The Daily Grind: What’s the best way to maintain immersion in an MMO?


Klei Entertainment’s Kris Ruff once tweeted about game design term I’ve never heard before but whose description I most definitely recognized when another dev recently elevated it back into my feed: empathy degradation. Essentially, Ruff was describing the whittling away of immersion and the “illusion of life” for the player, particularly when it comes to static NPCs and dialogue.

“You have a blacksmith whose greeting VO is ‘What can I do you for today?’ The first time the player hears this, the blacksmith feels like a real, autonomous human. The 3rd time they hear ‘What can I do for you today?’ it’s a bit old. Maybe they’ve memorized the cadence already. The 10th time the player hears ‘What can I do you for today?’, the blacksmith is no longer a person, but a ‘shell’, an interaction point. The illusion of life is broken and the player’s ability to view your blacksmith as a real person is significantly diminished if not gone. Aka, empathy is lost. I’m sure you’ve all reached a point in a game before where NPCs no longer feel like people, and you get that surreal feeling of an ’empty’ world.”

I want to bounce off this idea for our Daily Grind today and talk about how “empathy degradation” affects MMOs specifically because I suspect it’s even more a problem for online games meant to last for years than it is for a linear single-player title. Not only do we come to view static NPCs like junk vendors as “shells,” but we do the same thing with events and spawns and dungeons too, don’t we – once we’ve done them and we know exactly what will happen next? Don’t we eventually interact with them as a to-do list, a pre-req for experience or loot?

Ruff argues that empathy degradation can’t be eliminated but that the rate can be controlled and even counteracted with clever design tricks. So what’s the best way to create immersion in an MMO? What tricks have you seen MMOs use to boost empathy for the world?

Every morning, the Massively Overpowered writers team up with mascot Mo to ask MMORPG players pointed questions about the massively multiplayer online roleplaying genre. Grab a mug of your preferred beverage and take a stab at answering the question posed in today’s Daily Grind!
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