Jan 132012
 

“I feel a sense of loss over mystery… I feel a loss over immersion. I loved… playing long, intricate, complex, narrative-driven games, and I’ve drifted away from playing them, and the whole market has drifted away from playing them too,” Koster says. “I think the trend lines are away from that kind of thing.”

– Gamasutra interview of me by Leigh Alexander

Karateka

Karateka

Games didn’t start out immersive. Nobody was getting sucked into the world of Mancala or the intricate world building of Go. Oh, people could be mesmerized, certainly, or in a state of flow whilst playing. But they were not immersed in the sense of being transported to another world. For that we had books.

Even most video games were not like worlds I was transported to. Oh, I wondered what else existed in the world of Joust and felt the paranoia in Berzerk, but I never felt like I was visiting.

Then something changed. For me it started with text adventures and with early Ultimas. I could explore what felt like a real place. I could interact with it. I could affect it. And with that came the first times where I felt like I was visiting another world. It came when I first played Jordan Mechner’s Karateka and for the first time ever, felt I was playing a game that felt like a movie.

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I remember how we took that D&D Red Box Basic set and built a consensus world with it that ended up outweighing the rules to such a degree that we would often do role playing sessions for hours on end without any dice or books, just weaving our shared story together. We were sharing a dream.

For me, those dreams reached fruition with mud and then MMORPGs. Now other people were there too! And as a game designer, I focused pretty strongly on immersion as a core game virtue.

I wasn’t alone. For others it came with the adrenaline of DOOM or the narrative of Half-Life, the world of Elder Scrolls or Wizardry or Fallout or whatever else.

Once upon a time, people actually dying on the field of play was an expected and normal part of sports. Whether it was a game of Aztec tlachtli or plain old rugby, it happened, and was considered an inevitable part of the sport.

Things that we once considered essential to games drift in and out of fashion. And I think immersion is one of those.

Immersion does not make a lot of sense in a mobile, interruptible world. It comes from spending hours at something. An the fact is that as games go mainstream, they are played in small bites far more often than they are played in long solo sessions. The market adapts — this reaches more people, so the budgets divert, the publishers’ attention diverts, the developers’ creative attention diverts.

As I watch my son and daughter play games or participate in role play sessions, I find myself reluctantly admitting to myself that it is a personality type that ends up immersed in this way, and were it not in games it would be in something else. Immersion isn’t a mass market activity in that sense, because most people are comfortable being who they are and where they are. It’s us crazy dreamers who are unmoored, and who always seek out secondary worlds.

It’s just that games aren’t just for crazy dreamers anymore.

Today even my immersive worlds have little XBLA pop-up alerts telling me that hey, someone just logged on and they want you to stop being Heothgar the Bold in Skyrim and instead come blow up some aliens on a party line while they made crude jokes in their actual voices and talk about how work went that day.

Even those immersive virtual worlds that I held so dear are full of acronyms and practices that strip away every shred of magic. PUGs and soul bound items and DPS counters and queues and level ranges and unlocking companions and cost for mounts and all that crap have very little to do with whether I dare cross the swaying rope bridge over the river, fearing that the rope may give way and leave me stranded on the side where the savage trolls are; very little to do with the moment of awe and fear that came from reaching out to grasp the crystalline diadem and pull it from the dusty cackling bones of the dead queen; very little to do with the twin moons over my head and the constellations made of the last gasps of stars whose light was quenched ten million years ago, when the universe was new.

It becomes an instrumental world, where the fantasy cannot live because it is always rudely awakening you to the fact that you are just at play, just playing a game, just pretending… And when we know we are pretending, well… The moment you realize it’s all a dream is the moment you wake up.

I mourn. I mourn the gradual loss of deep immersion and the trappings of geekery that I love. I see the ways in which the worlds I once dove into headlong have become incredibly expensive endeavors, movies-with-button-presses far more invested in telling me their story, rather than letting me tell my own.

But stuff changes. Immersion is not a core game virtue. It was a style, one that has had an amazing run, and may continue to pop up from time to time the way that we still hear swing music in the occasional pop hit. It’ll be available for us, the dreamers, as a niche product, perhaps higher priced, or in specialty shops. We’ll understand how those crotchety old war gamers felt, finally.

The great opportunity ahead is to actually seize the moment at hand; to make games be the core entertainment medium of the century. We have always talked big about their potential.

Well, now we have the audience. We are starting to get the breadth of cultural reference, the emotional subtlety, the understanding of our craft, and the true diversity of core mechanics that opens up the broad audience, all of which enables us to fulfill that promise.

“Another way to think of it is, we always said games would be the art form of the 21st century: Gamers will all grow up and take over the world, and we’re at that moment now,” he continues. “It’s all come true — but the dragons and the robots didn’t come with us, they stayed behind.”

I know many of you are frowning as you read this. The word of consolation is that said world with twin moons and stampeding herds of alien beasts, with derring-do and mystery, with the hours spent dreaming of its nooks and crannies — that world was always in your head, and not the screen.

Fewer games may be set there. And annoying alerts may pop up, and there may be a toll booth on the way to the dragon’s peak.

But dreamers dream, and no one can take that away from us. Even if the light of the stars is quenched, that particular universe is always new.

Inspired by an interview given to Leigh Alexander at Gamasutra some time ago.

Edit: so many questions arose from this, that i wrote a follow-up. Go read it. :)

  57 Responses to “Is immersion a core game virtue?”

  1. There’s a lot more to come yet. I think that the broader gaming culture we have now is at a point analogous to the arcade era and that it won’t be long before we see the virtual world renaissance repeat universally.

  2. Hi Raph,

    Powerfully written, but I think I disagree.

    When I was into tabletop rpgs (where many of us got their start) there was always a tension between the players who wanted to get into the characters and those who wanted to play the numbers game. The numericists were in the majority (“I roll Charisma to lie to the guard!”), but what tended to happen was that the groups themselves split, so each played with their own.

    In the online space there are few similar opportunities to separate, and so nothing is guaranteed to break the spell of Left 4 Dead more quickly than hearing some thirteen year old yell racist abuse across the airwaves or watch the Master Chief ass-hatting. And yes, in mobile games getting pinged every few minutes can be annoying.

    However SkyRim sold a tonne of copies and the generally-agreed game of the year seems to be Portal 2, a powerfully thaumatic game that eats hour after hour of time. There was much ado about LA Noire earlier in the year (although it personally didn’t gel for me) and 20m copies of Modern Warfare 3 must mean something, no?

    Then there are many small gems. I’m trying hard to make time for the iPhone version of Kingdom of Dragon Pass to get my Glorantha on, and it seems many classic adventure games (Broken Sword) have done great business on that little handset.

    In some ways I think that videogames have an easier time in being immersive. The rules are much less apparent, even in some pretty simple games, so the world is more easily projected into. In the past I’ve likened the experience of playing videogames more to sports and vehicle driving that you just sort of get in and make it go, and nothing about that has changed today. They still have the capacity to delight, to be numinous and to spirit one away. Even in a little sim like Game Dev Story, when one of the wee devs shouts “I See!” it’s just sweet.

    Just because there are casinos does not mean that there is no value in the narrative of the world cup, and just because some people choose to fling birds at pigs does not devalue those who build whole worlds in Minecraft. We all get immersed in our own way.

