Monday, February 4, 2013

Immersion Dissonance & How I Wrote My D&D Adventure

You've experienced what I'm about to describe below.  Though I originally coined the term based on experiences in games, the concept of "immersion dissonance" can be found in many confused layers of general software all over the world.  Oftentimes, it's the result of an ill-assigned author.

First, we'll explore a real-life example of immersion dissonance.  Then, we'll move on to my approach for a completely original Dungeons & Dragons adventure.  Finally, you'll see how the approach prioritizes a meaningful and positive end-user experience over unpleasant mechanics by directly addressing immersion dissonance in Dungeons & Dragons.

World of Warcraft and the Twink Problem

World of Warcraft is a popular game where the user plays the role of a denizen in a fantasy world.  Progress and power are marked by numerical levels that eventually reach an upper bound.  Designers create meaningful and emphasized activities of warfare and conquest for players at that upper bound; this is known as "end-game".  The activities of warfare and conquest previous to those are known as "leveling".

The occasional community-organized fireworks show
was also good fun if you happened to play on
the best server in the world. No levels for that, though!
As the image above shows, there are activities available outside of the activities of warfare and conquest designed for the game. These do not contribute to the progress of the character toward the upper bound of power.

One such circumvention used the following mechanics available before a certain patch changed them.

  • Players could join a "battleground" -- a space where players could engage in directives-driven warfare against other players -- based on level brackets.  As an example, only players with characters at levels 10 through 19 could join the 10-19 bracket.
  • Battlegrounds did not contribute to the level of a character.

Some players would progress to the maximum level allowed in a bracket and maximize certain powers on that character as allowed by the system.  In this way, the player was allowed the enjoyment of engaging in warfare against other players in a consistent manner and without having to progress their character to an upper bound that changed with game expansions.

Players' characters used in this manner are called "twinks".

A negative and popular side effect, however, was the grief experienced by players that did not maximize powers or levels on their characters within each battleground level bracket.  This problem would be resolved with several side effects -- one of which was the loss of my interest in the game.

A Multi-Layered Implementation

The negative experiences caused by twinks would be resolved by changing the aforementioned battleground mechanics.

  • Players could join a battleground based on level brackets.
  • Battlegrounds would now contribute to the level of a character.
  • Players could join a battleground based on level brackets that is separate from the common, default battleground.
  • This separate battleground would not contribute to the level of a character.
  • This separate battleground would only be accessible if the player executed a set of actions to enable access to it.
The previous behavior of joining battlegrounds would result in the new battleground mechanics that contributed toward character level.  In order to activate the access to the battleground that did not contribute toward character level, the player had to execute the following actions.

  1. Log in to the game on the character which will be participating in the non-default battleground.
  2. Acquire ten gold (gold are units of in-game currency for World of Warcraft).
  3. Discover, find, and then speak to an in-game NPC to pay the ten gold.
  4. Attempt to join a battleground by using the same interface options available previous to the twink-solving patch.
Switching between the two battlegrounds requires the player to execute the above process each time.

Pay Gold to Change Matchmaking: The Elimination of a Community

The steps involve actions within and without the World of Warcraft game.

Step 1
  • involves the typical interface options and in-game actions required before the twink-solving patch; no change.
Step 2
  • involves in-game actions to accumulate in-game currency, which often (if not always) coincide with leveling; at least one character must advance to the point of obtaining that currency amount, which means lower-level battleground options are now inaccessible to new players that might have explored the secondary battleground.
  • affects the character's in-game wallet.
Step 3
  • involves searching for a story-irrelevant NPC's information on an internet site such as Google or wowhead.
  • involves positioning the character at the NPC's location within the game world.
  • involves the loss of ten in-game currency from the character's in-game wallet.
  • affects the matchmaking system that places the character in a back-end queue.
  • affects the character's in-game wallet.
Step 4
  • involves the typical interface options and in-game actions required before the twink-solving patch; no change.
Lok'tar ogar, rogue. 
Set my graphics settings to High
and turn off my experience, please.
Although the intention and end result expected from the end-user are the same as before the twink-solving patch, the implementation ultimately uses in-game means to affect the matchmaking system -- a feature outside of the game world with which the player never interacts.  Their immersion in the game is disturbed in order to affect features and systems that have nothing to do with the game world; the solution is dissonant to the immersion of the player.  This confusion of features and user experience layers is what I call "immersion dissonance".

If it were PacMan, this would be akin to changing the volume by eating three ghosts after consuming two big pellets on the right side of the screen.

