Thought of the Day: Duelling new players?

In some games (like WoW) when you head to a prime newbie zone, chances are that you will be inundated for requests to duel. Many of these requests will be from characters many levels higher than the newbies for whom the zone was designed.

I definitely remember creating new characters in WoW and being challenged to duels by people in Goldshire who were at least 10 levels higher and in full (lowbie) PvP gear/ heirlooms.

I’m wondering now why people accept those duel requests and whether anyone finds it fun to duel someone higher level like that against whom they have literally no chance? (Because they could one shot you, for example.) Actually, I also wonder why anyone bothers issuing those duel requests. Is there some kind of achievement for it?

At the same time, it really does highlight for me that there were always players who really wanted a full PvP (or at least a full arena-based) game from the outset. The only mysteries are:

  • a) why they didn’t roll on PvP servers
  • b) why they didn’t try a more PvP focussed game (eg. in WAR you can hop straight into a scenario and be ranked up so as to not be at a massive disadvantage).

The first three minutes

I remember very clearly the first time I ever logged into a multi player game online.

It was a MUD that was running on one of the university computers. I’d seen single player text based adventures before, so I played it like one of those, but with other people chatting on text channels in the background. It was novel to see other characters wandering around, but they didn’t really impact on my game. (I know NOW that there was quite a lot of grouping and guilds and socialising also.)

I also remember very clearly the first time I ever logged into a multi player game online where someone else spoke to me.

This was also a text based game, and one of the other players whispered a greetings to me when I had just logged in for the first time. (I think a message went out to all players when a newbie logged in to encourage them to be friendly.) I was so freaked out and unsure how to react that I considered logging out and never coming back. Fortunately I didn’t do this and I’m still friends with that player to this day – we even went to each other’s weddings.

It’s very unlikely that new players these days would be so unnerved by online chat. But some might be unnerved by a game that immediately pulls you out of the single player mindset. If you’re used to as much time and space as you like to figure a game out, having to race other players for the newbie mobs is a layer of competition that just doesn’t exist in most single player games. Being asked to be social in an online game can be just as unnerving. You don’t expect to socialise in a single player game, so even having someone say ‘hello’ as they walk by can be anxiety inducing.

I mention this by way of pondering why so many WoW players don’t make it past the first five levels/ 30 minutes of play. (It’s under ‘Other Notes’.)

I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that anyone who can’t figure out moving, questing, and fighting isn’t going to get past level 2, never mind level 5, and probably won’t last 5 minutes let alone 30.

I had two main trains of thought on reading that Blizzard plan to go for a more basic tutorial at the very early levels.

1/ Good. I don’t see any problems with trying to make the tutorial more intuitive. Anyone who complains about levels 1-5 being dumbed down is being silly. What were you expecting, HARD MODE level 1-5? Sure, the early adopters (like me, after I got over my great fear of other people) enjoyed jumping in blind with a manual to hand and figuring these things out, but it wouldn’t have hampered the whole jumping in blind thing if a popup with ASWD on it had been put up.

Text MUDs actually had really extensive help files and staffers were always trying to figure out better tutorials because we wanted newbies to stay and not be put off by the complexity. I remember one game where we even had two or three separate tutorials based on the player’s previous level of experience with that type of game.

Having said that, jumping in blind to a complex game does encourage people to ask for help, which encourages interaction. I don’t think this is a good reason to skip the tutorial but it’s one of the reasons communities used to be much tighter.

2/ Are we sure people are leaving before 30 mins because they couldn’t figure out the basics? Maybe they just didn’t like the game enough to play longer. I will not count the number of games in my Steam collection that have been played for less than 30 mins, but trust me it’s several. I don’t stress over this, most of them were bought very cheaply in sales and I knew there was a risk I either might not like the game or might not have a long attention span for it.

Still, if you claim they can’t figure the game out then it’s easy enough to work on a better tutorial. If they left because they either freaked out at encountering other people or just didn’t fancy it, then it’s more difficult to think of a quick fix. (OK, I lie, the other people thing can probably be fixed. I know the EVE tutorial used to suggest players say something on the newbie channel and WoW could certainly benefit from a brief channel using tutorial.)

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.)

My WoW Report

Boss: I told my son about you playing, what is it? World of Warcraft?

