Tutorial zones, and experienced players

One of the major challenges for computer game designers is simply that of how to teach the player to play the game, whilst keeping them interested enough to keep playing. Tobold commented last week, for example, that he didn’t want to play a game through hours of boredom to get to the interesting part, which is fair enough … at least in a single player game. But what about in an MMO?

The days of RTFM in which it was assumed that players would stop and read the manual (probably while the game was busy loading from tape) are long gone. Everyone now expects to be able to jump into a game, start playing, and pick it up as they go along … or maybe that’s just me.  For my money, some of the best tutorials I have seen in games were in Portal (where the puzzles slowly get more complex) and Plants v Zombies (again, complexity is added slowly).

But what happens when you get a genre where you know you will get a mixture of novice and experienced players? Who do you tune the tutorial for?  And if you decide to tune for the novice (the only sane answer, really), are you sure you have answered all of their newbie gameplay questions? I tripped over this one in Sims Medieval where I completed the tutorial, was all ready to get going, and yet couldn’t figure out how to get my toon to go upstairs in a house. A Sims vet would have known that, but the tutorial didn’t mention it. Thank goodness for twitter-friends, otherwise I might actually have had to RTFM!!!

Back in MU* days, I saw several games which asked the new player whether they were new to MUD/MUSH or an experienced player who was just new to this particular game. You’d then be sent off to an appropriate tutorial. But this worked mostly because all the games used similar commands.

Why does tuning the tutorials matter?

The problem of tutorials in MMOs is slightly different. They are complex games in any case so there is a LOT to teach a newbie. At the same time, an experienced player is going to get bored of kill 10 rats quests and will pick up the basics of combat very quickly anyway (OK, here’s my main nuke, here’s my DoT, here’s my crowd control – done).

So teaching the newbie what they need to know without boring the experienced player is a difficult task. Not only this but the game also needs to give all players some kind of an introduction to the setting and genre, so just offering experienced players the chance to skip the tutorial isn’t ideal either. Kleps commented on a post that Nils wrote on this topic that different tutorials for different types of players would solve this. I’m not sure if any game has tried it.

More recent games have leaned on storytelling to distract experienced players from this side of the mechanics. I think DA2 had a neat storytelling idea in having the first couple of scenes be with an overpowered main character which made the fights unusually forgiving. And yet there is still a risk that this is too full on for players who are real newbies to the genre.

The other issue with MMOs is that traditionally (albeit possibly not intentionally) they’ve relied on player chat and guides to teach newbies both how to play the game and also introducing them to the community. Traditionally, players were able to ask questions of their guildies or on in game chat, or check guides, blogs, or web pages. If all of the information was available in a neat in-game tutorial, there’s no motivation to ask those questions. It may not be good game design, but it might just be great sociology – those players who were most willing to interact and ask questions (and then act on the answers) would be most easily accepted.

So when people complain about the first few hours of an MMO not grabbing them and other people say “It gets better,” the answer might not be “Well, all games should be like Portal and great from the start all the way through.” It might be that the game genuinely would become more fun for an experienced player once the tutorial zone/s are over. And perhaps an experienced player should make allowances for this.

Food for thought. And as for Tobold’s initial post, my challenge is this: Open a new trial account in WoW, pick a character based on looks/ class description, and play it up to level 10. Then see how fun you found the gameplay. (I got to level 7 with a night elf before I gave up — trial accounts can’t use mail or auction house, they can’t whisper or join guilds, can’t use heirlooms or any other form of fast levelling, can’t access any of the newer races/classes/ starting zones. It’s DULL.)

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12 thoughts on “Tutorial zones, and experienced players

  1. I found the Troll start in the Cataclysm trial so bland that I deleted all my WoW chars, but at least heard that other zones had a better new player experience. I have the impression levelling was made by far too easy and thus quite boring till players reach Northrend.

    You are right about the sociology thing and old MMOs. I also doubt it was intentional, but they got it right. Nowadays we have game designers working to make MMOs better single player games, where MMOs are quite weak in comparison. But they have this “world” and social interaction thing going that single player games don’t have.

  2. I wonder who is more likely to get over a bad start, veterans or new players? Will a bored veteran keep going, knowing that MMOs often have the good stuff later on or will he get bored and assume it’s a game for noobs? Will the new player be so overwhelmed by a new game that they’ll quit it or will they recognize that it is unfamiliar (as opposed to bad design)?

  3. I think limiting trial accounts is a terrible mistake (and it’s not one just made by WoW) because the limited game really isn’t the same game anymore. Hell, I’d even say that the social aspects, like being able to whisper people and join guilds, are some of the last things you’d want to remove, because the social aspect of a game can keep people playing even if the game itself is only so-so.

    The starting zone problem is an interesting one – I know there are starting zones in WoW that I quickly found boring and one’s I’ve enjoyed repeating. Unfortunately, I couldn’t tell you why that is. (Perhaps if I went back through them again focusing on why a zone works for me, or fails to work for me.) However, in WoW, there are a lot of starter zones, so I can always run a new character off to a fun one. Granted, that doesn’t help someone brand new to WoW who happens to pick the wrong starter zone for them.

