FAQ on the immersion post

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Jan 142012

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?

Heck no.

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.




  39 Responses to “FAQ on the immersion post”

  1. lol… I still wish people would put away their spreadsheets and just “play the game”.

  2. Crosspost from Google+

    I am honestly not sure i can predict where we are going in the near future with social games in terms of immersion and the more interruptible and mobile lifestyle most of us have these days. I am however convinced most of the lack of immersion in nearly all graphical MMOs to date is a direct result of mostly using MUDs and CRPGs as our starting models.

    CRPGs, MUDs, and MMOs (as opposed to MUSHs, MOOs, and most pen and paper games), with just a few notable exceptions, were and continue to be predominately linear, mechanics and puzzle heavy, while remaining preoccupied using carrot and stick recognition and reward systems triggered by one or more of the former. These techniques are certainly psychologically and physiologically effective for specific demographics but i believe there is mostly unexplored potential to be found exploiting the reward elements of play as distinct from elements of game.

    I was immediately hooked playing pen and paper games by the unique sort of free style play such can provide. They offered play with rewards that can be continuously evolving and varied in ways that the quickly mastered and subsequently predictable mechanics of board and arcade games are mostly not. I suspect that many latching on to the mantra of “sandbox plox”, while coming from more varied and still evolving experiences, also seek the rewards of play shared with others.

    It seems reasonable that decreasing amounts of uninterrupted time serve as a barrier to immersion. It is certainly true for me that i have not played many pen and paper games since being less able (or less willing) to devote sufficient time to prepare for and run them, or even simply participate. Certainly none of the long lasting campaigns that i once enjoyed most. This is however a lifestyle choice. I subsequently found other immersive experiences, each with common elements of shared free form play. Community building, events, and roleplay in those few MMOs that encourage it, world building and roleplay in persistent world experiences such as NWN and NWN2, team building and PvP in FPS games and MMOs have all been immersive in various ways.

    Certainly these experiences provide immersion different from that found when reading a book or watching a movie; however, the sense of immersion, of caring for both the imagined world and the characters within it is not less, it is only different. Thus i have no doubt our future entertainment experiences will continue to evolve as well.

    I’ll be waiting in the playground over by the sandbox. ^.^

  3. I see you want to play the same game as I do after all.

  4. Thumbs up for everyone realizing that Skyrim basicly suck. ^^

  5. “barring 3d, a pro-immersion tool” It really is an anti-immersion tool to me. When I watch a movie, I let my eyes wander over the scene as part of what I do to immerse myself; when something in the foreground that I’m focussing on then is blurry because the depth of vision of the rendered scene does not comply with my expectations, that’s jarring. I don’t get the same with flat pictures.

    Also, the headaches don’t help immersion.

  6. Haha, I remember having great fun years ago when playing “play by mail”.

    I was moving medieval like units through a land with hexagons, filled with mountains, woods plains etc. Perhaps a little unclimactic. 😛

  7. @unwesen I thought by that he meant 3D generated effects and animation, not the gimmicky glasses which dont really help immersion at all? Bad effects break immersion, and so on…

  8. This is a tangent, but is kinda-sorta related because I’m in the process of writing about them: I’ve always seen many gamers championing the immersion in survival horrors. I wholeheartedly disagree. Many times, a player’s goal goes against that of a designer’s goal, and survival horror illustrates this all too well. See: players enjoy suspense and fear, but are often prey to a designer’s poor idea of challenge. Is it “scary” when you are constantly dying at the hands of a badly designed puzzle? Crushed by a seemingly immortal enemy? Or is it “scary” when you actually don’t lose but always feel like you’re placed in moments when you might lose?

    In other words, immersion in this case only offers dissonance. Survival horror fans simply adore getting mechanics rubbed in their faces – they’ll defend inventory micromanagement, will defend instakill traps (because it goes hand in hand with their idea that survival horror must be hard) or puzzles without context (because they defend the notion these things are cerebral and are requirements rather than a hindrance). They feel immersed by this because to them, it’s all about these mechanics as staples of the genre. This has damaged the genre for a long time, in my opinion.

    Survival horror can be an “experience”, but not until players realize that immersion has nothing to do with the “math puzzles” (the same, maybe unsurprisingly, can also be said about RPGs).

  9. “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.”

    This is what I took issue with in the original post, and I still don’t think you’ve buttressed this argument.