    My counter back, therefore, is that it’s the developers who are failing rather than the customer. We are the ones increasingly looking at games as mechanisms, and behaviourism as a lens of game making is very much in the ascendancy while videogames go through their metrics phase. It is we who atruggle to justify the importance of voice (particularly those of us in and around social and casual games) and the inclusion of the art brain in our creative process. And so it can appear to us that the whole world is on that kick too.

    I also think that that worm will turn, however. Behaviourism is a part of what games are, but not all.

  3. Another great post (you’ve been on fire lately!), and extra points for bringing Karateka into it ;)

    That said, I have a couple of issues with this post the first of which also applies to a few of your other recent posts. First in discussing games in terms of what the industry is concentrating on or will concentrate on, you bias the discussion of possible or even probable games in a way that isn’t necessarily accurate if we look at other media. Certainly Hollywood blockbusters dominate the film landscape, but this doesn’t stop a huge array of other films from being made and enjoyed by other audiences. In other words, genre and production proclivities based on market analysis and very conservative/risk averse production values may define the larger landscape in video games much as they do in movies, but they don’t inherently limit ongoing activity in the medium.

    In fact, as more powerful (and often less technical) production tools are becoming available at lower cost we’re beginning to see Pro/Am productions that make high budget films of the 1980s and 1990s look like fairly tawdry affairs. This has certainly been the case with the production of music as well. I expect that as more powerful middleware tools become available for the Pro/Am game developer we’re going to start seeing a similar effect around game genres that might be out of fashion in the major development shops for any of the reasons you’ve mentioned.

    My second issue involves an assumption about genres that are or will be popular with the masses. I’ve seen a fair number of developers talk about how it’s time to move on from the SciFi/Fantasy settings that are a deep part of geek culture and attend a lot of video game settings if we want to appeal to larger audiences. I’m just not sure that’s actually true. If anything over the last decade these traditionally geek settings have seen increasing popularity with mainstream audiences (Avatar anyone?). That doesn’t necessarily speak to the question of immersion, but I do think it’s worth noting that “the dragons and robots” are a separate element from design for immersion even if both settings and affect have been consistent genre conventions attending many games.

  4. I also disagree, but for a different reason: I disagree with “immersion” being one, single conceptual thing.

    I think we can talk about how immersed we are, and in what way we are, and that different things engage us to different depth and in different ways. Any amount of sympathy (meaning, any amount of sympathetic sensations) is an amount of immersion, and when we speak of an action film being “immersive” we are talking of something qualitatively different than that of a film that makes us cry.

    Deep immersion may have in common the temporary forgetting of the actual world around us (“deeply absorbed” into a novel, film, or game), but otherwise I strongly feel that this is too much a continuum, across at least two axes, to either affirm or deny in total.

    From this, I also think that a desire to become deeply immersed in something, be it a good book, the playing of music, an act of communion, the drama of a watched boxing match, is simply too prevalent for me to think that for games “its time has passed”. I have myself not wanted a deeply immersive game at times, choosing something shallower on purpose, but the most I’d say (or agree with) is that games aiming for the broad and deep immersion of the player are demanding enough that they do make themselves a niche market of people willing and able to make that large investment. To claim greater seems too strident.

  5. This warrants serious thought. Coincidentally, I’m writing an entire capstone research project about it. …It’s a confusing topic. Many more questions than answers. (As there should be!)

    You make a distincinction between “mesmerization” (flow) and immersion. If I understand correctly: what you mean is that immersion is strong belief in the fiction of a game, whereas mesmerization is the physical act of playing the game become overpowering.

    For example, the desire to cosplay as a character would be a side effect of immersion, not mesmerization.

    Your idea of immersion is almost completely opposed to the explanation that Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman offer in Rules of Play, their oft-quoted game design text. In, short, they argue that immersion is always immersion in the act of playing a game, not any mimetic or fictional quality of the game.

    Given, Salen and Zimmerman have an explicit game-design centric approach to the question of immersion.

    You’re hitting on a lot of good questions that I’d like to spend more time responding to, but I’ll do that elsewhere.

    Just one afterthought:

    The word of consolation is that said world with twin moons and stampeding herds of alien beasts, with derring-do and mystery, with the hours spent dreaming of its nooks and crannies — that world was always in your head, and not the screen.

    Have you read Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84? It’s not about video games, but it’s definitely about immersion. Two moons comes to signify the world of 1Q84. Murakami latches onto the question of whether an altered reality is only “in your head” or actually real.

  6. This warrants serious thought. Coincidentally, I’m writing an entire capstone research project about it. …It’s a confusing topic. Many more questions than answers. (As there should be!)

    You make a distinction between “mesmerization” (flow) and immersion. If I understand correctly: what you mean is that immersion is strong belief in the fiction of a game, whereas mesmerization is the physical act of playing the game become overpowering.

    For example, the desire to cosplay as a character would be a side effect of immersion, not mesmerization.

    Your idea of immersion is almost completely opposed to the explanation that Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman offer in Rules of Play, their oft-quoted game design text. In, short, they argue that immersion is always immersion in the act of playing a game, not any mimetic or fictional quality of the game.

    Given, Salen and Zimmerman have an explicit game-design centric approach to the question of immersion.

    You’re hitting on a lot of good questions that I’d like to spend more time responding to, but I’ll do that elsewhere.

    Just one afterthought:

    The word of consolation is that said world with twin moons and stampeding herds of alien beasts, with derring-do and mystery, with the hours spent dreaming of its nooks and crannies — that world was always in your head, and not the screen.

    Have you read Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84? It’s not about video games, but it’s definitely about immersion. Two moons comes to signify the world of 1Q84. Murakami latches onto the question of whether an altered reality is only “in your head” or actually real.

  7. Ah, but why have books not stopped being immersive?

  8. Ah, but why have books not stopped being immersive?

    books? like cookbooks? or text books? oh, i bet you meant law books.

    like raph pointed out, immersion is a style. not all games are immersive just like not all books are immersive.

    m3mnoch.

  9. Great article :-) I never thought a commentary on the video game industry could bring me close to tears!

  10. If that’s the way the bus is going… well, have a nice trip, this is my stop.

    But I suspect the bus will be doubling back when they find that a future without imagination is a dead end.

  11. @Aaron,

    …immersion is strong belief in the fiction of a game, whereas mesmerization is the physical act of playing the game become overpowering.

    For example, the desire to cosplay as a character would be a side effect of immersion, not mesmerization.

    To clarify, you mean this as an either/or, right? “Cosplay would have more to do with immersion than mesmerization”? Asking only as there are so many different potential reasons and rewards (in context) related to cosplay that tying it directly to immersion in a given fiction would otherwise seem to vastly oversimplify.

  12. At some level it just becomes intelectual gymnastics. Is a game that lacks immersion still a game? Probably, but just like the law book in the previous post it might be a lot harder to claim it’s still art at that point. If you use a broad all encompasing definition for game then figuring out it’s core virtues is just navel gazing. I’m not interested in making or playing games that don’t at least make an attempt to be immersive. I don’t think I’m alone in that. I guess I’ll just have to remember to use “immersive game” where I previously just used “game”.

  13. @Peter

    Yes, good point. I think what I was trying to argue when I wrote that sentence is that cosplay seems to have more to do with imitating the fiction of a game, rather than recreating the psychological or physical feeling of playing the game.

