Tobold's Blog
Wednesday, August 25, 2010
Immersion, realism, and flow

The Guardian Gamesblog has an interesting article about immersion in games, talking about the importance of getting the details right to make a virtual world believable. They quote an article by Toby Gard in Gamasutra, where he says: "When a player enters a temple that has no space for worship, or a tomb with no burial chamber nor rhyme nor reason behind its layout, he or she will not be convinced that they are exploring a real place. The worst starting point for a level is a series of featureless, functionless boxes joined by corridors into which gameplay is inserted from a list of gameplay goals." But they also quote a scientist working on immersion in video games saying "We have to be very careful with terms, because a game that's very immersive is Tetris, but there's no sense that you're IN the experience." So how come a game like Tetris is so immersive, if there is no realistic environment? And how come people get immersed in World of Warcraft dungeons, whose layout usually makes no sense at all?

What I think is that people are mixing up some very different terms: immersion, realism, and flow. Flow is defined as "the mental state of operation in which a person in an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and success in the process of the activity". Good games produce this mental state of flow, where the player is fully concentrated on the game. Tetris can produce flow. But it is easy to see how being in flow, and being "fully immersed" in a game, have very little to do with realism, and a lot to do with the quality of the gameplay.

I used to get into heated discussions with some friends about realism versus gameplay. That was in the 80's, and we were discussing whether pen & paper roleplaying rules should have complicated hit location tables, and other "realistic" rules like that being wounded would cause you to perform worse in fights, or even incapacitate you. If you look at both the more popular pen & paper roleplaying systems and MMORPGs, it is obvious that the gameplay camp "won" that war. I'm not sure I ever played any MMORPG in which a character low on hitpoints would fight significantly worse.

The reason why gameplay won over realism is that people play games to *escape* from reality. Real lifes are significantly more boring than virtual adventures. And combat in real life has a lot of rather unattractive features, which is why most people tend to avoid it. Being shot in real life just isn't fun. Thus the more realistic you make a game, the less fun it is. Taking certain liberties with reality is absolutely necessary for a game to succeed. Having somebody with 1 hitpoint left still fighting at full strength, then dying on the next tiny damage he receives, and later being resurrected and at full strength within minutes again is not realistic. But attempts to make it more realistic would probably make the game more tedious, and inhibit flow. Would you really want to play a more realistic MMORPG in which your character has to go the toilet from time to time?

Most roleplaying games have significant parts of gameplay taking place in dungeons. Monsters are placed in those dungeons, usually well within shouting or visible range from each other. The realistic thing to happen once a group of adventurers enters the dungeon and attacks the first monsters would be for them to shout out, and the WHOLE dungeon population to arrive at the entrance a short while later, slaughtering the adventurers. Why would a "boss" even have so many armed guards placed everywhere if their goal wasn't to drive out intruders? But in terms of making an enjoyable game, that realistic option gets you nowhere. Thus all those guards only serve a "trash mobs", as spacers between the "real" fights, the boss battles. A dungeon in which all monsters are at fixed locations and can be fought one by one isn't realistic at all, but it makes for an immersive and fun game.

Thus I'd challenge the idea that immersion has anything to do with realism. To become immersed fully into a game, you need to get into that flow state of mind, and that depends on gameplay being smooth. Realistic touches to the decoration are fine, but a level of realism which hinders smooth gameplay enough to break the flow is deadly. Thus game designers opt for smooth gameplay. They sometimes can explain away question of realism with "magic" or "advanced technology". But you only need to cross a continent from coast to coast on foot without any magic or technology in a virtual world to realize that you can do it in an evening in the virtual world, while in the real word it would take way longer. Realism in games is about getting the decorations right, not about be anywhere close to the real laws of physics and biology.
Totally agree. I remember trying mastering some pen & paper LOTR (long time ago ;) and due to the complex rules, we spend so much time calculating we quickly reverted to the more fun oriented cthulu and d&d... realism is no fun! :)
>The reason why gameplay won over realism is that people play games to *escape* from reality.

I doubt this. Not to say that people don't play games to escape, but I'm more inclined to believe that the reason is the same as why people hate math: It requires deep thought and lots of details to work out the end result, which points back to your 'flow' cause - less detailed systems are more appealing because you can work the solution without breaking out a pad and pen. Of course, as Blizzard is figuring out, systems without any detail get really boring really fast: there's a balance.
Part 1:

There is a lot I agree with and a lot I disagree with. Too much for a comment, but I'll try to tackle some of it.

Firstly: "Realism" is a very, very bad word for what you mean. E.g. fireballs are not relistic. There is a reason I usually use the words "credibility", "consistency" and "immersion" (C/C/I) instead of "realistic". Nobody wants realistic games. Nobody!
"Realism" in these discussions is often used as a straw man.

