What are we being asked to perceive in our mmorpg worlds?

What do we perceive when we open our eyes?
What do you really see?

Do not let the players see too much.  What do I mean by this?   We’re being given too much too quickly now in mmorpgs.  Before the game even launches most of us already have the leveling paths laid out or know the zone progression.  Knowing the zones and being able to count them on one hand (or even two) is actually a much newer concept than you think.  There is no mystery anymore or sense of exploration — not like there used to be.  This isn’t a discussion about exploration though as much as it is about perception.

What we are able to perceive by looking out at a zone, a game map, or even a screenshot tells us a lot about how developers have made their game.  How have we been told to look at the world?  Yes, we are actually being forced/guided/told/influenced/etc to look at the world/game in a certain way.  How far can we see?  What do we expect to see?  What is above us or below us?  What is the scope of the environment; are there trees or architecture/structures much bigger than your character?  All of these, and so much more, help to influence how we perceive the world.

It’s not just the size of the world we perceive either.  It’s not just the sense of mystery.  It’s not even the ideological sense of immersion.   There’s a certain sensation that comes with the “I am here, and you are there“  when you are helped to perceive the world as something bigger than you — bigger than you’re supposed to comprehend or thinking about in its entirety at once.  No, I’m not talking about making the game world really big — compare Agon to Norrath .  I believe that a game world can actually be quite small but still be designed in such a way that the players can not wrap their minds (easily) around the idea of talking about the world as just this oyster they can crack open easily.

Sometimes what we don’t see is worth even more to our senses.  Next time you log in to your mmo of choice take a look around.  Ask yourself what you see, what you do not see, and what you would expect to see around the next corner.  Think about where you’re going, how you’re going to get there, and which of your senses are being ‘used” by the developers.  You may be surprised with the answers or feelings you get when you do.  In my opinion, we have a long way to go before it’s even possible for us to rekindle, or for some to experience for the first time, that sense of unknown or sensational depth to how we perceive the world that our avatars roam.   More can be done to improve in this area and I would like to see it become a priority.

  • I miss that feeling. I remember starting out in UO and it being a real world. I even felt that way in Star Wars Galaxies. And for a while, I remember feeling that way about World of Warcraft; Loch Modan was amazing during release week.

    But then somewhere down the line, either I changed or the development changed. We were no longer being goaded by developers to explore and live in these worlds, we were given the opportunity to ride the rails through them, as though they were theme parks. The fun and immersion left MMORPGs and was replaced by content, progression, and drama (all of which I never even used in conjunction with MMOs until after WoW).

    I really want to play Fallen Earth because I hear that its sandbox mechanics are great, and they actually make the player experience the world. I hear it’s actually fun to be “in” a zone instead of just questing there.

  • We are definitely being goaded, or perhaps coaxed and persuaded, to experience the actions of the world. The world itself should solicit the same type of feelings that the actions you do in game provide.

    That screenshot is from Heroes of Telara.

  • @ Rendulam
    It’s from Heroes of Telara, and is probably my most anticipated MMO at this point. Even moreso then SWTOR. If they pull off half the stuff they are promising, it will be an amazing MMO.

  • That screen shot is from a mmorpg that I have been following for a long time, welcome to Telara…guess the secrets out.

  • “In my opinion, we have a long way to go before it’s even possible for us to rekindle, or for some to experience for the first time, that sense of unknown or sensational depth to how we perceive the world that our avatars roam. More can be done to improve in this area and I would like to see it become a priority.”

    This cannot be rekindled. There’s a significant qualitative difference between innocence and experience. You want your innocence back. You can’t put that genie back in the bottle. It’s gone. No set of game mechanics or combination of atmospheric enhancements can bring that back to you.

    The best MMOs can do is have a novel atmosphere, but any place where you are expected to spend 1,000 hours will wear out its charm in short order. The whole world can’t be dark and gothic–contrast and scope are crucial in developing an atmosphere that stays intense instead of becoming samey.

  • Even as someone who longs for the days when I really did explore, I can’t help myself from looking at MMO maps and just seeing quest circuits. Its really depressing. For some reason the Bethesda games seem to be my last refuge from this kind of “game mechanics first” approach to CRPGs.

  • Good points. However, it looks like Exploration in terms of immersion/world knowledge/trivia has lost out commercially to Exploration of game mechanics/class skills and subsequent mass-market Achievements on a scale from easy, casual dings to hardcore grinding progress bars.

