Defining the cause of immersion problems in contemporary MMO’s

Yesterday I wrote about the lack of immersion I feel from contemporary MMORPG’s.  I’m trying to work out whether I’m unable to be immersed because of the games, or incapable because of something that has changed in me over the years.  Before I even published yesterday’s entry, I comprised a rather long list of causes, reasons why, or components of this problem I’m facing.  I’ll share a couple general ideas that I’ve lumped much of my list into.


I know what the game wants me to do.

The very first time I logged in to Guild Wars 2 (I’ll use GW2 as an example since it is topical today) I knew immediately what the game wanted me to do.  I played ten more minutes, five more hours, and I knew the game wanted me to go and complete quests or events and progress my way  through each zone until I was able to move on to the next.  These games want me to level, get better gear, complete quests, and run dungeons.  I know I’m generalizing a ton, but we all know HOW the games want us to play these days.   Why can’t I just go out and do it my own way?

Sandbox elements of some kind are likely a necessity.  Even EQ had its sandbox moments.  Give me a world, tools to use, and let me make my own way; Don’t prescribe me some rigid formula that I’ve gone through a dozen times already.  Pure themeparks are ruining immersion.

Ignorance is bliss, yours and mine.

Not only was it easier to be immersed in a game when I felt completely lost and overwhelmed, and turning to anyone with knowledge for help, but when everyone else around me was just as lost and clueless it created a special atmosphere of players all striving to come together.  No one knew what to expect.  Now you log in and someone has beta tested the first 50 levels already or done the content, and 9/10 people know how the game wants them to play (see above) and suddenly we’re all veterans just going through the motions.   Lump beta tests becoming marketing ploys, hardcore guilds pushing hard to know and do everything from the start, and all these games being the same into this category.

I logged in to Dark Age of Camelot for the first time after making an impulse buy based on Graev’s insistence.  He said to me, “This game launched today, let’s go buy it.  It has castles and knights’n stuff.”  I knew absolutely nothing about DAOC, and I was rewarded for my ignorance.

I analyze way too much.

My own curiosity and obsession with knowing how each and every MMORPG ticks often leads to my own demise.  I break a game down into its base elements so quickly that I’ve already found the pattern before I’m even to it.  I see problems days, weeks, months down the road and I know they will eventually hinder my ability to enjoy the game — this happened in WAR, Rift, SWTOR, etc.  My ability to be absorbed into the game is gone, even if what I’m doing is part of the game that was made well.

This is often why I’ll post my thoughts on a game so early and be ridiculed by people, only to have them come back a month or two later saying I called it.  I think if I backed off and just enjoyed the moment, I might be able to find more depth.  But then again, when a game’s design is so horribly sterile and generic I can’t blame myself.


I’ll stop there for now.  Would it be accurate to summarize all of the above as the result of games failing to provide something new, or is that over-simplifying ?   My ability to analyze the current trends is only so ‘keen’ because the trends are obvious.  We’re all veterans in a game from day one because, technically, we’ve played it before, and games follow a pattern too clearly defined.  We may no longer be ignorant, but if something new would just come along we could all be noobs again — or does it need to be new? I have something to say on that tomorrow.

Feel free to chime in with your thoughts.

  • I know what the game wants me to do.

    I would argue that GW2 actually fights against this or at least lessens it even though it is still a themepark MMO. You don’t HAVE to do any of those things. They attempted to allow you to level through crafting, WvW, OR PvE. Or you could never level a character and play structured PvP only. And if you are still not convinced and feel you NEED to level a character and practice some kind of treadmill, I at least argue that they’ve lessened the need to do so.

    That being said, I would love for them to introduce some sandbox elements into the game through patches or expansions.

    Ignorance is bliss, yours and mine.

