Issue #5 - Content and Immersion

Over the past few decades a new genre popped up alongside the development of new networking technology: Massively Multiplayer Online Games. But these games suffer from a great threat: Competition. Why do many MMOGs lose players? Because they lack new content, and the existing content does not make the player feel immersed. The game just doesn’t have any appeal to the player anymore and therefore he or she has nothing to look forward to.
Yet another week has passed and we’ve hit the point at which we will discuss some terminology again. We will talk about content in MMOG and the need for immersion for a player to be kept as a customer. We have players asking for “more content” and complaining about how they “don’t feel immersed” in MMOs and we have developers who are constantly forced to keep pushing updates and changing the game to work against these complaints.
What kind of “content” do they demand?
That’s the big question. Content can be many things, ranging from simply adding in new items to entirely new areas and storyline. We should not ask the question of what to add, we need to ask “What is missing?”
Whenever a player comes to the forums or any kind of communication and asks for “more content” he has the feeling that something is wrong. He does not know what it is neither can anyone really put their finger on it. It’s simply the game as a whole that doesn’t fulfil what it’s expected to.
Therefore: What is content? Content is each and every mechanic available to the player – or the lack thereof – causing the player to act. Any object they can interact with, any item they can use. Now we have one issue, though: Interact with it once and the “magic” is gone. Most games have a limited – albeit large – number of objects to interact with. Once the player used them up, there is nothing left to do.
Three major solutions exist: One, add in more content every now and then. Not really a solution, but the problem hardly shows up, so ... we’ll consider it one. Two, create content through the players themselves. Allow them to define a part of the game, either by social interaction or by actually creating content through a toolkit.
And three: Don’t even let the player feel the magic disappear. The player is supposed to feel as if he was pulled deeply into the game – deep enough for the world to become real around him.
Immersion – Cure or Cancer?
This is interesting, actually. We just touched the core topic of immersion: Make the player feel as if the game world was real. This has one major drawback: The player might lose connection to reality and become addicted. We don’t want that either. Let’s be honest: An addict will stay with us for a few months, maybe years, then he runs out of money, has his life ruined and will sue our asses over intending so.
Immersion is therefore not only this “make the world real” part. It’s about creating a believable world – a world the player can relate to, albeit knowing it’s a game. Immersion is based on smooth and authentic gameplay and interactions.
A player who feels immersed in a game world is much more likely to ignore the actual lack of content, as the magic of the existing content is still there, regardless of it being “used up” already.
We face one major issue, though: The Uncanny Valley.
Personally, my opinion on the Uncanny Valley is that it does not only apply to audiovisuals, as we know it from the basic thesis, but also to gameplay. The concept of the Uncanny Valley is centered around the idea of “almost-realism” being hard to relate to, while “non-realism” and “full-realism” are near-perfect.
Creating a believable world can be hard when we end up in the middle of the Uncanny Valley in terms of gameplay. As such we have the choice to stay away from realism in this domain, or push our limits to the point at which we get out of the Valley again.
Player retention is a core issue for MMOs, but it is easy to achieve through any path that retains the feel of “new content”. Achieving that, though, can be quite hard, given the problems standing in our way.
MMOs redefined the way, content can be altered. Thus, we should try any possibilities of development in order to remain successful.

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