    The huge success of immersion in a vast array of literature, film, and television options speaks to immersion as a major selling point. The success of alternatives (twitter, reality TV, etc.), or % declines in the sales of such media as other options become available, doesn’t justify the prediction of immersion declining to the popularity of swing music.

    By the way, is this also your prediction for other media? That immersive written and video content will eventually be solely desirable to a small niche, aside from the occasional influence or crossover hit every 10 years or so?

  10. Not being part of current corporate trends or methods, I’m terribly curious, though: how does one recognize and track immersion as a selling factor in other media? Are there polls made directly to costumers? What data tracking is there, and how does one relate something as individually judged as immersion directly to a product’s success? I don’t deny people have purchased Harry Potter because it’s “immersive” to them, though how does that figure into something as impersonal as sales figures?

  11. Hey there Mr. Koster, just chiming in to say: good job creating a straw-man and disguising him as a FAQ to your post, it almost fooled me into thinking you could actually defend any of your statements and opinions against someone else in a real discussion.

  12. Dom,

    All of those were quotes or paraphrases from actual discussions of the article at various places around the Internet, inluding the comment thread on the previous post. So no straw-man arguments.

    I also can’t seem to see any previous comment from you on either post, so it doesn’t look like you have attempted to engage me in any real discussion either.

    If you have a comment, question, or argument to pose, then please do feel free. As you can see, I don’t delete comments unless they are spam. But there’s no reason to clog up the thread with pointless attacks.

  13. You could almost parallel to the moment we saw in pen and paper role playing quite a few years back. Basic D&D, Call of Cthulhu and a few others were just underlying systems to support the story being told. Boxed sets were all about fleshing out the world and the overall mythos.

    Then came the mechanic suppliments. 2nd and 3rd editions. Handbooks. Player Options. More about tweaking the systems for player gain to get you to buy the books. Modules slipped to the wayside as did really much of the originality.

    Having watched the video interview you had earlier this year, I can see your point that modern games are now more about cost effective ways of controlling player actions, streamlining their experience and making it homogenized so it will work for the highest majority. Gaming now is about business. Sure, it was about business before but it seems like a while ago, games were started with the inspiration of one person or a team with a vision. Now it feels as if they are started in boardrooms with a clinical psychologist standing by to held aid in the habit forming aspects.

    Immersion to me has become more of a expensive addon that isn’t being picked by developers. The storytelling aspects of SWTOR and Secret World are meant to create the illusion of immersion by making the tale seem like your tale when actually it is the same story as for the guy ahead of you and behind you. Arguably sandbox gaming allows for a greater amount of immersion but like you pointed out – the industry steered away from that because players themselves create too many variables to predict in coding. Too expensive.

    So where does that leave us? Social games, mobile social games aka slightly advanced flash games with limited lifespans and decent price points and mmos that play it safe and seem to be eerily similar to one another. Maybe I should start looking online for a used copy of Basic D&D.

  14. Raph I want to ask you what you think about this:
    In the middle ages and mythologies after which many rpgs are modeled, communication was the most powerful limitations, both for crafting/skills/knowledge and for organization.
    Yet any player who plays an MMO, no matter if he is a vet of 1000 real life years or a newb freshly spawned, possesses perhaps the most powerful form of magic in nearly an unlimited degree, the power of global communication which the enemy cannot tap. Not only that, but players possess distance viewing, and precognition in the form of player scouts who can communicate what they see over any distance through outside communication channels and also guides, premade strategies and so forth.

    They also possess access to the ideal builds for each class, the ideal place to level for each class and so forth. They can look up all the best crafting recipes. They know the best places to hunt regardless of whether their loot is crafting mats or dropped completed items.

    Further as individuals they are infinitely smarter than their enemies in PVE and in most cases they have access to massive and easily reachable safe zones. They are only in danger when they choose to be and they know the average level and danger of all creatures in the area.

    They also can’t die, but that’s a whole other issue.

    When was the last time you read a book or saw a movie where one side had all those advantages and capabilities? How can we imagine that we could be immersed in a world similar to that found in static entertainment mediums when the mechanics of game worlds are not at all similar in world law?

  15. Well, that world kinda sounds like our modern world today, what with smartphones and Google and adventure tourism. 🙂 So I suppose “any contemporary fiction” would be where I saw that last.