    I would argue under this point that GW2 has used the BWE’s and stress tests as less of a marketing ploy than most and actually utilized them to fix the game. I stress this point even more so since they didn’t drag this into the holiday season and they’ve just announced a LAST BWE as well as a launch date. Amoung other things, they have done some serious changes to how you pick traits and skills. They’ve done some serious changes on balance as well. I will even go out on a limb to say that these changes have been enough that there is no way you could say any of us will be experts at the game at launch. After all, how can you even say that when the last two races aren’t even available yet (I’m assuming we will test those in BWE3) and their exposure could really shake up the balance changes or other aspects of the game.

    I analyze way too much.

    I suggest that in the case of GW2 you are too quick to judge. I’m not sure if you ever got a chance to try crafting for more than few seconds and I’m not sure what your highest character is in the game for trying out the actual beta’s and I’m totally unsure how much actual BETA TESTING you actually did. I, myself, reported at least a dozen issues to ArenaNet to be fixed (and most of them have been thankfully).

    I believe from my own judgement and experiences from GW2 that it should not have been used as an example and does not fit the majority of what you said above. also feel strongly that I will not be saying that you called it in a few months. Depending on how they continue to handle the game, I’m not sure I’ll ever say you called it if you are seriously saying GW2 matches your description word for word above. That being said you may have lightly touched it. This game is an evolution of past theme park MMO’s not a revolution. Yet, I feel it has evolved enough to really stand out from those such as “WAR, Rift, SWTOR, etc.”

  • Hopefully you and others do not feel like I’m attacking GW2 in any way. I’m stating what I perceive to be facts. I’ve purchased and enjoy the game. I also want to note that this isn’t all about GW2, despite using it as a topical example a few times.

    You can try and justify it away, but GW2 is a game about doing quests. They’re just less conventional than a model like World of Warcraft. You don’t have to quest in either game, but that doesn’t change the fact that the prescribed way to level is to do the quests.

    GW2 is a game like WoW, LotRO, SWTOR, Rift, and WAR. They are all themeparks, and if you master one you will feel right at home with any of them. Let’s assume the only game you mastered, however, was UO. Go from UO to GW2 and suddenly you may feel completely lost. The fact that GW2 is a themepark isn’t an insult. It’s like calling a Tomato a fruit; I suppose if you hate fruit but love tomatoes you may be defensive about the label, but that changes neither the facts or the intent behind the statement.

    Lastly, the analyzing I refer to is not bugs or testing issues, but game mechanics. In a way, I just analyzed in the previous 2 paragraphs. I didn’t truly “test” GW2 one iota. That’s because GW2’s “beta weekend events” are not testing events. They’re venues for fueling hype. Even their “stress tests” during non-prime time hours, announced at the last minute, are used to fuel headlines.

    But again, this isn’t about GW2. 😉

  • The beta testing bit is a necessary evil I don’t see going away. Even with all the testing going on stuff still slips through the cracks that I just don’t find acceptable when playing these games.

    TOR is one example, where in my first month I came across several things that just left me wondering WTH beta testers were doing (not that they could fix it, but that they weren’t raising fits about the issues when the NDAs were lifted).

    I would love to try a new game where everyone was mostly in the dark, but I imagine the complexity coupled with limited resources means we’re unlikely to see that in a major release.

  • “Ignorance is bliss” nails it. Since I starting blogging and reading news and analysis more than actually playing, I’m somehow enjoying the games less. You aren’t mentioning story, though. I haven’t heard anyone say anything about story in GW2. Isn’t a new, compelling story worth something, just like a new fantasy fiction book? The stories are what pull me back to LotRO and will get me into SWTOR at some point. The story being gated by raiding is a reason why I haven’t gone back to Rift.

  • I get your point here Keen. And GW2 is sooo close here. Its just that every time you step out of the city your job is to kill stuff (basically) or follow a scripted event. Highly explorable yes, but like every themepark, yoh cant pick up and move a single candle, which is frustrating given its such a gorgeous immersive world.