    Perhaps, taking a cue from Juul and narratology: The “immersive” qualities of a game can transfer to other mediums (transmedial), but the actual game qualities can’t transfer.

  14. Thanks Raph, this is a great post that touched on many questions close to my heart. I’m actually in the middle of writing a big, gaming-centered post on the place of the imagination in the contemporary world. This whole subject is something that has interested me my entire life. I guess you could say I am a fellow crazy dreamer.

    Sometimes, when I read stuff by game-mechanic and board-game centered people I wonder if I have spent my whole life misusing and misunderstanding video games. I always saw them as a way of making dreams more real, a vehicle for a longed-for entry into an imaginal realm that possessed me completely when I was a child.

    I had my own thing for Dungeons and Dragons, though I couldn’t find anyone to play with so I just used to fantasize over the books and use them as a daydream construction set.

    In my own thinking about games, I generally distinguish between immersion and absorption. Immersion is about projecting your imagination into the game world, not just identifying with the characters, but treating the whole game world and its dynamics as a kind of dreamscape of meaning and significance. I wrote about this years ago in some articles I did for gamedev.net if you’re interested.(http://richardjdare.com/blog/writing/)

    Absorption is where you get caught up in the flow of the logical form of the game, without there necessarily being any emotional or imaginal content. This is what happens when you spend hours lost in a puzzle game. My concept of absorption doesn’t really refer to the physical as Aaron’s ‘Mesmerization’ does; Absorption is about being lost in the abstract logical form of game entities and their relations.

    I agree with you on how the acronyms and terminology ruin immersion, and on how overly abstracted game mechanics stick out and overwhelm the more subtle phenomena of the gaming experience. I am very interested in ways of solving this problem, of creating game mechanics that merge better with symbolic and narrative content, or even of mystifying game mechanics completely, if it is possible.

    I agree with Moses Wolfenstein that you shouldn’t get too depressed about what the market seems to indicate. And you must not forget that this imaginal realm that we are talking about is the natural home of the advertiser and the propagandist! We are dealing with images and emotions that lie at the heart of the psyche, and anyone with an innate grasp of it has a frankly sinister advantage over the dull fellow who merely does what everyone else appears to be doing, without any vision or feeling.

    To me, the imaginal game, founded in universal emotions and images is much easier to present to the public than games that market themselves on their game mechanics. I didn’t play MMORPG’s until recently due to poverty and a crap internet connection, and when I finally began investigating them I was shocked at how they all presented themselves in terms of “Classes” and other impenetrable terminology. The imaginal and emotional content that could be evoked by these games was entirely absent. I think there are real opportunities for innovative marketing here.

  15. Raph… you have got to be trolling. Tell me you’re trolling…

  16. [...] the question gaming industry veteran and former lead designer for Ultima Online poses in the title of his latest blog post. And he leads the post off with a quote (from himself) noting — and mourning, to some extent [...]

  17. Depends on what type of game it is.
    Any good RPG i played is highly immersive, also any MMO, many other games, even EU3.
    But some games simply offer a mechanic/challenge, for example a crossword puzzle – hard to believe someone can feel immersion solving crossword puzzles.
    And that is true, its all about the mechanic and no longer about the magic of a game, bcs mechanics easy give good metrics while magic cant be measured outside of salesnumbers, retention and customer interviews, or with a much more and deeper developed metrics system as usualy used.
    And then its still a business decision if the people in charge feel its worth the work or the initial sales compared to cheaper development is them profit enough and serial releases make more money than one or a few long time runners.

    Immersion is not dead, it wont die as long there is a single human brain existing, it has still a place and a market. it only needs some people to ignite its renaissance!

  18. I came over here from a website that referred to this. I never have talked or written with a Dev before; okay, maybe that’s a lie, because I’ve been on some game forums and some of those Devs seemed to like me well enough. But that is neither here or there on Mars. ;P

    It seems you are lamenting about something and it probably has something to do with your current work or game. You say some powerful things but you know, you are right and wrong.

    If you compare game development, as you have, to the Arts, it’s still the same. You mention that the dreamers are unique and so is immersion, well, it’s been that way for a long time. It is the reason why Italian patrons hired artists to do work for them as they “ooed” and “oohed” at the finished product.

    Immersion is an individualistic thing and not you nor I can say what makes our world immersive is the same for someone else. Everyone has a different perspective. A plane modeler can immerse himself in building a plane. His older brother may scoff at that and immerse himself in law work.

    You are looking at the world through rosy-rimmed nostalgia. I came here to kick you in the rear and tell you to stop thinking like an old man, but fromm reading your source article, I think all you need is just some perspective.

    I, too, got into MUSHes, well, more than MUDs and table-top DnD and all the like. Of course, such things are rarer now and, you are right, there are “waves” or “fads” that come, go, and revive again.

    Immersion is what one makes it and how they are shown. You have to impart (or even teach your kids) how to appreciate it. Really, let’s look at the reality of it all: Reading a book, we sit down with something that contain pages that we leaf through. As we read these pages, we are taken to another world. We could be in a park, in a comfy chair, or on the bus. The thing is, the human mind does not fully get lost; you do keep tabs, like if you have an appointment somewhere or a bus stop to get off on, right? While one could fully sit in private and read for hours on end, even “back then” people could leave/enter the pages of a book and still enjoy it.

    Look at textual computer games: Much like books, it got the “mind’s eye” working, no? It was like “Radio” to us when Television was introduced, the common complaint was, “Radio has the better pictures”. But really, we were staring at computer monitors and typing at keyboards. Sure, we lost ourselves and got “immersed”, but it wasn’t perfect. Again, the human brain covered these little idiosyncrasies.

    I may be wrong, but I think you are not pleased with some aspects of mobile gaming, but really, it can be immersive. I’ve seen kids playing Pokemon and happily enjoying it. Years later, they wax poetically about it. They focus on the screen, even if their Mom drags them around and while you, as an outsider, may think the child has little interest, kids can be very flexible and persistant and they still are. I see it in online games.

    You say some games (I can guess which) are movies with buttons, but aren’t movies immersive? Didn’t you get caught up in a Sci-fi movie or action flick? Games, by virtue, are better than movies BECAUSE they are more immersive. A movie, you just watch as an unrelated bystander. A Game you actively play as the MAIN character. This is an important thing to understand and maybe you just need reminding of it because some bits and pieces don’t match into mobile gaming.

    It’s all about “suspension of disbelief” and you will have some people that have it and others that don’t…but those that have it…well, have you ever been to a Star Trek Convention or any type of similar con? Those fans can get *really* into it. They are immersed in it! Don’t tell me they don’t know the correct way to do a Vulcan salute or Kirk’s safe combination.

    And the same can be said of many of today’s gamers, especially those guys that throw memes whenever, wherever they can so that we all get bored with it and the ones that fore-shorten words into simple-stringed letters.

    Of course, there are challenges we older gamers never had to face. You mention playing Skyrim on XBox and being interrupted. You know what *I* do whenever I play XBox or PS3? I leave it unplugged from my modem. Unless I am playing multi-player, I see no reason to leave it plugged in. Sure, it’s something “extra” I have to do, but I tend to only really need it when I feel the urge to go online and download a dlc or do multi-player things.

    And how is that so different from your Mom telling you to take out the garbage when we were kids? Or eating at the table with the family while watching a great movie? It’s not. You got your immersion fairly fast, didn’t you?

