Oh yes, I'm going to talk about immersion, even at the risk of inviting a bunch of anti-immersion comments. I'll even define the dreaded "I" word, though of course it's pretty subjective.
I'm not much of a roleplayer, at least according to most roleplayers I know, because all of my avatars are basically me with better hair and combat skills. If I find myself in a group with roleplayers, I may throw in an accent or whatever, but my MMO toons are never really characters so much as they are some extension of my own personality. I've got no interest in puppeteering fictional people, but I am very interested in visiting various fictional worlds myself.
Games that facilitate such visits are immersive. Said facilitation can happen through a personal and malleable combination of sandbox features, scale, detailed world design, a favorite IP, a slick UI like ESO's that doesn't crap a bunch of math all over my screen, and so on.
Lately I've seen a lot of anti-immersion commentary coming from various pockets around the MMOverse, and it always strikes me as pitiable. I've also got a huge helping of incredulity for people who pretend immersion doesn't exist or who dismiss it as unimportant in the grand scheme of gaming ideas. Aside from all of the heavyweight developers who have built successful careers around immersion, and aside from revolutions-in-the-making like the Oculus Rift that owe their very existence to the desire for more immersive experiences, there's also the fact that without immersion, video games are repetitive wastes of time and pretty damn boring.
Sure, when I was a kid I spent an ungodly amount of hours mastering Street Fighter and lesser-known 1980s titles that were relentlessly challenging and ultimately pointless. As I played more and more games, though, I realized that what they do best is provide a window into fictional worlds (or real or historical ones, for that matter). Sure, games can be reduced down to boss fight mechanics, damage parses, or PvP. But why would you want to keep doing those same repetitive tasks over and over again past a certain point?
Competition, I guess?
Every boss fight or PvP encounter is going to be some slight variation on ones you've already done, whereas the sky's the limit in terms of new sights, sounds, and experiences powered by or designed for virtual world-style immersion.
Immersion, to me, happens when I forget that I'm playing a video game. In much the same way that I can lose myself in a great novel for a couple of hours, a great game coupled with suspension of disbelief conspires to block out all the real-world distractions like the fact that I'm mashing plastic buttons or staring at a 2-D screen with a snoring cat curled underneath it. Great games -- or even great experiences in mediocre games -- serve as transport vehicles for people with imagination.
Conversely, other people can't seem to get past the mechanics of said game and their need to beat, break, or otherwise dominate them in some fashion. That's perfectly legitimate -- don't get me wrong. But it's ignorant to bash those who value immersion more than mechanics or to insinuate that immersion is not a thing.
At the end of the day, the only reason I play and enjoy Elder Scrolls Online is because it is incredibly immersive. Yes, the traditional 1-to-50 MMO PvE experience is well done and enjoyable on its own gamified terms. Cyrodiil PvP is, lag aside, good for some diversionary thrills every now and again. The class progression has held my attention longer than such themepark systems typically do because it offers more options and (the illusion of?) flexibility. But none of that stuff is why I continue to subscribe. All of that has been done before in hundreds if not thousands of games.
And proving myself on the same pixelized treadmill over and over again is ultimately unfulfilling. I've done it enough, and while it was fun for a while, these days I don't find it worth the time and mental effort that it typically requires. I'd rather spend that time and effort tinkering with an engine, playing an instrument, or struggling to learn code, and so the only thing that's left in terms of gaming enjoyment is immersion. And MMOs like Elder Scrolls Online do immersion exceedingly well, better than any other game genre.
I play ESO and am immersed in it because ZeniMax spent a lot of time and money building the world of Tamriel. And it shows, session after session. Just last night I visited the Aldmeri capital of Elden Root for the first time, and I was absolutely floored by the art direction and the level of detail apparent in the architecture, the NPCs milling about, and so on. Most players probably blow through the place on their way to pick up another FedEx or kill quest, but I hope a few of them stop to appreciate the sheer artistry on display. Elven tree cities are nothing new, naturally, but this one feels utterly unlike any other MMO location I've visited in the past dozen years.
Your mileage may vary, of course, but I assure you that immersion is a very real thing. It's actually the only thing that makes MMOs worth playing.
The Elder Scrolls Online might not be a sandbox, but it's a fine Elder Scrolls game in its own right. Join Jef Reahard every two weeks as he journeys to Tamriel and beyond in search of some extra inventory space for his crate, barrel, and bag loot. Or come kill him in Cyrodiil, if you'd rather.