The only realistic game there is, is real(istic) life and why should anybody want to play a second real life? (Pun intended).

Now, if a fireball hits a wooden door and nothing happens, that is not credible, because it is not consistent with the idea that the fireball is a ball of heat that can burn things. In this case consistency and credibility are strongly connected.

Tetris has flow and no immersion. I agree with that. I also agree with the notion that flow is very important and can be disrupted with too much focus on C/C/I.

However, there are people who consider the fact that a fireball doesn't burn things to break the flow. You suddenly stop and think "How stupid!!". Breaking C/C/I can break flow, too!

On the other hand there are people who are not able to find a single logical problem in the latest Star Trek movie. Sometimes I envy them, but I never admired them.

I agree with the idea that people play games to escape from reality. In fact, we do not disagree on that, but only on how far games should go with C/C/I.

On a scale of 0 to 10. Nobody would like a game with C/C/I of 0. That would mean that e.g. that your character would want to safe the house he lives in and considers it the most important thing in the world. Only to stop at the next McDonalds to eat, while the house is burned down outside the window. That might make it easier for the story teller, because the guys who burned the house next also eat at McDonalds. But most people would find it stupid. They would start talking to other people in the cinema, thus breaking flow.

Also, nobody would want to play on a scale of 10, because that would indeed require the developers to make sure you know that this guy never has to go on toilette, because he has some better way to release the fluids he drinks/eats.

Most people like a scale of perhaps 3 or 4. I like a scale of maybe 6 or 7. That's all.
Part 2:

There is a reason many games start at the real world and change it. Real world is simply interesting. To have heat destroy things is a fact from real life and not something a game designer imagined. 99% of most games is a simple copy/paste from real life. It is less than 1% that we are talking about here.

In my opinion, a good game tries to maximize Credibility/Consistency/Immersion/Flow/Gameplay. All five of it.
Unfortunately, too much flow can hurt credibility and too much credibility can hurt flow.

There is an optimum here.

The trick, however, is to find game mechanics/explanations that let you increase one or more of these attributes without reducing the rest.

For example the death penalthy in WoW: You could imagine a hundrend and more stupid time sinks after you died. But Blizzard decided to use a ghost-running. That is much better than some arbitrary minigame, because there is some connection to the issue. It is not perfectly credible, but it is much more credible than some minigame or a simple timer etc.

EVE has an even better explanation for death that is almost perfectly credible and logically consistent: Clones. I like that as a gameplay mechnism and as credible explanation.

Often real life mechanics can enhance games. For example collision detection, done right, could replace the holy trinity. It could also make you require more tanks in raids. That would solve the problem of 1/5 tanks in dungeons, but only 1/25 tanks in 25er raids.

Of course, good collision detection is very hard to code. That's why we have a holy trinity so far. But how much cooler would it be to really hinder the evil guys to hit your healers instead of 'taunting' them. LoL ;)
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I agree that gaming as a whole has an attraction in escapism. at the same time I always find these debates a little shortcoming - the whole idea often suggests that gamers are a certain people that have the 'need' to escape somehow, because their lives are so damaged or hard or disfunctional.

I would much rather hear someone say that we love to play in these fantasy worlds because mankind has been fascinated with the fantastic and stories, riddling and imagining beasts and creatures ever since the beginning of time. sitting around the campfire listening to an elder telling an immersive fairy tale was a most social activity. the anglosaxons used to hold the act of 'riddling' in very high regard that would recommend the mental strenghth and prowess of a fighter.

'escapism' doesnt nearly satisfy as a term for me.

sorry if this was slightly offtopic.
Heightened realism usually makes for a steep learning curve, and a high rate of failure too. Most gamers just want to start a game, and be able to immerse themselves without researching anything or learning by trial and error. Most is not all as evidenced by the success of Dwarf Fortress, Eve, Darkfall, etcetera. Some gamers like having a challenge, a learning experience, and think fun and failure are not mutually exclusive.
I've always said it isn't realism that most people are often talking about when they use them term actually. People will easily accept fireballs, while quibbling over the tiniest detail.

The way I've come to explain this is that what people want is internal consistency in their game worlds/lore/story. When there is something that just seems out of place, wrong, flawed its strikes you as wrong and jerks you out of the experience. Many times we call this realism as a guy reaction because it didn't feel real, but I think its about whats "real" given the ground rules for the setting.
I'm with Nils.
There is a sliding scale of consistency/realism that can hinder of improve the games.

I think it always boils down to design.

How cool it would be that instead of enrage timers, the raid managed to lock the boss room and the boss would have to be killed before the guards manage to break into the room.

Or if CC or Silence spells/tech devices had to be used in order to prevent guards from alerting the rest of the dungeon. Or if given dungeons were built around creating diversions to attract the guards somewhere in order for the party to sneak to the boss's room for assassination? Or instead on a huge boss fight in one room the raid would be divided into smaller groups to man choke points/traps/weapons whatever...

