Home > Gaming, Media > Lamenting the Death of Immersion in Gaming—Talking About Piracy and DRM

Lamenting the Death of Immersion in Gaming—Talking About Piracy and DRM

Normally if someone writes an article or post elsewhere that is pretty similar to mine I’ll make a point of referencing it, usually just so people know it’s coincidence rather than me shamelessly ripping off.  In the case of this Cracked.com article, I had to add more than a reference.  As I read it I could not help but feel that I was reading my own post.  I wrote this article last night, before John Cheese’s contribution was put up on Cracked.

With that said, I cannot help but notice how similar the two are so I figured I’d point that out in advance.  John Cheese has talked about stuff like this before, so it’s not a huge surprise to me that our discussions of gaming should overlap.  You can believe that or you can believe the far more likely explanation that Cracked sees me as a threat and has installed a keylogger on my computer to steal ideas.  They have referenced the Miller Lite ads in a similar manner to how I discussed them, but did so well after I originally did.  I smell a conspiracy theory in the making.  Anyway, back to the post.

Recently I started playing Diablo 3. As we are apt to ignore the flaws in so many things until they are highlighted for us, I had hardly noticed how prevalent this kind of jarring experience was in gaming until Diablo 3 brought my attention to it.  Since then I cannot help but to notice how much my “immersion” has been hurt within games.

Once you load it up you have to go through about fifteen different EULAs to get to the login screen.  From there, you log in to your battle.net account (each time you play).  Once you do that you’re told you need to create a gamer tag or whatever Blizzard is calling it.  That takes you to a separate browser window that creates it, then you can start to play.  That is, once you’ve logged in again and created your character.  To use the auction house or see many features, you must exit the game you’re in and do so from the main menus.

If that seems excessive to you, consider that Diablo 3 isn’t the first or only game to require the player to jump through hoops before playing.  While it is incredibly noticeable, other games have been doing this for a long time.

Perhaps I just never noticed because the hoops I was jumping have been added one by one, such that it never drew my attention to the fact that they were being added.

Why Immersion is Necessary

With the way video games have moved to a heavily story-based model, we expect our video games to fully immerse us in the game universe.  When you play Diablo 3 (even if the story is laughably bad) or Mass Effect or Deus Ex: Human Revolution you are expecting to have a seamless and immersive experience.

Give credit where it’s due. They made plastic surgery into a gameplay element.

Consider, for example, character creation in the first Mass Effect.  When you go to create a new character you’re presented with a menu that mimics that of theAlliance’s internal personnel database.  If you choose to create your character the menu acts as though there was a corruption in your file that you must reconstruct.

Developers do not go to so much pain creating immersive menus to create games that leave a distance between the player and the characters.  While some succeed at this more than others, this immersion is necessary for most games out now.

In my discussion of video games as art I talked a little bit about gamers becoming the characters.  When we play a game we take on that person’s role with him as our avatar and, as such, need to have a seamless experience.  Where television can take time out for commercials, doing so in a video game would jar us back to our reality and remind us that we are playing a game.

You see, I’m not a super soldier who can take on armies single-handedly.  I don’t think Hell is real, and if it is real it is at the very least veiled from my perception.  Because of that I am not ever going to be able to run out and fight demonspawn a la Diablo or Doom.  Yet I find it incredibly enjoyable to murder massive numbers of people, demons and anything else that gets in my way–just as long as its in a video game.

I do not enjoy this because I enjoy murder in real life.  (Despite what some people would have you believe.)  In fact, the idea of me ever killing someone is one of the most repulsive things I can imagine.  But video games aren’t real, and for that reason I am okay with doing whatever it is that I do in the various video games.

That is because video games are forms of escapism.  We do not become other people in video games for anything other than a vacation from ourselves (we could, alternatively, go for drives in the rain with the radio off).  We adopt the persona given to us in the game because for that reason it is not you performing those actions, but the person within the game.

What possible reason besides escapism could one have for having and taking care of a virtual baby?

Escapism has a negative connotation in common parlance, mostly because people tend to view it as running away from something.  With video games, however, escapism acts as a means for us to be someone else and do something we never would without any of the consequences that would arise.

In theory, any of us could go out and act out the things we do in Grand Theft Auto.  Unfortunately jail in reality is not a half-day affair that causes you to lose your weapons and money.

If you still don’t love or fully buy into the idea that we immerse ourselves in games to escape ourselves, just look at The Sims.  Three games and about a decade later we’re still seeing versions and expansion of The Sims.  At first glance a game that simulates having to work would be completely uninteresting, and yet these games are immensely popular.

If you’re not convinced yet that immersion is not only necessary to enjoy video games, but also that video games are enjoyed because of said immersion there is just no hope for you.

