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What Makes A Good Game – Immersion

By on October 17th, 2011 12:29 pm

Hello, I’m dayrinni and Adam has invited me to write some articles for Space Sector. I believe in his site and would like to contribute so I have decided to write a few articles about game design. I hope to write 1 or 2 articles per month on the topic (maybe more depending on how much of a roll I get on).

I’m a long time gamer like the rest of you. I like many types of games: RPGs, FPS, strategy and 4X. I also like to make games (I have a small game company). My desire to make games and bring people together started when I was in high school. It was then that I created some paper and pencil games with my best friend. Also, I had some message board games. As I started college, I started to program games. I programmed a few MUDs (text-based RPGs), a 2D graphical game and I am now working on my secret 4X game.

One thing I can say is that making a game is not easy and is really a labor of love. It is not something that a programmer can wave their hands at and suddenly, the game appears. It really is a classic case of “easier said than done.”. Software development is a very intensive and lengthy process.

Regardless of the type, there are a few key points that make a good game. Two of them are immersion and progression. I would like to talk about them in my first few posts.  There are other aspects of good games, but I want to touch on these two points first.


Immersion is essentially making the player believe they are where (or what) the game says they are. In RPGs, it is what makes the player feel as if they are their character (a powerful mage for example). That they are really saving the world or slaying the dragon. In FPS’s, it is that the in-game character holding the gun is really the player. In 4X games, the player is really the Supreme Ruler of their Empire (or whatever role the story line says they should be).

Immersion suspends reality and time for the player. It is how the person loses track of the time they play. They are so engrossed in the game that they don’t even know what time it is. It is the moments where when you finally look at the clock and 5 (or more) hours have gone by. Immersion is something that game developers want to achieve because it draws people in and keeps them captivated.

It can be difficult to create immersion because as developers, we are swamped with non-immersive activities. You have to attend that meeting at 2 PM. You have to come up with a mathematical model to simulate trade across an empire. You have to program that GUI Window for the Diplomacy screen. You have to modify this, or that. You have a code review. These tasks don’t really deal with anything about the soul of the game. These non-soul aspects make it hard to concentrate on the soul and what really will go into the game.

Even for writers on a project distractions come easy. There are still deadlines, discussions and a manner of other issues to deal with. There is a never ending stream of tasks and hurdles to jump over. Reviewing and editing work is an intensive process. Change is hard and difficult. Writing 50 pages and then having to re-writing it is no easy task. Generally, time is at a luxury and oftentimes, impossible to get more of.

All of these factors contribute to the challenges of making a game immersive (and a game in general!!).

As a personal example, when I wrote my networking code for my 2D game, I spent weeks on it. I got so deep into the code, which became so abstract, that I sort of lost where I was in my own project. I had to take a break after wards and get my bearings.

With all of the above aside, let’s ask a simple question: How do you achieve immersion? I cannot say for sure. I don’t think any one really can give a precise and concrete answer. But like everyone else, I have some ideas and thoughts on how to create it. I will use examples from the Master of Orion series.

How to achieve immersion

The first point is, the setting and story has to be believable. Things have to make sense. Not so much as 100% logical sense, but it has to all fit in with everything else. Random or out of place things will kill the immersion. The pieces of the game must fit together to provide a finished puzzle that equals the vision of the game. The lore and setting in MoO universe fit well together. It was coherent and easy to determine what and why things happened. The guardian ship concept was a great tie in as well. The guardian ship bridged the gap from the history to the game. This concrete connection made the game seem more believable.

The second point is, the UI has to have a theme that fits into the game and be easy to use. Imagine playing a CIV game with an outer space themed UI. The artistic side of the UI has to be correct. Then, the functionality within must be easy and simple to use. If a user gets burdened down by trying to use the UI then immersion will be not be achieved. A classic case is the MoO3 UI. It was very cumbersome and difficult to use. It is hard to get involved in a game when it is difficult to use.

In addition, the presentation of the contents in the UI need to be in the theme. The contents can use elements from the setting and story.  If getting a report on battle losses is presented, some flavor text could be used to make it more believable. If it was a disastrous loss for the player, that can be indicated in a way that makes sense too. In other words, the player shouldn’t think that they are looking at a spreadsheet, they should think they are looking a real battle loss report. These small aspects can tie the UI into the setting of story of the game. Sounds can be useful in achieving this. The research discovery screen is a good example of having good presentation. A scientist from your empire with a graphical display of what was successfully researched is present in the screen.

