The success of a virtual world is dependent on the ability of the developers to convincingly immerse the player in their world. Without a daily emphasis and reverence for mechanics, art and design that contribute to immersion, the virtual world you are trying to create for your subscribers is in danger of collapse.
Immersion is essentially about belief. In their hearts and minds, players truly need to believe and perceive that your virtual world is real. Real enough for them to invest thousands of hours of their time and dollars and even more importantly invest their emotions in your world.
In recent years the reigning king of MMOs the World of Warcraft has become much less immersive. As time has progressed, this venerable MMO has become decidedly more about the game than the world. Why have they seemingly cast it aside immersion in favor of introducing features and gimmicks that detract from that most noble of all virtual world constructs?
What is Immersion?
Immersion is a state when the player or spectator (in the case of plays and motion pictures) temporarily suspends their disbelief and willingly transports themselves into the realized world of the creator. The difference between films and virtual worlds is that the players are not mere bystanders — they are active participants with a purpose.
True immersion is really a holistic mindset or philosophy of art, design and user interface that when combined should influence all aspects of a virtual world rather than just a few features in isolation.
One example of immersion is critters in WoW. At first glance they seem to serve no purpose — they just exist in the periphery, scurrying about with their own purpose. Yet in Westfall when you see a wolf chasing a chicken suddenly the world feels believable. It is these kind of innocuous details that helps create the illusion of life. But take these seemingly trivial creatures away and suddenly the world feels less alive.
Another example of immersion are all of the tables, chairs, paintings, bottles, cups and other assorted doodads found in a virtual world. All of them exist to give the virtual world depth, richness and detail. This is done to give the player a subconscious feeling that if they put so much work into these seemingly trivial details, then how much work will they put into the important things?
Immersion and the Average Player
I don’t expect the average WoW player to care too much about the erosion of immersion in Azeroth, after all they have already bought into the illusion and suspended their disbelief.
The typical WoW player is probably unconcerned and even unaware of what immersion is which is how it should be; yet they’d most certainly miss it if it weren’t there to begin with. In fact it’s a convincingly immersive experience that attracts many of us to a virtual world in the first place. Think back to those first amazing 15 minutes you spent in those magical WoW starting areas; they were designed to be incredibly immersive to draw us in and hook us.
How to Erode Immersion
The problem with immersion is that it’s far easier to destroy then it is to create. One could have the most amply immersive virtual world in existence then with the careless addition of a few features negate all of the hard work that designers, artists and programmers have created.
Immersion is a state that needs to be constantly nurtured, promoted and guarded.
The Tug of War between World and Game
Back in the early 2000′s when WoW was being designed and produced there was a greater respect for the notion of immersion and there was a feeling that the virtual worlds had great potential. The MMO genre was still not mainstream back then and was not prone to the demands of the current convenience driven ADD mentality that is so pervasive among today’s fresh faced video gamers.
Since the inception of WoW, there has always been a philosophical tug of war at Blizzard between balancing the world aspect with the game aspect. However, the original artists and designers really pulled out all the stops and created an amazingly beautiful and breathtakingly detailed world that is still unparalleled after all these years. It is that initial effort of creation that has been the counter-balance to all of the recent game-centric features.
Surplus and Deficit
Another way to look at it is that WoW started with an unprecedented surplus of immersive qualities: the artwork was stunning and original, the character and mob animations were detailed and luxuriant, the music and sound effects inspired and sparkling.
Then as features were added that did not support the same level of immersion and instead detracted from it, that original surplus has been depleted to its current woeful level.
It is my opinion that the people currently in charge of WoW do not have that same level of respect for immersion and have instead skewed the balance in favor of the “game” aspect of MMOs. Instead of a cohesive virtual world, WoW has become a MMO that is characterized by a series of crudely tacked-on features and mechanics that absolutely fail on any reasonable immersion test.
Let’s take a look at just a few of those features and analyze their impact on immersion:
Drinking the Instancing Kool-Aid
Instancing is the ultimate triumph of game over world. It’s the one feature that has truly defined WoW. It gives the developers the ultimate control of who enters and when. It’s negative impact on immersion deserves special mention even though it shipped with WoW back in 2004.
It’s a topic that MMO veterans used to debate strenuously back during first few years of WoW but due to that MMOs overwhelming success it has somehow been accepted into the canon of MMO features despite its multitude of non-immersive features.
Instancing has often been hailed as one of the most revolutionary features ever developed for virtual worlds. Yet those magical portals that separate the persistent world from the non-persistent world within Azeroth have never really been adequately explained within the context of the world. How is it that there could be hundreds of Lich Kings chasing after Jaina Proudmoore in the Halls of Reflection on any given server at any given time?
And what about instance locks and timers? How is that a player can enter through an instance portal one day but the next day she cannot. How does that make sense?
Instancing is a cop out. Yet we accepted it because the rest of WoW was so brilliant and amazing. Once the player-base accepts one dubious feature, it’s not that hard to for them to accept the introduction of other dubious features. That’s precisely how they got us to drink the Kool-Aid.
