Category Archives: Immersion

Dungeons, Dungeons, Dungeons

dungeon gamblers den in DDO

I started playing Dungeons and Dragons Online again a couple of weeks ago. The game stays true to its namesake with a plethora of instanced dungeons to explore. Though they come in different shapes and sizes, there’s really nothing else to do. Unlike MMORPGs with open world content, DDO is all about dungeon delving. After a few early levels, all of these are really meant for groups. Players can substitute hirelings in a pinch, but unsurprisingly a true player is almost always preferred. This design choice has created the double edged sword that has largely defined DDO’s existence.

Turbine’s Dungeons and Dragons Online is a lot of fun, but only with a group. That’s a pretty big caveat though because the population isn’t the most steady. The DDO traffic report shows the densest server with under 800 people at peak hours. The game itself isn’t doing so bad with about 3,000 people online at a given time, but that doesn’t really help the average player. Luckily, I’ve roped in a few friends to playing with me so I think I’ll be OK. When I do hop on by myself, the curious side of me can’t help but check the public groups. This doesn’t display groups deep into an instance, but the group counts aren’t exactly inspiring. I’ve had about a 50% success rate at grouping with at least one individual via public groups. That number might go up once I get past all of the solo friendly content.

Personally, I’m glad that there isn’t a lot of solo content. That’s a big part of the enjoyment for DDO. The class system seems really flexible and a hireling is better at filling holes than acting a sole companion. I’m still learning what’s in and out in the current class meta, but at my current level it doesn’t really matter. I don’t feel like any of my groups have suffered from lack of class synergy.

Unlike most MMO dungeons, DDO’s instanced content isn’t a scripted run through trash mobs with a few boss encounters. Well, not always at least. What’s cool is that the game doesn’t hold your hand, and I respect it for respecting me. My party and I are given a task to complete, and it’s up to us to figure it out. Treasure abounds, and I feel rewarded for putting in some energy to explore the nooks and crannies. I bring all of this up because I think it helps clarify my MMO dungeoning expectations.

dungeons ddo dragon fight

I don’t always have to been challenged. The low level quests in Dungeons and Dragons Online are pretty easy. Despite that, the game is still fun. When our group wants to fear the Game Master’s, we can always up a mission to Elite difficulty. Partying is fun in large part because of spending time with other human(s). We don’t necessarily need interactive abilities, but each player’s role can (and should) noticeably contribute. Freeform dungeon design with non-combat checks actually help me appreciate combat more. Ultimately, all of these attributes come down to flexibility. Dungeons can often feel constraining, and I think that pushes people away. If dungeons were more flexible, maybe it would lead to people clamoring for more group content?

It’s also possible for dungeons to be designed in a way that mirrors an open world. Overworld maps in hack and slash ARPGs like Path of Exile make the world seem big. Yet there are often specific story tasks for the player to complete. This keeps the focus on just playing the game and enjoying advancement when it comes. This is how to immerse people in adventure. Motivating the player with non-linear missions would dramatically improve dungeoning in MMOs. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to integrate this style of play into a persistent world.

Crafting a good mission requires events to play out in a certain way. Players outside of a particular group can affect the world dramatically in open world MMORPGs. Even themepark MMOs, critical by some for lack of meaningful impact, share this trait. Instanced content has been the way around this, but I think has largely been underutilized. Randomized dungeons like fractals in Guild Wars 2 is something I’d like other MMOs to take a stab at. There’s no reason why we can’t have randomized open worlds though. It just doesn’t fit in with our current mold of quests and sandbox game design.

a set of dungeon treasure chests in ddo

The technology to procedurally generate large land masses is certainly there. This gives players the flexibility to explore lands as trendsetters. I won’t say generating interesting content dynamically is easy, but it is possible. Taking the non-linear dungeon design and flexible grouping out of Dungeons and Dragons and placing in an open world style is very alluring. In many ways, that’s been the selling point of No Man’s Sky and despite some mixed reviews, the game has been wildly successful. Games that sell poorly don’t generate giant reddit posts. Online RPGs and MMORPGs have already done all of this with instanced dungeons, but maybe we can take the best of dungeons and put them in the open world?


We Love Pokemon Go Despite Hating Everything About It

Pokemon Go has certainly taken the world by storm. Nintendo’s stock has risen a tremendous 44% since Pokemon Go’s release last week.

Nintendo stock up 45% from Pokemon Go

Nintendo stock up 45% since the July 6 NA/AU release date of Pokemon Go.

The augmented reality (AR) game is certainly making news, both good and bad. It’s encouraging people to walk, which fantastically combats increasing worldwide obesity rates. However, not all is well as criminals used the game to locate groups of players to rob late at night. It’s also steering focus away from the real reality, making a Pokemon Go related car wreck seem inevitable. Nonetheless, Pokemon Go is clearly the latest hit in the gaming universe. It’s funny too because it is full of things we as MMO players and gamers in general say we hate.