Through gameplay design you can make a world consistent and believable. Every armchair game designer will have several implementable ideas that could be used in that regard.
This is exactly my point, Wyrm:

The real world does offer a lot of very interesting mechanics. It is foolish to play credibility off again gameplay!

On a large scale they usually complement each other. On a small scale they can sometimes interfere.

To declare one thing more important that the other is nonsense, because it depends on circumstances.

Sometimes ignoring credibility for gameplay purposes is the right decision. And sometimes it isn't.

In the end it depens on what game you want to create. If your game is supposed to be played as a 20 min distraction after work, you shouldn't venture into complex mechanics - no matter how interesting they are.

If your game is meant to feel 'epic' and be played for hours on end, it is stupid to make it a superficial distraction. In that case your proposals to make dungeons more credible also help the gameplay itself to become more interesting and "flowing".

In the past this was the difference between arcade like games and 'real' games, also called simulations.
Funny, I went though that same discussion with friends a few decades ago as well.

You are exactly right about combat not making for a good game. Real combat doesn't even make for a good sporting match as evidenced by the amount of rules and the typical safety equipment that is used in "fighting" sports like boxing or wrestling. If you have ever been involved with a full-contact martial arts group, even in the relatively controlled sparring environment there, it becomes obvious very quickly that the first person to make a significant uncountered strike will immediately have an advantage which can then be quickly built upon. Almost always the match will end quickly after that. That's how reality works though it doesn't make for good sports, good games, good movies or good stories.
I think realism is somewhat important from a story telling point of view. In the movies there is the concept of the suspension of disbelief. It doesn't have to be totally realistic, it just has to appear realistic enough that someone can get into the story. In the same way the game world has to work realistically enough that people can get into it. It has to have its own internal consistency. And usually these games get away with a lot more than the movies, mostly because of their own limitations.

The only thing that bugs me is when people get all twisted about something in a game and haul off on the realism warpath for justification. The biggest example that I can currently think of is the perennial argument over how, usually in Asian games, unrealistic it is for women to fight and adventure in high heels. The high heels or the lack of covering armor is unrealistic? What about the unrealistic nature of a 120 lb woman wearing 70 lbs of plate armor? What about the unrealism of her melee fighting monsters that are at least the size of 300lb NFL linebackers? The clothing thing is not a realism issue. It may be a sexism issue but it is not a realism issue. As pointed out. Fireballs are not realistic. Almost nothing hear is realistic. That is why most of the worlds are called "Fantasy."
On the subject of those Asian games, have you seen the latest video showing TERA, which caused a lot of sexism complaints? Female characters in that game (and in other Asian games too, e.g. Lineage II) run in a very strange way, bent forward almost 90 degrees. That adds absolutely nothing to making the running animation look realistic, but enables the presumably male player to "enjoy" the upskirt view of his female avatar.

I think the sexism debate and the realism debate just pull in the same direction here. Why make something deliberately unrealistic, if the only purpose is selling the game better to male teenagers?

You must not have MMA wherever you are from ;)

It's basically no rules (except no groin shots?) fighting. You can stomp feet, kick, knee, punch, twist, pull, break, etc.

It was just legalized in Ontario (Canada) last week, after years of soccer mom protest. Apparently it's "barbaric".
Oh and I forgot my point!

It is really very, very rare for a boxing or other fighting match to be decided by the first punch. Almost *never* happens.

However, in a *Sword* fight, it's a very different story.
Why make something deliberately unrealistic, if the only purpose is selling the game better to male teenagers?

To make money?
On the other hand: If I want to look at attractive women in attractive poses, I do exactly that, and I certainly don't start a computer game.

Actually, I consider it silly that woman can play warriors etc at all in most RPGs.
They are not physically suited to wear full plate - even less so than men.
It also doesn't make sense from a cultural PoV of medieval combat.

Now, some people might tell me that for 'equal rights' purposes that is necessary. My answer to them is that the real reason it got introduced is that some boys like to play female characters for some reason.

Concluding points:
1) Some people value credibility and (internal) consistency more than other people.

2) Everything depends on the kind of game you want to create/play and the way the player approaches it. (Hard to stress this enough).

3) Credibility and gameplay flow most often complement each other and only sometimes disturb each other. To play one off against the other is foolish.

4) The word "realistic" needs to be scrapped from this entire debate. Only thing it has ever done is create strawman arguments, like "Fantasy is never realistic". Yeah, thanks.

5) There is a reason most games strongly assemble real life: It is a wonderful box full of potentially interesting gameplay mechanisms.

