Yesterday’s post on immersion has occasioned a fair amount of commentary and questions. More importantly, different people seem to have read the post in very different ways. Given its nature, and who I was speaking to with it, that doesn’t really surprise me.
Rather than answer them in comment threads scattered all over the place, I thought I would do it all right here. So here is a FAQ!
Are you trolling? Please tell me you are trolling?
No, I wasn’t trolling. It was heartfelt. It was also dashed off in the middle of a sleepless night. I did not expect quite the level of passion in reply, I have to admit.
Immersion is a slippery word. What did you actually mean?
I meant the sense of playing a game without ever getting its mechanics rubbed in your face. In the past I have said that there are two core abilities a designer needs to have: to be able to strip away all the surface and only see the math and systems; and to do the exact opposite, and only see the surfaces, the fantasy of it.
These are also two ways to play a game. You can come to it as purely a math puzzle to solve, or you can come at it as an experience. And ironically, with all the advances we have made in terms of presentation, it feels like more and more games are less about the experience and more about the acronyms and mechanics.
Wait a second! Don’t you bemoan the overemphasis on narrative in games in other posts?
Yup, I absolutely do! I have been a big advocate for paying more attention to mechanics in game design, and less to trying to be movies.
The reason that I worry about the overly-narrative approach that today dominates the AAA game landscape is that players are almost entirely on rails, and you as a player mostly make only a few choices to surmount a fleeting intermediate little minigame obstacle (a given fight, in the midst of the plot).
It provides one sort of immersion — the one akin to what you get when you read a great book or watch a good movie. But to me games are not about having a story told to you, they are about forging your own path. A linear CGI movie with occasional puzzles to solve is a valid genre that I even enjoy, but it doesn’t provide me any authorial agency as a player, and would often work better as just a book or movie.
I recognize that this is just me and my player type though.
Is this post about MMOs?
No, it wasn’t actually. I have not been hooked on an MMO since Metaplace, and before that one, it was a few years as well.
No really, admit it, it’s about SWTOR, isn’t it?
I swear, SWTOR was not particularly on my mind. The post was prompted in part by hearing someone talk about Skyrim and how they stopped playing because they figured out how to max out some aspect of crafting and stacking bonuses or something.
I admit there was some minor lingering stuff from reading about SWTOR and seeing a review talk in terms of the number of blues, purples, and whatever other color items are color-coded with as “the way MMORPGs work.” But I don’t think of that as a SWTOR issue, I think of that as a fundamental yuck that all the big MMOs seem to be doing: throwing the mechanics in your face. I disliked “these are purples” in all the MMOs.
I know! This is about mobile gaming, isn’t it?
Not exactly. I mentioned mobile but what I really was getting at is that as computing and therefore gaming grow more pervasive, they are going to inevitably push us to be gaming under circumstances where we will always be interrupted, always have “short sessions” unless we manage to explicitly lock everyone else out, always be connected. I have been predicting all of gaming moving to this mold for years now, and it feels to me like it’s actually here now. And to me immersion takes time.
OK, then why did you write the post?
Because so many people clearly had immersion as an underlying complaint in their objections to my posts on free-to-play. Most specifically, people who had strong connections to specifically the MMOs I made, which were designed to be as immersive as I could make them.
F2P does throw the mechanics in your face, you see. It has tradeoffs. So I wanted to write some thing got across to those people specifically that I do feel their pain, and I do understand why they mourn and miss that quality as the business models and games change around them.
But Skyrim sold really well! Isn’t immersion alive and well in high-end games?
No. High-end games in general are in trouble, actually. So picking out one game as your champion is not a great example when even five years ago you would have been able to pick out many.
Can’t there just be a spread of games of different kinds, like happens in movies?
In books and in movies, tech has mostly stood still (barring 3d, a pro-immersion tool). Not so for games. In fact, games have the issue that as tech advances poor tech is actually anti-immersive for most people, so immersion constantly requires greater and greater investment.
Isn’t this because developers are failing players and focusing too much on behaviorism?
I think that it is too facile to pin blame on anyone. There’s a large confluence of factors here that affect the nature of games: how they make money, what the tech level is, how they are distributed, and who their audience is. Developers do indeed have to go where the money is, but the money is where the players are.
Are you saying that it is the player’s fault?
No, not really, but the audience plays into it. The broader audience we have today unquestionably prefers to be led through an experience rather than discover their way through it. We invest far far more in cueing users than we used to. A game that does not provide constant feedback feels dull, because games have sort of become like “sugar rushes.”
Is it generational?
Isn’t geek culture overtaking the world? And doesn’t that help immersion?
It’s overtaking the world in one sense, but so are reality TV shows. And today’s immersion in geek culture and fandoms is quite different in a lot of ways, because of its transmedia nature. It’s adapted to be interruptible, in bits and pieces. It is also frequently designed to reveal how things work behind the curtain.
Why have books not stopped being immersive?
Lots of books are not immersive, as was pointed out in the comments.
But just as a comparison, books went to blogs, and blogs went to tweets. Long form everything is suffering and/or evolving in this new technological world.
Are you depressed?
No; I am nostalgic for elements of how it used to be. But I am also tremendously excited by the design canvas that these changes have opened up. As I have said elsewhere, never before have we been able to design a multiplayer game for literally millions to play the same game. That’s new, and unheard of. Never before have we had access to this kind of player, this mass market audience, and that opens whole new kinds of game mechanics and game designs. That is unheard of too.
Aren’t you just being a crotchety old man about this? Look to the future!
I usually look too far into the future, actually.
I, and anyone, really, is entitled to miss something that they see themselves as losing, while also being excited about what is yet to come.
So are you saying developers should stop striving towards immersion?
Are games today less immersive, or is it harder for a professional designer to immerse?
It is always hard for a professional to immerse. These days, we’re training the audience themselves to see under the curtain, so maybe it is just getting harder for everyone. That wouldn’t make me miss it any less.
Are you “throwing in the towel” on immersion, as Massively put it?
Nope. Instead, I am pondering the ways to get the qualities I value into this new landscape.
That said, players do have this mistaken impression of me as solely a sandbox, anti-content designer. That’s because most of them have only seen SWG and UO from me. People who played on LegendMUD remember me as someone whose content was particularly quest-heavy. People don’t realize that I did a chunk of the writing on Untold Legends (the first one)… and that I have a background in fiction writing, so it’s not that I am opposed to writing in games. And they also have never gotten to see the literally dozens of primarily system-driven boardgames and puzzle games I have designed over the years, the non-immersive MMO designs that never saw the light of day (yes, I have in fact designed pure hack n slash Diablo-esque MMOs… they sit in a filing cabinet at companies I no longer work for). I am not just a sandbox designer… it’s just that’s what people know me best as.
You like F2P, and now you say immersion is dead. Have you sold your soul? Given up on it and caved into what makes you the most money?
Ha ha ha ha. *wipes tear* No.