For our latest Community Spotlight, Sylvinstar returns once again with an insightful editorial that attempts to tackle one of the one of the biggest challenges all game developers face: player immersion. Inspired by (and in response to) a recent official blog post by Jeff Grubb and Ree Soesbee, this is one guest editorial that fans of story and player immersion simply won't want to miss!
“Are We There Yet?”
A response to an official blog post by Jeff Grub (with Ree Soesbee)
In MMO gaming there is probably no other word used so widely and extensively.
As video games have evolved, players have had increased quality of graphics to help immerse them in their favorite gaming worlds, and while the recent unveiling of the Unreal 4 engine shows no end of improvements in that regard, I think there are other elements in game design and construction that have greater depths to plumb. Many years ago I read an article where a certain developer predicted that gaming graphics would reach a peak as far as what they could deliver to the gamer in comparison to other elements affecting immersion in-game. I agreed with the article then, and I think we are seeing that prediction gradually come true.
In an official blog post dated July 31, 2012, Jeff Grubb posted some answers to a question that he and Ree Soesbee were asked revolving around what core game design principals serve to “bond” players to a game. The short of it was that, in their opinion, the best way to assure a gamer had an emotional connection with the world they were gaming in was to have an avatar that the gamer identified with, and to have a world that they would have an ongoing interest in. I think Jeff put it nicely.
“Identification with your avatar is a key to emotional investment. To create that bond, a player has to evolve from “this is my character” to “this is me.” Some of that is done graphically, with customized appearance and equipment. But a big part of it is to create options that allow the player to engage and identify with his creation. While we work from the basic assumption of “I am a hero,” we provide enough variance to allow a variety of playing styles. In addition, those choices will have effects, ranging from how the story progresses to unique items within your home instance and even to conversations and scenes that reinforce your choices.”
While I think this statement is spot-on, there are ways that ArenaNet and other games developers can continue to push this aspect of immersion in gaming forward, more-so than anything that will ever be achieved with prettier graphics. For the remainder of this article I will address one of the reasons why I feel designers have gotten off track in regards to investment and immersion, and how ArenaNet has avoided this pitfall. Cut to the end if you’d like to see a summary of what I believe ArenaNet has done right in regards to immersion through player investment, and what more could be done.
From Zero to Hero in 1.5 Levels
The mantra delivered straight from many game developers’ lips over the last few years has been that players must ‘feel like a hero’ from the moment they log in. I feel that this has been grossly misapplied to the point of taking away the role of the initial player experience within the context of the game’s complete linear progression. Furthermore, I feel this philosophy of ‘let’s-just-get-to-the-good stuff’ is typical of the mentality of a child who would rather have dessert and skip the meal. Initially it provides a quick fix, but in the end it lessens the experience as a whole. I think ArenaNet has done a decent job of addressing these issues in the following two ways.
Tyria has established heroes that are much more powerful than your avatar in the beginning. This allows you to make a name for yourself through your decisions and deeds in order to achieve an equal level of greatness over the course of the game. Being able to interact and fight alongside NPC heroes gives you more of an immediate context for your avatar’s place in the world. World of Warcraft gave a nod to this – albeit much further from their launch game - in the Wrath of the Lich King expansion. I still remember fighting alongside Thrall and Sylvanas to retake the Undercity.
I’m glad to see this concept used within the first 30 minutes of play, but I think this element could be enhanced further in the very beginning of Guild Wars 2 by having cutscenes and content that allow for a window into your avatar’s past. For example, as a human thief you might start out with a cutscene showing the story of your desperate past. This cutscene would lead up to the immediate present where you are navigating through some dirty back alleys intent on completing a self-serving deed of one sort or another. That is when you stumble upon a thug accosting a messenger.
As an aside, this would be a great place to deliver a movement and map use tutorial (navigating the alleys), and a simple low-stakes combat and objective tutorial (taking out the thug) before being lead out into the more chaotic battle taking place outside the city (the messenger is wounded and needs you to deliver their message to someone important outside the city).
Again, I think these elements are present in Guild Wars 2, but they could be tweaked in the beginning for more effect. In my example, the player starts back one step in time compared to where they currently start in Guild Wars 2. A short step, but important for really bonding a player to their in-game character. MMO’s are a journey; the more that the first ‘box’ of your total game time with any given character is about their struggle, the more you will be rooting for them (you) to succeed. This serves to enhance character progression on a different level, because you are launched into the second ‘box’ of game content knowing the true stakes are even bigger than you realized back in that dark alley. All this builds to the endgame with a big pay-off. Without the context of a meaningful, significant, initial struggle however, the big pay-off is diminished.
ArenaNet has addressed the ‘dessert’ problem by putting in what would be considered ‘dessert’ level content for most MMOs in the beginning of the game and ramping up content to end-game. From all accounts, ArenaNet’s idea here was not to give away the best stuff first, but challenge expectations that characters need only be killing rats at low levels. How do you accomplish this without sacrificing the principals I outlined in #1?
Arena net has pushed the traditional level 1 - Cap Level content scale to the left a bit. At least initially. Players are treated to a large boss fight early in the game, but not without the help of one of Tyria’s current generation of great heroes. Once players move on into the world without the aid of heroes, content is scaled back to a level appropriate to their current place in the world. This gives players an initial sweet surge of what it feels like to take part in deeds worthy of a hero, but in the context that they still have a ways to go before they can be the hero leading the charge. It remains to be seen whether character and content progression will parallel each other well throughout the game, but I am optimistic based on released media like the Ascalonian Catacombs cutscenes.
