Top 6 Little Touches

by Tyler Edwards, Sep 26, 2012

One of the great strengths of the MMO genre is immersion - the ability to lose yourself in a complete virtual world. Often, this comes down not to the big, flashy features of a game, but the smaller touches. Little things that the developers might not have even put a whole lot of thought into. People might buy a game for its major features and innovations, but they'll stick with it for the little details that make the game world come alive. Often, the simplest of things can make the difference between a bland, generic gaming experience and a rich, vibrant online world.


6: Emotes:

Almost every major MMO has emotes - little flavor animations or voice effects that can be performed by your character. It's not something a lot of us think about, but imagine a game without emotes. Imagine how sterile and lifeless it would feel if your character couldn't laugh, dance, cry, or sit down.

One of the things that make MMOs so addictive is the attachment people form to their characters. That wouldn't happen if the characters didn't have some degree of personality. Their appearance is one way of establishing this personality, but emotes are also a crucial part of it.

Often, you'll hear people say they only play a particular race because they love its emotes. They delight in their Elf's arrogant chuckle or the hearty guffaw of their Dwarf.

Emotes also fuel peripheral ways of enjoying games beyond the traditional gear grind or PvP competitions. Where would roleplayers be without emotes? Machinima would not be the thriving artistic subculture it is without the ability to animate characters with emotes. Even simple things like in game dance parties would be impossible if not for emotes.

For such a simple thing, emotes can have a pretty dramatic impact on the world of MMOs. Developers might be well served by putting more effort into them. The more people become attached to their characters, the less inclined they'll be to abandon them - and, by extension, the game they dwell in.

open world

5: An open world:

MMOs are about immersing yourself in a vast - one might say massive - online world. Nothing kills that feeling quite so well as chopping the world into separate instances, forcing players to wade through countless load screens to adventure in their world.

In an ideal world, every MMO would let you pick a direction and ride off over the horizon until you reached the end of the game world - cleverly disguised with something like an ocean or an impassable mountain range.

Some games are about as close to this as practical. World of Warcraft has been criticized for focusing too much on instanced content lately, but the fact remains its world is remarkably vast and open, with barriers only existing between continents. One can find a hilltop and see miles of gaming area spread out in every direction, knowing that there's even more beyond. If you level through questing, you'll almost never have face a load screen to enter a new area.

Unfortunately, many games still believe massive instancing is acceptable. They may have good technical reasons for this, but it hurts the game nevertheless. Playing an MMO is about adventure, about being the heroic explorer, and load screens cut into that. Did Frodo go get a Coke while Mordor loaded? No. MMOs should be seamless wherever possible.


4: Weather:

Weather isn't something you see a lot of in MMOs, but it's hard to understand why.

Weather is a fantastic tool for increasing immersion. The weather is never fixed in the real world, so why should it be in a virtual world? If you've played a game with weather effects, you know what a thrill it is to see the skies cloud over and raindrops start to fall down on you as you quest. It makes the environment seem so much less static and more alive.

Yet many developers ignore weather altogether, and even those that do implement it tend to do so in a very static way, making one zone sunny and another rainy without any variation for either.

Weather may be something of a technical challenge, and it can reduce performance for players on weaker machines, so that might provide the reasoning behind omitting it. But at the same time, it's 2012. Someone with a computer who can't handle a little rain probably isn't going to be having much luck with modern MMOs anyway. If it's such a problem, give an option to disable weather effects in the game's menu.

Some randomized weather effects would do wonders to improve the immersion of MMOs. It's a shame more developers don't bother to put in the effort.

gw2 snowball fight

3: The small things:

Sometimes, the smallest things are what make you fall in love with a game. You're sitting in a city, waiting for a raid to start, and you notice two NPC children playing tag with each other. You're questing in the woods, and you notice a wolf pounce on a rabbit. You've paused to take a screenshot, and you notice the grass blowing in a digital breeze.

Every MMO needs a few things like this - tiny details with no practical purpose behind them. It shows that the developers care about their game, that making it was a labor of love for them. Or, at least, it gives the illusion of such. It elevates a game from a product to an art.

Fine details like this may not be a feature that will get people hyped up for the release of a new MMO, but they will do wonders to improve the experience of those who do pick up the game. It will make the world seem alive and vibrant, and that's probably more important than many people - be they players or developers - might realize.

After all, if creating an immersive world didn't matter, no one would bother with MMOs, and we'd still be playing pen and paper RPGs in our basements.


2: Voiceovers and audio:

Once upon a time, voiceovers weren't something you saw - or heard, rather - a lot of in MMOs. Quests were largely delivered with text on the screen, and even major characters were silent players. Many older games still use text a great deal.

Thankfully, the power of voice acting is starting to be realized by MMO developers. Star Wars: The Old Republic made its voiceovers a major selling point of the game, and Guild Wars 2 and The Secret World are also examples of recent MMOs making good use of voiceovers.

Adding voice to a game makes it seem much more real and alive. Few things break immersion more severely than having to read the dialogue in a crucial story event, and voiceovers make a big difference in developing characterizations. MMOs generally can't offer a lot of deep character development, so a distinctive voice works wonders to make an NPC feel like a real person instead of a vending machine for quests.

Even outside of important story moments, adding a little voice can make a huge difference. Hearing NPCs chat and argue as you run by makes a virtual city seem more authentic.


1: A dynamic world:

All right, this one might not be so little. A dynamic world is something of a holy grail of MMOs, with countless developers trying to provide a living and ever evolving game, but few have ever enjoyed much success at the goal - with the notable exceptions of Guild Wars 2 and Rift, and some even mutter that those aren't as dynamic as their developers claim.

An evolving world is probably the most powerful tool to make a game seem genuine. After all, the real world is constantly evolving, and it doesn't even have rampaging dragons or armies of the undead. A fantasy world ought to change on a daily basis.

Unfortunately, a dynamic world is something that is very hard to achieve, and harder to do well. It is, of course, an enormous technical hurdle, but there are other issues, as well. If you make changes permanent, then people will miss the old content. If you don't, the changes won't feel meaningful. If the changes are too dramatic, people will find them disruptive. If they're not dramatic enough, people will ignore them.

Perhaps there is no one solution. After all, MMOs are a broad field. Different games can cater to different crowds. Some games can offer slow, incremental evolutions of their world, while others save their changes for massive events, and still others provide a constant shifting of events and content within their games.

Whatever strategy is taken, it's clear that players want dynamic worlds, but it's also crucial for developers to use caution when creating them. After all, it's often the smallest things that make the biggest difference.