Massively Overthinking: Are isometric MMOs more or less immersive than 3-D?

Bring out your something.

I was chit-chatting with MOP reader (and prolific tipster!) Panagiotis the other day about Ultima Online’s big news when he hit on a topic about isometric MMOs that leaped out at me as being really insightful.

“I find the isometric games give a better fantasy feel at the cost of realism. Games with good realistic visuals feel more like playing in an interactive movie while 2D/2.5D feels more like playing in a fantasy book story. Now we have an abundance of realistic ones, but we lack the more fantasy as devs abandon mostly the option of 2.5D or 2D.”

Panagiotis articulated something I’ve felt for a while: I really don’t need a game to be 3-D to feel immersed in it because my immersion doesn’t hinge on a sense of first-person realism in the first place, any more than it does when I’m reading a really good story (or engaging in a good tabletop game). In fact, I usually run my characters in 3-D first-person games pushed way out in chase cam specifically so I can see my character as slightly separate from me. That’s more immersive for me, not less.

But I know from past discussions that a lot of gamers really struggle with feeling like they’re really inside top-down games. So let’s home in on this for Massively Overthinking: Are isometric MMOs more or less immersive than 3-D? Where do you feel the most immersed? Do non-MMO genres do it better? And are there any exceptions to the rule?

Andrew Ross (@dengarsw): It’s easier for me to get into a text-based MUD than an isometric MMO, and I really liked some aspects of Albion Online. Isometrics feel more like a board game at best, or playing with toys at worse. I think a big part of this is that I’m used to isometric games being RTS games that have me moving multiple units. I’m the unseen commander in those games, not actually in the virtual world. Heck, my short time in Graal and Ragnorak Online weren’t that immersive as the 2-D format just said “video game” to me. JRPGs like Chrono Trigger and Earthbound only worked because they had modern settings, allowed for a lot of customization, and literally spoke to the player. In fact, I’d argue that the “interactive movie” visualization of 3-D MMOs is why that perspective dominates the field and will probably continue to do so, as first-person risks motion sickness and second-person POV sounds too gimmicky.

Andy McAdams: I find them a lot less immersive and really, really challenging to get into– but only for MMOs. Maybe it’s just a result of the iso MMOs I’ve played, but isometric games always feel like the characters are less visually customizable, more generic. By necessity, there’s not as much detail in the character models, the armor, the weapons – the whole world feels less nuanced to me. I feel less like I’m part of the world in iso than I do in a full 3-D MMO. Like, I enjoy Albion Online, and I think it’s a great game, but I feel so… bland in the world.

Right now, the most immersive experiences for me are in third-person view in a 3-D world. I don’t know whether it’s because it’s easier for me to suspend disbelief about how what I’m seeing is what my character is seeing or what, but I can lose myself in a 3-D, third-person view of the world in a way that I can’t in an isometric view… in MMOs.

Now, the hypocritical part of me: For single(ish)-player games, I’m all in on the isometric view. Baldur’s Gate games, Neverwinter Nights, Pillars of Eternity, and the Divinity games – love them all and they all use a pseudo-isometric view (or at least allow you to view in iso). I had something like 300 hours into Baldur’s Gate 2 and the expansions. I was (am?) so invested in that world, and I definitely felt like I was part of it – like my decisions had actual repercussions. I also have some ridiculous number of hours into Neverwinter Nights. But I couldn’t necessarily say why I have the double standard between isometric in single-player games vs. MMOs. But there you have it.

Ben Griggs (@braxwolf): To me, I think it depends on the style of the game. I used to swear up and down that I hated isometric (and even top-down) views. But then I got into Marvel Heroes and proved myself wrong. The explosive action of that game was best suited to the isometric viewpoint and went a long way in promoting the heroic, hectic pace of the game. However, I do feel that a 3-D (whether first- or third-person view) is better for actual roleplaying and exploration immersion.

