Free for All: Five ways to create immersion in MMOs

Second Life screenshot
Immersion. I've used the word so much over the past several years that it has almost lost all meaning. I've played around with my Immersion Project, a set of rules designed to force me to play in a way that creates an almost physical connection with my characters. I've written about immersion and why it is important. I've even played the other side and fell in love with MMOs that are seemingly designed to be anything but immersive. It's one of those flashy terms that sounds more complicated than it is.

The fact is that it's important only to those who value it. And those who value it do not value it all the time. Immersion is simply a feeling of being lost in an MMO. It's the same feeling we get when reading a good book or when completely entrenched in a good movie. It's a feeling that designers must pay attention to, but if you pay too much attention to it, the game you design can miss the mark.

So what defines immersion for me? Well, it's easier to list off some specific game elements that help me feel immersed.

Vanguard screenshot
I want to be very clear on this very important point: Great graphics do not always equal realistic graphics. Realism is sometimes the enemy of immersion. When we dream, we dream of textures, smells, and feelings probably more than we dream of ultra-detailed recreations of real life. The impressionists had it going on; they knew that overall effect is often more real than realistic.

I have felt very immersed in games that have no three-dimensional graphics at all. A good world map in an MMORTS can make me feel as if I am some sort of commander who is fighting for his life on a massive battlefield. Even a well-designed banner or lovingly painted piece of art can do wonders for immersion. Of course, lovely, realistic graphics with all of the associated bells and whistles can do this as well. Vanguard: Saga of Heroes can sometimes be a surprisingly ugly game, much like EverQuest II or Lord of the Rings Online, but there are moments in each of those that seem so real or that look so real that I feel utterly there.

Getting the graphics right is a delicate balance. I think World of Warcraft has shown just how simple and inviting graphics can be. WoW's cartoony world has felt so alive for me because it feels constant and consistent. That's because Blizzard knows that detail and flow is more important than perfect reality.

Ryzom screenshot
Fantastic lore makes for a great read, but reading a novel in the middle of a quest can be a test of patience. I like to have access to a game's lore but in a realistic way. Give me a good in-game library or a website wiki that is done up like an ancient scroll over massive quest text any day. Just make it good. I want to care about the world I am in, and one of the easiest ways to make me care is to give the world a good backstory. I love Ryzom so much because its world is unique, mysterious, and tragic. To this day, I have never found another story or setting like it. Even though it is dense lore, it is accessible through the in-game website, and the earlier stages of the game are spent on a newbie island that is designed to introduce new players not only to gameplay mechanics but to the setting they are playing in.

PlanetSide 2 screenshot
Sound design is often forgotten and neglected. Perhaps it's like the best technology: If it's doing its job well, it's almost unnoticeable. I spent hours in Neverwinter one weekend just exploring the nooks and crannies of the main town. It wasn't just the amazing graphics, lighting effects, and colorful characters but also the sounds of the city and the background music that made me feel as if I was in a bustling city. Once I turned off overhead names, it was almost impossible to tell an NPC from a player. With my headphones on, I was completely lost in the game world.

Sounds can also clue us in to the location of enemies. PlanetSide 2 enemies can be heard from a long distance because, well, firing a large weapon in a canyon made of rock tends to cause sound to carry.

Wurm Online screenshot
Realistic travel is not something that I think should be forced on anyone. If a game designer wants to create a massive, "realistic" world, that's fine, but I think it's only fair to consider those players who might not have the time to travel for all of those hours or who cannot physically play a game for that long. Still, travelling for hours to cross a chunk of dangerous land can create such a feeling of adventure that I've physically ached after doing it.

Wurm Online is notoriously fun for virtual travel nuts. I've written before about how the game -- or world, I should say -- makes long travel times a lovely but dangerous thing. I once took a small boat on a journey to cross from server to server. It took me hours and hours. After it was over, I felt as if I had undertaken something epic, even though all I had really done was press a few buttons.

EVE Online screenshot
Character customization is important because it allows players to put a unique stamp on the game world. It's very possible that once a player makes an avatar with a unique name and set of abilities or traits, that character will stay as unique as the user until the end of time. I've often half-joked about how I would rather have a unique character than a powerful one. (That might explain why I am probably the worst person you can have on your team during a PvP match.) Luckily, MMOs are not always defined by one activity like PvP or dungeon-running. I take advantage of the fact that I can "play" MMOs by collecting costume pieces or by working on my tattoos.

If I have to play a gender-locked character or have to drive around in a character cast without any of my input, that can be fine too, depending on the design of the game. However, I'd much rather have an MMO with a robust character customization option because I will feel more as if I am in the game, or at least, that the character on the screen will be more like me. Some players would rather play a game that is limited in its customization because that creates a constant set of rules and parameters to beat. Competitive MMOs or not-so-massive games are hugely popular because many players would rather play against a player who has the exact same choices. That way there is a fair "winner."

I don't care if I am the loser as long as I am something uniquely my own. I try to be a unique individual in real life, so why not in my virtual one?

What do you think? My immersive qualities are pretty broad... are yours more specific?

Each week, Free for All brings you ideas, news, and reviews from the world of free-to-play, indie, and import games -- a world that is often overlooked by gamers. Leave it to Beau Hindman to talk about the games you didn't know you wanted! Have an idea for a subject or a killer new game that no one has heard of? Send it to!
This article was originally published on Massively.