    And the home instance isnt housing at all – its an instance that you can’t physically change, which really disappoints me. Like you said, maybe the sandbox will come with the future expansions. Meanwhile its an explorer/achiever/killer extravaganza.

  • I feel a certain duality about GW2 on this discussion. In general terms, I think you are absolutely right, MMOs try more and more to keep you on-track, in a way that totally kills the value of exploration and the joy of discovery. GW2 is indeed doing a lot to break the cycle, removing the system of quest hubs that make you explore area #1, and then give you one or two quests leading to area #2, and continue this process ad eternum, a.k.a. the MMO standard quest system.

    On the other hand, I’m not positive they have done enough. I appreciate the effort to make things more open-ended, I truly do, and I think ArenaNet is making an honest attempt to let players “find their adventures”, but their systems still retain some ideas that make hard for players to really feel free. Quest hubs (here known as Renown Hearts) still have a level attached to it, so they still drive players into thinking that there is an “optimal order” to experience content, except now they don’t give you directions to the next one.

    You can see the effect of this when people ask on Area Chat “where is the next area” after wherever they are, because they don’t want to find themselves in areas they can’t currently handle.

    Makes me wonder if removing levels completely would not be a better idea, or making their existing sidekicking system also upscaled players to higher level areas, basically allowing players to face whatever content they wanted at all times. It would be a greater design challenge to make something like this work, but perhaps it would validate better their desire for exploration freedom.

    Let players get screwed; if the game is still fun (which GW2 is), they will learn where they can or cannot go, even if there isn’t a number attached to it. Like I learned not to mess with the underwater witch on the second human area unless I find a better group. That thing is evil.

  • I know what you mean Keen. I understand the problem completely and yet explaining it seems like an impossible task. No matter how you describe that feeling there will be a lot of people that don’t get it.

    The themeparks now want to hold your hand, make sure you follow their rails and see all the attractions. The world is created with the players in mind at all times. How will they pull this group of mobs? Is the difficulty “just right”? Ideally the world should be created with its inhabitants in mind, the NPCs. How do they defend themselves against attacks? What do they do for food/supplies?

    EverQuest as an example dropped you off in a world designed for the NPCs and let you interact as you saw fit. The various bandit camps in the early world are a good example. If you pulled one you’d likely get the whole camp if you weren’t careful. You and the people you were with would be killed or in for a tough fight. EverQuest dropped you in its world and you could go ANYWHERE. Seriously the list of places to see at level 10 is incredible by any standards. Where do you go at level 10 as a horde character? The Barrens

    Hand holding and painfully transparent mechanics are really killing themeparks.

  • I feel both of the soon to be released MMOs combat. GW2 and the much improved Secret World. TSW is SO much better now then it was even a couple of weeks ago.

  • I mean no offence Keen, but the “Sandbox” MMO is and always was a bit of a niche market. That didn’t so much matter in the “good old days”, because frankly games were just that much less complex. They didn’t have to be stunning. “Elite” was an amazing sandbox experience. It was also wire frame and the planets were basically colourful circles.

    The world has moved on from these kinds of experience. At least for the time being. Sandbox MMO’s are going the way of adventure games, space combat sims and a myriad of other types that fell out of favour with the market.

    Gamers are growing older and the market is adapting to follow them (and their disposable income).

    Consider the quotes from the following article.

    “Since the research began in 2005, the study has revealed the average age of gamers continues to rise. The first study reported this age was 24 – the average age is now 32.”

    “Breaking another common stereotype – that gamers play for endless hours – the report reveals most play between half an hour and an hour at a time and most play every other day, while only 3 per cent of gamers say they play for five or more hours in a sitting.”

    Read more:

    Guildwars 2 initially didn’t have “Scouts”, to advise where dynamic events were taking place. They didn’t even have the concept of hearts.

    They put these things in because players would just wonder about lost and eventually lose interest. They’d miss content. They’d wonder into high level zones and die. Most of them don’t have the time to learn through trial and error. They have lives to live. So they went back and made GW2 into a more guided experience.

