Guest Post by Kelly Rued
(editor note: This piece is a solid exploration of the issue of immersion, and specifically some of the really impressive things going on in Lord of the Rings Online. Thanks to Kelly, our first guest author.)
In most MMORPGs you don't need a map to find the center of the world. Like the protagonist in the Truman Show, you have the awkward feeling that everything exists only as a prop for players. Every NPC in every town is just a bit part actor waiting patiently to deliver a line or item on cue. Impersonal and uncomfortably contrived exchanges can be used to great narrative and cinematic effect in a single player game, but they're more than a little unsettling in anything pretending to be a virtual world. Nothing breaks the illusion of a living, breathing world like the nagging feeling that everyone and everything in the joint are not much more salient (or important) than your backpack and armor. Who are these people that you're risking your virtual neck for in World of Warcraft?
Thank goodness there's gameplay in worlds like WoW because they don't stand up as tourist destinations in the same way that a bona fide virtual world like Second Life does with its dynamic resident population and intriguing subcultures. Walking onto SL's orientation island, nobody gets the feeling that the whole place is just a backdrop to fill the screen space around your character. Second Life aside, there's a distinct lack of worldliness to traveling in so-called virtual worlds when the whole place is designed simply to enable various gameplay mechanics. The game-focused dev teams tend to include socialization and exploration features only as needed to support "primary" activities like combat and crafting. Very few MMORPGs make creative use of players and live actors/help to provide meaningful interactions (and increased immersion) in-world, especially in the start areas of a virtual world.
The intro experience is one area where LotRO innovates, but the changes don't necessarily amount to improvements in immersion. LotRO substitutes the typical newb start area with a series of instanced encounters including an action-packed short story arc (you've got better things to do than killing rats or collecting hides in the first instance). Players get swept into the feel of a single player game but that positive impression unfortunately still adds to the cardboard world problem. Players advance through newb quests mostly alone, but in close proximity. Interacting with other real people is not a central part of the introductory experience and the kinship formation and more interesting quests/NPCs don't start showing up until players break out of the newb cage. It's a strange strategy when you think of the goal of getting players invested in a community (and one that speaks ill of developers' faith that players provide passable entertainment to one another). Still, what immersion is missing in the intro, LotRO more than makes up for with its environment design and NPCs later in the game (imo, and it might be fair to note I went into LotRO with no love for elf-orc-dwarf fantasy genre games and no experience reading the novels the world is based on).
A good example of early-game immersion that would be amazing combined with the kind of story-start instance in LotRO is found in A Tale in the Desert. Newbs enter a tutorial area with seasoned volunteer players (where you must demonstrate enough skill to gain passage to the main land) and even that gives a sense of immersion that is more convincing than landing in a "village" consisting of stage props to set the mood and like 3 or 4 inhabited structures (populated by a handful of player-usable NPCs, most of whom appear to do nothing amongst themselves besides waiting for the players to show up). Oh sure, someone usually needs help fetching some water or delivering some letter and you're eager to start looting and leveling so you don't give much thought to who lives here and what the hell they do all day (after all, it's just a game and you should really just relax...).
The status quo level of MMORPG immersion works for the gamist players (the gameplay definitively makes or breaks the world for these folks), but for the story-loving rubes like me who show up itching for a role-play vacation in a foreign land and hoping for entertaining chance meetings with memorable characters, most virtual worlds come off like satire of the places they represent. WoW is to a high fantasy setting what the little pink pastel cul-de-sac in Edward Scissorhands was to American suburbia. It's recognizable, iconic even, but it reads as clever description more than immersive simulation.
Lord of the Rings Online is not perfect, but it seems to one up a lot of MMORPGs by creating a more believable facade. Perhaps it was the immense pressure from the Tolkien fanbase, but the world is much more fleshed out than popular predecessor WoW in terms characterization (hey, Turbine had some pretty amazing source material to work with... too bad there aren't more virtual world designers with Tolkien's attention to detail). Some key things that LotRO does well (but probably didn't do first and hopefully won't do last) include:
-Memorable NPC characterization: Not counting the famous characters featured in the epic LotRO film trilogy, there are a surprising number of memorable NPCs in Middle Earth online. From the couple in Bree-Land who've both lost their wedding rings to the pie-crust-addict hubby in Michel Delving, there are many NPCs that offer a notable anecdotes for players recounting their adventure. It may be much of the same quest-wise (kill, collect, maybe protect) but the dialog is well-written and hints at the personality and loyalties of each NPC. The voice-acting on the few small clips make some townies even more endearing (Lofar in Bree town is a favorite in my kinship, and the emo stablemaster in Celondim needs a hug... ok, most of the elves could use some kind of anti-depressant). Humanoid mobs yell threats and insults based on your character's race. Farmer Maggot's son in the Old Forest is my favorite mini-plot so far with his conflicted emotions. If there was a way to make it so I didn't see him standing there weeks later (in his same moral quandary) my encounter with him would have been even more effective (seeing the site of our meeting and even the remains of the outlaw would conjure the same immersion, whereas seeing the hobbit himself suspended in time reminds me that he was just a prop to give me loot on cue). The execution isn't perfect, but at least the writers here tried for good characterization and it shows in the dialog itself.
-Foreshadowing and ambient dialog linking characters between areas of the world: You will hear gossip about NPCs in one part of the Shire and then later encounter the subject of the gossip. You will hear random NPCs talking about random work-a-day stuff that rings true for the people and particulars of that place. You will feel like you have interrupted NPCs and you will be addressed as the wandering but helpful stranger that you are until you have interacted more with the townies. But once you start to make contacts, NPCs will address you by name and make pointed (not just generic) comments about your past interactions and common acquaintances when you pass by them again.
-Everyday life goes on: Yes, the times are bad and there is a war at hand. But life goes on in Middle Earth and you get a taste of what people are fighting to *preserve* (the simple pleasures in the Shire, the bustling city-life of Bree, the fine craftsmanship of the dwarves, and the elegant but fading stewardship of the elves). The epic storyline is truly epic in the sense that it does NOT revolve around you. No player is the Chosen One or Neo in this world and although you help out here and there, the fate of the world is ultimately out of your hands (maybe it helps too that we all know the basic story going in, even if you've never read the books). When a woman passes by in Bree town and mutters that there are too many strangers coming through (and that nothing good will come of it), it's just the sort of thing anyone would think if a flood of mercenary adventurers were pouring through the neighborhood.
-Diverse ambient action and idle animations: Maybe it's simply because there are only 4 different races for player characters and townies, but it really looks like the NPCs are using a broader palette of idle/ambient animations than I'm used to seeing in MMOs (where resources are obviously lavished on player character and mob combat animations rather than some random guy peeling a potato). The townies look busy. The NPCs wandering around aimlessly between waypoints have slightly more realism simply by virtue of pushing a wheelbarrow.
-Immersive graphics: On high settings, the game is gorgeous. Period. The tourist in all of us wants to see the sites and take the scenic route sometimes. That urge is better satisfied if there actually are jaw-dropping vistas and good looking water to explore.
All the same-old, same-old is there too. LotRO isn't a revolutionary MMORPG. But there is a level of polish-in-the-right-places here that I appreciate as someone looking for a virtual world vacation in addition to the gameplay. You can play the same kind of CRPG equip-n-click combat in a lot of places online so for some gamers it comes down to a combination of factors outside of pure game mechanics when a player is choosing where to spend their time and money. LotRO currently has my attention because they're delivering a bit of immersion with their gameplay and I find myself as eager to *visit* the next part of the world as I am to level up and game the resources there.