He said ‘I bet she’s like EIGHTY and EVERYTHING’, so I said ‘what level are you, Jack?’, and he said ‘12!’.

kizi1That is a legitimate exchange between my boss and myself while discussing whether I could have the week of Comic Con off work in 2011, on the off-chance I can sort myself out for going for a third year in a row. But it reminded me I have never really spoken about my return to WoW, a little intimidated by the number of WoW players amongst Spinks’ readership.

I left WoW just before Burning Crusade. I’d been playing since Friends & Family Alpha and was classically burned out on the game. I mostly played druids, in fact, it was a kind of joke that I’d played around 5 druids consecutively, bouncing between Alliance and Horde between various alphas, betas and the launch. This was at a time when druids were a little bit rubbish and although I played them to heal and because I loved all the hybrid goodness, I found things pretty tough. But mostly, I was burned out on the game and blamed it on the people, my last guild and the struggle of raiding Molten Core and how long it always took. So I left, and took a fair break from MMOs until I eventually landed on LotRO by way of the disastrous Vanguard launch month.

From that time on Spinks has still been playing WoW, and keeping me abreast of the changes. Some I was sceptical of, still harbouring some bitterness towards the game, but others sounded cool. Mostly, I never really felt a pull back to it, my account was gone and I didn’t want to start over from scratch even if I did go back. I’m pretty stubborn about things like that. So I ignored Burning Crusade and the launch of Lich King. I was pretty busy with LotRO also, and didn’t really have time for a second MMO.

But, last year sometime, in all the talks about Cataclysm, I thought it might be interesting to have another look, using the refer-a-friend scheme to play with Spinks. It wasn’t a completely successful first 3 months. While we enjoyed the added xp and summoning abilities, I kind of played one month on, one month off, so I didn’t get the full rewards for the r-a-f scheme. But it did get me to level 40-ish, which was over the hump of ‘how many freaking times have I done all these starter zones’. I picked a class I’d never liked previously, the shaman – and started to truly love it around level 30. Why a shaman? I was fairly sure I’d never want to play one in Cataclysm, I’d never managed to get one past level 5 before but with Spinks playing a hunter we could pretty much manage anything!

The dungeon finder really impressed, even when some of the PuGs created were rude, it was a nice break from grind if I needed it. Also, being on WoW meant I could catch up with my other sister who’d been chugging away soloing a rogue over there. Using realID meant that we could always tell when each others’ alts were on. And eventually I caught up to her level (I have more time on my hands!!). I had a really rough start to Lich King content and was really unhappy around level 70, but a few months ago I got to my first ever level 80 on WoW. And I adore shaman now, naturally – thinking of making another in Cataclysm. Yes, I have a problem remaking the same class over and over, I know this!

So Spinks has been trying to teach me about emblems, gearing up, heroics, tournament stuff and anything else I may need to do to be ready to raid. I tinker with it. I log on and do a dungeon or two, sometimes heroic, I head to Wintergrasp and I mine or muck around. While I’d quite like to see a raid, I’m not feeling really pressured to do so, and I think that’s been the real reason I’ve enjoyed my return to WoW so much. It feels quite peaceful to me without any pressure except to heal to a decent standard. Though I am considering switching to Spinks’ main server and possibly joining her guild there so I can explore the raiding side of the game.

I’m not the greatest player in WoW. I’m not trying to be, yet. But I’m no longer a snob about it either. It’s a great game, with the same grindy, rocky patches any MMO has. And sometimes it’s nice for me not to have to care and to just find a fun class and chill out with it.

Let’s Play Dwarf Fortress

dwarffort

Are you ready for a grand adventure in architecture, engineering, dwarven culture, and 101 exciting ways to kill off a dwarven civilisation?

Dwarf Fortress is a free, notoriously complex simulation game in which a handful of dwarves set off from the Mountainhome to construct a new dwarven paradise. The dwarves themselves are somewhat autonomous – they have names and personalities, can enter into romances with each other, and you can give each one instructions; but don’t be surprised if they interpret them in unexpected ways. Imagine a cross between The Sims, a roguelike, and Sim City, but rather more complex than any of them. What could possibly go wrong?

Here’s an inspirational(?) story about one of the most infamous dwarven fortresses of all time – Boatmurdered. This particular game was played as a succession game, with different players taking charge of the fortress for each year of game time.

Because it is such a fully featured simulation, DF also seems to generate the best stories of any game I know. Every game is different, and some of them are a bit mad.This is another reason I’m determined to try to make some headway with it.

A new version of the game was released this year. And although it is likely to still be a bit buggy, this is the version I plan to use.