A quick note to head off possible misunderstandings: some may argue that if things are too difficult in the beginning of the game, players may be turned off and go elsewhere. This is not my argument; in fact I agree. The user interface and other mechanical game elements and systems should be intuitive and easy to use, and no, the player should not be subjected to levels of difficulty that have them dying 20 times before they pass level one. Obviously there is a balance here, and I hope that I have made it clear that my main point goes beyond the design of ‘mechanical’ game elements and the difficulty of initial monsters or combat challenges.
Getting It Right from the Beginning
In regards to ‘investment’, “getting it right from the beginning” means that the developer’s job in an MMO should be to introduce game elements that encourage a player’s investment in their character, beginning at the creation of their character’s avatar and continuing throughout its subsequent advancement in the game.
Jeff Grubb made clear what ‘investment’ meant, but it is worth at least paraphrasing again for emphasis. ‘Investment in an avatar’ means that you are projecting your personal character, or at least a version of yourself onto that avatar. Unless you are given situations where you are able to do that in some meaningful way (decisions that have lasting consequences to your character and the world around them), you will not be as invested in your character.
Looks Can Be More than Skin Deep
Also important, as brought out in the article, is the look of a person’s avatar. I won’t get much into that aspect of character/world bonding in this article, however I think ArenaNet has gotten this ‘more right’ with some races than others. Obviously, there is definite room for improvement in the variety of choices for some races. ArenaNet has already given RPG enthusiasts and roleplayers a big bonus with home instances, and sharable single player story lines that carry throughout the entire game - including dungeons.
It wouldn’t hurt them to add a few more face and body models that hint at a past with more struggles. I could go on about how my hideously scar-faced necromancer in Guild Wars 1 shows a lot more about the struggles he went through to master his art, than the slick, pretty-boy models currently available in Guild Wars 2 ever will, but I won’t. I’ll leave this topic with a query to ArenaNet. Can’t ugly people be heroes too?
Immersion/Bonding/Investment – What Has ArenaNet Done Right?
- Home instances where you and others can see the ramifications of your decisions and actions in the world
- Personal story lines (introduced with character creation) with some decisions having permanence (see above)
- Starting players off in the shadow of great heroes whom they can aspire to become one day
- Events with some temporary permanence that lead to immediate consequences in the game world
- Racial starting areas each have a distinct feel and culture
- Vistas – a great way of reminding players of the beauty that would be lost if Zhaitan had his way
- Hidden events and puzzles that encourage exploration of out-of-the-way places
- Lots of lore bits and pieces throughout the world including locations from Guild Wars 1 that have either grown or fallen into ruin
- Fun/odd events and games like keg brawls and golem chess broaden the game world and further enrich the feel of the individual cultures found within. Even in the shadow of war people stop to play games, get married, and seek to advance their culture.
- Cutscenes include live models of the player character’s avatar, which serves to tie them into events in an immediate fashion
- More active combat feels like you are more in control of what happens to your character
What More Can Be Done?
I’d love to have the option to have my avatars’ looks change visually. I am thinking of a system similar to what the game Fable had, where your character’s avatar goes through morphs as determined by what they do and how they do it. If my storyline is such that I am starting out as a common-folk female, should I begin my story in perfect makeup and a 500 platinum hair-do? I’d much rather ArenaNet have options for changing certain elements of my avatar’s appearance at important parts of their personal story where they make sense with the storyline. It’s incongruous to make changes to a character (internally or externally) out of order with the main plot. If I get pummeled into a downed state in the first boss fight shouldn’t I awake with at least a minor scar? Granted some people would not want this type of thing happening to their character, but as I said, I’d love for this to be some sort of option you could turn on at the beginning of character creation.
In addition to the above, I’d like to see the addition of trophies to characters, as seen in Warhammer Online. If I achieve something in-game, I want a visual element specific to that achievement to show on my avatar. Personally, I don’t care for titles. Displaying titles above avatars’ heads exhibits bragging rights, but generally they only serve to clutter the visual space in-game for those that don’t already turn them off in the options menu. Wouldn’t you rather have a scale from Tequatl the Sunless hanging from your avatar’s neck to show other players your successful participation in killing that dragon? This displays the achievement in a way that enhances your avatar without the immersion killing wall of text bobbing above your head in-game.
Special skins for armor and weapons gained by running dungeons are another way of showing achievement, but trophies would be a great way of showing in-game achievements from every part of the game and from different levels of difficulty and time invested. For example, I think some sort of award ceremony with a wearable trophy reward should be given out by NPCs to players for completion of a certain amount and variety of events in the different racial areas. With all the armor and itemization pretty much complete for launch, this may be just a big pipe dream on my part.
One last thing I want to see is a continued effort on ArenaNet’s part to push the envelope in regards to story and how it is tied to player characters’ experiences in-game.
While the ability to advance the quality of graphics will continue, it has been the graphic tool builders and artists’ particular use of design that have really determined how visually immersive a game is to any particular person. You don’t have to look around much to see the wide variety of visually appealing games that vary immensely in appearance.
We are beginning to see in MMO’s the greater and smarter use of some immersion tools long used in other game genres. The use of branching storylines, backstory, a greater emphasis on the quality of scripted material, the use of dynamic elements in combat, and variety in the types of activities the player is able to engage in (mini-games being one example) while in-game are a few of these elements.
Just as World of Warcraft heralded a major shift in certain MMO design paradigms, I believe the explosion in MMO development has again shifted game design paradigms. Regardless of payment model and the desire of developers to advance the genre, this is most assuredly has a lot do with shifts in what players expect from an MMO, as well as a response from developers to try to hold the interest of a gaming public that is spending less and less time in any one game.