With this multi-layered solution, dwindling twinks -- a sub-community within the World of Warcraft playerbase -- banded together on one "battleground group" (a collection of servers which funneled players to the same battleground queue).  Though I suspect that they eventually vanished due to the weak numbers of players queuing for the experience-less battlegrounds, I cannot say for certain since I was one of the players that got tired of the aforementioned failures to find matches.  Instead, I played League of Legends, a game that readily offered gameplay against other players in a consistent manner and without having to progress toward an upper bound that changes with game expansions.

Unlike World of Warcraft, the barrier between my entry to the product and my desired gameplay experience was exactly what it should be: user interface options such as buttons to determine game types.   A superior solution for World of Warcraft would have been listed alongside the Graphics and Sound settings, or would have appeared in a secondary "XP" and "NON-XP" list when selecting the battleground to join.

A Dungeons & Dragons Adventure Around Immersion Dissonance

If you've ever gone through the game design workshop at GDC, you'll easily understand the use of MDA concepts to procedurally create a D&D experience that avoids the many pitfalls of immersion dissonance within D&D.  As a notorious roleplayer but first-time DM, this was a major priority when creating my adventure.

For the rest of you, the MDA framework is an approach to game design that describes a game as a collection of Mechanics, Dynamics, and "Aesthetics".  With a little practice, you can break down any game into these components and methodically tweak each layer to impact the others.  This is not directly a breakdown into those layers, but my focus was on these points for D&D.
  • Numbers from dice rolls determine success or failure.
  • Success or failure in encounters determine XP and Gold rewards, which -- at a macrocosmic level -- determine the fulfillment of the character.
  • Players determine the actions that their characters execute within the game world, without bounds or reason, similar to the actions possible in real life.
  • Actions by characters determine the entry into encounters.
I decided my group would not simply say things like "I do a perception roll" to arbitrarily overcome some unintuitive skill challenge. The above mechanics must not trump the story and "reality" of my players; I had to ensure that the dynamics would maintain that hierarchy.

Dumb Engineer Solution

If you look at the materials provided by Wizards of the Coast, you'll read tons of text about what players should do within campaigns and how the next paragraph will be reached.   For a game that often has annoyingly imaginative fools like me, this seems far too linear; the unexpected actions of any players had to be somehow predicted.

So, as can be done with any problem, I drew a flow chart.

What do you mean engineers have no empathy?
See, I reduced your bad life choice to this node right here,
pretty thorough -- I mean considerate -- if you ask me!

Plotting out my points of interests in nodes offered lots of flexibility; flow charts are scalable.  There's a yes or no determinant for everything, which means that all the actions outside of that can be artfully guided back to answering a very binary question.   If you notice lots of erasing, strikethroughs, and dotted lines, it's because new actions and activities could be added or removed at a whim before -- and even during! -- the game.

If you want to follow along, the beginning is at a ritual being proposed for the group.  Though this leads to a node where a new (the usual DM's) character is introduced, his introduction actually ended up being scattered.  The party ended up making their decisions before the new character was introduced to them, and searching for the ritual components led them to that introduction.  Reasonably and contextually, the driving NPC inquired: was the new player in for the ritual, just as the other players had decided to be?

These nodes are all in-game actions and elements; they're all story.  The lines ended up being the aforementioned mechanics; what did players choose to do?  Did they decide to suddenly blast a hole in the roof?  Does that ruin a DM's pace?  No: all that matters in the story is whether or not that No or Yes path could be taken.  Cleanly abstracting the story out, separate from the mechanics, allowed those mechanics to powerfully serve as the entry and exit points to the next part of the story.

My favorite part is the scalable nature of flow charts.  Are players using the mechanics to spend a while between nodes?  Great!  That means they're enjoying themselves and immersing themselves in the gameplay; no problems with flow and you have the opportunity to better portray the environment, culture, and universe around them.  I had two new characters show up to this game instead of the expected one; adding them was no problem between nodes.  All that mattered was the pivotal decision: in?  Yes or no?  Regardless of which path was chosen, they all eventually led to the important story-pushing node.  In fact, my players ended up spending a lot of time fooling around but I was able to cut nodes from the game thanks to the scalable nature of a flow chart.


Want to read more?  Please let me know and I'll better format this as a 3-piece series.  If not, then the message is clear: readers don't find value in my writing more, so I won't waste my time!

Specifically, I can talk about handling skill challenges for better player immersion and how my most celebrated game mechanics ended up being created on the fly. 


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