    I have posted here before about the fact that a lot of what you describe used to be considered cheating in a game, and today is a norm. UO started out without most of those things, including the chat, and essentiall the players themselves forced them on us.

  16. RPGs frequently run into the problem of either being:

    – Role Playing Games, where the player takes on the role of another character, or

    – Roll Playing Games, where the player (as discussed by Raph) aims to solve a maths puzzle.

    The second one is easier to work on, because you can’t guarantee what kind of character a player will take on in a group (e.g. “I am Sir Lord HighDuke Malcingham The Third, the last in a long line of Chosen Ones who are all the best in the world at everything, even if they’ve never heard of it” probably isn’t an appropriate role for most games, but would be favoured by a lot of players).

    Skyrim is an interesting example in that I find the game to be fairly bland (to date, anyway). It has a lot of content that you don’t have to do in any real order, but it isn’t immersive to me because my character is a blank slate who just wakes up and then goes from highlighted location to highlighted location finding people who all want a complete stranger to solve their problems. It’s much more a roll playing game (“Am I a high enough level to get through this bit?”) than a role playing game.

  17. I was referring to books that are considered high fantasy, as I said in the post… So yes you heard about it in contemporary fiction, but that’s not the kind of thing I was talking about.
    Sometimes when I look at feature that players push for, and then I see people claiming they want immersion into the gameworld, I wonder if they realize that they are shooting themselves in the foot.

    When I was reading about the huge wars in EvE, they did some really cool things with communication warfare. Not only does it make sense in the EvE world, but players actually did things like launch denial of service attacks on enemy mumble and teamspeak servers. Of course that is illegal but since it would be useless to DoS communication channels in the game when everyone would obviously just go to outside communication, it thinks its actually a really cool immersive thing to do. Communications warfare that works.

    But that kind of thing isn’t valid in high fantasy MMOs. I mean themeparks are so messed up and single player focused that they can get away with it, but for sandboxes its pretty bad.

  18. So let me see if I have this straight. Your working definition of immersion here is “playing a game without ever getting its mechanics rubbed in your face”? And you’re saying that wanting to do that was a passing fad? And that nowadays people prefer to play games where they do get the game’s mechanics rubbed in their face?

    Is that what you’re saying? I want to make sure before I start asking questions on this basis.

  19. The definitions you gave in your last comment on the other thread are pretty spot on with what I mean: both persuaded that the non-real is real, and feeling one with your virtual self.

    I wouldn’t use “passing fad” as the meaning of what I was saying. Rather, I would say that it is a style of game that has gone through a vogue and that a large number of factors are conspiring to reduce the immersion factor these days. I would point at your own presentiation on gamification as one example of the way in which it is being undermined.

    Obviously, all games have mechanics, and players can and do figure them out and desribe them to themselves. What I am lamenting is the fact that we seem to be entering a period where the game mechanics are all on the surface.

    It isn’t so much that people now prefer to play these games… but the audience does seem to prefer more guidance, and more guidance is one of the things that is causing this; the guidance itself makes the game rules and math more visible (as in the example of color-coding all the mobs and all the items).

    There is also a large new audience that is preferring games that have mechanics on the surface as well — all the casual games.

    There’s the fact that budgets rising are reducing the big immersive game projects.

    So, a confluence of things.

  20. Hmm. I’m currently teaching a class called “Aesthetics and Immersion” for game designers, so I’m quite interested in this topic. 🙂

    I’m also one of those weirdos who feels immersed in some (not all) casual games. In Farmville, I would only grow flowers because I have an affinity for flowers, and not for broccoli or corn. I spent 4 hours recently playing an interior design dollhouse game on Facebook – not because I wanted others to give me a high score and lots of tokens, but because I immersed myself in the idea of living in this space and having access to this furniture.

    The audience for casual games is a little different from those oldskool games you felt immersed in. I’m part of that demographic, and it doesn’t take me hours to feel immersed in a game. So even if I only have a few minutes to play around on my farm – I’m still immersed there.

    So I guess I contend that casual games especially are achieving immersion, just in a different way.

    And secondly, I contend that (because of the same mass/different market) the audience isn’t as familiar with the controls as oldskool players are. Those who started on Pacman and Doom have internalized the control schemes for videogames. But that’s not a huge market. I think we’re going through a tutorial process, of sorts, training new players to get accustomed to control schemes and common mechanics so they won’t have to concentrate on them so much in the future. We have to walk the masses through the mechanics-heavy phase of gamer development before they can be mature enough gamers to lose themselves in the game.