Piracy At A Glance

I have such mixed feelings about piracy that I don’t know if I can do them justice here.  Every argument for or against piracy seems to make sense to me.  After all, piracy is the reason that games are developed for consoles and ported to the PC, when historically that process was done in reverse.

Ironically, finding a way around Origin is probably the reason half of piracy exists now.

After all, even with measures such as Steam and Origin, piracy of PC games is alive and kicking.  But where those services can be circumvented on the PC with impunity, attempting to do so on a console could result in your account being banned.  This makes piracy on the consoles far more difficult (and potentially less worthwhile) while they provide graphics that are equal to most PCs.

Video games are going through much the same thing that music and movies are right now, which is to say the volume of shitty games is far greater than that of games worth playing.  While music and movies have a less favorable shit-to-quality ratio than video games, the problem is alive for both.

So the argument you often hear people use when pirating, say, a current radio hit is why would he pay for the whole album when everything but the couple singles on it are guaranteed to be shit?  iTunes has helped solve that problem, but again people aren’t deterred by that.

Granted, I know plenty of pirates who will purchase albums they genuinely like while still pirating the shit out of artists who don’t bother to produce an album worth of quality music.  But these people are few and far between. Most pirates don’t care about supporting artists even if they deserve it.  They just succumb to the mentality of “why pay for it when I can get it free?”

I have no doubt that a good deal of people would stop stealing music if the quality of albums were to increase substantially and across all genres of music.  Those who make that argument, however, are drowned out by those who just steal because they can.  And its true for video games, as well.

With this section all I hope to point out is that while I generally side with those who say that if people made better games, music or movies that they’d actually bother to buy it, I also understand that developers and publishers of video games need to stay in business to get a chance to produce quality games.  And staying in business means finding ways to counter pirates.

DRM, Digital Distribution Platforms and the Gaming Experience

Do you know what bothers me about Diablo 3?  Last night I had a short internet outage and was disconnected in the middle of a game I was playing with a friend.  Those of you who don’t have Diablo 3 and aren’t aware of how it works might just say: “big deal, play  singleplayer”.

Seeing this screen while playing solo is as disheartening as it is maddening.

That’s what bothers me, though.  You can’t play solo without an internet connection.  Diablo 3 isn’t the only game to do this.  Most of Ubisoft’s games have DRM that requires internet connections to play, even if it’s the solo portions of the game.

Most games with this type of DRM only check with a server to verify you’re playing on the same computer, but they do not require an account login (in the manner of Diablo 3).  As such, I know for a fact that intrepid hackers have found a way to circumvent this DRM in some games to allow one to play a pirated copy.

I mention this because I feel that DRM of this particular brand is insidious and is killing PC gaming, perhaps more so than piracy.  After all, if pirates are getting around it anyway—which they are—all you’re doing is pissing off the legitimate players.  Some of us have Comcast for our internet, in which case we face outages that are far more frequent than they should be (read: at times other than in the wake of severe storms).

The idea that I cannot play a game that I purchased and own (or rent, really, if you read the EULAs) because of a lack of internet connection is downright insane.  Imagine if your car forced you to input your fingerprint and verify that you were the driver via a satellite connection before you could drive.  Only, it’s really stormy and it can’t connect so you can’t drive it.  While this analogy isn’t the best, people would never buy that car.

If someone was this angry about the car situation we’d understand. Yet a gamer gets pissed like this because he can’t play the game he paid $60 for and we say society is falling apart.

In both of those cases the circumstance is one that won’t happen often—either an unplanned internet outage or weather so severe that it’s blocking a satellite signal—and yet in the case of the car nobody in his right mind would purchase it, knowing there may be a time he couldn’t use his own item.

Platforms such as Steam and Origin are, also, hugely problematic.  While Steam is far less terrible than Origin, the fact that to play any game I must first load and log in to either program is just a tad frustrating.  There was one point in time where a service I had disabled to improve system performance was required for Steam.  I spent three days trying to figure out what the problem was—and not playing Deus Ex: Human Revolution in the meantime—before I could fix it.

Beyond that, I get sick of these games telling me I have to download and install a patch before playing.  Until I played World of Warcraft I don’t think I once installed a patch for a game.  I may have missed out on some content, but most of the time I never experienced any bugs that would make me seek out a patch.  As such, I considered it to be irrelevant and unnecessary.

I will credit Steam with being pretty good about this, usually letting you background download the patch (if you do at all) before playing.  Origin, on the other hand, just patched Mass Effect 3 for me earlier tonight.  I wanted to play the game while it was doing that but found out I could not.

What an immersive and cool menu. If only I didn’t have to wait 15 seconds for it to verify my goddamn internet connection so it can sell me DLC.

