Convenience vs Immersion

By the standards we use to judge games today, Ultima Online, at launch, was a terrible game full of down time and grinding. Let me give you a recap in case you never played it. The land of Sosaria was mostly wilderness when the game launched. There were a handful of cities with guards that offered limited protection (they either had to observe a crime or ‘hear’ you call for help before they’d intercede), but otherwise it was a brutal place to live. Not only was it an open PVP world, but there were thieves who could pluck items out of your pack. When you died, all your belongings stayed on your corpse, available to anyone not above plundering the dead.

Travel? Initially you walked everywhere, dreaming about having a horse. Getting a horse was a matter of either buying one from another player, or spending a lot of time learning to tame animals (first birds and bunnies, then perhaps dogs and cats, and finally horses) and then training it to be ridable. When you finally got a horse, you’d have to keep it fed and treat it well. A mis-treated animal might escape and return to its wild roots. Assuming you did all that correctly you’d have a trusty steed…until some malice-filled cretin decided to kill it on you.

There was also limited teleportion. You’d have to make or buy a rune and then use it to mark a location, after which you could teleport to that location, assuming you had the required reagents. Those were gathered from the wilderness, either by you or another player.

There were some NPC merchants that sold some very basic items, but their stock was limited. These NPCs would buy items from players as well…assuming they needed what the player had to offer. As an NPC’s stock levels rose, they’d offer less and less for that item until finally they’d just stop buying altogether (one conceit to gameplay…every so often NPC stock would ‘reset’ to get rid of excess materials).

What few ‘quests’ existed were found by talking to various NPCs. These didn’t have an ! on top of their head; you had to find them. Crafting meant tedious gathering of materials and working at a forge or a spinning wheel or whatever tool you needed. Gaining skills meant spending a lot of time in front of a training dummy, or beating up lesser creatures. How’d you know it was a lesser creature? Either by common sense (a rat or a bunny) or by trial and error. There was no ‘con’ system to tell you such & such a creature was 1 level below, or 3 levels above, you. (Heck, there were no levels!)

In short, if Ultima Online version 1.0 launched today it would be ripped to shreds by most gamers and reviewers. And you know what? It was a glorious game. The one game that was so compelling that I truly did get ‘addicted’ to it. I missed work because of that game. Lost sleep. It almost destroyed my relationship. These are not things I’m proud to admit, but I share them just to illustrate how compelling the game was.

Today’s games are kinder, gentler beasts. We have fast travel, and clearly marked quests, and death penalties that don’t even feel like penalties. Why? Because that’s what players say they want. We complain if we have to spend more than a few minutes traversing the world to meet up with friends. We complain if we lose progress. We complain if we have to repeat the same actions multiple times, calling the game a grindfest.

And the developers hear us and they adjust their designs to give us what we want.

And the more the devs do this, the more I hear about RPG ennui. People jump from game to game, looking for something sticky but not finding it. They give up the genre altogether, or resign themselves to retreating to whatever game they have high-level characters (or a bunch of friends) in. Often this retreat is done out of resignation rather than enthusiasm.

Enter Fallen Earth and Demon’s Souls. Now the latter isn’t an MMO, but the point I’m making isn’t limited to MMOs. Both of these games buck the trend of adding convenience to games. Fallen Earth has no fast travel. It doesn’t have an apocalyptic Walmart where you can go and buy anything and everything you need. You have to ‘grind’ a lot in terms of gathering materials to get good enough to make the items you need, or to get enough cash up to buy what you need from other players or the few NPC suppliers out there. It isn’t a complete throwback, mind you. The death penalty is very light, there’s no theft and your transport can’t be killed or stolen.

But a lot of what Fallen Earth does is ‘wrong’ by the standards players demand from modern games. And yet people who try it out tend to stick with it. This shouldn’t be. The game isn’t all that polished, the graphics pale in comparison to something like Aion, the interface is kind of clunky and has to be learned. But the population of the game continues to grow while that of Aion and Champions Online apparently dwindles.