  21. What you said there about teaching a new community of gamers is pretty insightful, Wendy. I spent hours creating a keymapping for Star Wars Galaxies that made sense to me and even though it was an iterative process that took months to complete, eventually I used the same layout without change for the next several years. Before I decided to do this, I was constantly fighting with the game controls, which is both frustrating and a real mood killer. My 24 /move related macro toolbar buttons and I spent many hours decorating homes, in large part because the buttons helped to mask the “gamey” part of the task, allowing me to be focused on (or immersed in) the joy of decorating itself.

  22. >I would say that it is a style of game that has gone through a vogue

    But to go through a vogue, people who used to like it should have switched allegience to some new vogue. I don’t believe that’s happening. People who liked immersion in the past still like it (ie. the absolute number of them is roughly the same), but there are many more games-players around now and they either don’t get or haven’t encountered immersive games before (ie. the relative number of people who like immersion has fallen).

    Because immersive games are so costly to make, developers want to attract as many players as they can so as to lessen the risk of a flop. They make content easier to widen its appeal to regular games-players. This alienates their core immersion-centric players. However, because those players are so outnumbered by the regular players, all the evolutionary pressure is in the direction of making games less immersive.

    Of course, there are other problems too (even the hard core content they add isn’t immersive – learning to dance for raids is not an immersive experience). Overall, though, it’s led to a dilution of what MMOs “are”.

    >a large number of factors are conspiring to reduce the immersion factor these days.

    I agree with this, but I don’t believe that this means immersion was merely a vogue. It’s more than that. What’s happened is that the sheer number of new games-players arriving on the market has meant that they are now driving the industry whereas previously it was the other way round. In some creative industries, there’s an elite that sets the trends the rest follow (fashion, art, choreography, gastronomy, poetry); in others, the elite are looked on as outliers and the focus is on popularism (movies, TV, comic books, pop music). In the games industry, it looks as if there’s a new dialectic emerging: should the hard core lead the soft core or the soft core cast the hard core adrift?

    It used to be that the hard core led the way not because there were more dedicated gamers but becuase they spent more on games. One hard-core gamer would buy, what, 20 games for every 1 bought by a soft-core gamer. Nowadays, though, with the switch in business model online, the hard core doesn’t spend any more than the soft core (they both spend nothing); the money comes from a small group of players who have a particular view of what playing a game means plus the wherewithal to enact their view.

    This could pan out in a number of ways. Non-payers could decide that paying is acceptable and convert en masse so it becomes mainstream for games-players (I can see that ending up leading to a low per-hour charge in the interests of fairness instead). It could be that what we have now reaches a steady state, where new whales replace those that lose interest. It could be that the whales realise they’re spending money on things of transient value and move on to other hobbies (ie. games are a passing fad for them). We don’t yet know.

    >Obviously, all games have mechanics, and players can and do figure them out and desribe them to themselves.

    Yes, but if you’re saying that people no longer care about having the mechanics in their faces, then that raises the question of why bother have a fiction at all. You may as well just give them abstract games. If abstract games don’t sell, though, that means the players do see some value in the fiction, and therefore do have a slight affinity for the idea that the game somehow reflects a (possibly imaginary) reality. If they have that view, then some players may be drawn to it enough to try games that do more with it. If they don’t have that view, the subject matter of the game is there entirely for marketing purposes and can be dropped as soon as you’ve reeled in the players.

    >What I am lamenting is the fact that we seem to be entering a period where the game mechanics are all on the surface.

    Hmm. Perhaps the problem with your original post is that it didn’t read as though you were lamenting the passing of immersion as a focus for game design. It read as if you were revelling in its passing.

    >It isn’t so much that people now prefer to play these games… but the audience does seem to prefer more guidance

    Yes, we saw this with MUDs. The early ones were free-form – no classes, no races – and you were who you were because of what you did. Classes and races introduced rails. All we’re seeing now is the logical conclusion of that: SW:TOR is a beautiful model railway with the players acting as trains, all heading to their destinations along scenic routes without ever hitting each other. This isn’t a problem in itself; the problem is that there isn’t also a sandbox element. If I’m a gunslinger I can throw a grenade: why can’t I throw a grenade as a jedi? Are grenades so complicated that only smugglers can throw them? Why can’t I decide what I want to do, instead of having the game lay it all out before me in a neat timetable?

