Sky commented on yesterday's post saying that he felt the level synch feature would be a big hit to the immersion factor of playing Final Fantasy XI and compared it unfavourably with World of Warcraft. I strongly disagreed with that assessment but I wasn't really sure why, so I spent some time thinking about what immersion actually means and how the two games fare. (I probably should have spent that time sleeping but when my brain gets working on something there's no turning it off.)
I did some searching and apparently the concept of immersion is a pretty fleshed out concept. Historically this has been in terms of books and revolves around the idea of "suspension of disbelief". Things in the story don't have to make sense from a real world perspective. They have to make sense from the perspective of the story world. When something happens that seems out of place in the story world you get jarred out of that world. So while I personally can't summon legions of zombies to obey my every whim nor can I suck the heat out of my enemies it makes sense that my online persona Recolada can. But if I could transform into a giant robot and shoot lasers out of my eyes that would break the immersion of WoW since it's a fantasy RPG in the Warcraft universe and not Transformers.
Now, in FFXI, my character is currently on the 6th mission in the main Windurst storyline. If memory serves this mission (which is the last one I did when I previously played the game, though I think I did the San'Doria version) involves researching events happening across the world and culminates in an epic fight with a giant dragon. This fight has a maximum level of 20, so if anyone came to help who was higher level they'd be forced down to level 20 for the fight. Does this break immersion?
I'm conflicted here. On the one hand, my mythical friend who has played for 5 years clearly should be a more powerful character. He's gained way more experience than I have. He's got way better gear. But when it comes down to killing this evil dragon we're on equal footing. Outside the dragon's lair, if we were fighting random bunnies, he'd destroy them in one attack while I may fight them for a minute. (White mage: bad at beating down.) But face to face with epic evil we're the same. This doesn't feel right, so it breaks immersion.
On the other hand, we have this evil dragon. He's causing all kinds of problems with the world and needs to die. My friend, and thousands of others like him, can kill him in one attack. How exactly is this dragon still alive and causing problems? This doesn't feel right either. Certainly in a Final Fantasy story environment the idea of a trivial epic fight just doesn't make sense. Even if we ignore that this dragon somehow survives all the high level players, having a huge build-up to a boss that dies in one hit shatters immersion.
Contrast this to a new player in World of Warcraft who is leveling through the Northrend content. The Big Bad keeps showing up in a bunch of your quests. He taunts you at every turn. He tricks you into helping Drakkuru betray his own people. Everything builds up to you wanting to get that guy. And you can't. It's simply not possible for the new player to actually assault Icecrown Citadel and take down the Lich King on equal footing. You can get a friend to come solo Marrowgar for you while you stand around and watch but it's just not feasible for a new player to find a raid of appropriate powered characters to take it on. The Lich King deserves better than to be a triviality to be updated 6 years from now like Ragnaros and Nefarian got this expansion.
Ragnaros is a good example too. He's _the_ Firelord. Assaulting his lair and taking him down in classic WoW took guts and effort. He was big and scary and hard. But give people a week digging through poop on another planet and suddenly he's a complete joke? Why, exactly, didn't my 40 man raid just go do that for a couple days and come back in and trivially stomp him?
But those are just expansion issues. WoW has two other huge immersion problems for me, one of which was actually brought in to solve the whole world not changing problem with why my FFXI dragon is still alive after being killed. That would be phasing, where the world 'changes' for you after meeting certain objectives. The problem arises when two people are trying to play together but are at different stages in the chain. I can be in the same part of the world, standing directly beside my friend, and be unable to interact with them in any way. Not because they're more powerful than I am so it doesn't make sense to work together but because the game prevents me from seeing him or doing anything with him. Immersion is increased for a single person in a vacuum but gets blown apart when two people in different phases try to interact. (Or when one person tries to pick an herb that is in the other phase...) The other is the dungeon finder which allows characters to instantly teleport into a dungeon with strangers, clear the dungeon out, and instantly go back to where they are. Convenient? Absolutely. Good for the game? I think so. But immersive? Not in the slightest. The physics of Warcraft simply don't work that way. Getting summoned to a warlock, ok, fine. Hearthing to your home point? Stretching it, but fine. Instant teleport to someplace at random to coincide with 4 other unknown people at the start of a level appropriate dungeon? I don't buy it.
But back to the level synch system. Does it break immersion? Yes, it is weird to have a character lose powers for seemingly no real reason. But I'd argue that it existing for boss fights like the dragon or Icecrown Citadel actually serves to fix a greater immersion break. And I strongly feel that even for random grinding it is a net positive addition to the game. Sometimes gameplay trumps immersion like in the case of the dungeon finder in WoW and I feel level synch does the same thing in FFXI. The ability to always play with your friends trumps the weirdness of a character powering down. (And in reality coming to terms with the fact you can't play with your friends also hurts immersion since it makes you more aware of the fact that you're playing a game with arbitrary rules about who can do what when.)
Imagine what it could do in WoW. Assume Icecrown Citadel is fixed as a level 80 zone no matter what. People who are level 85 could still run it, but they'd be as strong as they were at 80 instead of at 85. They could run it with their new friends so they could see the content as challenging fights. You could even make the bosses drop a relevant but not overpowering amount of valour points, too. The bridge dungeon between Cata heroics and Cata raids? Why not have it be ICC? This is quality content that is already tested. It's just sitting there begging to be used. Force anyone who zones into MC to become level 60. Then Ragnaros doesn't become a joke at all. He's still _the_ Firelord. Going in and killing him would remain an actual goal and achievement for new or old players alike. Maybe he wouldn't get visited very often since the loot would stay outdated but he doesn't exactly get visited very often under the current system either and him being a joke to kill doesn't make any sense at all.
So, does FFXI have immersion breaks? Yes, absolutely. They have sacrificed immersion in some places in order to make gains in other areas. WoW also has immersion breaks, also to make gains in other areas. Neither game is designed with immersion as the primary goal. They're both trying to be games that have consistent and immersive worlds but they both make concessions in order to be better games. But I don't think Square cares less about immersion than Blizzard does and certainly neither of them places an overwhelming emphasis on it to the exclusion of game play, which I for one am thankful for!