I’ve been thinking a bit about MMOs lately and trying to figure out why I’m drawn to some MMOs and turned off by others. While I tend to worry about quests, graphics, system performance and the community, I think fundamentally one factor matters more than all the rest. My connectivity to my onscreen avatar.
Games have always been about immersing myself in the life of another character. While Space Invaders was a great game, I was more personally connected with Pac-Man or Pitfall. They weren’t technically “better” games, but they were more personal. In Space Invaders, I played the role of a space ship that moved around the screen accomplishing a task. In Pitfall, I was an 8-bit Indiana Jones. I was an 8-bit Indiana Jones.
This personal connectivity is a common thread in my gaming life. I’d rather play a Mario, Sonic or Punch Out game as I felt far more connected to the character on the screen. Starfox was a great game, but I was never as personally invested.
At the top of the connectivity heap have always been role-playing games. Pen and Paper games provided a way to completely control my character from back story and skills to actions and growth. The connectivity there was completely in my imagination but it was palpable. With the advent of computer role playing games, I could have a similar experience on my computer. I controlled much of who/what I played in game.
The MMO affords the opportunity to live and breathe in a virtual world. My ability to connect to a game through my character remains just as relevant today as it did when I played Pitfall. If I feel a direct connection, I’m going to judge the game more favorably. Everquest 1 & 2 and World of Warcraft have provided wonderful visual connectivity to my characters. Seeing new equipment reflected in my onscreen avatar brings me further into the game world. The most immersive game I’ve played has been Star Wars: Galaxies. My equipment choices were seen directly on my onscreen avatar. The game provided users with access to houses and cities to further create an immersion factor. (I am aware the Ultima Online did this years earlier. I played UO and enjoyed it but ultimately was left wanting more.)
Games like City of Heroes/Villains and now Champions Online provide a great level of customizability in my characters powers, backstory and costume. Their great failing in my eyes is the complete disconnect between items I’ve equipped and my onscreen avatar. I play Champions regularly and, as much as I enjoy the game, every moment I play I think about the lack of immersion I feel.
Finally, games the remove my character completely from the experience draw me further and further away from the game itself. Eve Online and Auto Assault left me feeling completely disconnected even though I was able to customize the onscreen vehicle I was piloting/driving. That disconnect left me feeling cold and my opinion of the game was directly influenced by the disconnected feeling. The times in those games when I was afforded the opportunity to explore the world as a human outside of a vehicle were few and far between. Even in those brief moments, I never felt connected. So I stopped playing both games relatively quickly.
In the future, I will continue to seek out games that allow me to live in a virtual world and allow me to experience changes in my on screen avatar as a result of my equipment or skill choices. The ability to manage and maintain a virtual home that includes my spoils of war is crucial. It’s clearly reached the point that I now look at upcoming games through this filter. I’m hopeful the new Bioware Star Wars RPG gives me the level of immersion I’m looking for, but we’ll see.