A third point is, streamlined game play. If things are annoying to the player for the wrong reasons (time sinks, etc), then that will kill immersion. If a player has to grind out 10 grueling levels before they reach a point where they feel useful, then that really isn’t streamlined game play. If  playing the game is just plain difficult to do in a gameplay aspect (not UI related), then it will be hard to achieve immersion. Sometimes, a UI can hide non-streamlined game (or even streamlined game play), but it should not be relied on to do so.

There are three points that could assist in creating immersion. The game and display should not detract from the player’s ability to believe they are in the game. Often times it is hard to do because software development and game design is very challenging. It is easy to get caught up with the technical aspects. Stop and think every so often. Watch the grass grow and look at what was done. Were they the right choices?


Finally, I want to give an example of how I achieved some of these in my MUD (text-based RPG), A Tempest Season. Usually in MUDs, combat automatically happens and gives a very generic description. This isn’t really immersive. You are sitting there watching the text go by. Instead, I created a system that had different attacks (slash, jab, thrust, etc). With each attack I had long descriptions that explained in detail what the attack did. The system was very nicely done and received a lot of complements on it. Even though the player had to type commands, they still fit as if they were actually in the battle due to the choice they had and the descriptions received from combat.

Well, I hope that you have enjoyed my first post. My second post, on Progression, will be coming up soon. I know that we have different opinions on what makes a good game. With that said, I’d like to hear what makes a good game for you. Feel free to reply to this post with your thoughts.

dayrinni has been a Space Sector contributor since October 2011. This is his first foray into writing articles for any review site. He is an avid gamer in the genres of 4X, Strategy, MMO’s and RPGs. Finally, he has been the implementor of several MUDs and is currently working on a 4X space game that offers large scope and complexity. See all dayrinni’s posts here.

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  1. Adam Solo says:

    I agree with your points about immersion and how to achieve it in games. I already knew and felt that a good setting and a good and appropriate environment (music, graphics) were requirements to have a good sense of immersion but I couldn’t agree more with you on the UI aspects. It came to me as a surprise recently how crucially important UIs are to immersion in games.

    I knew UIs were key but only recently I did really understood the power of having a good UI and the disaster of not having it, and how that affects immersion. All UI aspects are important, the easiness, the small details, everything does count.

    The true trouble with immersion in my opinion is that it is a by-product, there’s really not a recipe to achieve it while at the same time it is probably the most important aspect of a great and memorable game.

    My overall impression is that immersion in games will organically show up if there is enough quality put into all aspects and if there is enough production value. Attention to details is key. But above all perhaps the most important ingredients are people factors. People’s experience in the genre, their love for what they do, their ability to know their audience and listen to them will probably dictate how truly immersive their game will be in the end.

  2. Paolo Bertiglia says:

    Another concept, really near to that of immersion, that I like a lot is ‘Suspension of disbelief’.

    BTW Adam, will you link this blog entry to the Game Design forum?

    • Adam Solo says:

      Suspension of disbelief is the literary term for a reader’s decision to accept what is presented in a story as a real event. It is the first step in the formation of people’s emotional attachment to fictional characters in novels, movies, and video games.

      Immersion is a technique of lowering a person’s need to suspend their disbelief by removing the text, the seat, or the keyboard, placing a person into the scene itself. Immersion is the removal of the barriers between people and their entertainment, until it is as real to us as everyday life.

      Immersion and “Suspension of disbelief” concepts compared. Taken from here:

      Regarding linking this blog entry with the Game Design forum, yes. As it is a timeless game design concept it should be interesting to debate in the forums.

  3. olivier says:

    Very intersting, thank you!

  4. ZigZag says:

    I think that we need to carefully distinguish between two different meanings of ‘immersion’. ‘Immersion’ can refer to the extent to which the player is deeply involved or absorbed in the game. It can also refer to the extent to which the player believes or make believes that she is taking part in the fiction of the game.

    This may be a minority view, but, for me, immersion in this second sense is overrated. This is especially true with respect to non-story-driven games, i.e. most 4x games. Whenever I play any of the games that you mentioned, I do not take pleasure in pretending that I really am the ruler of an interstellar empire, but rather in making strategic decisions within a set of rules. Often these rules are obviously artificial. In literary terms, it’s the non-diagetic or non-mimetic elements of the game that are important to me.

    I agree that the user interface is important, but don’t think that the problem is immersion in the second sense. A frustrating user interface isn’t bad because it ‘breaks immersion’. It’s bad just because it’s a frustrating user interface.

    Cheers and good luck on your 4x game!

