Immersion – That Elusive Illusion of Believability
June 19th, 2012 by DavidP
“One Physics to rule them all. One Physics to find them.
One Physics to bring them all, and in the Simulation bind them.”
(Just to preface this, I’m not an iRacing employee and I have no influence at all in the user experience work of iRacing. I’m a passionate, paying customer of iRacing, just like [I guess] you are. I simply love online racing and I work in the field of user experience, that’s it 🙂 /Dan Segolson)
A continuously red-hot topic in the iRacing forums is how “real” iRacing is, and of course why/why not it is the way it is. There is basically no end to the amount of different views and aspects voiced in long threads on the subject. Just about the only sure conclusion you can draw from all the discussions is that one man’s poison is another man’s honey (and that there are a LOT of very passionate, experienced and smart persons that care a lot about this product).
So why can’t we all understand that X with a sprinkling of Y is the one and only truth that will lead to iRacing being the perfect simulation to rule us all?
Basically, at the core it’s all about immersion, and immersion is 100% subjective, it’s not a science that can be answered with true or false. It’s all up to each individual to judge the level of immersion they reach and what’s important for it to work.
One good definition of immersion is: “the state of consciousness where an individuals awareness of physical self is diminished or lost by being surrounded in an engrossing total environment”
If this is what you aim for when you run iRacing, then it means that only you can decide what triggers that particular elusive state where you actually enter the game and become one with it. No one else.
In my work within User Experience Design I’m forced to look at a multitude of very specific small tasks in a game/product, as well as protecting the overall, bigger picture of the experience we want to provide the user with.
To me it has always been more about the larger aspects of UX. Basically I’m all about finding and enhancing the overall experience that you as a customer bring with you as you game, or after you are done. None of that can be achieved with an either/or approach in game design and development, and that makes it very hard to satisfy everyone.
“Immersion in games . . . is a bit like magic, it’s about believability of an illusion.”
All these different pieces in a game, from storyline and rules, to graphics, to lag, to interface, to sense of speed, FFB, surroundings, sound etc. must form a balanced experience where all of them, together, add up to a sum that is greater than all its parts.
Superb FFB in itself will not make the game, a superb storyline will not, a game with a super flexible multiplay will not, etc. All parts must fit together to create a coherent overall experience, plain and simple.
What makes or breaks this overall experience is very much individual.
• Some can forgive less than perfect graphics if the racing it provides is so immersive and believable that you care for nothing else but getting by the car in front. For others the lack of photo accurate graphics is a deal breaker.
• Some need to know that the math and geometry behind everything you see and feel is flawless and based on real values. Others don’t really care as long as it feels good.
• For others it’s about a dedicated race pit running three screens and a motion simulator with sound that vibrates the core of your spine. Again, others may prefer to race from the couch on the living room TV.
The list goes on and on, and the fun thing is, no one is actually wrong…
The key for all of these different aspects of the experience you have, is that you have to get what’s most important to you to be able to believe in the experience you get. As iRacing is a simulation, that’s even more important. You need to be able to believe it’s as close to real as it gets.
And after all, if you manage to lose yourself totally in an experience, does it really matter if it was feature X or Y that did it? Probably not; it works and you love it.
So immersion in games for me is a bit like magic, it’s about believability of an illusion.
Taking a look at this from a developer’s side and you find that it’s a narrow ledge to balance on. When all of your customers value slightly different things in the experience you provide, that feeling of “believability” is amongst the hardest things there are to accomplish – this since you always need to compromise something here and there in order to actually be able to launch to the paying customers. In order to find those places where you can compromise without creating a negative impact on the overall sum of the intended experience, you need to be true to yourself, yet realistic. You need to put things into context, compare and be honest to the core idea that your customers actually bought-in to. To be a fan of your own game is natural, but you should always try to find one little thing that can make it even better, regardless if it happens to come from your biggest rival. If they do some things better, you have to be ready to learn from them. After all, we all want the game to become better, more immersive, more fun.
“‘Fun’ comes in different flavours that are tightly connected to different types of actions weighed against player skills, challenges and achievements.”
So how does immersion and fun in games actually work?
What’s interesting if you care about immersion and user experience is that there is a lot of research around into what triggers fun and immersion in games, and you can learn a lot by yourself on the subject.
If you are up for it, I’ll very briefly touch on some points that might give you an idea of why you feel the way you feel about your experience in iRacing.
One person that I listen to a lot in my work is a lady by the name of Nicole Lazarra from xeodesign.com. She has done a lot of studies with the goal of identifying “Fun” in games.
Her studies show that the actual experience “Fun” comes in different flavours that are tightly connected to different types of actions weighed against player skills, challenges and achievements.