    >the guidance itself makes the game rules and math more visible (as in the example of color-coding all the mobs and all the items).

    Ah, the “numbers or words” debate, those were the days…

    >So, a confluence of things.


    What most distresses me isn’t that we’re getting diluted games, but that they’re being diluted unnecessarily. In SW:TOR my Jedi Sage has an ability called “Weaken Mind” that weakens the target’s mind and puts a DOT on them. This works on robots and on gun turrets. Robots and gun turrets have minds? My gunslinger has a DOT ability called “vital shot” that causes the target to bleed. Robots and gun turrets can bleed? The purpose of those explanations is to add fictional depth to the game, as an aid to immersion; why couldn’t they have given them names that made sense for all possible targets? I appreciate that it may be asking too much to have mind/bleed damage only affect things with minds/blood, but couldn’t they have changed the descriptions so they didn’t clash with the actuality of the game? They’re not even trying…

    I sense I’m ranting now, so I guess I’d better stop.


  23. I think everything you say in your reply, Richard, is exactly what I meant. Relative drop in audience members, etc.

    I really do not understand how people are reading the post as reveling in this sea change… I repeatedly say. Things like “mourn” “sense of loss” and so on. I really was writing the post for people like me.

    Ironically, I think that deep abstract strategy is also suffering. The emphasis on narrative has led to remarkably shallow gameplay in so many of the big blockbuster titles… So we surface mechanics, only to have them be shallow!

  24. I don’t think a cultural outbreak of attention deficit disorder is going to change the value of immersion. Stepping out of the mundane world into a more fantastic reality is a concept as old as humanity (or at least as old as the first human to ingest the wrong type of mushroom).

    The tide receeds, the tide returns. We’ll see new forms of immersion, but that desire to travel to the elsewhere is a constant.

  25. To toss a very quick comment in, every other Saturday I have a D&D game where us adults are attempting a game with a minimum of seven kids under 10 running around.

    You want interruptions? We got ’em. In bulk and on sale. 🙂

    And we still manage to enjoy, play our characters and have a good time in that shared imaginary space. Immersion is, or at least can be, more ressistent and resilient than one might think.

    As we learn to design for extremely frequent and utterly unpredictable interruption, can’t we be optimistic about “solving” the problem and creating a set of design guidelines to allow the immersiveness to be more smoothly entered and exited, with less work needed to re-engage and less lost when pulled away?

    Not saying that -all- immersive experiences can be made like this, but it occurs to me that cause (interruptions, competing mental demands) and consequence (loss of a difficult-to-regain immersion) aren’t quite so directly aligned with one another. And not all immersion is necessarily tough to regain.

  26. Raph>I really do not understand how people are reading the post as reveling in this sea change…

    Because it reads as if you’re saying that you used to think all those things about immersion but now you’ve moved on to the bright shiny exciting robot world of the future. The implication is that people who still value immersion are dinosaurs.

    >I repeatedly say. Things like “mourn” “sense of loss” and so on.

    These give the impression that you’re mourning your old self – the one who existed before you saw the light. It’s as if your vision of the future has no room for that kind of idealism, so you’re locking it in the past. You’ve moved on. People who haven’t moved on are to be pitied.

    From what you’re telling us now, that’s not how you actually feel, which is something of a relief. However, it was easy to read it that way in the original.

    >I really was writing the post for people like me.

    Well, the you of today, yes; perhaps not the you of yore.

    Why are games good and important and worth having? Is it simply because they’re games? Is there something good intrinsic to all games so it doesn’t matter what kind of game you have, if people find it fun to play then the world will be a better place? All you have to do is to create playable games and their inate goodness will shine through?

    If so, OK, we can certainly churn those out. Designers can enjoy themselves playing with mechanics, imbuing them with sufficient symbolic meaning that players will eventualy be able to read them for “emotional subtlety” in an otherwise fiction-light context.

    What IS it that games deliver, though? If we’re going “to make games be the core entertainment medium of the century”, what does that buy humanity? What do games offer that makes this worthwhile? Is merely playing games the end point, or does it matter what kind of games you play?

    What I want to know is what do immersion-free games give us that means we should relish the thought that soon everyone will be playing them?


