Disclaimer: My observations here are mostly based on story-based “theme-park” MMORPGs.
I’ve attempted to play MMORPG’s a few times. And for one reason or another, I have never been able to fully invest myself into them. With the launch of Wildstar, I have jumped head-first into the life of a MMO player while playing catch-up to the mindset and lingo that veteran players have developed over time. There is one recurring experience that I have, however, that is really bugging me throughout these games that I’ve played, and I want to lay them out on the table here.
Immersion = the play-style focused on getting the most immersive experience from their game time. The focus is in enjoying the world and the content as they come.
What does immersion mean in the context of gaming? Sure, there is the kind of immersion where you are so focused on beating the challenges that you start sweating, your heart begins pounding, and you forget all about the passage of time. Here, however, I am talking about another type of immersion that is such a focal feature of an MMORPG: diving head-first into the story, the lore, the characters, and the world.
Single-player games are great at creating this level of immersion. You become lost in it like you do in your favorite novel or movie. The players can take as much time as they want in experiencing the world and move on when they are ready. They can stop if they notice something interesting, or go back if they missed something. Everything is scripted and timed perfectly to ensure you have a great experience.
A story-based MMO is also brimming with life. The world is detailed. NPCs have back-stories. The environments are beautiful if you can stop to take it all in. And all of this is evident when you embark on your first adventure…until you have to play with other people.
-Well, That Escalated Quickly-
Here is an example you may be familiar with (it has certainly happened to me).
You’ve just created your character and jumped into the world with your swords whirling, guns blazing. You meet the core characters, you help them with their crises, become Savior to their faction! You’re getting stronger with every new encounter and you’ve found a good groove.
Then the “MM” kicks in.
You join some other players who are running the dungeon that you want to attempt for the first time. You watch the cutscene, and when it ends, your party is nowhere to be found. On top of that, you see in the chat, “What are you doing, noob? Go watch them on YouTube on your own time.” They then proceed to rush from point A to point B to point C, ignoring all subsequent dialogue and cutscenes until the very end where they “gg” and exit.
Welcome to Progression
Progression = the play-style focused on getting better gear, moving on to the next available dungeon or raid, and completing the available content.
-The Fork in the Road-
Immersion is a solo player’s best friend. It probably prefers the casual community–the group who takes their time and is there for the story. The huge problem with casual play in an MMO is that it severely stunts progression. And if this is your playstyle, you will very often get left far behind by your peers.
Even if you do find a few friends willing to wait for you, progressing together with the same group of people for a sustained period of time is an extremely slow process. Completing an entire story-line in an MMO together is almost impossible unless your group is prepared to be left behind the story-train. To be able to completely immerse yourself into the lore, the characters and the environment; or to be able to simply goof off with friends while at the same time, pushing the story forward–you have to work really hard to find that kind of group in this style of game.
I can imagine that there is a moment in every MMO gamer’s experience where you are forced to make a decision. Do you choose the path of Immersion, or do you choose Progression?
People want to beat stuff. They want to level up. They want to beat the final boss. They want better gear. They want to finish the current content to advance to the next. Even if you do find friends who are willing to take the road of Immersion, if there is even one person in your group who’s expectation is Progression, there will be friction. And even worse, if your friends couldn’t wait for you and already beat that content, you will feel like a jerk for slowing everybody down and taking their time.
Unless you are in a premade group, you are not afforded the luxury of watching cutscenes before a dungeon or exploring different paths besides the optimal one. You often can’t stop to see the sights, or hear what the locals are murmuring about their current crises. Why? Because most people are pursuing progress. Therefore, expectation of any group content is normalized upward to Progression. And most people I expect, if they have to sacrifice Immersion in order to keep up, probably will.
-The Luxury of Being Single-
In a single player game, there is no separation between Immersion and Progression, because it is carefully crafted so that the pacing is just right. An MMO doesn’t have that luxury, unless they want to make it a Massively Single-player Game.
Personally, I am caught in a difficult place. I want to keep up. I want to become better and stronger. But, at the same time, I want my first trip through a game to be an experience; not a walkthrough. There is a massive hole in the system that needs to be filled–something that can bridge this massive gap between Immersion and Progression. And if MMO developers can figure this out, they will be fulfilling the needs of so many players who somehow feel this gap, but may even be unaware that it exists.
To be continued…