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!

No posts to display

newest oldest most liked
Subscribe to:
Joel Hardin

While I appreciate both first/third person and isometric perspectives, I actually prefer isometric MMORPGs. I believe much of this is due to nostalgia. I started playing games like the original Ultima series, the old DnD games (Pool of Radiance), various Infinity engine games, and started my foray into MMORPGs with Ultima Online back in 1997. There is just something welcoming and familiar about isometric RPGs. Also, I am a fan of isometric RTS games, which likely contributes as well.

Another part of this is that I took a long hiatus from computers and gaming from 1999-2005. I returned to both computers and gaming after following WoW’s development. I admit to loving the graphic style and being awed by the game world. I quit playing WoW after five months or so due to the gameplay rather than the 3D perspective. I think Ultima (UO and the Ultima series) gave me preference for open world sandbox MMORPGs, and I could not really get into Wow’s more themepark-oriented approach. I also much prefer skill-based progression to level-based.

While I do find 3D a bit more immersive, there is something about isometric that feels more grounded, I guess, more substantial. In the few 3D games I have tried, WoW in particular, the other characters seem more like ghosts whisking past. My character and other characters simply do not feel as tangible in 3D games, in my opinion. I also prefer the more mouse-driven UI, particularly for movement.

I concede that there is not as much customization in isometric games. This was painfully apparent in my recent foray into Albion Online. The game has a very generic feel. On the other hand, I do not need access to a lot of sliders and such.

I have recently been playing Pathfinder: Kingmaker, and can’t help feeling how amazing the art style and overall feel would lend itself to an MMORPG. I find the game world utterly enchanting; the swaying of the grass, weather having an actual effect on gameplay (driving rain slowing movement and making it hard to move, lightning strikes, etc), the changing of the seasons, etc. Also the small touches, such as foliage moving as your character moves through it, small insects and animals flitting about. There is something engrossing and calming about it, at least for me.

Admittedly, these are common features in 3D, but I feel that they work well with this style as well. I think an MMORPG using the art style and attention to detail of Pathfinder: Kingmaker, but with an open world, sandbox approach and a skill-based- rather than level-based design would be my ideal game. Characters could use a bit more customization options, but maybe just more hairstyles and other simple things. Essentially, a marriage of Pathfinder and UO as a base, a much larger map, and expanding upon the skill-system, as well as other embellishments.

Rodrigo Dias Costa

For me, paradoxically, the farther I can be from the character I’m controlling, the more immersed I feel in the world I’m exploring. So usually my preferences goes as bird eye > third person > first person.

And I’m not separating immersion and engagement on that. You can’t feel immersed on something you’re not engaged on.

Jim Bergevin Jr

I don’t find one any more or less immersive, but I very much prefer the 3-D third person view over iso or even first person. For me it’s strictly a matter of control. I loved Maplestory 2, but trying to move my character through the world was a constant annoyance.


I find fun and immersion on both but I find 2.d/2.5d more fit for the high fantasy feel(and I sometimes zoom out the 3D ones a lot too), especially if there is handcrafted visuals too while I find a lot more realism on the 3D games, especially on first person. Personally I think we need both kinds paired with good gameplay

Kero Kero

Don’t particularly care. Its about the gameplay.

Dug From The Earth

Isometric games dont make me believe _I_ am in the world… they do however do an amazing job making me believe the CHARACTER is in the world.

3D games can and have made me feel like _I_ was in the world.

Patreon Donor
Loyal Patron

Camera style has negligible impact on immersion unless the developer uses cheap tricks like hiding a jumpscare in the camera’s blind spot. “How the hell did my character not see something completely avoidable?”

On a personal level isometric view irritates me so it’s already at a disadvantage.

2Ton Gamer

I didn’t think I had a favorite, but during a recent gaming lul I decided to try out Albion. I liked some things about it, but it just did not give me the same immersion with my character, surroundings or what I was fighting. Even exploring something like a chest or going into a dungeon did not captivate me or pull me in so despite enjoying the player economy and crafting and even a little bit of the combat, it did not stick and I found myself trying to stay online instead of losing hours of myself online.

Then I tried out WOW Classic and immediately got sucked in, even with the older graphics and disjointed story, I was compelled by the world, and endeared to my character and enjoyed running around the landscape to see what was around every corner instead of it being presented from an overhead view.

Switchie Console-tan

As long as it’s not first person or third person where your chase cam is almost up your character’s ass. All the details are shown as your toon drops to the floor from a one shot off cam. “That” is immerse breaking.

Loyal Patron
Patreon Donor
Kickstarter Donor
Paragon Lost

I’m just gonna point up at Andrew Ross’s post above in the article and say… “ditto”.