    All about increasing market share. They follow the money Keen.

  • @Anon: Do you know where the fault in your argument lies? One word: Skyrim. A massive RPG that has traces of themepark game design since you’re still getting quests, collecting stuff, killing things and returning for rewards, but mostly it is still a sandbox-styled game, giving players absolute freedom to go wherever they want, in any order, and still sold like hotcakes. Want another? Minecraft. One more? the entire GTA series.

    There is no rule that says that customers won’t buy sandbox MMOs, and it’s easy to prove because people buy sandbox games when those are carefully developed and polished. If no one buys into sandbox MMOs and they keep being left aside for niche markets, it’s simply because no company implemented a sandbox MMO with the same level of quality of a World of Warcraft, or a Guild Wars 2. Hell, if an sandbox MMO came out as polished as Rift, we could be having a totally different conversation. A game like Darkfall isn’t niche because it is sandbox, but because it was designed to be niche, to please only a very specific type of player that loves ganking on PvP.

    You’re fooling yourself into thinking companies are following market share. No, they are following trends. They follow what looks like the path of least resistance to financial success. That’s why every company and their dogs are doing F2P these days; because a few success cases “proved” this is easy money. If Guild Wars 2 becomes a massive hit (which GW1 never did), it will show executives that they can have a huge success with a full box price without subscription, so you can bet that you’ll see a move towards this model instead. Of course, the fact that you first need a good, well developed game will probably continue to escape their understanding, because designing a game that is fun, or a game that is profitable can be very different goals.

    But if one company decides to invest as much as NCSoft is on GW2, as much as Blizzard invests on… everything, and make a real contender, a polished, well designed and developed MMO that features mostly sandbox-styled gameplay, perhaps then we’ll see that there is nothing niche about being a sandbox, the only niche is in limited scope.

  • To quote Jake Shillingford, “You can’t uneat the apple”.

    It really doesn’t matter how amazing and wonderful and brilliantly-designed a brand-new sand-box MMO is, because it can no longer ever be brand-new to you. You have a decade and a half of history with it even though it only launched today.

    You don’t just have a passing familiarity with the form, a casual understanding. It’s not even that you’ve had a good deal of experience as a player. You’ve played all the new game’s ancestors, you’ve analyzed them, discussed them, written about them and probably met and talked to the people that made them.

    You are inside the process now and what you’re missing is the sense of being outside it. You can’t have that back.

    If it’s the feeling of playing MMOs with as much enjoyment as you used to have that you want to get back you have to find a new way to enjoy playing MMOs. If it’s the same feeling you had when MMOs were new to you that you want to get back then you need a new hobby, one about which you know nothing. Yet.

  • If you resist the temptation to play Guild Wars 2 as an achiever, then it’s likely to be more immersive – it’s not as if they haven’t given us a huge and detailed world to explore (see caraemm’s videos on youtube for example) and many ways to do it. It’s a mistake to think that Arenanet want you to play the game by numbers and there’s no need to do so, although I expect a lot of people will, not least because WvW is such a major draw and one’s WvW ability is linked to PvE level.

    The current obsession with returning to circa 2000 sandbox type MMOs is a mirage: The inclusion of developer content, doesn’t of itself preclude immersion; EVE is about the only succesful MMO around at the moment that could be described as a sandbox, however, EVE’s strengths really lie elsewhere, since in actuality (check the jump frequencies in the map & check chat) by far the majority of players are PvEing in high sec space and mission running. And for those mentioning Skyrim, that isn’t a sandbox either (in the sense of player created content), how could it be, its a single player game? You can play Skyrim in a linear or non linear fashion, as you choose; and its the same with Guild Wars 2.

  • I think that unless you affect the world in a meaningful way, you will never be immersed.

    Unless you must team up to play the game immersion will be minimal.

    Unless your actions and play affect your standing in the community, you will not be immeresed.