  27. One thing I have learned as a DM for many moons is how to properly convey the ‘illusion’ of choice. The next dungeon they enter might be a corrupted temple basement in the city, or a keep that has fallen into ruin up the road. As long as the players are unaware or at least forget that they are aware of this tactic it helps to make them feel the choices they make in the game matter.

    What I mean to say is that immersion itself is nothing but an illusion that the game needs to try and create while the player is willing to be fooled. Take Final Fantasy XIII for example, everyone complained that the game was too linear when every single final fantasy that I’ve played was linear. But the ones in the past tried to hide that fact with side quests, open world exploration, and other things.

    But it takes both a player who is seeking that immersion and a game that tries to provide it. In that sense I agree with you 100%.

    And to take it a step further, if your willing to be immersed into the world of star wars and to be a Jedi as has been seen in the movies you would not ask why you cannot use a grenades. It wouldn’t matter. And the example of the jedi power inflicting mind damage working on a robot, I believe this is a case of less is more. If the power only had a name but no descriptive text you could quantify its effect however you wanted. Why does everything need ‘flavor text’ now days anyway? Oh well its late and I’m rambling.

  28. Instead of lamenting the demise of immersion, perhaps we could consider the new elements and directions in the field as supplimental to immersion.

    I’m thinking about the new duty officer system in Star Trek Online. Viewed from one perspective, it’s a counter-immersive trading card game. You make your assignments, you collect your rewards, you never have an opportunity to buy Ensign Savos the Botanist a drink in the crew lounge (come to think of it, you never have an opportunity to flirt with a cute crewmember. Kirk would hate this game.)

    But from another perspective, suddenly this ship you’ve been flying around the galaxy isn’t just you and your bridge officers. It’s hundreds of individual people that you’re responsible for. The duty officer mini-game isn’t immersive, but it can serve as an adjunct to an immersive experience.

    There are opportunities to improve that correspondence — for example, if the duty officers appeared as crew members on your bridge or in the corridors of your ship. If the outcome of a duty officer assignment puts an officer in sick bay, you should be able to go down and visit them.

    In other words, you can keep the immersionists happily immersed, while providing systems that allow casual players to check in and engage on an interruptable basis.

  29. Yup, immersion doesn’t seem that salient when people talk about games. Apologies for the self-promotion, but a colleague of mine and I analyzed (literally) hundreds of thousands of game reviews and “immersion” wasn’t one of the salient concepts used to describe gameplay.

    More details here:

    Zagal, J. P., Tomuro, N. (2010) “The Aesthetics of Gameplay: A Lexical Approach”, Lugmayr, A., Franssila, H., Sotamaa, O., Safran C., Aaltonen, T. (Eds.), Proceedings of the 14th International Academic Mindtrek Conference , Tampere, Finland, 9-16.


  30. Jose Zagal>a colleague of mine and I analyzed (literally) hundreds of thousands of game reviews and “immersion” wasn’t one of the salient concepts used to describe gameplay.

    That may be because gameplay isn’t immersive. Immersion emerges (in part) from gameplay, but it isn’t gameplay.

    Besides, if you analysed hundreds of thousands of reviews of cars they wouldn’t necessarily mention the gearbox, but (speaking from personal experience) a car without a gearbox isn’t going to go very far.


  31. Thanks so much for the link to the original research Jose. This is most certainly interesting, but i did note that “immersion” emerged in one of the narrative/representational clusters. Do you discard the term as not salient due to the fact that it only emerged in one of two minor clusters?

    Please forgive me as i am not an academic researcher, but Is it a faux pas to ask if the data for the study is available? I too would be interested to see how the clusters change over time, perhaps by using a sliding window, the size of the time span for the window determined by the relative occurrence of the specific terms found.

    Thanks once again for sharing the paper!

    ~ Chris

  32. As many have pointed out, the main problem with the original post (“Is immersion a core game virtue?”) was that immersion was never really defined, but used in several different meanings anyhow. The comment thread there added at least a dozen other interpretations on the word, making a meaningful discussion really difficult. Now THIS thread adds two related definitions, both of which are uncommon. However, in the replies Mr. Bartle’s completely orthogonal, but canon-compliant definitions are supported as well. I’m thinking this whole affair proves Mr. Calleja’s point and certainly won’t add another definition.

