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.)