Carlo Lacsina (@UltraMudkipEX), YouTube): I typically find third- and first-person perspectives to be far more immersive in the traditional sense of “getting lost in the world.” But I also think an isometric perspective is immersive as well. We’re not talking about the same way found in the two perspectives I mentioned earlier. But it’s an immersive form of nostalgia. I recently picked up WoW and I actually find myself setting the camera to an isometric point of view and using click-to-move. Even though I just now am picking up WoW, playing the game from an isometric point of view and right-clicking to targets brings me back to my childhood days of Warcraft 2 and Diablo 2. So while the perspective doesn’t help me lose myself in Diablo’s world of Sanctuary, it does help me get lost in the summer days of the early 2000s with all the blinds shut and me clicking on things to death.

I do have stipulations, though. The perspective and control has to be just right. Ideally, I should be able to see about 50 feet around my character and a click to move option as well. In the case of using a keyboard, the controls should be character based rather than camera based. So if you want maximum nostalgia, give that a try. It’s actually pretty awesome.

Chris Neal (@wolfyseyes, blog): I despise the isometric view, honestly. I appreciate that it can give a better tactical sense of what lays ahead of you, but I also like being able to see my character from a variety of angles when screenshotting, and like Bree said, I can just zoom out the chase cam if I want to take in a more complete view of my surroundings.

Colin Henry (@ChaosConstant): I think isometric vs 3-D is a design choice, just like tab-target vs. action combat or cartoony vs. realistic visuals. You may have a favorite, and you may even dislike one option or the other so much that you may decide that certain games aren’t for you because of those design choices, but in the end it’s a choice that the developers are free to make that some people will like and some will not.

Personally, I’m fine with either. I’ve been invested in stories and characters in either view. Sure, I care a little less what my boots look like in a game with a top-down perspective than I would in a game with a chasecam, but I will still feel engaged in the story and choose to equip my character with the cool looking sword over the dumb looking mace with 1% better stats, regardless of how the camera moves.

Justin Olivetti (@Sypster, blog): Less immersive. Listen, I play a lot of isometric CRPGs, and because those have smaller budgets, they go isometric to be easier on the graphic engine and tech team. It’s doable, and with enough good writing and voice acting, it’s very possible to get sucked into these worlds. But it is harder, and even more so for online games. The only advantage that I see for isometric is that you get a much better sense of what’s fully around your character without having to swing the camera around. That can help in certain navigation situations.

An isometric camera keeps me at arms-length from my character and his or her world. I don’t see any faces, so there’s a lack of connection there. I don’t experience that world the way I do the real one. So yes, it’s at a great disadvantage – one that can be overcome and enjoyed, but there’s a really good reason that the industry (mostly) never looked back once it went 3-D with EverQuest.

Sam Kash (@thesamkash): Isometric games largely miss the mark for me. I didn’t play MMOs until many of them were fully 3-D. The isometric view just takes me out of the game. I feel like I should be able to see what’s behind that wall without spinning around the camera. It just feels limiting to me.

It’s probably because I didn’t have a PC for gaming until I was older, which means there was no Diablo in my life either. So if you just think about console games, once we got the PlayStation, and even N64, the games I was playing were trying to add the depth of 3-D. So I don’t think it’s just an MMO thing. It’s more that I was looking at 3-D games with awe and the flatter games as old. I just can’t really shake it still.

Tyler Edwards (blog): Honestly, as a long-time fan of ARPGs and RTS games, the disdain of isometric cameras confuses me. I just… don’t get it. But then I’ve heard lots of people say first-person is the most immersive camera perspective, but I find it less immersive than third-person. Maybe it’s less about the camera angles themselves and more that anything you’re not used to serves as a distraction, but I don’t know.

For my money, at least, I’ve got no issue with isometric cameras. My only real complaint with them is it’s harder to take nice screenshots of your character, but that’s easily solved with a vanity camera mode — Wolcen has something like this.

Every week, join the Massively OP staff for Massively Overthinking column, a multi-writer roundtable in which we discuss the MMO industry topics du jour – and then invite you to join the fray in the comments. Overthinking it is literally the whole point. Your turn!
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