Grinding

The core gameplay of Pokemon Go revolves around walking to Pokestops to gather pokeballs to catch Pokemon that wildly appear while walking around. When the wild Pokemon appear, the player flings the pokeballs in order to catch their prey. To level up these Pokemon, players must catch more of the same ones to acquire the necessary materials. There’s no real critical thinking involved, either in the capture or evolution mechanics. Thus to become a legendary Pokemon master you will simply embark on an epic adventure of repeating the same activities over and over to raise the seemingly unending combat power (CP) value. Meanwhile in other games, people bemoan comparable methods of grinding to progress.

Tutorial

It’s incredibly frustrating for a game to hoist activities on you while leaving critical components of those activities unexplained. Pokemon Go isn’t very complicated, but it’s also not very intuitive. Trial and error and logical deduction will eventually teach everything, but the game explicitly explains very little. The game shouldn’t really necessitate guides, and yet lengthy articles such as this one on tracking Pokemon are continually cropping up. Core systems such as the aforementioned Pokemon tracking, combat, and gym PokeCoin generation are left to the user to simply figure out. Players can get by without these subtle nuances, but they’ll be at a disadvantage without that knowledge.

Hardcore Commitment

MMOs requiring hardcore time commitments are falling by the wayside. Pokemon Go, however, can only be fully experienced by those who put in serious effort. The endgame of Pokemon Go takes place in the gyms around town. Players align themselves to one of the game’s three different teams to conquer and defend local gyms from teams of opposing colors. To conquer these gyms, players must use Pokemon with high CP in order to compete with other trainers. Holding onto these gyms at certain points of the day will reward gym guardians with PokeCoins, the game’s premium currency.

Pokemon Go Gym

Pokemon Go Gyms, the only place where combat takes place.

Players can also store Pokemon at friendly gyms but only if space is available. Players can make space by training at the gym but will ultimately require high CP Pokemon in order to do so. To realistically acquire PokeCoins without paying, a player is going to need some strong Pokemon. As already discussed, that’s only possible through grinding. This creates a cycle where the rich get richer. Even ignoring the items that only PokeCoins can buy, not being able to participate in realistically winnable battles can be frustrating for those without a hardcore level of commitment to Pokemon Go.

Pay to Win

To be fair, I’m personally not labeling Pokemon Go as a pay to win game. Players cannot purchase untenable power. The size of one’s wallet does not impact the need to go out and grind Pokemon captures. Reaching Pokemon master status will always require a certain level of “work”.

That said, the PokeCoin store’s inventory is full of time saving advantages such as EXP boosters, egg incubators, and Pokemon lures. Assuming equal time commitments, a paid player will quickly outclass a free player. The balancing mechanisms here are teamwork and the maximum levels and CPs of trainers and Pokemon, respectively. Eventually a free player can catch up to a paid player, but early gym dominance simply adds to that difficulty. Many players deride “time = money” cash shop purchases as pay to win so it’s worth pointing out.

(Sub)Optimization

Pokemon Go is surely not a friend of environmentalists. The game drains battery at lightning speed. Minimizing is not an option, lest Pokemon go uncaptured without optional push notifications. I’ll give the bugs and server issues a pass because it’s nothing new to online game world launches. The design decisions and lack of optimization options need to be brought up though because it impacts the long term enjoyment. A game isn’t very fun when it won’t work because it killed the power source (i.e. your phone). It’s similar to major PC releases that cause slowdowns and video lag due to poorly optimized code.

Love Transcends Hate

Let me sum this up in way MMO veterans can understand. Imagine if you took everything that made World of Warcraft a worldwide sensation and did the exact opposite. Pokemon Go would be the result.

world of warcraft pokemon go opposite

Flip World of Warcraft upside down, get Pokemon Go?

That said, the game is clearly addictive. I still have it installed and open it up during my regular walks. It’s probably the most social game I’ve played in a while. It’s pretty obvious who is clearly capturing Pokemon alongside me, so it’s easy to strike up a conversation. (I’m eagerly awaiting the first marriage proposal to arise from this game.)

The simplistic capturing mechanic, achievement addiction, exercise encouragement, nostalgia, teamwork, and augmented reality all make for a wholly unique experience. It’s quite simply why we can love a game when we hate so much about it. I’d argue the game element isn’t even that good, but we’re willing to overlook a lot of faults when the full package delivers this much fun.