The WoW Achievement System
The WoW Achievement System (easily the most unimaginative name in MMO history for a feature) is probably one of the most unoriginal and amateurish features ever added to a MMO. This is another mechanic that makes no sense in the context of the world. When an achievement is announced to you, those around you and your guild, it’s like the disembodied voice of a god-like power much like Santa Claus that watches you constantly and tracks your every move in Azeroth. It knows when you’ve been bad or good and tells the world.
This bizarre system of categorizing and quantifying almost every aspect of gameplay does nothing to increase the level of immersion in Azeroth. Sadly, it could have been integrated into WoW with more elegance and harmony via NPCs that could track such things or even some kind of journal.
But don’t expect anyone to balk at the Achievement system now. Today’s generation of video gamers raised on a diet of XBox Live achievements not only expect it, they demand it.
The Dungeon Finder System
It’s really hard to believe that a little green eye better known as the Dungeon Finder can somehow assemble your group and magically transport you and 4 other players from other servers into one random dungeon. Then when you are done, you are magically transported back to your previous location like Dorothy waking up in Kansas in the Wizard of Oz.
You don’t even have to visit a particular location or interact with an object or even enter through a portal. Being part of a group takes little effort and can be completed in 2 mouse-clicks.
Remember hearthstones and inns in the first beta? Back then when they were implemented at least Blizzard was not so lazy and unimaginative. Players had to physically click on something in their inventory to get teleported back to an inn. If this feature was created today it would no doubt be placed on an easy to find icon on your toolbar and you’d be transported instantly.
From the We Stole it From Pop Culture Department
The ridiculously high percentage of pop-culture references has always bothered me in WoW as being something that brings me back to the real world rather then reinforcing the virtual world. Today it’s not unusual to find almost every NPC that has some connection to a motion picture or pop song. It’s almost become a meta-game to uncover and appreciate the pop culture references in WoW.
You have to wonder about the integrity of the writing and question Blizzard’s commitment to immersion, when a recent video interview the lead Blizzard Quest designer admitted that the quest he was most proud of was where he pilfered a line of dialogue directly from The Godfather.
If you are going to steal stories and plot lines then at least do it with class and disguise it.
Mr T Invades Azeroth
Probably the worst offender of all is the introduction of the Mr. T mohawk grenade which transforms people (against their will) into a likeness of Mr T – a D list celebrity from the 1980′s sitcom the A-Team.
Someone in high places at the Blizzard marketing department thought it was clever to re-purpose some art assets from a previous Mr. T WoW commercial and use it for the current promotion and place this moron’s face in the MMO. Well it’s utterly stupid and has no place in Azeroth. Score another failing grade for immersion.
What’s next, exploding Ozzy sunglasses that suddenly turns players into rambling, incoherent, washed up rock stars?
Creating a believable immersive world where humans can escape to and take on the roles of great warriors and powerful mages is not an easy task and nor is it cheap. The very nature of the Internet and even players themselves represent forces that naturally work against the immersion of a virtual world. Therefore it is incumbent on the MMO company to do all they can do push back the barbarians at the gate who would seek to destroy the sanctity of those worlds.
One really wonders if those at Blizzard are doing all they can to protect the integrity of Azeroth?
If I had to put my finger on the main reason for the recent erosion of immersion is that the current leadership at the helm for WoW just doesn’t have the personal passion and design vocabulary for this under-appreciated virtual world building block. Somehow they’ve taken for granted that a virtual world needs all of its component parts to each contribute to the players sense of immersion.
It’s a also a much different video game landscape today then it was 10 years ago when WoW first entered the psyche of its creator Rob Pardo. Blizzard has created its own mystique about WoW and redefined what a MMO is, with the end result being that WoW has attained a sort of critical mass in the popular culture.
Another reason could be that the original crew that made WoW are probably long gone or moved to other projects or with other companies. This has the effect of leaving us with younger developers whose only standard for immersion is tragically WoW itself.
It could also be hubris on the part of Blizzard. Eventually even the very best of companies can fall victim to the deception of invincibility. In the case of the Achievement System and the Dungeon Finder system it’s clear that Blizzard is either just plain lazy or so arrogant that they believe their millions of subscribers will embrace anything they create. Anyone remember the horribly broken Honor System?
For a company that earns $600 million in profits every year from WoW, I have to wonder why it’s so hard for them to find the resources to ensure that new features meet some standard of harmony and cohesiveness with respect to their immersive value before they are included.
At what point will someone stand up during a high level meeting at Blizzard and have the courage to say “NO” to the approval of yet another feature that detracts from immersion? Is there any line in the sand that the Blizzard developers will not cross as they drain the well of immersion dry in order to quench the thirst of the gamer?
What really worries me is that all future mass market MMOs will look to Blizzard’s WoW as a blueprint for success. Blizzard’s lack of reverence and stewardship for the concept of immersion could find its way into these MMOs and the results would be disastrous.
The leadership at Blizzard who keep introducing these non-immersion features are recklessly spending the surplus of immersion created by their predecessors. Some day the tally will go into the red and by then the tipping point will be reached. At the present rate, that day may come sooner than they think.