    I’ve been trying to remember what the first MMO I played (City of Heroes) did for it’s starter zones and making the hows clear to newbies, since I at least remember picking it up quite quickly. Now, I had seen people play it, just as I’d seen people play WoW before I started, but that’s still not the same as actually playing it. I think there was information in the dialogue boxes – which means you could read them as needed, or not – if I’m remembering correctly.

    The idea of having new player starting zones isn’t a bad idea, actually, especially since – assuming my experience is typical – it doesn’t take long for a person to get used to game mechanics. You have a few simple quests/missions that cover the basics of game play and then you send the characters to to non-new-player starting zones. Just make sure there are zones. The more zones there are at any level, the more replayable the game is, and the better for people like me who make lots of alts.

    • I think you can answer whispers with a trial account, can’t you?

      Anyway, it took me days to figure out how to whisper back when I started with WoW and there won’t be anyone in those zones anyway. I doubt that’s really a disadvantage.

  4. I always was under the impression that the limited trial accounts were set up that way as a poor way to limit spam/botting/gold sellers etc.

    • That’s what I’ve heard as well. However, at least if WoW is any indication, it doesn’t hamper the gold sellers (at least not sufficiently) but it may well turn people off who would otherwise enjoy the game. There must be a better way to handle the gold seller issue – without driving away potential customers. Especially if we’re talking about new(er) MMOs and those with smaller populations – WoW can survive turning away potential customers a new MMO might not.

  5. It’s kinda funny-one of the big complaints people had was that the starting zones were boring. Apparently blowing up and remaking the world didn’t do much to help that.

    What I’m curious about is this-One reason, I know, they decided to blow up/remake the world was that something like…70%? of the people quit before level 15 or 20 or something, if I remember the reports. Due to being, well, dull. I mean, in Vanilla, 1-20 REALLY wasn’t that bad(okay okay, being om nom nom’d by Sons of Arugal in Silverpine was pre 20…). For me the ‘worst’ part of Vanilla was probably…30-40, BUT keep in mind this is after I’ve done it a few times.

    Back to my point; I’m wondering how the numbers look now? Are only half of who quit before 20 quitting? Is it roughly the same amount? Granted, Cataclysm is only hitting it’s 5 month mark soon so it might be a little early to tell, but I’m actually wondering just how much of a differences exploderating the zones actually made.

    Understandably they’d have to look at new accounts only for this; I know I had plenty of lowbies I started to tinker with and axed, throughout the years. (From what i understood that super high number of people quitting before 20 WAS from brand new accounts.)

    Part of me is willing to actually bet that in the end, all of those changes probably reduced the starting people quitting by not as much as they thought. Maybe it did though.

    • It was 70% not reaching level 10 on new accounts, IIRC.

      But I always wonder who starts to play WoW these days anyway? Did those people live under a rock for the last 6 years? Or why didn’t they start WoW before?

      Why does someone. who did not buy a game for 6 years, buy it now? What triggered that?

      Blizzard charges:
      15.- for vanilly
      15.- for TBC
      35.- for WotLK
      35.- for Cataclysm

      That’s Euro 100.- for a 6 years old game which comes with a monthly subscribtion fee. WTF?

      Would you pay Euro 100.- for a 6 year old game? Which comes with additional subscription fee?

  6. The tutorial still fails.

    The 1-10 game is a mini-game that lasts for one hour. In this mini-game, you do a lot of fun stuff, things die easily and its near impossible to die (unless you roll a priest or mage).

    Why did it fail?

    Because nowhere in 1-80 does it ever tell you why you need dodge, hit, what AP or how this converts to damage. For a system thats designed to take 36 hours to get to end game, and spend 1000s of hours on end game, people are still not prepared to CC, interrupt, move out of fire, turn the boss around, etc.

    In short, even if you ace the 1-10 minigame, I don’t see how it teaches you anything of value. You still have to go to websites or elitistjerks where real geniuses have to use mods and number crunching to explain what the formulas are.

    • I think 1-10 is fine (if rather dull if you know how to play these games) – it has to teach people basic stuff like ASWD to move, how to loot, get used to the UI, etc etc. It’s 11-80 that fail :)

  7. I’m finding Pirates of Burning Sea pretty tough to learn. The tutorials don’t really cover everything you need to know, but are definitely good enough in that you’re thrown into the ‘real’ game quickly.
    On the other hand, at L5 I’m dying in a few of the quests, and I swear I’m not doing anything terribly wrong, so I just don’t know what the problem is. That’s frustrating and an issue with perhaps learning difficulty, poor scaling or me not knowing the game, but I don’t know which.

    • My experience was that if I was roughly the right level for a quest and it wasn’t marked for a group only, then if I died a lot it was probably down to me not using good tactics. It’s actually rather more tactical than you’d think at first.

      I can’t really say more without knowing the specific quest ;/

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