Demon’s Souls should be a flop, too. It’s an RPG with no quests, a relatively stiff death penalty, a ton of grinding, non-consensual PvP and game systems that can only be figured out by trial and error. And yet all the reviews that I’ve read have been glowing, and the community is enthusiastic as hell. The game is compelling and engrossing.

What’s the common theme between Fallen Earth and Demon’s Souls? Immersion. All the convenience factors in modern games make them feel like modern games. The boring stuff, the frustrating stuff…that makes these games feel like immersive worlds. Without pain there can be no pleasure, to go all zen on you. A reward without any struggle just isn’t as sweet (for many of us) as a reward we had to work for.

This doesn’t apply to everyone who plays games. Not in the slightest. But it applies to those of us who still embrace the Role Playing in RPgs. I’m not talking about role playing in the sense of gathering with a few other players and doing a skit. I mean the internal role playing that some of us do. The role playing that lets us use these games as portals to other worlds, the same way a good book can do.

If you don’t know what I mean by that, this post won’t make sense and I’m sure you’ll disagree with it. That’s fine. But if you get what I’m saying…if you know the delight of just sinking into a good virtual world and existing in there for a few hours, then please give Fallen Earth and/or Demon’s Souls a try. Both are excellent ‘throw-back’ games that bring the immersion back to our hobby. Games like this need our support. We need to send a message to game developers that there are still players who appreciate a good immersive game, and who still appreciate a challenge.

12 thoughts on “Convenience vs Immersion

  1. I definitely agree with this post. Now, I wish I had the money to actually purachse fallen earth, because EVERYONE KEEPS TALKING ABOUT IT!

    Ah well, i’ll just have to wait for the Fallout 3 GOTY Edition.

  2. As former Ultima Online player I can only agree to your observations: Today’s MMORPGs are more games than immersive worlds that really suck you in. This is also the reason why many games cannot keep their players. It might sound pompous, but a game comes to an end, but a world does not.

    Learning taming was really a grind, but the word/term did not even exist at this time in Ultima Online, and while people were complaining about “0.0 gain after dozens of tamed bulls!”, they did not even get the idea to say the game sucks or demand from the devs to change things.

    I fear the hard and unenjoyable stuff is also part of the experience. I was so HAPPY about the PvE/PvP split, Trammel and Felucca. Initially.

    I was never a PK, and I never liked PKing asshats. In fact I have my internal code of honor, like not killing people over and over and not kill their horses, or to loot really EVERYTHING up to the underwear. Professor “Griefer Sutherland” Beej and me might have had a clash in my early days. πŸ˜› It took me some time to realize I missed fearing them and taking bloody revenge. Feeling perfectly save made me feel something was missing. It was also no faction A vs B pvp, it was free for all. Everyone could a friend, foe, unlikely ally or backstab you.

    Still, something got lost. Nowadays players feel “griefed” if they get killed on dedicated pvp servers or pvp games. They want to transfer, or play another game. I got killed and looted, and still played Ultima Online.

    I think immersion is that hard to describe thing that good MMORPGs need to be really great. If they cannot create this, they fail. I think this is also what REALLY killed Warhammer, besides the pvp balance and content issues.

    BTW, I always thought you were an EverQuester, but you also know UO. Both games were immersive, while being two different kinds of MUD descendants. The DIKU vs LP mud comparison was recently brought up by Muckbeast on his blog. I think both EQ and UO had this immersive feeling that got lost over the years, regardless how different their foundations were.

  3. P.S.: Too busy playing LOTRO at the moment and the money is actually meant for Mirkwood, cannot play Fallen Earth at the moment. Keep me updated, I will join the game after you and all other fellow bloggers and twitterers have erected Longascville and prepared me a welcome buffet! πŸ™‚

  4. I am so intrigued by Fallen Earth. I was one of those who, like you, became all but addicted to Ultima Online because of its immersion. If Fallen Earth can recreate even a smidgen of that feeling, my next paycheck might lose 50 or so dollars to rekindle that kind of love.

    As much as I love WoW and other modern MMOs, none has come close to making me feel like I existed in a world as Ultima Online did.