    You need to view the world with young eyes again. It’s not just remembering what you did when you were young, but getting into that mindframe. Heck, there is a mobile game that has a GPS map of you and your region and you hunt invisible monsters. While we are adults and try to be “adult”, don’t you think that fits in nicely with immersion, especially if you suspend your disbelief and not care what others may think? (Of course, you gotta do it within reason!)

    You have to overcome boundaries, not only on the outside, but within yourself, too. If you see obstacles, just think a way around them. Heck, Roger Corman made such movies with unconventional ways of thinking that no one else did in Hollywood. You just gotta think “outside the box” and treat the limits as a challenge. You remember those arcade games, how much memory did they take and how much was stuffed into the chips? Compare that to today, where you’d be hard pressed to find ANY device on the market with the same memory capacity as those old Arcade classics.

    Immersion comes. Sometimes you just have to play that tune and hope others follow. There are still people that believe in it and there are people who will limit it, but STILL enjoy it. You can’t say it is unappreciated, because it IS appreciated, even in the games you may look at and not think are immersive. Maybe those people are simple to please or maybe they have a wider range of tastes, but don’t think they are not out there.

    And true, there IS a class of gamer that I scratch my head and wonder, “Why are they playing such-n-such game?” I mean, take SWTOR for example, some people just want a PvP game out of it. Nothing wrong with that, but you wonder, if this game were made with stick figures and whatnot, would they play it? I feel, even these folks who belittle RPers enjoy the immersion, because, why the heck do they care about the graphics?

    It’s out there. Keep reaching. Don’t lose the faith. Spend time with your kids and understand their view of the world around them.

  19. ahhh – neither consumer VR nor the Metaverse have arrived yet.
    There’s much to come.

  20. Immersion may not be a core virtue of a games. It is however, a core virtue of creating virtual worlds.

    The original MMOs aspired to be more than just games, but instead to be virtual worlds. Participation in a virtual world was an end in itself to many gamers, to which they chose their own means of participation. Immersion is paramount to this, as it provides context to a player’s actions in the game world. Without immersion, a virtual world cannot exist.

    Today’s MMOs however, are the opposite. The game world exists merely to serve the core game mechanics, which sadly, tend to amount to little more than elaborately polished skinner boxes. Players are pushed into predefined and compartmentalized gameplay scenarios, scripted out using scraps of immersion in the form of quests or otherwise poorly written NPC dialogue. In short, modern MMOs are merely games, and nothing more.

    My only hope is that those who create MMOs come to the realization that there is still a place for virtual worlds in the MMO market.

  21. So striving for immersion is an unecessary activity for developers? Is that what you are telling them? Whenever players cry out for immersion, developers can just shake their heads and go on designing the next grind-for-reward system? That when players bemoan the wimpiness of crafting or housing systems, developers can smirk on go on with business?

    I think immersion is not a core game virtue in our times, to the detriment of games. And I think games will emerge with more immersive aspects and thrive – not because of an upswing in trends, but because there is a big market for immersive games. And when those games may eventually fail, it’s not because of a change in trends, but because the game did not continue to offer enough of an experience.

    You do offer a powerful argument but I think it is overly cynical. And I very much disagree with your statement that “Immersion isn’t a mass market activity in that sense, because most people are comfortable being who they are and where they are.”

    I don’t think wanting to immerse oneself in a fantasy world has so much to do with comfortability with who/where people are – I am very uncertain about whether most people are comfortable with themselves. And there are plenty of gamers who are not comfortable with themselves but could care less about immersion.

    So I say, have hope!

  22. while they made crude jokes in their actual voices and talk about how work went that day.
    Even those immersive virtual worlds that I held so dear are full of acronyms and practices that strip away every shred of magic. PUGs and soul bound items and DPS counters and queues and level ranges and unlocking companions and cost for mounts and all that crap

    This is why I gave up on SWG last year and only returned when we found out it was being cancelled. The game was great and offered the gameplay I liked the most of any game I had played, but no one seemed to “get it” any more and I felt awfully alone. When the game launched we used to just go out and do things, just for the sake of doing them and we had fun, but in the last year of the game it was just bunch of, “just shut up and afk it – no one cares about your ideas to make the game more fun” crap from so many players. It was depressing, enough so that I quit playing a game that I otherwise quite enjoyed.

    Everything you mentioned today, Raph, is something I can relate to and I see now that you and I are like my sister and I: we feel the same way and come to the same conclusions, but we think about the process so differently that we’d argue even though ultimately we agree with each other. Sorry for giving you a hard time in the past. /hi5

  23. Here is what I had to say about leaving SWG (before it was cancelled). Sadly it relates to Raph’s post, because the pretending ended and the well of good will had dried up… the glass of milk of back yard play had long since spilled and dried a foul… and I wondered why people couldn’t just “play the game” anymore.

  24. Raph, do you hear that? I know the sound is distant, far off, but it’s growing. Listen closely, intently, to what they are saying….
    “I want something different”…
    “I want more”….

    Immersion is not dead. Immersion is a requirement for a sophisticated audience. Great movies, great music, they pull you in. Otherwise, they aren’t “great”. The gaming industry has recently gone through a phase of newness to a great many people. But they are hungry to be pulled in. And the simple stuff, the lowest common denominator, the flashy signs and the impulse sales, they just aren’t enough anymore.

  25. A ‘core game virtue’ ought to be the game designers willingness to confront the challenges of gamedesign, especially in the time of MMO’s where trolling, exploiting and unforseen consequences probably is detrimental to the overall game experience.

    One idea I have had that I find interesting, in an attempt to better pace large MMO games so that a game world cannot be razed on a whim, is a type of instancing. Half of the idea is that a group of players are partly secluded in their own area (fixed or instanced) and the other half of the idea offers anyone the possibility of joining that secluded area, but given certain limitations.

    In a scifi context, it would be easy to have a group of people live on a planet somewhere, shielded from rampaging players, but this solution would only work within a circle of trust and where the game mechanics allow someone to stay at a planet that has to be difficult for others to find out. A universe with a redundant amount of planets would make it difficult or even impossible for others to realistically find some group of players staying at one particular planet, if there were say a million planets to choose from. This idea does not well with a single land area, because the area would have to be really gigantic, else people will just come strolling over the secluded area at some point in time.

    Still a mountain blocking any access to the secluded area could work, as long as flying mounts are not in the game (or if they were be unable to fly over the mountain). Regular travel to this secluded area would depend on either secret paths through the mountain, magical paths or perhaps player designs paths though the mountain, sort of like the concept of the game minecraft.

    Using powerful NPC’s to guard a players village seem like a good idea to fend off thieves, hostile players and troublemakers. A ranking player could instruct the NPC’s around to “troll” the trolls/troublemakers.

  26. facts that their staff provides them.some people…

    won’t trust their intuition because they don’t understand where it comes from. some are convincedbelieve that intuition is merely what happens when your subconscious mind processes all the information available to you below the level of conscious awa…

  27. Great post, and as with all great posts, I’m divided.

    I agree with the surplus of “game” in videogames. A gameworld has become that thing, right over there, while game systems are that other thing, right over there. They are often at odds. A game without rules isn’t a game although there seems to be a burning desire, on behalf of studios and gamers, to be smothered in numbers, nomenclatures, menus, systems upon systems. This isn’t so much a criticism as it is looking towards what these systems provide. I love Monster Hunter precisely because the game is sickeningly fine tuned. Its has clarity and a sense of purpose. On the other hand, I actively avoid most jRPGs because their systems are sickeningly hopeless and joyless. Many western RPGs aren’t different and often succumb to this, and not just in systems – I fell off my chair when the mega selling, hyper neo RPG KotOR asked me to play Towers of Hanoi to open doors.