Strike the Earth!

World is made of cheese, for you to carve.

It is clear from very early on that I’m going to need a good tutorial to hold my hand with this one. If you are interested in playing along, here’s one I found for DF2010. It’s by capnduck and comes with a half-built dwarf fortress to practice on, and a bunch of awesome youtube tutorial videos.

Captain Duck’s video tutorial play along page

My goal for this week is to get this thing set up, and play alongside the first tutorial which mostly involves loading the pre-packaged fortress and exploring the part built section.

I notice immediately that this game involves some control keys which don’t seem to be listed on the help page. So to assist with figuring this dratted thing out, I enlisted another (text based) tutorial by Abalieno which is for the old version of the game, but they seem to have kept the same key binds. There is also a very fully featured DF wiki.

Useful control things I have learned so far:

  • To go down a level, use SHIFT + >
  • To go up a level, use SHIFT + <
  • To return to origin, use F1
  • when the game asks for + or –, it often means to use the ones on the numpad
  • it’s also space bar to pause or unpause the game. Depending on which menu you have up, the screen will not always tell you whether the game is paused.

Good luck!

Growing your own raiders. And I come not to damn TotC but to praise it.

LoadScreenArgentRaid

This weekend, I had a revelation.

DREADSCALE IS THE FIRE SNAKE!

I had a post half written when patch 3.2 went live to list why I loved Icecrown Citadel; and the number one reason was because I no longer had to remember which snake was which. Anyone who ever tanked Trial of the Crusader will be familiar with this conversation in the tank channel before the start:

Which snake do you want to tank?

I’ll take the fire one, is that acid… dread … whatever it’s called?

Is that the stationary one?

No, moving one. It’s on the left. I mean right as we’re standing.

Could I have that one? I always take the one on the right

((etc))

But we were back in the Argent Tournament arena this weekend, and I remembered the gorram snake’s name. It feels like a major achievement.

Raiding with less experienced raiders

As to why we were there, that’s a longer story. Our raid group has been more progression focussed in Wrath than we ever were before. We have class quotas, and role quotas, and all that sort of gubbins which means that raiders don’t have to sit out too often.

But our member guilds (we are a raid alliance) also have members who don’t raid with us. Some are more casual players, or unable to commit to a timetable for RL reasons, or just don’t have much interest.

I think we all have been aware recently that some of these guys would love to raid with the alts, or in the non-25 man raids. But it has been difficult to arrange because ICC-10 is simply not a welcoming environment for new raiders. No matter how much people say that the game is dumbed down, it’s not easy for new players to fine tune their dps while getting out of fires, avoiding adds, target switching, and paying attention to the threat meter.

And the instance simply isn’t tuned so that experienced players can carry the less experienced ones while they learn. It is after all the last raid instance of the expansion, and if it was undertuned, people would definitely complain that it was too easy.

Moreover, it’s not possible to really learn how to play your class in heroics any more. They are AE fests. I don’t recall much in the way of target switching requirements, and healers will usually heal through fires anyway. (I’m not saying it’s right, but that is how things tend to go.) Or at least, you can’t learn to play it well enough to raid endgame, unless you are already an experienced raider and it is an alt.

So that’s where Trial of the Crusader comes in. It was suggested that maybe a 25 man TotC run would give us the chance to bring both experienced and inexperienced raiders. We all agreed that in theory this might be a good chance for the newbies to get their feet wet. But would we get enough people to sign? Would we get the mix of experienced players (who probably didn’t need any of the drops on their alts) and newbies? Would newer players be able to follow instructions – you can’t just steamroll TotC in the gear they’d be wearing?

And I foolishly said, “I’ll run it,” and put the run up on the calendar

And people signed. Not just the new guys, who were very excited at the prospect of a 25 man run where no one would shout at them, but also some of the more experienced raiders who were willing to come and help out. Also some people brought well geared alts along who don’t often get a look in on the 25 mans.

I had said from the beginning that if we didn’t get 25 signups, I would cancel the run due to lack of interest. I knew last Wednesday (the raid was scheduled for the weekend) that I wouldn’t have to cancel it.

At that point, I put up a prospective raid list (i.e. list of people/ characters who were picked) and the boards lit up with new people starting threads asking for advice, experienced raiders writing up guides, and threads about addons and consumables as well. I don’t remember if TotC was this well analysed when we were running it as progression content :)

When we all rolled up on Saturday night – everyone was on time, by the way – I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. I think I’d assumed we’d wipe a few times on Icehowl as people got the hang of moving out of the way, and that Faction Champions might also claim a few scalps.