All of this complaining is to make a point, that point being that it takes far too long to actually start playing a game now.  Take Mass Effect 3 as an example.  When I double-click to start the program it loads Origin.  Once Origin loads and finishes forcing patches upon me it starts the game.  This may not take long—around 15 seconds at the most if no patch is involved—but it’s more than zero.  I consider that unacceptable.

Once I get past the opening publisher and developer credits I’m brought to the menu.  But I can’t start playing yet.  It has to take around 10-15 seconds to connect to the network to pull up the multiplayer stats.  Can I point out that unless I click “Multiplayer” I don’t give a good god damn what any of that looks like?   Plus, don’t you think they could have found a way to streamline that process with Origin.  In that case Origin would have actually served some useful purpose.

Anyway, that whole thing may take me a total of, say, 30-45 seconds before starting the game.  Nonetheless, that’s still too much for me.  The actual load time of ME3 is obscenely quick if you were to remove Origin and checking the internet connection from the process.  Yet, I’m forced into that every time I play.

I’ve focused a lot on the issues facing PC gamers in this, but console gamers don’t get off any easier.  PSN and Xbox Live are ridiculous pieces of software that shove advertisements, avatars and other useless features into your face before you can start playing your game.  While their purpose is exactly the same as Origin or Steam, their interfaces and features are far more intrusive than either of the PC-based platforms.  If you can believe that Origin isn’t the worst in some way, that is.


The Effect on Immersion

When I talked about immersion, it is things like this that kill said immersion.  While starting up a game I am hardly immersed, but I hate to be reminded of the fact that I am using Origin at all, much less during the game.

Nonetheless, I am faced with frequent reminders of Origin all the time.  Some features within ME3 require you to enable Origin in-game (something I chose not to do the moment it installed on my system).  Fortunately these features are small, but just seeing that warning message on my screen is an instant mood killer.

My immersion is ruined, time to stop playing the game.

Achievements are another intrusion into my game space that I cannot stand.  To the credit of Mass Effects 2 and 3, the achievement system was implemented in-game and, thus, made to match the style of the game.  You could even see them in your cabin, a nice little touch to keep you feeling like you’re Shepard the entire time.

On the other hand you have Deus Ex: Human Revolution’s achievements.  Every time you get one of these you see a pop-up in the style of Steam.  For a game that does so much to invite you to feel as though you’re in the game world, that is a jarring reminder that you aren’t.

It’s even worse on every Xbox game, as the achievements pop up in the same little bubble for every game (that I can think of, at least). Again, it’s an instant reminder that you’re playing the game.

I should probably point out that achievements as a whole are kind of a killer of immersion, namely because a soldier in the field wouldn’t be rewarded for a kill streak with a little trophy when he gets back to base.  Games that can implement it into the game itself (a la Mass Effect) at least do something to combat that feeling, but I cannot help that other games implement them as an afterthought.  (I may actually write a full post about achievements now, as I’m reminded by this paragraph of how stupid they really are.)

In the end, these are all little things.  No single one of the things I listed has ever completely destroyed a game for me (in the way that the DLC selling NPC in DA:O did, at least).  With that said, though, I cannot help myself feeling a little bit nostalgic for the days when you opened a game and you were a part of that world from then on without interruption and until the moment you closed the game.

The latest victim of excessive DRM: Assassins Creed 3. Think that “on the cross” pose here is coincidental?

Do not think for a moment that I am arguing that DRM or digital distribution programs should go away completely.  Companies have every right to take reasonable steps to protect their intellectual property.  (Note the keyword reasonable.  Some companies go way beyond the reasonable, in which case I tend to have an issue with the implementation of DRM.)

Nonetheless, those days are long gone, mostly due to pirates and models of profitability that include programs like Origin and Steam or the dashboard of our consoles.  While we will never truly get to go back to the days of clicking an icon and starting a game, I do hope that developers will realize that we play games to escape and these interruptions aren’t helping us any.

Video games are a medium that have many places to go, and right now I feel like we’re in a rut.  PC gaming is dying, gaming in general has been taken over by rehashes of the same two genres (cover-based shooters and multiplayer explorgies with yearly installments), and the pirates stealing the games and the companies trying to protect them are both endangering gaming for the rest of us.

All I want to do is play a goddamn computer game and get so lost in it that I lose 6 hours of my life and still just want to play more.  Why can’t we go back to it being that way?

  1. jamesroom964x
    May 31, 2012 at 2:47 pm

    I really like your points about escapism and immersion. I agree that escapism has become something of a dirty word today. But I think the escapism offered by games can be healthy. We need some way to realize goals and desires that might not be possible in the real world, like your example of being a super soldier. People have been using escapist forms of entertainment for centuries, from stories around the campfire to books and movies. They all allow us to step out of the mundane and every day. I think games are some of the best forms of escapism, precisely because they are so immersive, which makes the problems you highlight, like DRM and achievements all the more pressing.

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