Virtual Worlds Ironically Lacking in MMORPGs

When I played Ultima Online for the first time, figments of my imagination began bleeding into a reality. A game now existed in which I could truly live an alternate life. In many ways, it transcended the simple game tag and provided my first virtual world experience. I expected many immersive, virtual worlds to follow. After all, MMORPGs were only entering their infancy in the late 90s when Ultima Online launched.

ultima online housing good for virtual worlds

Wait? You mean I used to be able to see the OUTSIDE of player houses too?

For a time, I felt this virtual vision was coming to fruition. Several titles around the turn of the century created something more than a game. They created vivid, breathing virtual worlds. Nowadays MMORPGs feel a little too much like games. It’s a little disappointing because the genre is a fantastic springboard for creating believable worlds filled with player controlled alternate identities. Maybe this is a case of rose tinted bias, but I think it has more to do with the modernization of MMORPGs, the rise of casual gaming, and minimal creativity in adapting to those changes.

Time Investment

The biggest downside of true virtual worlds is that they require a lot of time to really appreciate. My free time allotment when in school allowed me to really dive into the alternate realities developers had crafted. Spending some extra time trying to decipher where to go for a quest in EverQuest didn’t feel frustrating. It just pulled me deeper into the world.

In today’s gaming climate, a quest-driven MMORPG would find itself with a pretty limited audience without obvious World of Warcraft style quest markers. That’s largely because somebody with a limited schedule wants to feel like they can accomplish something in thirty minutes. And somebodies with thirty minutes to spare are in the majority. This creates situations where developers create short feedback loops to fuel the MMORPG achievement addiction. And that has some long term implications that run counter to crafting virtual worlds.

star wars cantina image

It wasn’t perfect, but Star Wars Galaxies cantina performances pulled players into its virtual world.

You see, in order to create a believable virtual world, it needs to follow certain properties of the real world. One of the general properties of the real world is that in order to be successful, one needs to put hard work. It should follow then that one’s character must put in hard work in order to achieve virtual world success. “But Bro, I play games for fun not to work”, you say. Guess what? I do too!

Notice in the above paragraph the use of the word character instead of player? In general, I think developers (and publishers, probably more importantly) focus too much on what’s worked in the past. Character progression is typically a 1 to 1 ratio of character to player effort. If a character cannot progress without the player, then MMORPGs are pigeonholed into casual advancement. This is why I love MMORPGs like Eve Online, Black Desert Online, and Crowfall building AFK progression systems. It frees the player from working for all of their success and places much of that burden of the character.

Additionally, hard work is not inherently boring. If I want this blog to do well, I need to put in the effort and write a lot. My success is linked to hours spent writing, promoting, socializing, and other blog-like activities. I enjoy these things (or I wouldn’t be here). If active character progression is time consuming but enjoyable that’s OK. Unfortunately, MMORPGs tend to emphasize repetitive tasks AKA grinding. Whether it’s quest grinding or mob grinding, the negative effect on the player is the same. This is why I love dynamic events in games like Guild Wars 2 and hope to see the concept continue to evolve.

Eve Online's skill queue responsible for its strong virtual world

Spreadsheet simulator isn’t so bad when it lets my character, not me, do the heavy lifting.

Great, unique concepts like AFK progression and dynamic events push us closer to believable virtual worlds. They advance characters through the character handling the boring heavy lifted instead of the player. Equally important to character progression is the world’s evolution. Enticing players with the promise of a persistent world, MMORPGs subversively promise a world that behaves differently due to the player’s participation. This is largely not the case.

Persistent, Virtual Worlds

A persistent world technically means little more than a near 24/7 online, virtual game world for the player to access. MMORPGs do in fact provide that service, but persistent worlds seem to take themselves a little too literally. In the vast majority of the genre’s games, the worlds do not change. Players defeat the same quests, mobs reset, everything important gets instanced. A player’s character has nearly no impact on the persistently static worlds of most MMORPGs.

A true virtual world should change based on character actions. My immersion breaks pretty easily when GIANT DRAGON X gets defeated for the thousandth time on my server. Infinite resources, best in slot legendaries, static economies, and instanced content sever any remaining semblance of immersion.  This doesn’t make modern MMORPGs bad games. It makes them bad virtual worlds.

Ultimately, immersion is why creating a true virtual world is important. Virtual worlds immerse players into inhabiting an alternate persona. This is a platform created that can continuously evolve as the player plays their character. The opportunity to interact with real people who can do real things should enhance that experience. Yet, the systems available feel anything but immersive. I enjoy progression and socializing in MMORPGs, but right now I play single player when I want immersion. That shouldn’t be the case.

I’m not saying immersion is a prerequisite for a good MMORPG. They are games, first and foremost. The genre is vast and there are many ways to entertain. I’m just saying MMORPGs are dropping the ball in an area where they had a distinct advantage fifteen years ago. Bring back actual virtual worlds, and they’ll reclaim that “believable alternate reality” throne pretty quickly.