Deep MMORPG discussions *begin rant*May 24, 2007
While I’m building up to the release of the findings from my own research, I’m enjoying looking for other people’s MMORPG thoughts. Raph Koster’s brain (or blog, in this case) is naturally a good place to start.
Now don’t get me wrong, Raph has clearly had a lot of hands on experience in the industry and could probably squash me like the noob bug I am, but he does occasionally get caught up in academic issues, along with many of the other veterans. Most of the time I honestly really enjoy a bit of hardcore theory or conceptualisation and I freely admit to reading Terra Nova on a daily basis, but sometimes I get a bit frustrated with discussions about subjects such as ’emergent gameplay’ or ‘narrative’.
A big part of the problem is that academic terminology tends to be extremely ambiguous and to make matters worse academics tend not to notice (or refuse to notice) that this is the case. So we see endless debates where nobody will back down, concede a point or even compromise for fear of being wrong, when actually nobody is wrong because there was no definitive definition in the first place! (For example, compare the definitions given in this paper and this paper)
Now back to my main point. In this post Raph gets on to the subject of ‘immersion’ – yes, one of those academic terms that no-one can quite pin down. He believes that the future of virtual worlds lies in those of the non-immersive kind, like My Mini Life and Club Penguin. If I understand correctly, by this he means virtual worlds that will exist in your browser rather than in a browser of their own.
Firstly, it’s quite possible that the two could co-exist quite happily if we imagine the former cater to the more hardcore audience and the latter for the more casual audience. This would see virtual worlds heading in the same direction as the rest of the computer game industry, i.e. no-one is saying that the success of casual games on Nintendo’s DS is going to be the death of games like Crysis, Gears of War or Halo 3.
Secondly, if we’re completely honest there are very few forms of media that are wholly and all-consumingly immersive. It’s been well-documented that virtual worlds aren’t replacements for real-life. Sure there are moments when you’re playing that you do sort of forget that your just staring at a computer screen, but they are probably far less common than those moments where you’re totally cognisant of your UI, the desk you’re sitting at, the cup of tea you’re drinking next to your computer and so on. But these don’t ruin the game experience, these are all parts of the game experience. Likewise, so are guild websites, WoW forums, Thottbot and so on.
It seems to me that immersion is one of those academic hangovers from the days of the ‘virtual reality’ craze that nobody bar the obsessive academics involved in trying to develop it ever asked for. People play in virtual worlds because they want to enjoy the thrill of a computer game with other people, if it happens to be more immersive and time-consuming it’s more likely an outcome of these two features rather than the reason people start playing in the first place.