafter churning out high level gear with no risk. Or worse, I knew a dev once who seriously thought crafters wouldn’t REALLY enjoy crafting without an element of risk.

That’s true, to a point. But a master tailor should never, ever fail at making journeyman pants. Again, I’m looking at my real life experiences to measure my immersion. I’m as much of a seamstress as I am a fisherman, here – I’m never going to get a job at a jeans factory in China, but I can work a sewing machine and embroider without sticking myself in the eye. Past a certain point, you cannot fail – you just have varying degrees of good. But crafting is implemented by someone who can tolerate spreadsheets with minimal fatfingering, not someone who sews.

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