    When I’m managing more statistics than travelling and absorbing the world, or when I’m being told by characters that “this is world is like this” instead of going out there myself and seeing how it actually is, the game is failing me. Good job – you’ve actively pushed me away from your world.

    Social systems (thinking XBLA here) are a different matter but converge to the same disappointment. It’s not just that they are there, it’s that they’ve become so pervasive and “you’re there? so am I!”. I’m not a social player, in the sense that I don’t particularly pursue online game experiences. I’ve played them, no doubt: some MMOs, online RPGs, Quake 3 Arena and so on (maybe related to what I’m saying: I actually enjoyed such games because there was a degree of anonimity there. Sure, I enjoyed socializing, but enjoyed even more the idea of a game space that is there just for the game. Players were transitory and the game recognized this. I enter, assume a role, play, then leave. It’s an experience. It’s all I really wanted from online games and I got it.

    As to what I disagree with what you’ve written… Not sure I disagree, so much as every person has their own background. For instance, I’ve played D&D in the past and not once I felt like the rules were getting in the way. Though, maybe I’m lying: it was more the degree to which a DM would apply rules that might have been good or bad. But D&D is a game; therefore it needs rules. I’ve heard people describe ruleless (sp?) sessions as freeform role-playing. Fine, that’s their choice, but that doesn’t mean there is something necessarily wrong with D&D having rules. It seems like they appreciated the game at once, but eventually got tired and decided to do something else. It’s hard to imagine anyone playing San Andreas for the numbers in the system. Then again, it’s entirely plausible to imagine someone playing San Andreas for its systems.

    I think a reasonable analogy would be: freeform role-playing is telling stories by a campfire. D&D is playing stories by a campfire where one or more people eventually exclaim “wait, that’s not what happened!”. In a way that’s how DM’s – and game systems as they apply to D&D videogames – work. You have a game world, a game space, things to do and see and explore, but there’s always something there to remind you there are rules. I’m fine with that, just as long as it does not get excessive. Take Planescape: Torment as an example. A marvellous story, a wonderful sense of place, an excellent and diverse range of characters, statistics and systems up the wazoo. But – and this is crucial – the systems were instrumental to all that since they affected dialogue, by far the main gameplay mechanic of Torment. It was “immersive” in the most literal sense of the word (and not the largely held belief that it somehow ties it with unrelated things, such as a first person perspective): the authors managed to pull me into their world. Conversely, I don’t feel more or less in a world because I don’t see my character. It’s the opposite: am I really “there” if I can’t even see my feet? I’m a floating camera and that’s all there is to it. I find it’s a lot more immersive to actually see my character because I’m constantly aware of his or her presence, and how they react to their game spaces. We remember Solid Snake because he had presence (not “dialogue”). Would anyone really consider him memorable if they never saw him? Doubt it.

    On the other hand, what we see as a core game virtue is ever changing and, unfortunately, not really up for as individuals to decide. Even if a studio proclaims it to be, a player might not feel drawn to their game. Conversely, a game that is launched without a single PR release mentioning immersion might be held as a shining example of that. I blame videogame “journalism” and its ad hoc appropriation of terms used in other mediums to describe games. It’s become detrimental and debasing of the medium’s possibilities.

    But to say immersion is not a core virtue might have a measure of truth in it, in the sense that immersion might not be the right word. Or maybe it is the right word if we accept it’s representative of other things that might lead to it – a vast game world, a game where choices and consequences matter, a gripping story. Then again, I’ve never felt any of these to be essential. I was pretty “into” Doom 2 RPG on my Nokia mobile phone. Whether this counts as immersive is really up for grabs, because I can’t say if I would feel immersed in the game had it been a full blown release on all the main platforms. Doom 2 RPG has that quality every mobile game should have: you know there is a world there, waiting for you, sexy and demanding but also not too fussed about you turning it off. It pulls me into its hallways and beasts, maybe because it’s not meant to be immersive (“DRAGONBORN!”). It’s always with me wherever I go. That’s something I appreciate, really, in a medium so hopelessly in love with nearly forcing me to play everything at all times.

    Compare and contrast to, say, Elder Scrolls: I’m not immersed in the games because there are books I can read. What’s the point really? There are Wiki pages that satisfy that need. Plus, it’s one of the ways it breaks immersion. Elder Scrolls is a playground with things littered across it for players to find and do, but they barely have a consequence. Books are treated as a product, or a quest goal. They relate the past but never seem to matter to any character. I can’t remember any character ever reading a book. To put it another way, Elder Scrolls is filled with literature in a world that cares nothing for it. This sentiment applies to just about everything else there. It’s filled with creatures that only recognize each other in binaries of friend or foe – creatures are hitboxes without any sense of ecology or of self. Dungeons and caves might as well be randomized, since there’s rarely any sense of individual work placed in them. Etc.

    I can waste hundreds of hours in Elder Scrolls but never feel a part of it. It has the things we believe are representative of immersion but are these really necessary? Really, there seems to be this mantra wherein people think spending time with a game is automatically a seal of quality, or a sign of a game’s depth. Pac-Man Championship Edition has depth, both in its systems and gameplay, but I can be “into” the game for just 5 or 10 minutes. On Skyrim, 30 minutes of spellunking may leave me cold. If Skyrim is the pinnacle of immersion, I can’t say I’m sorry to see developers moving away from it.

  28. Ralph,

    I disagree with your premise that Immersion is a style that has come out of fashion.
    I think that there is simply a threshhold of Immersion that is “enough” for games. That’s because
    a) too much immersion inevitably kills gameplay as you cannot reach higher levels of immersion without catering the gameplay towards it (all bioware games are a fine example)
    b) as you wrote yourself, most people know it’s just pretending and bombarding them with super serious immersive worlds makes the game feel forced and unreal to them.

    I think what works best in terms of immersion is answering the “what if…?” question for the player. If you look at Fallout, it is pretty much hailed by everyone who has played it for it’s immersiveness. That’s because the world it plays in is entirely plausible for the player, it presents an answer to the question “what if humankind nuked itself?” If you then add some (sometimes funny) references to the world the player lives in, it just seems to work out pretty good, in terms of immersiveness.

  29. >Immersion is not a core game virtue. It was a style

    It’s not a core game virtue, I agree. No definition of “game” that insisted on immersion as a component would fly.

    However, neither is it merely a passing (or, indeed, passed) style. It offers too much for those who appreciate it for it to be that. All that’s happened is that the number of people currently playing non-immesive games has ballooned so much that their numbers swamp those of people who play more immersive or nuanced games.

    Those people are not going to play those same kinds of games forever. They’re going to want to play “better” games. They’ll home in on particular niches, they’ll try different genres. A few will make it as far as RPGs, but I expect most will go with increasingly hardcore versions of their own particular favourites. Games scratch an itch, but not everyone’s itch is in the same place.

