The Internet versus Immersion

A Response To “WoW And The Evolution Of Games And Gamers”

It’s no secret that the MMOs we know today are quite directly built out of the tradition that Dungeons & Dragons laid down so long ago. Many of the core principles translate to the digital age quite nicely – namely its overt reliance on stat manipulation to create gameplay mechanics. What doesn’t translate is information inequality, specifically between the players and the dungeonmaster. In traditional D&D, encounters are planned exclusively by the DM. Unless the DM chooses to reveal information within the campaign, valuable strategic data about the environment, NPCs, and encounters are known only by the DM. As a result, a sizable portion of the game is spent in siphoning information out of the DM through skill checks and challenges. The medium of voice communication itself further limits how much can be shared, as all of this has to be described in words by the DM. Human error is also a factor; incorrectly recorded or misunderstood information gets passed occasionally between players, especially when there are simultaenous events to track. Players will debate each other at length simply to verify the accuracy of their knowledge. These sorts of challenges are appropriate for pen-and-paper, but they just aren’t relevant when the interface is a computer with internet access.

Think about the experience of a single-player game. Using a strategy guide to progress through a game is more or less considered cheating, and not simply for elitist reasons. A properly designed single-player game demands no guide because all the information the player needs will be found within the game itself. As in D&D, encounters are designed on the premise that the player possesses only the knowledge that the developers have deigned to reveal, which will be minimally sufficient to progress. It’s for this reason that the types of puzzles and encounters found in a single-player game don’t scale well into multiplayer. The first person to solve the riddle is also the last. That’s why most MMOs don’t bother making meaningful logic puzzles or riddles, outside of the handful you might find in the occasional quest chain. In a genre where time efficiency is highly valued, it’s hard for a mere riddle to compete against alt+tab -> google.

When a few of us Bloglomerites started advancing through the instances in WoW, it became the norm for one of us to read up on the pulls and encounters beforehand – and at times, I wondered if that’s what Blizzard expected us to do. It would be rather unreasonable to figure out the details of some of those mechanics as a lone player. Besides, resources like wowwiki and wowhead provided a veritable glut of pristinely accurate details. There was nothing left to figure out, but figuring it out yourself was both unrewarding and a major time sink for everyone involved, much as it was with questing. We can deride the implementation of waypoints and glowing arrow trails as spoon-feeding, but they’re the next logical step in this particular line of dominoes. What I think Master Titcomb has observed is that it’s a one-way street. Once the mods are implemented, there’s no removing them. The land before QuestHelper exists now only in memory.

The MUD I once played, Shattered Kingdoms, attempted to address this problem by punishing any sharing of in-character information through mediums outside the game. If you were caught sharing or utilizing knowledge your character didn’t acquire legitimately inside the game, the punishment was generally a hefty experience curse or outright deletion of your character. This was on top of having all of the numbers in the game blackboxed – you couldn’t see exact values for anything, including your own stats. Back in 1999 almost nobody knew how to make a website, let alone a forum or a wiki, so the underlying mechanics of the game remained a mystery to many players. Returning 7 years later, I found that a thriving off-site forum had sprung up, with a hefty collection of information on the game and the underlying numbers. It’s just inevitable, it seems.

What’s lost in translation is immersion. Not in the roleplay sense (though I suppose that could apply as well), but immersion into the gameplay, where you, the player, are approaching and solving the game’s challenges using the tools provided within the game. In SK, being stuck as a low-level character because you can’t find the next area to grind was immensely frustrating, but power stratification in the player base meant you could have a single max-level necromancer genociding half of the active playerbase – miserable as that sounds (and it was), it also generated boatloads of player and group interactions as people rallied to try to stop an undead dragon rampaging across the city. Death was semi-permanent in SK – at the cost of some xp, you could answer two riddles from a death oracle, but failure meant you still lost the experience and stayed dead. The thing about these riddles is they were hard, so without the answers, you’d have to wait until a priest was available to resurrect you, an event that carried its own rituals and RP. For somewhat comparable examples in WoW: you may have just wasted 30 minutes running in circles trying to find the Defias Messenger, but goddamn if you don’t know Westfall like the back of your hand now. It may have been annoying spamming channels with LFG requests, but a well-constructed instance group was that much more precious once you had it.

The problem with all of this is that it’s the shittiest kind of immersion, the kind where you get to spend 10 minutes watching your character ride a squawking lionbird as you ferry nondescript quest items from NPC to NPC. Those griffon rides were no doubt essential to building a sense of scale and setting the theme of the world, but they’re a total waste of the player’s time. At times, it even strikes me as coming out of a fundamental disrespect for how valuable a player’s time is. It creates those moments where you remember that you’re actively paying a company to play this game, and it makes you feel like a twat. To achieve immersion,MMOs have to find ways to motivate engagement with the environment and encourage natural, spontaneous player interactions, but the aforementioned are fundamentally primitive and inelegant solutions that arguably create as many problems as they solve.

It’s in this context that I’ve come to appreciate Guild Wars 2. There’s a lot of mechanics promoting player interaction – group events, revive, no kill poaching or xp leeching – and they do it by allowing helpful and efficient behavior, often rewarding it, no less. I also happen to be a sucker for jumping puzzles, but I find the integration of the puzzles into the large, sprawling world has greatly increased my curiosity and awareness of the environment. I notice particularly nice scenes and details in my surroundings because I’m constantly looking for possible jumping steps. As I’ve finally adapted to the sometimes painfully clunky animations and movement, dodging has quickly become my favorite feature of the game. It’s like someone sprinkled a little bit of Super Smash Bros. in the middle of my MMO, and that’s exactly what I want.

Personally, I’d like to see a lot more development on this front. If evasion can become more than just a number on the stat page, why not blindness, silence, frenzy, sleep, and deafness? These status effects were more than just stat modifiers in D&D – they also controlled the range of possible interactions your character could have. If we want abilities that surpass the traditionalDPS/CC/utility categories, I think making mechanics bigger than just a number on the stat sheet is exactly the way to go, and Guild Wars 2 seems to be embracing that direction. More importantly, I think this is how gameplay immersion can be reclaimed from the dank chasms that data miners have lead us down:

  • Build support for player interaction in as many ways as possible, saving punishment and restrictions only for anti-social behavior
  • Introduce more skill-based mechanics and challenges to provide ways for players to excel without grinding
  • Incentivize curiosity and exploration

WoW attempted to do all of these things, and compared to the games of its time, it succeeded at progressing the genre forward. It’s true that what developers can assume about gamers today is quite different than what could be said a decade ago. It’s not just the technology shift, either – demographics have widened, and big-time developers need to appeal to as many different markets as possible. In this sense, games and gamers have experienced some changes in focus. Overall, however, it’s the platform upon which games and gamers are meeting that has changed the most. The internet we played WoW on in the beginning is vastly smaller than what it is today, and ultimately, the internet is woven into the fabric of these games. As it changes, so do the games, for better or worse. In my mind, WoW was much better suited to the internet of 2004.