6) A MMORPG has to be as immersive, credible and consistent as possible and as little as necessary.
Ergo: Don't sacrifice credibility for no reason. Search for ways to increase gameplay, flow, credibility, consistency or immersion without decreasing any of it.
I hadn't heard about that with TERA though now that you mention it I do think I remember seeing that in the first trailers as well. Are you sure it is only the female characters? I know in lineage 2 it is both the male and female dark elf specifically that run strangely bent over like that. The other races where more normal, though for the light elves, every single spell cast appears to have a convenient updraft which becomes fairly obvious when cast by their females who consistently wear short skirts. Its pretty amazing what Asian developers can get away with.

I would agree that it doesn't make much sense to do something like this, making it deliberately unrealistic. It doesn't seem like such a posture distortion would even be appealing. But then again, you can use that argument on many other thing. Oversized weapons and shoulderpads are deliberately unrealistic?

I also suspect that this debate is only raging here in the west. We seem to be particularly offended by what Asian games show and how they dress women but they still tend to show much less skin than some of our western games such as the topless women of AoC and the witch elves of WAR.
@J. DangerouS

Ah, but even MMA has the one rule. If you are fighting for your life striking the groin is perhaps the most effective way to end the encounter quickly. Just be prepared to run for your life.

As for boxing, that was really my point. Using gloves is not only for safety it is also intended to make it harder to knock a person cold thus keeping the match running longer making it more fun to watch and even more fun to participate in.

With swords? as you allude to. Sword fights don't usually last long like they do in MMOs and movies. Getting stabbed deep with an inch wide piece of steel in the thigh will usually put a very large man on the ground. Twist it a bit and he may pass out from the pain. A good solid strike is usually the beginning of the end. At least with piercing swords like sabres, rapiers and cutlasses. Big ol' broadswords were more about bludgeoning and breaking bones.
It's all about balance.

Realism = wow, look how pretty that is! it's a passive quality.

Flow = eases barriers to accessing content and prevents that buzzkill of having no idea what to do or where to go next.

Immersion = 2 hours just flew by, and i have no recollection of the 10 minute conversation my wife says she had with me. An active quality.

Sometimes I just want to fly around on a dragon and look at the pretty sky and collect flowers. Sometimes I want to quest and discover or work on some complex achievement. And sometimes I want to spend 2 hours so focused on the screen that I literally disappear for awhile.

IMO one of WoW's strengths is that it balances these qualities pretty well.
The problem here is that people use the word "immersion" to mean two very different things. Most of the time, people talking about "immersion" are referring to "world immersion" or "sensual immersion", i.e., the feeling that the world is a real place and that they're physically present in it. Tetris is not "immersive" in this sense.

Sometimes, though, people use the same word to mean a feeling of being completely engaged by a game. Tetris can be completely immersive in this sense.

I think we need to come up with better terms for these concepts, or discussions of immersion are always going to break down into meaningless debates about semantics.

On the substantive point, I think it's clear that people play games (including MMOs) for a variety of reasons. Many of the most successful games of all time, like Myst and Half Life, succeeded because they were able to combine outstanding gameplay with a high level of world/sensual immersion. That's what I'd like to see games aspire to.
I find DDO dungeons to be much more immersive. Especially the first time through. I get an OMFG feeling over and over in new dungeons as I round a corner only to be cut in half because I failed to notice the giant axe trap strategically placed around the corner of a sharp curve. So cool!

I think blog commenters just need to be less anal about semantics. We will argue an analogy more than the point it tried to make. ;)

I've been truly "immersed" in a few games. When I played EverQuest I would dream about it, granted I played for 16 hours a day but never the less... dreams. The dreams typically consisted of me BEING my character. I was addicted to EQ really bad though. Dreaming you are your character is a pretty severe point of immersion.

StarCraft 1 had me thinking of build orders and strategies all day long. StarCraft 2 has me doing it again. I'm immersed in that game as much as a football fan is immersed in their team.

To me if after I put the game down, it's still on my mind, then it's created some sort of immersion with me.
Aye, I think the interesting issue is how games can appeal both to people who enjoy the "world" aspect and to people who like the "game" aspect.

For example, in the adventure game community there's a long-standing argument about whether puzzles or story are more important. And in the end, there's no right answer: some people play for the puzzles, and other people for the story. But everyone seems to agree that the very best games have both. And I think the same sort of argument can be made for MMOs. The very best games have both compelling gameplay and a convincing world.

I don't know whether this was part of the impetus for the post, but there's a fascinating article on Gamasutra today about the "physical presence" aspect of immersion. I think it captures a lot of what people mean when they talk about a world being immersive.
About world realism: IT is unimportant to make the details right as noone but realism freaks expects the game to be that realistic.
It is more important not to get the details wrong. The examples given are all about creating a game object of certain type, but missing the fetures an object of this type would have should it been real. This is a massive flow interruption, and automatically kicks the player two levels up the immersion ladder.
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