The End Times: Immersing in the Apocalypse

Immersion. Ah, that magical word. It’s the Holy Grail of MMO design, or at least it should be. In theory, it is what every company that decides to give the genre a try should aim for.

I say “in theory”, because sometimes I feel that the word doesn’t carry as much weight as it should, at least according to my – clearly biased – standards. Building immersion in a virtual world, at its core, should be to create a world or a setting that somehow makes sense. An immersing game should have as few “breaks”, moments when you remember that you’re only playing a game, as possible – it should be self-contained and follow its own natural laws and rules. It needs to be as consistent as possible.

Time... running out... cant fly...

Timer... running out...

Aion is a good example of a game that sacrifices immersion for the sake of gameplay – giving you the ability to fly, yet restricting it by artificial means like a timer or taking away the ability completely in certain areas. I’ve talked about it before and it is one of the major axes I have to grind with that particular game. Instead of working gameplay around the ability to fly from the start, NCsoft have instead worked the ability to fly around gameplay, not intending to fully deliver until much later in the game. Why else are you not be able to fly in Pandaemonium or Sanctum, even though they both host hundreds of Daevas, or find yourself stuck on the ground as soon as you venture into Moslan Forest?

Blizzard did a similar thing with Wrath of the Lich King, where they took away your mount’s ability to fly in Northrend until you hit level 77 – it made sense from a gameplay perspective, but instead of building the gameplay around Northrend, Northrend had to change to accommodate Blizzards’ desire to tell a story. As immersing as that story could be, a certain rendezvous with a Lich springs to mind, the world itself had been sacrificed and with it, immersion took a blow.

I know I can be extremely picky when it comes to my personal “breaks”, which include too much zoning (EverQuest II, Age of Conan) or instancing of open zones (Champions Online, Age of Conan, Aion). I guess Fallen Earth is, in many ways, the perfect MMO for me. Just like EVE Online, where the “zoning” makes perfect sense (jumping from star system to star system) and the gameplay is actually supported by the lore, Fallen Earth delivers a world that makes sense. It feels, up to a point, real.

Its a goldmine!

It's a goldmine!

What Fallen Earth manages to convey is a sense of desperation in a post-apocalyptic world. The small makeshift towns are surrounded by bandits and wild animals, the people that are trying to rebuild society are all trying to do it in their own image, dividing the human race into factions in the process. You don’t only mine copper or gather herbs, as you do in most MMOs, you also scavenge through refuse and garbage bags to find materials you can use to build your weapons and armor. One of the most priced resource nodes is a burned out car, as they can yield a whole bunch of scrap fasteners if you’re lucky.

The sense of desperation also affects the interaction with other players. Even though Fallen Earth isn’t a free-for-all PvP game, there are PvP areas where anyone is fair game (as far as I’ve understood it, since I haven’t been to one yet). That means the player that is helping me today, or is accepting help from me, can be the same guy that puts a bullet in the back of my head while I’m scavenging from a valuable node in a PvP zone. I also know that I might be the one that’s bashing his skull in with a lead pipe. After all, resources are scarce and it’s a dog-eat-dog world out there. Fact of life in post-apocalyptic Grand Canyon.

It’s been a long time since I saw a new MMO take immersion this seriously – as the genre goes forward, that trait becomes increasingly rare. Fallen Earth has many flaws, which I will return to at a later point, but it’s hard for me to shrug off the thought that this might be what I’ve been asking for so many times in the past. Will we have to look to the indie games for fascinating game worlds while the major MMOs lock themselves into the typical questing and level treadmill without offering any form of immersion in return?

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10 comments

  1. Longasc says:

    I think this is the selling point of Fallen Earth: It has a lot of atmosphere, and it is a virtual world.

    Most modern MMOs are games with background/lore that gets adjusted as needed. I know you also like Ryzom, so no wonder you like Fallen Earth.

    I wrote something about this game vs virtual world thing in Wolfshead’s latest blog post: http://www.wolfsheadonline.com/?p=3368

  2. Blue Kae says:

    Agreed, the atmosphere and immersiveness of the environment really make this game.

    Interesting thing about instancing and zoning. I didn’t mind how City of Heroes did their instancing because of the way it integrated into the backstory, but the zoning in Guild Wars was very immersion breaking for me. In Champions online, the instance hasn’t bothered me at all, but I think that’s because of how its done in the game. The three maps I’ve spent time in are all very large so there’s lots to explore and you jump between them by going to a heliport so it’s not as immersion breaking as it might otherwise be. I think that’s one of the reasons why I’ve never been able to get into Age of Conan, once I heard that the world post-Tortage was a series of detached zones I lost the desire to finish the 1-20 experience.

  3. Petter says:

    Yeah, if you’re – like me – bothered by zoning and instancing (to an extent), then stay away from Age of Conan. At least until Rise of the Godslayer is released, they seem to have learned a bit of a lesson there – even though there will still be zoning, the areas will be more open and you will be able to “see” into the next zone before the loading screen pops up, which should help a bit.

  4. Blue Kae says:

    I read about that a bit and was happy to see they’re trying to address it. It didn’t look like they were going to address the existing zones though, do you know if that’s right? Only problem with Conan is I’ve made to resub tries, one earlier this year when they did the 14 day free retrial and just this month. Both times I’ll get on a make a new character to play for a day or two, but then I lose interest. Well maybe not lose interest, but I definitely don’t find my self having urges to play like I do with Champions, Fallen Earth, Eve, or LoTRO.

  5. Petter says:

    That’s too bad, I was hoping that at least the combat system would keep me interested if I re-subbed. But I guess you’re right and I’ll just wait until Rise of the Godslayer – you will have to go through Tortage again, sadly, but at least there will be a new area from 20+. And no raised level cap, which is awesome.

  6. Ryan says:

    Great post, definitely makes me want to give Fallen Earth a try. However I feel I must educate you. Aion makes use of Lore in the reason you can and cannot fly in certain situations or areas. When you flying, your not flying like a bird, using aero dynamics and weight to lift ratios, your wings are actually magical and use aether to provide lift. Of course Aether is the magical substance in Atreia. Some areas have more aether than others, just like any kind of natural resource, there are dense spots and thin spots.

    You can glide all over the place because it doesnt take much aether to provide that kind of lift. As far as the flight timer, personally I think it should have been changed to a type of stamina stat rather than just 30 seconds and that’s it, it would be more immersive if at 10-20 levels you only have enough “stamina” to fly for xx seconds, and it increases so on and so forth. And flight time potions are “Wing Stamina” Potions.

  7. Petter says:

    Hey Ryan, thanks for the update on the lore. I don’t really think it makes much of a difference, the lore feels kinda tacked on in order to justify the lack of open world flying. It still breaks my immersion, but as I said in the post, I am both biased and picky. :D

  8. The limit on flying never bothered me because birds cant fly forever either.
    I mean, those wings are lifting a full human being+armor and weapons! No way those wings can keep you aloft for more then a min.

    Actually, this post is a bit reduntant caus I thought wings did keep you aloft like birds not magic. The magic explanation makes a lot of sense.

    And gliding rocks, you really can fly in any zone because of this. (I’m really good at gliding, can keep aloft for forever)

    Amen on instancing, nothing ruins a games immersion more.

  9. Alexan says:

    Great post, the first one that I’ve seen that’s made me want to actually try Fallen Earth…

  10. [...] fun, but the setting just hasn’t drawn me in.  I don’t mean the game isn’t immersive, because it definitely is.  Maybe it would be more correct to say that the setting didn’t [...]

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