Basically the personal and subjective experience “Fun” can be divided into four different types:
• Hard fun – This can be seen as a result of mastering difficult things through quite a lot of effort, triggers feelings of accomplishments. Its companions are frustration, deep focus and grim determination followed by relief as you manage to get over the hurdle. Important elements are structure, goals, constraints and strategy, in short “Challenges.”
• Easy Fun – Here we are talking about inspiring exploration and imagination, role play, fun failure states, fantasies. Basically we are feeding the players imagination through skills and expected/unexpected outcomes. Triggers are curiosity, surprise, wonder, awe.
• Serious Fun – This is about exitement, “being in the zone” and relaxation as drivers. It covers purposeful play that changes how players think, feel and behave and provides meaning and value. This is what makes a player get past boring tasks through fun.
• People fun – This is where social interaction comes in, the connection to the real world, hanging out with friends, communication, showing off your skills and triggering things like amusement and admiration. People are addictive and this creates social bonds and teamwork over time.
Now if we map all of this to iRacing and the different types of things we find within iRacing’s umbrella of services, some things become quite clear.
We find Hard Fun in learning a track, finding the last tenths on a lap, learning how to set-up the car, placing better than expected in races etc. The frustration comes from not quite getting there, yet we keep trying. The satisfaction we get once we nail it is quite a buzz. That said, if the challenge is way too high for our skill, we get frustrated; too low, and we are bored.
The Easy Fun can be about virtually living the dream of being a racing driver, browsing stats, watching replays of alien laps, seeing an underdog win because the top five crashed out on the last lap, racing in the same game as famous drivers, things like this.
Serious Fun comes when you all of a sudden finds yourself in the middle of a long race, slightly out of breath, drenched in sweat from racing “the other guy” so hard you forget you are in your room in front of your computer, or when you do a track day and see that the things you picked up in iRacing actually works in real life.
The People Fun is the stuff that makes places like Facebook work; the community and sense of belonging. It could be that you are part of the same 15 guys who always race Sunday night and meet up on the forum; it could be being part of an organized team or other similar things. Basically it’s the sense of belonging to something bigger than just you and sharing it with others.
All of this, together with the built-in natural properties of racing: challenge, skill, achievement and satisfaction, creates a very strong foundation for immersion in the game. Basically iRacing has most of the science down, either by design, or by the natural aspects of racing, to have a solid platform for all four types of Fun.
So let’s take a moment and think about how our personal pet features, or lack of features affect this overall experience and the possibility of becoming immersed in the game of iRacing. Yup, let’s get subjective 🙂
For me, the most important thing with virtual racing is about getting as close as possible to something I could never afford in real life; structured racing against other humans in purpose-built race cars.
That’s what I want iRacing to simulate. I don’t care about racing the AI for practice, I want to go to a track, get in my car and practice with like-minded people.
When I race, I want to see the other cars around me move as I believe they would in real life; I want to feel the weight of my car shift in corners; I want to feel if I’m close to the limit or if I can push some more. I want the car to feel alive in my wheel and in front of my eyes.
Have I got this right now? Yes, as things stand right now I get a chance to compete in a structural way with other humans in an environment that is quite believable to me. Is it perfect? Nope, but it’s real good.
Now if I get moving bushes at trackside or backfire from the exhausts around me, even better, but will it make the actual competition better? Not for me.
Dirt building-up on the windshield, and having sun glare in my eyes and marbles on the track? While it’s eye candy to some, it would make competition better for me.
Seeing my team fight on track against other teams, the “Us vs Them” feeling would provide another level of competition in to the game, thus increase the immersion for me.
There are more examples but you get the idea: to me it’s mainly the immersion from quality competition that gets me going in iRacing.
This said, of course I react when things seem way off, just as anyone else does. When I see a car get stuck like a wobbling spring in the wall it pulls me out of my immersion. When a car takes off in Mach 287 straight up from a bump in the tire wall it pulls me back into reality. I’m sure you guys have similar things that reduce the immersion for you.
Are these things problematic at a level where I can’t get immersed in the game and live my dream? Nope, not for me. But once things like this are fixed (and I truly believe they will be), I’ll stay immersed and have fun longer (and I can find a new pet peeve to nag about).
In summary, for my personal, subjective purposes the experience iRacing provides as a whole is pretty darn good, even if the list of things that would make it even better is long. As it is right now, I lose track of time (much to the dismay of the Mrs.) when I practice or race, and I’m having a lot of fun.
That’s a real good accomplishment for a hobby, at least in my view.
That’s what triggers me in iRacing.
Now let us know, what gets you into the immersion zone in iRacing?
‘til the next time.