    But I have thought about Mr. Koster’s definition given in this thread for a couple of days and am now pretty certain that this is in fact a bit of a red herring. Don’t get me wrong, I completely understand where you’re coming from with the definition. I’ve played pen-and-paper RP with systems that suffocated you in mechanics (Rulemaster, anyone?) and I’ve played free-forms where you basically declare your intent. And of course I’ve played the computer games, those that do tell you what’s going on (some of which in pornographic detail) and those that try to hide things from you, only giving you feedback on your general progress. The principle discussion about mechanics in games is as old as games, with most people preferring “light” mechanics that don’t distract too much from the make-belief gameplay. Once the mechanics are bared, people will start to treat the game as a pure math problem. In on of Mr. Koster’s recent articles, he showed how many games are really just that, math problems. Still, people don’t like to be reminded of that, they want to escape into a different world when playing. This applies to playing soccer as much as it applies to poker, boardgaming or playing catch. But it applies more to make-belief worlds of Cowboys and Indians and Pirates. For Mr. Koster, this escape (which some might term immersion) is burdened by the math and the mechanics. And he defines a freeness of such diversions as immersion.

    In my mind though, the antagonism between escape into a fantasy world and the mathematical analysis of the mechanics of this world is NOT universal. It mostly hits those of us who are good at the math part (a.k.a. pro-gamers or, worse, game-designers or even would-be game-designers). And it hits those of us who are bad at the imaginary part, or at least worse at it than we remember we used to be (a.k.a. we’re old). When I read the Lord of the Rings during my youth, I did of course think about why this army would win over that army, but Mr. Tolkien was never much helpful in that regard. Tolkien would rather describe the exact facial expression of this and that combatant and how his enemies would flee from the resolve they saw there. And the hints he gave were enough to satisfy me that it could work this way, with the nothing-left-to-lose attitude and the songs that were sung and the rising sun. We were trained to think away from actual numbers, like how much resolve would you need to break morale on this elite infantry. We were trained to see the story in a way it made emotional sense.

    Today’s younger customers (even those in their twenties) do NOT see things this way. They were brought up in fantasy lore that was based on mathematical models. Sure, the Lord of the rings is still around, but think of Yu-Gi-Oh!, Dragonball, comic books, even the Transformers. All of those are franchises and to make a successful otherworldly franchise, one needs definite rules. These franchises are either based directly on a game, or there is a game set in that universe which spells out definite rules. It used to be that comic book fans favorite question was the whole “What if X fought Y? Who’d win?” Nowadays, there are several RPGs and other games around that feature all of those characters and the answers are subsequently much more qualified “If X gets first attack and Y cannot resist X’s signature debuff, then X will win, otherwise it’s almost always Y.” Thus, modern younger customers have a much deeper understanding about mechanics even if they are NOT gamers. Those that do grew up playing computer games (which is the vast majority now) have even less qualms about seeing the mechanics. They always saw the mechanics, they can always not see them when they don’t want to in the same way you don’t see the billboards on your way to work.

    In short, our (older game-designish type of folk) dreams were of an ultra-realistic scene of people with glistening chainmail challenging each other in (fake) Middle-English knight jargon. Their dreams are of space-knights vs. manga-zombies. And in our dream, a duel would take minutes until, finally, the better (more deserving?) man would win by a decisive stroke (no blood in my dreams). In their dreams, the hero simply snipers the villain and there ARE damage numbers flying out of the heads of the victims.

    I would also content that the basic reason of why mechanics are typically shown nowadays has nothing much to do with games in particular, it has to do with the Internet. Consider a puzzle-based game. Crazy machines, sokoban, that sort of thing. They sell well as single-player games. Can you make an MMO out of one? Not easily done, because NO ONE wants to look dumb in front of others so almost EVERYONE will simply google the solution and will then be max-level on the first day. The way out is to individualize, randomize the puzzles, but that’s not the point here. The point is that if you were a real-life middle-age general, your job would be to figure out things. How many soldiers, and which provisions do I need for this campaign. How long can the men keep fighting before giving in to fatigue and despair. Can my ordnance reach over the enemies wall? Etc. It would usually be fairly expensive to find the definite answers to these questions (e.g. by failing), but the veteran would be marked by knowing these answers, perhaps from other wars. People would use many systems to figure these out, mostly intuition and recollections, but some already used math back then.

