Aiming for Immersion in Online Worlds

Immersion means a great deal to me when it comes to mmo’s. I love that feeling of being entranced by these world’s and to feel like, by extension, that I am a part of it. They are a type of game that encourages people to delve deeper into and become a part, and to spend vast amounts of time being a part of. I honestly believe that everyone who enjoys mmo’s seek out to feel a sense of immersion but the way we feel about it and the areas that promote this feeling can be very different.

To me it isn’t really how my character looks, they could be a mere 8 bit monstrosity for all I care at times. It isn’t the costumes I wear and collect, the combat I enjoy or any sort of challenge that might be out there. It isn’t the complexity of crafting or even the depth of the characters. My immersion is dependant on the world itself.

I like to feel that sense of wonder in the world, to contemplate the mysterious and by awed by imposing structures. Most of all I just want the world to feel real, like everything should belong and has a purpose within the world, like there is some sort of internal logic that things abide by and like the design of these things make sense within that.

A capital city that makes no sense

A capital city that makes no sense

It sad to say but because of this looks are actually really important. I look forward to each new graphical marvel to explore, at the sights to see and the huge set pieces that have been designed to provoke awe. This is a little hypocritical to admit, I’ve even ranted about how such a focus is strangling the growth of the industry but I can’t help it… I like purrty things.

A cohesive and interesting aesthetic is still important and can help to overcome any sort of graphical failings. I’ve felt immersed in bit trip worlds, in cell shaded stylized places as much as I have in those that have caused my GPU to melt but it certainly helps.


A large open and connected world is like catnip to me but lately, the bane of my mmo existence is how so many zones within the world are becoming instanced and just how many pieces are being separated from the whole. Zones have gotten smaller, dungeons are no longer a part of the world, housing is partitioned away from everyone and it seems I’m constantly being forced me from one small instance to the next. I just couldn’t get into Neverwinter for exactly this reason as I always felt so disconnected from the world. So many missions took you out of the main area, every single house was a separate instance, it was enough my actions and impact felt that meaningless.


From one room to the next

I also hate how in many mmo’s it usually isn’t one continuous and large seamless world to explore but singular zones separated from each other by constructed barriers and invisible walls, only connected by certain points. You can go between them but it isn’t seamless, with a loading screen while the next zone populates for you. It is a collection of spaces rather than being a coherent whole which makes the world feel more artificial to me.

I also see some rather weird and confusing zone design in how they are planned and implemented. Sometimes it feels more like the developers are trying tick of a checklist of the standard environmental themes and containing these within a single zone each. There must be a swampy 2zone, and a fiery one…and can’t forget the desert. Wile this creates a certain differentiation between the zones when playing it is more of an artificial way of creating a world, it lacks consistency and that natural flow that environments have when going from one to the next.


One part that I’ve nearly always been disappointed with is the usual mob design and mechanics; large static spawns of enemies standing around in their designated spaces and being constantly teleported into existence. They always have little movement to them or patterns of behaviour that might denote some sort of intelligence and daily lifestyle… just artificial characters whose sole purpose is for the player to kill them.

I want mobs to be less static than that, more movement around their areas and in-between certain points. Actions that denote some sort of daily living; cooking, hunting and scavenging, milling around a campfire and talking with others, building homesteads and patrol patterns around their homes. Just some sort of regular behaviours and not a living statue.

gw2 keg party

Inane scripts are just as bad

Then there is how useless much of the environment is, there is a certain detail to the surroundings but it’s mostly a façade. Items can’t be picked up or used, houses can’t be opened and entered… the world is purely decoration. I get being a multiplayer world that they don’t want players wrecking things for everyone else, taking all the items for themselves but there must be ways around this. Just having these components respawn would be a good step but then it could be random placement.. maybe even a crime system.


I absolutely love games and worlds that have weather effects and proper sun and moon cycles. I see it occasionally in games but it often seems restricted in the mechanics and patterns. It is designed to inhibit the player the least and be more of a novelty during play rather than be part of the experience. To help in the development of a virtual world and with immersion.

Going through Rift I was initially amazed by the weather effects that fly overhead and impact your play; The rain that would poor down on you while in Stonefield, the clouds that flew by overhead and the sun setting and rising but, it just wasn’t quite there. It was just too regular in certain zones and still others had very little that changed them or impacted on play.

rift stonefield

Wild and Wet Weather

Night always seems to quick to pass as well as being more akin to twilight than real darkness, a mere instance within play that is quickly gone and forgotten. Night should be a part of the experience as it brings forth a greater sense of mystery to the world, an imagined or real sense of danger to your travels that I miss. I think this is a big reason why I enjoyed travelling around within Firefall soo much; the slow subtly changes in lighting and shadows from the passage of time, the stark darkness that enveloped the world and then, the bright moon light that revealed the world…it was breathtaking at times.