  5. By the way, Mount & Blade also offers a similar gameplay mode: No saving except you exit the game. There is no permadeath in this game, but losing parts of your gear and getting imprisoned, losing companion heroes and your whole army is really hard. People play less reckless in this game mode, but fight like berserks if they are cornered by superior enemy troops. One of the most intense moments was when my badly wounded (low hp) char and his equally battered warband of 27 was attacked by 112 northmen. My men were soon captured or killed, and I could not evade being dragged of my horse either while only 18 enemies were left.

    The enemy Thane then offered me (and only me) to leave instead of taking me prisoner in recognition of my bravery. This felt great, almost like a total victory. πŸ™‚

  6. My experience with Fallen Earth was basically like so:

    1) the setting had me hooked from the beginning. I have been waiting for a mad max / fallout style world that I could get into, explore and spend hours wandering the wasteland.

    2) the intro tutorial to the game is awesome. I think it was a perfect way of introducing the game, getting you familiar with how things work, and in general introducing you to the FE.

    3) the realtime combat system is crucial – I watch people ‘playing’ world of warcraft and other ‘click / wait / see results’ types of games and just don’t get it. You can see that alot of wow players on the FE chat don’t get the fact that combat in FE actually requires skill – that is, you can be beaten by a lower-level monster / character simply because you missed shooting at them, not because of some arbitrary dice roll behind the scenes decides that your character should win because you are higher level than them

    4) the crafting – oh the crafting. The realtime queue system, the harvesting materials etc – while in a fantasy or other type of game would feel like pointless grinding – in a post-apocalyptic world, these are essential, crucial elements that work perfectly in FE. The joy of finally being able to craft myself that first pistol, or even little items of clothing to kit my character out is simply awesome.

    FE rocks, see you on the wasteland ;}

  7. It’s been long understood that most of the successful boardgames (Risk and Monopoly especially) break all of the rules that Parker Bros. / Hasbro maintain internally as necessary to publish a game.

    The reality is, that most of what’s been determined as good or bad gameplay is usually reactionary. Games are taken apart by reviewers and bloggers alike and popular theories are made, rather than accepting or rejecting the game as a whole. There’s more than just the gameplay involved too, the biggest games have always been at the right place at the right time too.

    And finally, we’ve often been led to believe that X is good gameplay and Y is bad gameplay, because Y is hard / expensive to make.

  8. I was stuck by your phrase “internal role playing” because I never thought of it that way but it’s an apt phrase.

    I have a post scheduled at PPI on “Questing for Immersiveness in MMOs,” too bad I stumbled over this post after I had already written mine.

    The one comment that I will make here is that I don’t think most players want their MMOs to be immersive. To me, underlying all of this is the reality of the profit motive and human nature. Human beings are different. They want different things out of their games. And if one’s goal is to make as much money as possible then one needs to appeal to widely divergent sets of interests. One of the things that has made WoW so successful is that it manages to do that without being totally bland. Yes, maybe it is bland compared to some others but it is not Peggle bland.

    The fundamental fact of the matter is that one can make a super game with awesome immersiveness and most of the time it will go broke. There’s a message there, though your internal role player may not want to hear it.

  9. (Ruin your relationship? I don’t remember that! I watched over your shoulder and thought it was pretty cool, since it was a visual recreation of the MUDs I played way back in the early 90s. It was Tribes that pissed me off, remember?)

    Just passing through, btw. Hope you’re well!

  10. I am not disagreeing with the “simplifying” of modern games, but I think some of you are conflating 2 things–“immersiveness” and first MMO love. There is no way to go back to being MMO naive and experiencing your first game. All the love you are giving UO and EQ I have also heard for Lineage, Anarchy Online, etc. Even WoW. Most people are looking to re-experience the total amazement and interest of that first game. This is something that can never be recaptured.

    My other thought is that all the people that grew up playing games are now adults with jobs, families, and other real life timesinks. This is the crowd that is looking to “accomplish” something in the half an hour chunks of time they have to play, and there are a lot of them. I think more hardcore gamers will have to accept that they are a niche market and will be best served by niche games that have niche production values (good gameplay coupled with cheaper graphics, sounds, effects, etc).

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