Bad-o-phobia

I was reading a thread on rpg.net recently where someone wanted to try WAR and was looking for tips to avoid being bad. (It’s double amusing because WAR isn’t the sort of game where anyone would really care as long as you’re putting some welly into it.)

And I’m thinking, wait up. First you are bad, then you learn the game, then you become good. That’s how things work. You can’t go start a new game and immediately not be bad and make newbie mistakes, unless it’s really close to other games you already know.

So what precisely is this difficulty with going through the normal learning phases? Is it really worth spending hours sorting through forums (with the associated forum whines) just to avoid the possibility of making the occasional non-optimal choice in a game? Especially these days when games fall over themselves to make all choices reversible later on if you change your mind.

I can understand doing a bit of research to figure out what class you want to play. But then again, why not just play it for a bit and if you don’t like it then swap?

I see three main reasons for players to take this route.

  1. The first is because of normal human tendency to dislike risk and to shun new things. Many people are not confident in their ability to learn.
  2. The second is because designers have made the learning curve so potentially painful for MMOs that experienced players just don’t want to do it. Yes, they want to actually avoid playing the game – and I say that because I think the learning phases, the laughing at your own inevitable mistakes and improving, can be the most fun parts of an MMO.
  3. The third is because the game is full of other real people who may not have any tolerance for newbie mistakes any more. So if a new player wants to play with them, it makes sense for them to skip as much of the noob experience as possible.

1. I don’t want to have to be a noob again

You’d be amazed at how many people stay in bad situations purely because they are afraid of change. It isn’t just sticking with an MMO when you know you are already bored and burned out. People stick with miserable jobs, doomed relationships, horrible houses, and so on. There’s even a saying ‘better the devil you know’ – which means it’s better to stick with a bad situation than take a chance on something new which might turn out to be worse.

So the more research a player does in advance about a new game, the less risk there is in starting again (theoretically). I don’t think you can really learn everything about how a game plays just by reading bboard posts, but some of the risk of picking a horrible class and speccing it really badly can be reduced.

This tendency is more marked in people who see themselves as being among the elite in whatever game they are currently playing. Their self image is simply not someone who makes noob mistakes (even though they probably once did). They are a ‘pro’, they enjoy playing with other people who take their gaming seriously and don’t want to take any chances that may make it harder for them to hook up with a hardcore guild in the new game.

The funny thing about this is that if you are a keen gamer, it will show in many many ways regardless of whether or not you make noob mistakes in character speccing. Other seasoned gamers will recognise you as a fellow. It really isn’t anything to worry about. But people are protective of their status and worry about how they will be perceived.

In addition to that, lots of people HATE asking other people for help or advice. They see their role as being the person to give advice, not take it. So they’d much rather learn about the new game from reading bbposts than from asking people on channels or in guilds. In some cases, this fear of showing weakness by asking for advice is almost pathological.

If the game itself had a way to offer advice, that would be even better. If they could learn everything they needed to know to be pro organically while playing, I suspect this rush for the bboards would be less intense.

2. Fool me once, shame on you

Remember the first MMO you played? If you were like me, you picked a character because it looked cool and sounded fun. You played around. You explored. You roleplayed. You did lots of random stuff because it seemed fun. You picked talents that seemed either interesting or useful to the way you were playing at the time.

And later you found that you were pretty gimped compared to hardcore players who researched like crazy, who focussed on levelling fast to the exclusion of all else, and who often acted like arses? Anyone who wants to know if the genre is horribly broken could do worse than starting with why this has to be the case.

We have learned that fooling around, having fun, learning the game as it presents itself and not worrying about the game mechanics will bite you in the butt later on. So it’s a logical step to say ‘If I want to have fun in endgame, I need to do some dull research now’ – a simple transfer of fun now to fun later. This is by far the worst thing about MMOs right now in my opinion, and games like Free Realms do a lot to break the cycle. Because they offer a wide variety of fun now, in ways that won’t impact what you do later at all.

So there’s a lack of trust between players and developers. It’s like saying ‘we don’t trust you not to switch and bait between levelling and endgame so we’ll just start by researching what we need for endgame and not bother with whatever distractions you have put in.’ I blame WoW for a lot of this type of viewpoint, but other games are hardly blameless either.

I feel that I take a halfway road here. I do usually start with messing around, try a few alts, see how things go. But if I get more serious about the game I will go and research. It’s self preservation. The more time you put in, the less risk you are willing to take that you will have to start from the beginning all over again. It’s not so much an issue of wasting time – all gaming is time-wasting – as not wanting to sink a load of effort into a character and then have to throw it away and start again.

3. I want to play with other people… but not noobs

Some players don’t mind the newbie experience but what they really want is to avoid other noobs. They want to be able to play with the more experienced gamers as soon as possible in the new game and think that’ll be easier to do if they do all the research first. They don’t want to risk being laughed down and treated as if they were ‘just like all the other noobs.’

I find this hatred of noobs to be terribly unhealthy for the genre. But some games have toned down the issues. I doubt most players in CoH or WAR care if you are a noob as long as you are on their team and making an honest effort. But this is because they aren’t particularly difficult games so having an inexperienced player along for the ride won’t hinder everyone else too much.

But especially if you are coming from a game that is very fault intolerant, it’s not surprising players might assume that people in the new game would be the same. Players in older games like WoW can be extremely poisonous in their hatred of noobs (I say noobs rather than new players because it’s the lack of tolerance for people who are still learning the game that marks it out.) They don’t want inexperienced players in their groups, their guilds, or their raids. This is partly because raids in particular are not tuned to allow much leeway for inexperienced players.

You can of course avoid these people. The games are massive, there are plenty of people who really don’t care, and it isn’t that difficult to find them. Some guilds are happy to teach newbies who want to learn. Others are at least casual friendly. But they’re unlikely to satisfy a very achievement-focussed player. Especially if their self image is wrapped up in how pro they are in their MMO of choice.

I realise of course it’s no shame to be bad, but it’s no great honour either!

It simply isn’t possible to jump straight into a new game and immediately be as good as people who have been playing it for over a year. But it is possible to avoid a lot of noob mistakes if you spend time doing research.

I find that I can live with making mistakes if I have fun doing it. I’m confident in my ability to learn new things, and I enjoy doing that by actually trying them (learning by doing) and seeing for myself what does or doesn’t work. But then again, that’s why I’m an engineer …

For someone who prefers learning by studying theories or written guides, spending some time on the bboards can be just as fun and productive. Although games in general do favour the ‘try it and see’ approach.

But in either case, if a lot of people try to avoid the noob experience and the noobs in general, it doesn’t bode well for the future of the genre. It’s no surprise that new games become easier to learn and foster more interaction between new and experienced players. In fact, I hope that they do.

Are you afraid of being bad when you try a new game?