    • Josh B says:

      I think you make a really important distinction between two ways that people can look at games — however, I’m not sure if I agree that both concepts are what gamers (or game makers) mean when they talk about immersion. I’d tend to think that immersion matches more closely to your latter definition (“extent to which the player believes or make believes that she is taking part in the fiction of the game”). Admittedly, this might just be semantics, but I do think the distinction is important, and that there are words available that distinguish the concepts.

      While I’d call your latter concept immersion, I’d call your former engagement, or just plain enjoy-ability/fun of a game. For instance, people can get really absorbed into puzzle games (think Tetris) — but I wouldn’t call Tetris immersive! If you *would* call Tetris immersive, I’m going to go out on a limb and assert that you simply use the word differently than most people when talking about games.

      On the other hand, when I’m playing Assassin’s Creed, and even something so simple as walking through a crowd causes my character to bump shoulders with people, changing body orientations, or resulting in NPCs pushing back on my character for being rude — I feel really immersed in the game world. I’d call that immersive. There are fewer reminders that I’m just playing a game.

      And really, to me, that’s the heart of immersion. It’s not so much about what the game explicitly does to or tells me… but rather the lack of reminders that I’m playing a game, allowing my imagination to run along with the game. I think this is why it’s a difficult thing to create, and why we love games so much that make it easy to feel like we are not really playing them.

    • dayrinni says:


      On the UI: what I was trying to say is the UI can be a cause for a break in immersion and that’s bad. If the UI causes an external issue(which lies outside of the game) to the player, then their mind will be concerned about the issue and the functionality/frustration/etc it is supposed to bring. They won’t be able to think about the game in general. In other words, if the player has to worry about the UI, they won’t be able to worry and get into the game. Of course, I agree that a bad UI is bad. It shouldn’t be bad but oftentimes they are.

      I’ll provide an extreme example…
      Let’s say there is a crash bug in a window that happens only when a checkbox is clicked. Obviously, when a player clicks the checkbox and the game crashes, that completely breaks immersion – because they can’t play. I know this is an extreme example and this is obviously very bad with any application.

      A less extreme example, but on the same note, would be clicking the checkbox and the UI flickers or maybe there is some lag. That really isn’t normal. Actually, I can provide a real life example of this. I am playing Civ V right now and when I add buildings to a city’s build queue the game hangs for a brief moment. Instead of expanding my energy to play the game (planning my build queue) I am thinking about this article lag that in reality, shouldn’t be there.

      Hopefully this makes some more sense.

  5. ZigZag says:

    Thanks for the reply, Josh.

    I think I made that post more confusing than I should have. I’m not attached to any particular terminology. Whether the concepts are ‘immersion in the first sense’ and ‘immersion in the second sense’ or ‘engagement’ and ‘immersion’ is immaterial.

    My point was that, for me at least, ‘engagement’ is much more important than ‘immersion’ in determining whether or not a game is fun, and that this is especially true for 4x games, which are more like Tetris. (Contrast this with other activities, say, reading a novel, in which ‘immersion’ really is crucial.)


    • Josh B says:

      I think you’re hitting on a really fundamental concept about gamers and their games. Some gamers want to be immersed, while others want to be engaged — and the truth is there are probably a different balance of each in every gamer. For instance, while the fulfillment you seek from 4x games can be compared to that of Tetris, I seek the immersion.

      I find this kind of topic really interesting. I begin to wonder if there could be a means whereby to categorize both games and gamers in this (and other?) ways — has anyone done this? Imagine something like Pandora, but for gamers and their games!

  6. Ermdog says:

    Before starting, I’d like to give my definition of “good” Immersion. A part of it is how well the story is told, and how well it makes you want to continue to find out what is going to happen next, as well as how emotionally involved you get. Another part is how real it feels to play the game, and if it makes you feel ‘In’ the game.

    I kinda agree with what ZigZag has to say about ‘engagement’ being the focal point in most games. I can care less if I feel I’m in the game, or feel I’m actually playing that character if the game doesn’t have a good gameplay system or concept. I also agree with ZizZag on how the UI is very important in a game, but if its frustrating it’s only because it’s bad and not because it break’s immersion. Whether or not you want to tie engagement or the UI with immersion is up to you.

    I think the big part in determining how much Immersion you want, is the type of game. With all my 4x games there is maybe 1 that has a story (GalCiv2), but it fails to bring me into the game anymore than it would for just being a great sandbox 4x space game. A great 4x game, in my opinion, doesn’t have to make you feel like you’re the actual ruler of a nation, but it has to deliver on how well its gameplay, concept, and creativity is.

