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Free for All: Revisiting the rules of immersion


Years ago, I found myself wanting something more out of my gaming. I never was a "typical" player; I never achieved max level or defeated the greatest enemies. After some thought, I realized that I played the same as I lived: always curious, needing to explore, willing to step into someone else's story, or wanting to create my own. I needed games to mean more than just a stat-sheet or a weekly raid schedule. I needed to feel more connected to this activity that was taking up so much of my time. Otherwise, it was just a job.

At the time, I was very much into Vanguard. I still am, but my schedule has left me without enough time to play as much as I'd like. I loved how the world of Telon sucked you in with its massive landscapes and endless waters. Yes, the game has many issues, and yes, the community does as well. I wasn't going to let that stop me from writing up a series of rules -- more like guidelines -- that would almost force myself to slow down, to connect to the character I was playing, and to have fun.

I've decided to re-examine and update the rules, especially because I could use them now more than ever. We'll start by breaking down the original set.

1) No instant forms of travel. Originally this rule was intended to stop me from using "riftways" (instant teleports) to send me all over the world. It wasn't as though I thought that teleporting was somehow not "allowed" in a world filled with dragons and orcs; this rule was in place simply to slow me down. Under this rule, I could only use my own feet, a horse, or a boat to travel. Sometimes I would take a half an hour to get somewhere -- but it was worth it. I learned the landscape like the back of my hand, and the world became more real. This very simple rule can work wonders.

2) Use only realistic forms of chat. Since I decided to stop traveling instantly, why would I allow what was essentially telepathic communication? I am a fan of "hand-written" letters, and so the rule stuck: I can only chat in "local" channels or "shout" channels, and I can only communicate over long distances using mail. I even nominated a home base -- the only spot from which I could check that mail, and the spot I would have to log out in. By the way: Yes, this means no general chat channels.

3) Limited recall usage. This rule limited the magical ability of my character to instantly teleport back to his nominated home base. Interesting situations arose as a result of this rule. There were many nights that would I would be forced to stay awake for an extra 30 minutes, just to get "home." I eventually allowed for limited teleports, especially in emergency situations like having to leave the real-life house for a forgotten errand.

4) Stop leveling. In Vanguard, I stopped leveling at 32. I wasn't sure what it was about this particular number, but I was able to cast a spell (not many games feature this ability) that literally stopped me from gaining experience. This was another rule designed to make me "stop and smell the pixels" -- and it worked very well. Not only does it allow a player to see more content, but it sets a limit on power for the character. In Warhammer Online, for example, I will continue to play the unlimited trial until I simply finish all the content possible. Of course, I can't promise that I ever will, but imagine if I did -- I would have such a full experience, all thanks to a forced level cap. It could be argued that this is the same concept behind any level cap, but stopping somewhere before the actual level limit (even if temporarily) is a great way to extend the life of your game.

5) Use roleplay speak. For the record, I cannot stand the fact that many roleplayers instantly think that "thou, thee, thy" equals roleplay -- especially on some of the alien worlds we virtually visit. I follow the NPC rule of thumb: If they speak a certain way, so will I. Of course, one has to consider all of the levels in between. Just like in real life, there are people who speak perfectly and those who really need an editor. (Ahem.) As a general rule, I avoided the use of words and phrases that would never be featured in the world I was playing in. I didn't go the opposite way, either, and speak as some kind of fine gentleman. After all, my character was me, and I am roughly somewhere in the middle.

6) Perma-death. This rule gets into so many design issues that I generally ignore it. The last character I killed off was rather loved, which created issues of its own. Generally perma-death would make a lot of sense to players if we had some kind of "passing on" of the skills and abilities we learned over the course of our sessions, but games just don't allow for it. Death is probably the main thing that many games do wrong, if you ask me. I'll save that for another article. For now, I'll skip perma-death.

7) Realistic trade: My character needed a job, and adventuring was not going to be it. Yes, some players were meant to kill dragons and to conquer dungeons, but my character worked for his gold. Trade was my favorite pastime (not crafting, as many would think), but most games I played in didn't really encourage true trade. Once the auction house came into play, a player could simply sell his goods on some kind of magical, universal market that stretched across time and space. Still, I always found some item that was region-specific enough to allow for gathering and selling. Heck, in Mabinogi (one of the games I will be discussing later on) I would simply sell the most basic item that everyone needed.

8) Use only a physical, blank map. Ah, this rule makes me smile. For Vanguard I found mostly blank maps online and printed them out. I literally wrote in the names of towns and places I would discover. I used the sun for directions (once I figured out in what direction it went down) and learned to watch out for landmarks. What happened? I grew intimately aware of my surroundings. Reinstating this rule means that I need to find several different blank maps -- I had better get looking. Here's an example from years ago that explains it a bit more.

9) Obey the weather. If the game I was playing had some sort of realistic weather system (many now do), I would take shelter or slow to walking speed when I was caught in a storm. Of course, not all games and planets have the same weather or the same effects, so I learned to be fluid with this one. Before the Vista/Windows 7 bug (that has never been fixed) the rain in Vanguard was something to be treasured. I found myself sitting in open doorways for long periods of time, watching the rain. I started to check for cloudy weather and learned to obey the text warnings (as in Mabinogi.) Weather should effect all things, and in the coming weeks I'll show you some examples of games that actually enforce these effects.

10) Obey the stomach. My hero needs food. Again, if the planet or gameworld you are visiting has some sort of alternative to food -- so be it. This rule is similar to the others in speaking to the character's limitations. For my main characters, I would take the day/night cycle, divide it into quarters or thirds, and force my character to take a break and eat. Sometimes it was easier to set an alarm on my phone to remind me to sit my butt down and have some food.

11) The Golden Rule. If it isn't fun, do not do it anymore. These rules, and this project, are an attempt to connect to my character in ways most games do not provide. But if it suddenly becomes a hassle, or if real life (or physical disabilities) get in the way, the rules take a step to the side. Fun is the key here.

I need to point out that these rules are by no means an attempt to "make up" for shoddy or lazy development. They are also not some snobby roleplay project or attempt to "prove" anything. To me, they are a simple set of boundaries and guidelines that helped me become a different player. To this day, if I log into a new game, I can take the time I need in order to have a good time. The last thing I worry about is performing perfectly or following some sort of template for my character. My character is me, and I am no hero. As I always like to say: I am an ordinary being in extraordinary circumstances -- why should it be any different for my character?

Next week I am going to start showing off some games that already feature forced "immersion rules" and show where even they can be improved upon. Hopefully in the end I can come out with a tighter set of guidelines, and maybe a new adventuring buddy or two.

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!

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