    We can keep praying for a world to be designed that encourages this sense of discovery, but if it grows big enough to attract the mass market, you will have your third-party websites, your PL’ers and gold sellers all spring up to accommodate that sizeable subset who want walkthroughs/cheats/easy way out through a game.

    Hiding in a niche may be the only way to escape this fate.

    Alternatively, we need to see dynamic content placement under the control of something akin to L4D’s Director, and more random or player skill-based mechanisms. So there is no one exact path everyone follows a walkthrough to.

    Third party websites like wikis and databases would only be good for tracking frequency of occurences and general patterns then.

    A Tale in the Desert was pretty good at this. Many things were avatar-specific, so you had to do some deductive work to figure out what would work for you. Other things relied on player skill, so you could read a walkthrough, get a macro at most to get to a decent baseline, but the quality stuff came from painstaking practice.

    But I would hazard a guess that because there’s so much “forced” thinking involved (and logic, spreadsheets, data-tracking, skill etc.), ATITD is a highly niche game as well.

  • |Hiding in a niche may be the only way to escape this fate.

    I agree with this big time. Then again, I agree with this sentiment in general and not just for MMOs. Generally if a hobby I like gets popular, it won’t be long before I’m looking for a new hobby..

    Back on topic though, I think the 3rd party sites REALLY hurt the chances of any biggish gaming getting this sort of feeling. Even if a game manages to make exploration of the game world a major part of their game, and the game becomes popular, it’ll just be a short amount of time before everything to be found is on a map on http://www.explorationmmo.com or whatever.

  • Bored of Aion already Keen?

    In any case i’m going back to Agon (darkfall) when the transfers and expansion comes in. It gave me that “je ne sais qua” feel while running and questing around the world

  • I think the gamers are as much to fault as anyone, having alredy ‘seen’ worlds in other games we tend to want our focus more on playing (ie: leveling) than on exploring or discovering.

    I agree with those mentioning the third party apps that give the player everything without them having to do anything or search for things.

    The number one thing I see in Fallen Earth’s Help channel are people constantly asking “Is there a site to find or or ?” “Where is this vendor?!” The town’s aren’t that big and its not that hard to find vendors if you just move around a little.

    People are so used to what they’ve experienced in past games that they expect it in every game thereafter.

    @Professor Beej–FallenEarth has done the sandbox mechanic quite well, though the atmmospheres are not very differing because it does all take place in the Grand Canyon desert. Pretty close to scale as well but nothing like striking contrasts from environment to environment.

  • I think the way to regain this is by making character advancement less dependent on the world itself. A lot of the rut is because we automatically seek the best possible parts of the world to engage in character advancement, be it grinding or running quests. The environment is something we have to combat to gain advancements, its an enemy as much as the mobs, and we try and find where it is “weakest” to get the best exp.

    If you could somehow free up the world from being farmed for our levels, and make it just a place to interact and explore, it might help.

  • Actually the only game that I felt really messed it up that i played recently was WAR. I usually do not care to look at maps and quest guides so I get to explore the world on my own on at least first character leveling. For Aion I have not really looked at any online maps/quest guides.. I am heading to Morheim next and I have no clue how it will look like or whats there 🙂

  • I am trying to think about how this have been executed well in the past. Dungeon maps that don’t who you more than you’ve already explored? World maps that slowly open up to you. Zones that have no name until you’ve explored them sufficiently or found someone in them who knows it? I mean why should your character be such a know-it-all? I love a good mystery.

  • Take it even further beyond just the idea of maps or “known” and “unknown” because the idea of maps in general can be tossed out. EQ style: cloth map that came in the box and that’s it.

    What I’m getting it goes beyond just the tangible world though, but rather how the world is designed to enthrall your senses. It’s beyond immersion, beyond aesthetics, and beyond ideology. It’s a very real way of designing a game that we do not see anymore. Scope has a lot to do with it, but so does attention to detail and purpose. Designing the world so that the player can not help but appreciate (as in to realize fully) the effect it has on their experience.

  • As I have harped on before… I think the biggest change that needs to happen for this to recapture the jaded gamers interest is new ways to interact with the environment.

    Until we get past a static world overlaid by mops, quest-givers and resources, we are going to be stuck in this rut.. new world, same game.

    When I can climb up a cliff from a pack of mobs and start a landslide, or can build a damn (magic or otherwise) to divert a flow of watrer, ether, or whatever, or can create persistent traps on the ground by moving resources around..

    Well you get the idea… the possibilities are endless.. the mechanics daunting!

    We need more games to try, even if they fail.. to stumble on the next real game-changer.

    I hate WOW so much for creating the same herd mentality, but in regards to phasing they are on to something at least.