Series: Choosing MMOs – immersive world and story

This is the second of a series of posts on criteria for choosing between MMOs, the first intro post is here. Warning this is a long post.

MMOs are often described as virtual worlds, whether they live up to this description or not. They are populated by player controlled (PC) and non-player controlled (NPC) characters for you to interact with. So the first of my criteria in this series is the combination of world and story.

For this post I am honing in on whether the world and story of the MMO makes you want to play and keep playing. Do you feel part of the world and does that alone drive you to keep playing? I’ve certainly experienced this in feeling in MMOs, especially where the world or the story presents possible destinations without necessarily forcing you to go there right away. The mysterious looking tower on a distant hillside for instance, i.e. spotting something interesting just through looking around is infinitely more appealing to me than always following map icons and pointers – that’s one simple example of my take on immersion.

One way of looking at the importance of story in the context of the  game world is in the story’s ability to encourage you to play further, maybe even to distract from the inherent repetitive or grindy aspects common to MMO mechanics. All these games have the stereotypical “Kill 10 of X” style quests in abundance. Is one difference between good and bad game design found in making us care enough to go once more into the wild and kill ten of the same creature without being aware of the counter?

To limit this post and this wider series to a manageable set of criteria for choosing between games I’m having to ignore some related or bigger issues of course. Good vs bad story telling or writing is a very subjective discussion, not something that’s possible to quantify. For example some loved the video cut-scene heavy aspect of SWTOR’s story arcs, while others hated it.  That’s *not* the topic here, what I’m emphasizing is the interplay between story and world to make you feel immersed and want to keep playing.

In order to go beyond simply assigning a wholly arbitrary score to a game, I will break the main idea into three sub-ideas. This allows for a more nuanced opinion on a given game.

Story as an immersive tool

If you learn about the world, the NPCs, the events around you through storytelling in-game then that can increase immersion. Having to look up story elements online because the were breezed-over or barely mentioned is not immersive. The stories you play through should be connected to the world lore, so that you discover about the world at the same time as you enjoy the story. If you can reach the level cap in a MMO but not feel like you’re learned a good deal about the setting then I’d say there’s something missing in the game’s design.

Games are not strictly linear like movies, the progression of the story is dictated often by game play actions like combat encounters or traveling to a new location. Given that a section of the story can be spread in time across multiple gaming sessions over different days or weeks it’s important the game give you sufficient in-game information about what is going on, and I would argue, also what has already happened. The Tome of Knowledge (WAR) and the Codex (SWTOR) are both good examples of how to achieve this in-game.

A world built for immersion

The game world and how you as a player can progress through it has a big impact on immersion. Many MMOs have moved away from open world exploration for a more directed and linear experience. I will resist being drawn into a polarised “open world vs instances” debate here. I think there are design challenges to story heavy content in the open world. Also there are player-oriented issues as well, griefing does happen and beyond that having to wait for a creature to ‘respawn’ to progress your story is hardly immersive, is it? So I will place highest value on a balance between open world gaming so you can interact with the community and instanced story content as the best for overall immersion in the world and the story.

Roleplaying support

It is laughable almost that the genre started as MMORPGs given how niche roleplaying in most of these games actually is, and how little support some developers give to their RP community.  Going beyond the more structured or extreme forms of roleplay (whereby the story of the game, the combat etc all can become secondary to improvised interactions between players), simply having a rich set of controls for our characters can be important for immersion. Some examples are programmed emotes (with sound and a character animation), various chat ‘levels’ with different audiences or in-game reach (whisper, say, shout etc),  public gathering spaces AND private out of the way spaces (not necessarily instanced ones!), interactive world objects that aren’t combat- or quest-oriented: all these aspects add to the immersive nature of the world and allow for players to inhabit the world at more than the most superficial level.

Rating the level of immersive world and story

Bringing this very long discursive post to a conclusion, the easiest way to rate each MMO is to set a scale for each of the sub-points.

(1 low; 5 high)
1 2 3 4 5
Story Story is inconsistent and unrelated to lore (if any). Poor story; rarely related to lore. Moderately rich story; sometimes related to lore; no in-game archive. Rich story; mostly related to lore; limited in-game archive. Rich story related to world lore; full archive accessible in-game.
World design Fully instanced game; no shared spaces; no real freedom to explore. A mostly instanced game with little shared spaces and many limitations to exploration. Some balance of open world and instanced; some problems with over-use of instancing; Some limits to exploration. A good balance of open world and instanced story content. Some limits to exploration. A very good balance of open world and instanced story content (if appropriate).Game encourages free exploration.
Roleplay tools No emotes; No public spaces A few emotes; No public spaces Some emotes; Public spaces but no private spaces; No interactive objects Lots of  emotes;
Public spaces and private spaces; Few interactive objects
Lots of emotes; Public and private spaces; Lots of interactive objects.

The next few posts will setup the discussion for the remaining criteria and sub-elements. Afterwards I’ll do an analysis post or two to test the criteria on the MMO games I’ve been playing.

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