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.
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.
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?