    It’s like when the general public first got access to the Internet. Although many existing Internet users beat their breasts in anguish that something special had been broken, all it really meant was that there were a lot of clueless people around who would have to clue up. Clue up they did, and what we have now is much better than it ever was before the walls came down.

    So it is with games. We have a sea of clueless games players now, but they’ll gradually educate themselves in the ways of play; it’s inevitable, because people learn about play through play. Eventually, we’ll have an ocean of clueful players. Some of those will lap on the shores of RPGs. Some will lap onto the shores of islands yet to be discovered. We don’t know where they’ll go. All we know is that very few of them will remain where they are now.

    Immersion is a core virtue for virtual worlds, because it’s the whole point of playing. Not everyone wants immersion, sure, but more will want it as a result of playing “social” games than would otherwise.

    Richard

  30. I eh have written the following elsewhere on the interents, but I want to repeat it although it is perhaps alittle out of context:

    Receipe for an MMO: pacing + making sense

    So I would argue that the more substance (not content) there is to a game, the more responsive the gamer can be towards it.

  31. Thisis my comment. Blogger is bad at ping/trackbacks.

  32. I think immersion is core to MMO games and virtual worlds but it’s not a specific feature to build, it’s something to try NOT to break.

    When I read “Exodus to the virtual world” (E. Castronova) I came across the work of Byron Reeves and Clifford Nass (Stanford) page 26/27. Their finding is that “”media images are initialy perceived as real. The reason is simple: the brain evolved in an environment that did not have media in it. Thus when you see a tiger on TV, your brain’s first reaction is not “TV tiger” but just “tiger”. That reaction dominates only until higher-level brain structure process the tiger and determine that it is not, in fact, in the living room.[...] Under certain circumstances – a very good movie, for example – we actually ask the higher structures to let go a bit, to allow us to be in the reality that the media imagery presents us. This drifting off is getting easier and easier, as more recent innovations have made innovation media representations even more difficult to distinguish from real things””

    So if a MMO or virtual world is coherent, rich and pleasing to someone, immersion should come naturally.

    The question then is what is breaking immersion?

    I see two design flaws which weren’t “game breaking” in the past but are not sustainable anymore in our social networking world.

    1: Vertical progression and the “dirty fix” health-pool increase

    I tried to explain what I meant here:

    https://plus.google.com/110873640795387924972/posts/7Tkev41SfxB

    I don’t say horizontal progression will be easy to implement but I strongly believe the “dirty fix” is not sustainable anymore, surprisingly making now current MMORPG one of the most unsocial online game genre despite its world and character persistence.

    2: “Skinner box” fatigue and the balance of extrinsic/intrinsic rewards

    I had a “deja-vu” feeling reading Richard Bartle presentation on bad gamification:

    http://gamification-research.org/2011/05/richard-bartle-on-gamification-too-much-of-a-good-thing/

    In the part about skinner boxes/rewards I realized how much it actually applies to big chunks of current MMORPG (repetitive, non challenging work-like tasked, gamified with extrinsic rewards only). How can we gamify what is already sold as a MMORPG “game”? Isn’t that an acceptation of failure for current MMORPG? For Barttle bad gamification is not sustainable : “the more it happens [skinner box/extrinsic rewards], the less effective it becomes”. I think we are at the same point for many MMORPG players and new players can’t really come in since those “games” became mostly unsocial in today’s world (consequence of the “dirty fix” above).

    So 1 AND 2 == the dark winter of MMO we are in now.

    Is this the end of the road for the promises of MMO and virtual worlds?

    I certainly don’t think so, the quicker the current model bleeds (and it does) the quicker developers will be forced to depart from the dirty fix + extrinsic rewards paradigm.
    When they will (and some are already on the radar), there will be a remarkable renaissance and I certainly wish you would be part of it! :)

  33. Very thought provoking post! I think a major part of this is a generational gap. Lots of us grew up on D&D, then on to mud’s, then on to ultima and sandbox type MMO’s. The last truly immersive experience I had was in everquest 1, which is a themepark but when it first came out it had that sandbox type feel. I can remember having no idea how large the world was, being scared of going out without a torch, making the run from one end of the world to the other as a low level, and sneaking thru undead very dangerous zones. I don’t know if I will ever get that feeling ever again, akin to the drug addict who will never feel the incredible high of his first hit. This nostalgia is probably the very first thing us old timers need to blame when lamenting how MMO’s are today.

    With that said there is definitely a generational gap in today’s MMO audience. Today’s audience just wants to blow through content as fast as possible, they want to follow formulas, whether that formula is how they spend their characters stat points, how they put together a group, or which “quests” they choose to gain levels there is always an “optimal” formula to get to the “end” of the game faster. The age of exploration is gone, there is no exploration anymore, exploration has no perceived value, it’s only a hindrance to the end game. Socializing is becoming a hindrance to the end game as well, cries for cross server group finders, less if any social talk during group type encounters, no goodbyes or socializing when a group event is finished, just the hardcore grind of getting closer to end game without the hindrances of such antiquated concepts as “socializing” and “exploring”. Hey video games mirror true life where as we get older we lose that sense of exploring the world and we concentrate more on work (questing and leveling), making money (gold), purchasing material items (gear), having kids (alts) and basically getting to the “end game” of life. Just as we have sucked all the fun out of our lives in this era, we seem to have sucked all the fun out of MMO’s and made them just another “grind” like our every day lives.

  34. You said secondary world.

    Perhaps the elves and fairies give magic where it’s due.

  35. Richard Bartle said:
    “So it is with games. We have a sea of clueless games players now, but they’ll gradually educate themselves in the ways of play; it’s inevitable, because people learn about play through play. Eventually, we’ll have an ocean of clueful players. Some of those will lap on the shores of RPGs. Some will lap onto the shores of islands yet to be discovered. We don’t know where they’ll go. All we know is that very few of them will remain where they are now.

    Immersion is a core virtue for virtual worlds, because it’s the whole point of playing. Not everyone wants immersion, sure, but more will want it as a result of playing “social” games than would otherwise.”

    I think there were a few comments when games like Farmville came along, that this could be the seed for “worldly” MMORPGs. That’s a lot of players there, and certainly a percentage of them are going to ask at some point

    “why can’t someone make this only bigger and better, in an entire world where food is worth growing?”

    And…

    Can I do other things like this too? Can I raise horses?”

    Of course, that one’s been asked since the beginning of MMORPGs.

    I agree not everyone’s going to want that sort of “worldly” game play. But there’s no consensus of anything. All game types are going to be “niche” in the genre. Including Themeparks. There’s a place for Immersive, worldly Sandboxes too, and I think the numbers would surprise quite a few game company execs. Much like UO and WoW both did.

  36. Immersion is a core virtue for virtual worlds, because it’s the whole point of playing.

    Not sure about this one. Let’s consider the role-playing genre. What’s the difference between Skyrim and and WoW? The difference between a single-player RPG and a multiplayer one? You can role-play in either, and people can fell right down “immersed” in either. MMOs, like MUDs before them (and I’m sure I’ll ruffle fans) are basically chat clients with additional ludic elements. This isn’t meant as an insult, it’s just what they are. Strip WoW of chat and suddenly you have a standard RPG. Blizzard-made, Blizzard-tested, Blizzard-tested, sure, but still a standard one. The whole point of WoW, as a virtual world, is a platform that gathers activities we do elsewhere, but chief among them is social interaction. I’ve seen people role-playing in Mirc, and they swear by their dead relatives it was some of the best rping they’ve had, downright immersive.