    Unless you have control over you character’s design, immersion will be minimal.

    Put these thing together and you might get an immersive game.

  • I agree that GW2 is quest based.

    Still I feel almost in awe looking at some scenery in GW2 thinking.. wow. that looks great.
    I actually stand still for a few seconds to admire it.

    off topic: dungeon fighter online added to steam.. Csa and Canada that is.
    I have no access to the steam dungeon fighter online forums.
    Could someone complain that Europeans want to play as well. -_-

    Maybe steam could put some pressure on them to either stop ip blocking or add Eu servers.

  • I disagree vehemently that once you’re an aficionado of something – be it food & drink, cars, games, music, fashion or art & literature – you lose the potential to be wowed or have your expectations blown out of the water. I insist that if a whole industry is failing to produce anything vibrant enough to excite its avid proponents, it is a sign of a deeply conservative and directionless culture within that industry/genre.

    I have been playing strategy games longer than RPGs, yet there are still new strategy games, like Crusader Kings, which feel as exciting and different as anything I’ve ever played. I’ve been listening to hip hop for a decade and a half, and the indie scene is still producing new music that totally blows my mind, from Vast Aire’s Ox 2010, to everything by EL-P, and now the bizarre dadaistic ramblings of Das Racist. I feel the same potential for excitement and creative energy in everything from doom metal to beer making to Haute cuisine.

    I agree entirely with Keen’s assessment that MMORPGs are simply recycling the same pattern of gameplay over and over, causing this sense of ennui. Recycling a pattern is not inherently terrible, but the way they are doing it destroys the sense of wonder and the unknown that are two of the key components of what made MMORPGs exciting.

    There is a DayZ anecdote for this, unsurprisingly. Frustrated with life on the coast, I decided to head inland. I figured if I just run up that tall hill there and hide in the trees, I will surely be able to see some farm or something to loot. A few minutes later I crested the hill, and was met with an expanse of featureless forested hills. “Alright, I’ll go to that next hill and spot something there”… About 4 hills later, still having seen nothing but a road and some power lines (and a boar which I shot and carved up, but could not cook for lack of matches), I realized how completely MMOs had trained me to expect the world to make “sense” and to constantly hand me something to do. It was a jarring moment.

    I think the unwillingness of modern MMORPGs to let something like this happen is a key reason that they feel so controlled and directed. Even GW2, while it does give you several options for how to progress, isn’t really willing to say “nope, nothing here except a lovely forest and some hills”.

  • “I disagree vehemently that once you’re an aficionado of something – be it food & drink, cars, games, music, fashion or art & literature – you lose the potential to be wowed or have your expectations blown out of the water.”

    Perhaps a reason why you can disagree vehemently to your statement is that it is an extremist POV, which I do not believe most of us are supporting either. I believe the statement which more accurately reflects a point that some of us have made is that one becomes more jaded/sophisticated (choose your term) in their expectations as their experiential base expands, a belief which is rooted in common experience.

  • “The very first time I logged in to Guild Wars 2 (I’ll use GW2 as an example since it is topical today) I knew immediately what the game wanted me to do.”

    This is a better example of the issue than anything else because of the history with this. Originally there weren’t going to be any special indicators, or heart quests or anything of the sort, but they slowly got added in to herd players to the content who couldn’t figure it out. And yet it still wasn’t enough for everyone.

    YOU knew exactly what to do. But so many people who played the BWEs complained about how there wasn’t enough to do in the game, just because it wasn’t shoved down their throats they couldn’t find it. Incidentally there are a lot of hidden/secretive areas of content such as things that only appear at certain times or that you have to do something to set up, etc.

    However to appeal to the lowest common denominator, i.e. make money, games need to simplify themselves as much as possible. Your money is worth the same as the person who can’t figure out what to do and gets frustrated by having choice. It’s a problem now that MMOs are expected to be million dollar cash cows. This is one of the reasons I think the massive flop of all the big budget MMOs recently is eventually going to be a good thing for the genre since people will have more realistic expectations and less motivation to compromise their games to make them accessible to everyone.