What actually happened is that we were successful beyond my wildest dreams.

We one shot the first four bosses (IIRC) and got Anub’Arak on the third attempt. I reckon about two of the raiders had never been in a raid, three more hadn’t been in a Wrath raid, we had a tank and a few healers who had never been inside that instance before, and about 8 of the dps were undergeared (i.e. undergeared for TotC). Some of them found PUGs so intimidating that they didn’t dare sign up for them at all, even 5 mans.

I was very proud of everyone, because it was a true team effort. We could not have done it without some experienced guys being willing to take one for the team and give it their all. We could not have done it if the newer players had not been totally focussed, listened to instructions, and done their homework.

After the second wipe on Anub, where we wiped at 5% (due to hitting the enrage timer), we discussed the fight in detail on voice chat as everyone was running back. We discussed why we used bloodlust when we did, how the spikes worked, what had gone wrong and what had gone right in previous attempts. And everyone, new guys included, was brainstorming how we might be able to find that extra 5% damage on phase 3.

At that point, the difference between them and hardcore progression raiders was simply a matter of time, practice, and gear. Job done. (The fact we got Anub on the next pull was icing on the cake.)

And TotC succeeds as a training environment in all the ways that the heroics fail. You cannot ignore the proper strategies there when half the raid is undergeared/ inexperienced. People will have to move out of the fire, switch target neatly, and listen to raid leaders. It is in every way a true raiding experience.

In retrospect, I’d been playing with fire when putting that raid together, and fitting in as many of the less experienced guys as I could. But what is life without a little risk. If we’d known that it was going to be a walkover, then it wouldn’t have felt like such a good achievement, and we’d have been cheating the new players as much as the old ones out of that. As a raid leader you have to balance up the raid’s objectives:

  1. Run a successful raid, lots of loot, happy raiders.
  2. Get as many of the inexperienced raiders and raider alts in as possible.

You know how some raid leaders are talented at running different types of raids. Some people run awesome farm raids, or are really good at getting people to optimise their performance. Some people are amazing progression raid leaders and can analyse where the group needs to improve on a new fight by some form of psychic ability.

I suspect my strength may be dragging mixed ability groups through content. I admit this is … marginally useful. But hey, it’s a thing. I cannot honestly say that I had to work hard – people taught each other. But still, you cannot teach someone who isn’t willing to learn.

We can do it, but why should we?

So what have we proved, at the end of all this? We can set up successful raids where both experienced and inexperienced raiders play alongside each other. And where the new guys can get some support, coaching, and encouragement. And, more importantly, where everyone can have some fun and even the old guard has a chance at some loot which they wanted.

But in order to do it, we have to flout just about every pointer in Warcraft that directs players towards the latest, greatest raid instance. We have to ignore the pressure to do everything as fast as possible, to focus only on our own goals, and to ditch the weak to make room for the strong. It may be possible to have everyone playing nicely together, but there’s no in game pressure, or encouragement, or reward. Only the social reward of making a lot of people very happy, of knowing that you have a guild/ raid that is socially cohesive, and of rising to meet a challenge together. It’s an achievement for our whole raid group that we were able to pull it off, but not an achievement recognised by the game.

I was comparing this mentally to Gevlon’s undergeared challenge. I see our newbie raid as the social equivalent to that, where we deliberately handicap the raid by bringing weaker players. I know I’m not the only one who pondered that, since at least one of the other raiders commented on it to me also.

Ultimately, I think this highlights a weakness in Warcraft that will pull the game down. If Blizzard cannot encourage players to teach each other in game, then all they can ever do is make things easier so that there is less to learn.

Even though it was a fun raid, and felt like a good achievement, I cannot run these newbie raids every week. I cannot ask the experienced guys to keep doing this week in and week out for no real reward. No one is that altruistic (I’m certainly not) and whilst I’m proud of my friends and raid allies for pulling it all together, I also don’t particularly want to run TotC every week.

Maybe guild achievements in Cataclysm will help to plug this gap, and perhaps there will be perks for the guild that is willing to grow its own raiders, and teach its own newbies.  But I suspect that they will choose to reward the hardcore instead. Who will continue to rely on ‘social’ guilds to train their new recruits for no reward, because the things they enjoy doing (supporting each other, building community, teaching and mentoring) are outside the achiever’s purview.