The Elusive Beast: Immersive Gameplay

My ponderings on immersive gameplay and a few suggestions on how to achieve it.

I've been posting my musings to livejournal for a while now, but other than the occassional "OMG SO HOT! WILL YOU BE MY BOYFRIEND?!", I'm just not getting the community I want, so I'll be reposting them here. If you'd like to check out my livejournal (where I've posted some art from a platformer game I'm working on) you can find it here:


Probably one of the most sought after goals in game design these days is truly immersive gameplay. But what IS immersive gameplay and how do you achieve it? So often, game mechanics such as quick time events and lengthy story segments take control out of the player's hands and into the programming. I don't know about you, but I don't want to quickly tap X five times to defuse a bomb. Give me a minigame, dammit! And I don't want to sit through ten minutes of cut scene while I wait for my character to make a difficult decision. Let me make it! 

When things like that happen, the player is ripped right out of the game and sat squarely on their couch again. And you've lost them. The heat of battle, the mystery of ancient ruins, and the allure of unlimited power... all of that is gone, reduced to pixels on a screen. So I started thinking about this beast today and how to tame it. Not surprisingly, it was HARD to really come up with solutions that truly gave control to the player. Here's a few of what I came up with:

Yin and Yang: The allure of good and evil is always an intriguing concept. Will you be the great good, triumphing over evil to free the innocent... or will you be the ultimate evil, triumphing over ANOTHER evil to enslave the innocent for your own means? By giving the player easy, play-line (what I call the normal running of gameplay) ways to make this decision, you can let them feel like they really own the character, rather than just playing puppet master. Don't kill these people, do kill these. Don't take this item, do take these. Don't say this, do say that, etc. Those are all very valid ways to do things. The old Dark Forces II: Jedi Knight game was great for that. Kill civilians, get dark side points. Take on Force lightning as a power? Get dark side points. There was no epic pause in the game play where the computer suddenly said, "DO YOU WANT TO BE A GOOD GUY OR A BAD G UY HERE?!" No, you killed an innocent person... you're bad. Keep on playing. No immersion lost, no time wasted, player is STILL in the game.

Speak your Mind: One of the things that impressed me about Mass Effect (360) was the conversation feature. Mass Effect had some great cut scenes that were relatively lengthy, but in almost all of them after a minute or two, you were given a prompt. "How do you want to respond to this?" Your options usually ranged from being a stick up your butt jerk, to being highly respectful and diplomatic. Your response to the world changed the world’s response to you, even in the midst of drawn out cutscenes. Right there, you're letting your characters tell their own story without losing control of the scope of your game and its end-goal.

I Want To Be An Evil Undead Priest When I Grow Up: MMOs and RPGs have been letting the player determine what their character IS now for years. Probably the most widely recognized examples is WoW. From the start you can customize your race, your class, and your looks. You give your character a custom name (something intelligent and  witty, of course, like naming a Tauren Mage "Magic Cow") and then you're cast into a world where you can change what he wears, and what he rides, even who his allegiances are toward. This is an excellent way to really let the player create his own character. And it doesn't have to stop at the beginning of the game. Like the Yin and Yang point I made earlier, you can add play-line triggers to change the way a player develops as he goes along. What skills grow and change based on how he uses them, etc. But don't use some annoying pop-up window with little buttons and upgrade things. By making the improvements play line, you inherently allow the player to grow his character into the character he wants because it's responding to the way he plays. Player uses pistols a lot? Then after 1000 shots, he should be able to shoot the hair off a frog. Does a double jump every ten seconds? Then let the boy fly!

SENSORY OVERLOAD!:  I've talked a lot here about giving the player options, but there's one thing that's very important to remember: don't give the player too MANY options. That can be just as jarring as too few. Having to remember 10 different ways to jump, or a blue million stats can be extremely daunting to the player and leave him unwilling to do it anymore. And right there, you've lost a player. Just remember that your player is here to escape from reality, not to do complex mathematics.

In a nutshell, don't get so worried about telling your story that you make an interactive movie instead of a game! Your player is here to tell his own story, not yours. You just get to decide what he's up against. And you can be a cruel, cruel master, so long as you let the player decide how he deals with it!

Talk to you soon!

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