  • “Perhaps a reason why you can disagree vehemently to your statement is that it is an extremist POV, which I do not believe most of us are supporting either. I believe the statement which more accurately reflects a point that some of us have made is that one becomes more jaded/sophisticated (choose your term) in their expectations as their experiential base expands, a belief which is rooted in common experience.”

    You’ve got a good point, of course. I didn’t intend to raise anyone in effigy as a strawman.

    As I mentioned in my post, I have, just like most of you, felt a change in how I partake of and appreciate media, products, and even ideas that I spend long periods of time learning about, thinking about, and internalizing. And it is true that as our experience grows, it becomes more difficult to relive the rush of seeing something totally new.

    But in a healthy, dynamic and innovative creative culture, think how vast are the experiences and interests of all the thousands and thousands of people dreaming up new ideas and creating new products. I think that given the freedom to follow their passion where it takes them, these creators should (for the most part) keep ahead of our ability to become jaded with their work. There will be lulls, of course, for any number of reasons. But I think with MMORPGs, the root of the problem clearly lies in the conservatism of the industry, not the expectations of the proponents of the genre.

    If anything, I’d say the problem is that our understanding of the technology and ideas behind the form have deepened and become more sophisticated, but none of the creators are allowed to push ahead of us, or even to keep pace; they are in fact reigned in by the producers and required to make ever more shallow experiences to appeal to the widest audience possible.

  • Interestingly, I think part of the problem with you knowing that GW2 is about doing quests is the knowing, almost exactly as you said.
    With the first character I started in the GW2 beta weekend events, I played it like you describe – do the quests and then get to more quests to do.
    With later characters, I had different goals – try the different weapons, find waypoints and skill points, and collect ore and food ingredients to further my crafting.
    Sometimes an event going on seemed interesting, and I joined in on it, sometimes even before I realized it was an event.
    This felt much more like a living breathing world than I did when I was thinking of it as a sequence of quests.

  • Interesting that they added the scouts/hearts. I wonder how popular a “hard core” server with all that stuff removed, racial faction combat and a permadeath system added (but with the current “downed” system), would be? Would make the WvW a bloodbath though, so might need to relax it there 🙂

    Personally, I like that you aren’t made to play GW2 in any particular way, and levelled a few of the classes pretty well exclusively in the WvW. Anyone that says WvW is “themepark” obviously didn’t try it (which is fine, PvP isn’t every ones “gig”). From the BWE’s I tried, the “flavour” of it will change a lot too, depending on the worlds your up against there will be as many strategies as there are players/commanders.

    I was also a tad surprised at how open/large the secondary area maps felt, was a lot closer to how the big EQ sized maps felt (maybe even a bit bigger).

    And I don’t think you guys will not really be happy with any MMO while you have the mind set you do (I know I lost a lot of interest in MMO’s for a while after EQ, specially after I tried WoW, which felt like a “toy EQ” after the real thing). But if you look at it as “a game” and play it for the “fun bits”, and don’t “play” it as an alternate life style, you’ll probably find/get a lot more enjoyment from them again.

    It’ll never be the same golden moment as the first MMO that won you over though…unfortunately we all grow up, and the little things that gave us wonder become old hat and we see them as immature/naive, though the good news is there are new “little things” that replace them 🙂

  • @Tinman_au: “I wonder how popular a “hard core” server with all that stuff removed, racial faction combat and a permadeath system added (but with the current “downed” system), would be?”

    I suppose you didn’t get a chance to do dungeons, right? When doing Ascalonian Catacombs, I lost count of the number of times I got one-shotted; no-downed state, straight to defeat, because the damage spike was that high. Perma-death will not happen on GW2, because death was designed to be part of the experience, not just a response to failure.