The game I think that does this the best, based on my limited play was Final Fantasy 14. It never got dark enough but there were defined regular time periods that changed the entire world a ta time. The weather patterns were spectacular as well, light clouds floating by.. light flickering as the clouds passed over the sun or moon. There was also this ominous vibe those large storm clouds would bring with them, blown from one zone to the next. The combination of these effects together created some truly breathtaking visuals and made these landscapes, and the world feel more alive and more immersive to me..


Stunning Sunset

I still want these mmo’s to go further though as they can be so much more. I want gameplay to change based on these cycles of day and even based on weather patterns. This might seem like inane fluff but it goes a long way to create a world people want to explore and live within.

Le End

I think immersion has become a forgotten focus of these virtual worlds. There has been a far too much focus on making a game out of these worlds for far too long now, scripting each and every possible moment the player could ever experience but this doesn’t last. It takes an insane amount of development to create these ongoing experience. Creating immersive environments and a world that captivates the players interest is something that builds long-term interest, creating a world should be the first aim and everything else designed around that.

#ArmchairDeveloper #Immersion #world

10 thoughts on “Aiming for Immersion in Online Worlds

  1. “Creating immersive environments and a world that captivates the players interest is something that builds long-term interest, creating a world should be the first aim and everything else designed around that.”

    I hope someone that does “Quote of the day” posts picks that. Agree 100%, and with most of the rest of your observations. Rift, particularly, was a lot of beautiful scenery in search of a world to put it in.

  2. Some of these points makes me think of Everquest 2 – there’s a certain level of immersion in the world because so much of it is open and non-instanced (although you do teleport between islands for practical reasons). I find the skybox in EQ2 delightful especially at dawn/dusk and the sheer scale of some of the zones is breathtaking (e.g. flying around Great Divide).

    In terms of non scripted behaviours what better worlds or games exist to show this though, especially in the multiplayer space? Many might quote the Elder Scrolls series of games as best of breed but I’ve personally always found them to be weirdly robotic and fake, maybe it’s an ‘uncanny valley’ thing on my part.

    Everquest Next sounds, on paper, like it will be the game to re-introduce a high level of player-directed content into the game world. Will this be the kind of immersive world you are looking for, i.e. a player-led one?

    • I hear a lot of good things about eq but, just not my generation of games and going back is too jarring.

      I honestly have no idea on examples of character behaviour. I guess in some ways Elder scrolls was good as they created a lot mroe detail in the environment: homes and work spaces but yeh, the actual ai was horrid… as were those character models.

      I’m not so sure about EQNext just yet, it sounds good in theory but so have a lot of games and systems. Player Led games will always be the only ones I could ever think creating that atmosphere… ai won’t come close for years yet..maybe more.

      I actually think the repopulation will do the best in that regards, it has the same living, growing world feel that Star Wars Galaxies sounded like it had

  3. I don’t play a lot of MMOs, but I totally agree with you here. I do like the new graphics that make characters look more realistic — but that’s not really what it’s about. It’s more important than the world feel real and the details feel right. That’s why I love really immersive, detailed RPGs.

    • yeh, love me a good, deep rpg. And yeh, to an extent graphics is an important part but there have been so many amazing indie games lately that are so immersive regardless of graphics that so I’m not so sure anymore

  4. Pingback: Immersion – how to make me drown in a fictional world | The Chindividual
  5. On the area of mob design and mechanics.

    Developers that understand this they often code mechanics to allow this.
    For example, in City of Heroes/villains in city areas mobs were scripted to perform action depending on location. So members of a mob maybe patrolling, some using a spray can on a wall, others warming their hands around a fire, if in range leaning against a wall, even handing out leafets or holding placards in protest.

    My favourite was an animation of 2 mob members breaking it a building, and the remaining members being lookouts.

    I find that it’s often small touches like these that can enhance immersion.
    Plus allowing these animations to be usable by players often works too (RPers dream).

    • haha, that does sound like a pretty decent comprimise…simple but effective. I’ve heard many great ideas that City of Heroes had, they certainly thought outside the norm when designing things

      It just seems like we should have gotten beyond static mobs or restricted pathing by now.

  6. If I want to be unkind I’d say that you shouldn’t expect too much in the way of immersion till the development community finally realizes that desgining games along Gamification guidelines is actually a Bad Idea.
    If I want to be kind I’d say the problem with immersion is that it’s so hard to quantify in any meaningful manner and therefore hard to design for in today’s market conditions (see first statement).

    • oh i agree there, the aim has been to create a game first and then design the world around those restraints. Personally I think we would be half the way there to creating more immersive world in terms of ai and environment design if ever didn’t hop on the blizzard express for so long

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