  37. *ah, the third was meant to be “Blizzard-branded”, sorry.

  38. Rather than reply here, I wrote a large follow-up post here:

    http://www.raphkoster.com/2012/01/14/faq-on-the-immersion-post/

  39. The space between our time when we played table top RPGs and todays computer gaming world are pretty far reaching.

    I remember when D&D came out and I owned the Basic Red Books and the Expert Blue Books. Were they blue? I think so.

    Back then, The heroes would charge into the dungeon. Good would overcome evil and the damsel in distress would be saved.

    There was nothing outside of the dungeon and this was just in the beginning stages that Gary Gyjax pioneered.

    Role Playing Games lost their edge when Collectible Card Games emerged into the market with Magic The Gathering. The games changed the dynamic and thus the immersion was lost.

    I see this concept like society has its wants. The comparison is this.

    People would take the time to create a campaign, They would invest themselves into the places, people and lore. I created the world called Crisia and it had its own history and when we explored it. It was much like discovering a new world. The players were not adventurers but were explorers.

    They would define how they would see things in the world and relate to them using their own personal experiences.

    They would immerse themselves into the game.

    These days the word RPG is tossed around at the end of MMO and these are not RPGs. A new game entered the market called “The Old Republic” You are a Sith Lord or a Jedi. The player can be Han Solo or The Republic Trooper.

    However the failure of this game is the linear story line. The story always stays the same when the character makes his choice. The Character just change their response.

    Choices should open more options and really not a lot of options will be needed. Creating more dynamic stories verse linear stories would allow players to shape their universe.

    The Blizzard phases work nicely with this if you could customize them for the user experiences.

    Thanks for the post and your contribution Raph. Looking forward to your next game design.

  40. @Crispian

    I don’t think wanting to immerse oneself in a fantasy world has so much to do with comfortability with who/where people are – I am very uncertain about whether most people are comfortable with themselves. And there are plenty of gamers who are not comfortable with themselves but could care less about immersion.

    I second this. It’s not so much that these gamers are comfortable being who they are and where they are as that they are afraid to be anything or anyone else. They bury themselves in simple reward systems as a form of stimming.

    The worst dreams aren’t nightmares, they’re the ones where impossible dreams are achieved–past tragedies never happened, deceased loved ones are still with you–and then you wake up. Some people avoid immersion precisely *because* they’re uncomfortable with reality–they just don’t want to remember that.

  41. One can’t have “misconceptions” about immersion, in the sense that the term has gained considerable appeal and invididual value for different people – and forcing a meaning on it simply won’t do a lick of difference for them. “Calleja views it as blending different experiential phenomena afforded by involving gameplay”, really? Not sure. I can describe some games as having “involving gameplay” and I’m sure many would disagree with me, and the same could very much apply to whatever they decide to tell me as being “involving”. See, Gauntlet has involving gameplay – that doesn’t necessarily mean someone will find it “immersive”.

  42. Diogo Ribeiro>What’s the difference between [...] a single-player RPG and a multiplayer one?

    In the multi-player one, your character’s identity is responded to and validated by other players.

    >You can role-play in either, and people can fell right down “immersed” in either.

    Well they can certainly be engrossed in either. However, in an MMO they can feel that they “are” their character more easily than they can in a regular RPG, because of the presence of other players.

    There’s more than one kind of immersion. Psychologists use the term “immersed” to mean something like “persuaded that the non-real is real”. This is indeed one level of immersion, but there’s a deeper level that is more akin to what gamers mean when they say they’re immersed in an MMO: the sense that their character’s identity and their own is one. It’s not that you feel the world is real – that’s a mere preconditional aid to feeling that you are the character you’re playing.

    You can get this kind of immersion in regular RPGs, but it’s harder than in MMOs because you have to will it upon yourself. In MMOs, there’s a path laid out before you that you will follow merely by playing.

    >MMOs, like MUDs before them (and I’m sure I’ll ruffle fans) are basically chat clients with additional ludic elements.

    Ah, I see the problem here: you’re missing the entire “world” side of the equation.

    Richard

  43. @Richard Bartle:

    In the multi-player one, your character’s identity is responded to and validated by other players.

    There’s certainly a more organic response to a player’s presence, insofar as communication, cooperation and competition are present and prevalent. I’m not entirely sure, however, that this is enough. A well designed single-player RPG can present an amount of choice and consequence, and reciprocity as to give players a sense of “being there”, and being a part of that world – which is just as strong a validation. The dynamics may differ (in MMOs, it’s other players; in SP RPGs, it’s the world) but both can provide “immersion”. Yet, just as the SP RPG can fail by presenting a dead end to the player’s aspirations, so can the MP one.

    the sense that their character’s identity and their own is one.

    Can’t disagree with that (in the sense that it’s a valid, individual viewpoint – as individual as what is immersive to this or that person, for instance, and I’ll refer you to the players who believe immersion in a game comes from something like first-person perspective rather than, say, a well designed game world), though I’d argue SP RPGs are better at this in the context of a world that can actually provide a larger framework for player expression, though they are also undermined by a finite number of choices and consequences programmed in the game; player interaction with other players is a great tool, but I’d argue a MMO, or a specific MMO, isn’t necessary – these players would be feel as validated in any other because their interest is primarily a participatory medium; a play and a stage, if you will…

    Ah, I see the problem here: you’re missing the entire “world” side of the equation.

    …Which leads us into this :)

    Minor anecdotal evidence: in the days when Icewind Dale II was released, and the Black Isle forums were hot with conversation, players would go to fantastic lengths to create character backgrounds and motivations – all of which could be written as a character biography in the game, but none of which were recognized by the game. This wasn’t exclusive to that game, sure enough, and people still do this in other games, like Elder Scrolls. Their desire for certain key aspects of an “experience”, the kind usually ascribed to MMOs, is actually played more in a forum than in the game.

    Maybe this does tie into the idea of a “world”, but even at its most vanilla, WoW is thematically a more appealing “world” than a forum – why would anyone rather do this through a forum? I guess this may also tie into players who, feeling constrained by D&D as nothing but rules, also move themselves away from the die and just assume the mantle of characters. But this quite likely would happen regardless of which pen-and-paper system or setting they would play in. Eventually, a certain kind of player just wants to move into something else, something less constraining. Any “world” would do for them and I honestly think it’s less about a world and more about a platform that lets them achieve their goals, though it’s obvious they still want a “game”: how many successful MMOs are there where gameplay is just freeform role-playing, or a social playground with no statistics?

    So when I said MMOs were basically chat clients, I was maybe kinda being facetious. But maybe not – it would be interesting to see if WoW or any other MMO would be as “immersive” to players without a conventional chat system.

  44. Diogo Ribeiro>A well designed single-player RPG can present an amount of choice and consequence, and reciprocity as to give players a sense of “being there”

    That’s not the point. “Being there” isn’t what immersion is about. Immersion is about “that person is me”. If you don’t believe that you’re there then sure, believing that your character is you is going to be much harder; that’s why trying to make the world persuasive is in general a good idea as far as immersion is concerned. However, it’s not immersion, it’s just a step on the way to immersion. Immersion is where you and your character are one and the same.