    So, if a computer game did not give you any information about your HP or the enemies HP or the damage type of each weapon, you would be in the same situation. You would need to figure out what each weapon does, and how good each armor is, against each weapon and so on. There were plenty of games that gave at least incomplete information, so I am sure that SOME people WOULD definitely figure out how the game works. That blunt weapons indeed deal double damage to zombies, but that suprisingly, pointed weapons deal normal (not halved) damage to zombies. And then they would post the formulas and the rules. So this game, which means to draw at least some of its appeal from hiding the numbers, which is basically a puzzle-game meant for you to figure out, reverse-engineer the best weapon/armor combination for each situation, is basically a puzzle game. And the puzzle would be the same for everyone, which means that once someone has solved it, those best combinations are posted, and everybody who does not want to look like the fool will be using them. The game is not only beat, it is actually LESS immersive because whenever a player has to make a decision, he has to go OUTSIDE the gam to the browser for the information that is hidden from him. Players don’t see the missing information as a challenge, they see it as an inconvenience. And since google isn’t going away anytime soon, you might as well embrace the flood and show all that information in an intuitive way, which makes the game newbie-friendly.

    BTW, this problem is NOT new. Twenty years ago, many MUDs shared at least some code-base and some standard quests. There were some of these quests that were really puzzles. Some of the earliest content to be found on the Internet (which, back then, was powered by telnet, ftp and, for those adenturous youngins, gopher) were the solutions to these quests. It was frowned upon by the community to use such cheats, people did it anyway. The solution was to mostly remove puzzle-components to MUDs/MMOs.

    And again, I do of course understand your plight. As a game designer, the question comes up every day whether some stat or some mechanic should be visible to the player or not. But my answer is, it really depends on the player. For example, DDO is actually seen as fairly immersive by many of its players (because of the flow of combat). Yet, it shows you the actual roll of the dice when you attack or make a resistance roll etc. On the other hand, one of the most frequent criticism I read about TOR is the missing combat log. People see that as an obsticle to immersion (as in spending much time and effort on the game) because without a combat log, it is unnecessarily hard to optimize your play-style.

    In the end, the current solution used in most MMOs seems to be the best solution, even if clunky. Provide almost every information possible, but allow people to configure that information away. If I don’t want to see the combat log, I just won’t open it.

    Sorry for the wall of text…

  33. […] colors for item quality, but it's surely cemented the hierarchy in gamers' minds. Last week, Raph Koster suggested that these tiers of items are part of the "yuck" that leads to the loss of immersion across the […]

  34. […] colors for item quality, but it's surely cemented the hierarchy in gamers' minds. Last week, Raph Koster suggested that these tiers of items are part of the "yuck" that leads to the loss of immersion across the […]

  35. […] for item quality, but it’s surely cemented the hierarchy in gamers’ minds. Last week, Raph Koster suggested that these tiers of items are part of the “yuck” that leads to the loss of immersion […]

  36. just want to add for my beloved partners sake that they love mmo’s like rift, it was very obvious in goals, very clear in path, very transparent in what you had to do. They get struck dumb when they don’t know what to do, how one item is an upgrade or if they have to go outside the game to find out puzzle and the ‘discovery’ that i have seen so many pine would leave them in the dark and throughly not enjoying the game.

    Now if that means that they should not play. well. good thing that descision isn’t up t you.

  37. @Richard Bartle : I agree that immersion is important. I was arguing that the concept may not be as salient when people are talking about gameplay. To borrow from your analogy, a car without a gearbox won’t run of course. But when you ask people to describe their experience driving a car, I’d be surprised if they talked about (or referred to) something related to the gearbox. Immersion (or “immersiveness”) as a quality of gameplay, is arguably something important/fundamental, but apparently not so much in terms of how often people refer to it.

    @Chris : The word certainly came up, what didn’t come up was a cluster of words that referred to, or represented in some way a broader concept we could call “immersion”. I’ll ask my colleague about the data to see if we have it in some form we can share. As described in the paper, we crawled an existing game site, so there might be issues with us sharing the text of the reviews, but we might be able to do something with those that have already been processed. Feel free to contact me via email.

  38. […] My post on Musing 02? Here’s a take — it’s immersion, speaketh the legend Raph Koster. […]

  39. […] that color-coded item systems (grey, white, green, blue, purple, orange) are part of the “junk” in modern MMOs that detracts from […]

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