    On the other hand, immersion is huge for many games and needs to shine almost as much as the gameplay. I think Mass Effect is a great example of this. The game is such a success because it tells a great story, as well as lets you determine how the story plays out. Now the actual gameplay is ok, but its the story and story interaction that shines.

    Ultimately, there are games that need good immersion, and games that don’t need it, but can greatly benefit from it. Who doesn’t want to play a RPG game without a great story and great personal interest? For Example, any Final Fantasy game isn’t worth playing if it has no immersion value. On the other hand there are a lot of strategy games that might not need any, but can greatly enhance the game. For example, Sins of a Solar Empire could have benefited from a multiple faction campaign story mode, but does it need it to make a good game? No, but it might of been a lot better with a story to follow.

    • Ermdog says:

      Kinda going back on my words, I do think that the “engagement” part of the game ties in with Immersion. Without a good gameplay system nothing really feels real.

      As far as “feeling like you’re in the game”, I do care that I feel ‘apart’ of the game. So in a way i go back on saying “I don’t care if I feel like I’m in the game”. I do want to feel a realism in the game as well as emotions to it, but I don’t actually feel like I’m the actual leader of a faction per se. I very well may just be splitting hairs and over analyzing the topic, but I try to explain it to the best of my abilities.

      • Adam Solo says:

        I understand what you mean. You distinguish “engagement” and “feel like you’re in the game” as two separate things in Immersion, that I also think they are.

        I define Immersion, in rough and simple terms, as “the ability to put you there” and to “suck you in”, these two separate things. I guess what you’re saying is that the part that you find most important in Immersion is the ability to “suck you in” (the engagement part, the part where time flies). Now, the part of “ability to put you there” you don’t find so important. Both are immersion in my point of view. They both require attention to details, some sense of realism and the feeling that “things feeling right”.

        So, can you confirm that I understood your point? :)

    • dayrinni says:

      It is hard to really say who will like what in a game. We all have different tastes and that is great(otherwise life would be very boring). Like you said, it is difficult to say what type of immersion (and where) is needed in different games. The immersive elements in a 4X is different than the ones needed in FPS game. Then, add this on top of the fact that we all like different things, it gets even more difficult. There isn’t a silver bullet (there really is) that can work for everything and it surely is a challenge to acquire it. So that is why I provided some general ideas and thoughts.

    • Ermdog says:

      I think Solo and Dayrinni hit it right on. Yes I think I’m trying to describe being “sucked in”, a great choice of words, and yes it really does depend on the game, and what other people what in Immersion

  7. Larry says:

    The UI definitely can fight the player or help the player play the game.

    I have recurring gripes against quite a few 4x games and I wonder why people haven’t really picked up on the issues yet.

    1) The player often needs to repeatedly build a ship or set of ships. Let the player save the build queue so that he or she can build them again without queuing each individual ship.

    2) The player can take a lot of time to design ships. Let the player save blueprints not only for the current map, but for future maps as well. For instances when blueprints depend on technology that won’t be available at the beginning of future maps, design a system that unlocks the blueprints when the requisite technology is researched.

    3) As the player’s empire grows, the area which players can interact with via ships increases. The more players have to click to make ships do what they want, the less ships players will build and less meaningful actions players will perform. Let the player direct a ship to a location and decide what it should do when it gets there, then let the computer handle the tedium. Better yet, let players set waypoints from ship production facilities so that when the facilities produce ships they automatically move to where the player wants them without any additional clicks.

    But I don’t want the game to run away with automation. I think the key question is if the action is a meaningful one or a tedious one. If it is meaningful let the player do it. If it is tedious let the computer handle it.

    • Adam Solo says:

      1) I don’t have problems with that.

      2) Distant Worlds does this. At least after RotS I’m sure it does.

      3) DW does part of that. You can assign fleet postures (only now in Legends) so that fleets behave semi-autonomously (since they are not automated but in manual control). You can order them to defend a planet, system, sector, attack, defend … Very nice new feature in Legends. Regarding waypoints yes, completely agree. It should always be a must feature.

      I think DW Legends fits pretty well on the overall problematic of your post. I mean, it manages to address it partially at least.

      • Larry says:

        I checked out the Distant Worlds Legends Preview and was pleasantly surprised to see many of my general problems addressed. It’s just something I felt the need to bring up when discussing ideas and design. I’d like space 4x games to be a pleasant, engaging, and immersive experience and I’m just sharing what I thought could help make that happen.

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