    >which is just as strong a validation.
    Being treated by other players as if you were your character is far more validating than is being treated by an AI as if you were your character, because the AI doesn’t know that really you’re not your character.

    >in the days when Icewind Dale II was released, and the Black Isle forums were hot with conversation, players would go to fantastic lengths to create character backgrounds and motivations

    This is “hard” role-playing, in which players design a character and then try to play as that character (much as an actor would in a play). The character changes very little, because the aim is to gain insight into yourself by becoming someone else specifically. Virtual worlds specialise in “soft” role-play, in which the character and the player both change. You can change your character’s character and you can gain insight into your own personality, but there’s nothing to keep the character rooted. Most players of MMOs do soft role-playing and most will deny doing any role-playing at all.

    Hard role-playing is a perfectly valid play style for MMOs, I should add, it’s just that it’s not what most players do.

    >all of which could be written as a character biography in the game, but none of which were recognized by the game.

    Some hard role-playing MUDs used to make you write an essay about your character and submit it for scrutiny before they’d decide whether to let you play or not.

    >Eventually, a certain kind of player just wants to move into something else

    The thing is, though, that the role-playing has caused this. They’ve got all they can from being the person they became, and now they need to become someone else to see themself through another lens.

    >it would be interesting to see if WoW or any other MMO would be as “immersive” to players without a conventional chat system.

    Well they couldn’t survive without some kind of chat system because socialisers need to be able to communicate in a freeform manner. Killers and explorers would be fine without chat, though, and achievers only need it insofar as it helps them rack up points quicker if they can use it to co-ordinate with other players.

    Richard

  45. I would note that “hard” and “soft” roleplay is a continuum rather than a dichotomy. Having been part of a “hard” rp community, I’ve seen a lot of “soft” roleplayers gradually become more sophisticated in their approach to participate more fully in the community; I’ve also seen “hard” roleplayers let down their hair and get a little (or a lot) OOC to socialize or blow off steam.

    In an environment with a mix of styles, a player who’s flexible has more opportunities for productive interactions.

  46. I’d agree that the degree to which people adopt hard or soft role-play is a continuum, and that there is a continuum within hard role-playing and another within soft role-playing. I’d even say that some of the hardest soft role-play is harder than the softest hard role-play. However, I do think there’s a step-change distinction between the two. In hard role-play, the goal of the player is to become the character they have defined; in soft role-play, the goal of the player is to make the character they have defined become them. They both solve the equation, but they attack it from opposite directions.

    Richard

  47. Richard, I think we’re both looking at the same thing from different sides. Either that or the terminology used is more detrimental to what’s being said; I stared intently at “soft” and “hard” role-playing for a while but then realized I haven’t discussed role-playing and MMOs for a long time now, so maybe in the meantime, some concepts may have gained further depth of analysis.

    I think “being there” is an unequivocal part of immersion, because a player and a character becoming “one and the same” in a virtual world (in this case, that of an MMO) is largely a direct influence of player interaction in regards to role-playing. If the main social element of an RPG does not recognize nor validate me (and once again, specific to MMOs, people are that social element), I don’t feel I’m “there”, or that I’m immersed by becoming the character, in that particular world. I mentioned reciprocity in single-player RPGs; while the nature of said reciprocity varies (programed versus organic) both are methods of communication that validate a player’s place in their given worlds. But both can go against their goals.

    Yes, there’s a considerably larger thrill by being recognized by other players but I think the virtues of this kind of role-playing might be exagerated. Which is not a criticism of said virtues; merely, that we tend to emphasize things which are important or appeal to us. So to “soft” role-players, I can imagine it being a big drawing point and a reference. What puts me away from it is the old adage “hell is other people”. Which is to say, immersion generated by direct contact with players can be fantastic or terrible, depending on the kind of players I’m dealing with. While it may seem wrong to decry immersion based on this, it is important to stress that role-playing, even when freefrom, is still a “game”, with unwritten rules. Socialisers and “soft” RPers, I’m sure, have plently of horror stories about players who don’t “play nice” while role-playing (bad conduct, lack of enthusiasm, etc.). I brought up SP RPGs because their validation tools, while entirely binary or conditional, rarely betray a player’s role-playing and the character’s place in the world (they also have the possibility of allowing the shaping of a world according to a player’s actions, as opposed to shaping just a player/character’s outlook). I know there are exceptions in both cases, but that’s pretty much my main point of contention regarding immersion as a definitive thing, an absolute. I’ve always felt that convergence of personal and digital identity in games, as an example of immersion, almost always had something to do with what you said previously – making a world persuasive – rather than one or other specific method – such as exploring myself by exploring the other (character role-playing). The latter isn’t a bad method by any means, but I only find it to matter when used alongside other elements.

    RE: communication. Well, maybe that’s the thing. I think virtual worlds are a great platform for communication, which can lead to immersion, but the “world” seems an entirely different construct. I’d forgotten about that entry point for MUDs, but it is cute and poignant. BBS, MUDs, MMOs were (are) largely stages for a play. Socialising is the core of these genres, but socialising was already a core of human interaction. I don’t think I’ve “missed the “world” side of the equation”, just maybe that the equation can be solved in different ways.

    Too long once again, I know :) In a final analysis, I agree with Raph in the sense there is a clear departure from what was once an almost present, but not necessarily always obvious, ideal in game design; though I still remain skeptical if it can be boiled down to immersion. Maybe it can, and maybe it’s just the terminology that I raised an eyebrow towards.

  48. Immersive gaming for hours on end (the preferred duration) was always a niche market. It will remain forever and may grow as technology continues to provide more leisure time for more people.

    Just like tv and movies will never kill books, which were always a niche medium for hardcore reading enthusiasts. Oh, we could romanticize the age of letters and pretend the majority indulged in books as entertainment up until modern media. But let’s not forget that mass literacy is a very recent phenomenon.

    Immersive gaming will stick around for the same type of people that always loved it. There were always mass market alternatives, they just weren’t electronic before – Monopoly, Risk, Checkers, Hearts, Bridge, Poker, Uno… Not much has changed. The big rise of Dungeons & Dragons in the 70s and 80s was a remarkable cultural moment, though.

  49. word!I cannot understand the giant gap that is missing in the game industry

  50. [...] the original designer of Ultima Online, Raph Koster, made waves lamenting the loss of immersion in MMOs. In a way, he’s making the usual sandbox-vs.-themepark argument, but he’s not [...]

  51. [...] as one of the elder statesman of virtual worlds and creator of a parallel Star Wars universe also doesn’t think much of immersion these days. The rats have been leaving the sinking ship of virtual worlds for a while. I fully expect that [...]

  52. [...] like the new LulzSec. Whatever happened to those guys, by the way?)Is immersion in MMOs dead? Our answer was a very conclusive, definitive and resounding maybe.The TERA beta is up-signable. [...]

  53. [...] post by Raph Koster on immersion in games Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:LikeBe the first to like [...]

  54. […] the question gaming industry veteran and former lead designer for Ultima Online poses in the title of his latest blog post. And he leads the post off with a quote (from himself) noting — and mourning, to some extent […]

  55. […] thing I and others noted, in reporting on former Ultima Online lead designer Raph Koster’s thoughts on immersion as a core game virtue was that a solid definition of immersion needed to be settled upon before Mr. Koster’s […]

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