MMORPGs are in a weird position: halfway between multiplayer video game and virtual world.

A virtual world’s central tenet is immersion, in that it is trying, ultimately, to create something that feels like a real place, even if not a real world, to its participants. The goal is to get users to create a shared space that at least has verisimilitude, even if it doesn’t have realism. A successful virtual world is one where users log in consistently because it feels like a vacation spot where all their friends are.

Multiplayer video games have a different agenda, frequently: fun. The trappings of the system aren’t as important as providing an enjoyable game experience for the people that log in: either cooperatively or competitively. It’s a rare multiplayer game that actually achieves anything like immersion, as the kind of play that stands up to multiple players is hard to blend with true immersive touches: the chance that someone is going to do something out of character goes up exponentially for each added user.

Virtual worlds can sometimes bypass this problem by virtue that so many people will be there for the shared illusion, rather than any other motives: if the world doesn’t even have much gameplay, those there are the ones that want to treat it like a world.

MMOs try to straddle this line, and, going beyond, differentiate themselves on the third tier: entertainment (e.g., story). There are very few major MMOs on the market right now that aren’t based on recreating an existing IP (or, at least, an easily definable story genre). So MMOs are almost all trying to be a triple threat: an immersive virtual world where users will come just to hang out while creating an atmosphere of fun that has people exploring the game mechanics of the system together, all the while providing enough veneer of entertaining story to draw in those who don’t just want to escape, but to escape into their favorite story.

It’s next to impossible to do all three things right, because they’re all in some ways competing styles. The interesting thing is seeing what each MMO achieves, and thinking about why they did it that way (and whether it was a good idea).

Specifically, I’ve been thinking about this due to the free City of Heroes weekend after several months of playing Champions Online.

City of Heroes is decently immersive: it works very hard to explain away as many gameplay conceits as possible within the setting, and create lots of opportunities for people to mingle. It has fun multiplayer gameplay: there’s good synergy between the character types without precluding having success with any random group, and everyone has something to do. But it’s a terrible transliteration of comics: no matter how much work goes into the mission descriptions, they’re still all about entering random buildings and obliterating foes in a craze of particle effects. It’s no more representative of comics than dressing up as your favorite hero to go bowling: fun if everyone is doing it, but not really the same as being a superhero.

Champions Online seems to have tried to do the opposite. The world looks, feels, and plays like an (admittedly farcically campy at times) four-color superhero story. Missions exist to do a variety of comic style things, combats are often clear and varied in ways similar to comics, and the art and VO are designed specifically to feel very similar to a superhero theme park, if not to a comic exactly. This is the problem, though: the game can’t be immersive because it’s not much deeper than the Marvel Islands of Adventure at Universal Studios. Comics can get away with only focusing on the fun parts, and skipping boring travel with, at most, a few scenes on the team’s jet. Champions tries to do this by squishing every significant area into a couple of square miles of each zone. Unlike CoH, there’s very little dead space on any of the maps: story content fills almost every place you can visit. Paradoxically, though, the dead space is precisely what makes the game feel like an actual world (which is full of space where nothing exciting really happens).

In the end, players are choosing between the two games based on graphics and loyalty and gameplay, but the real differentiating factor is immersion vs. story: one game made a somewhat functional world designed with superheroes in mind, while the other actually tried to tell superhero stories, no matter the consequences on the space.

Maybe when DC Online comes out it will do an exceptional job of feeling like both an exceptional comic story and a living, breathing world, but sacrifice gameplay to do it. Then players will really have an excellent trio of choices to meet their exact MMO needs.