[Thought of the Day] Difficulty isn’t always about difficulty.

Berath wrote last week about returning to LOTRO after having missed a couple of expansions. She was struck by how much there is to know, how many things have changed, and how hard it is to adjust once you have been used to playing a minmaxed/ optimised character in the past. She compares this experience with that of a new player on her kinship forum who is still struggling with being able to move, steer and fight at the same time.

I feel very much that the real currency of MMOs is knowledge. It’s the knowledge of how to play many facets of the game (tactics for all the bosses, instances etc, knowing your way round all the zones, how to counter every other class in PvP, work many different PvE markets), how the lore developed, and how the game has changed over time that marks out the real dinos. This is one of the reasons that although themepark players enjoy new content, they don’t always welcome expansions which make old content irrelevant or mean they have to totally learn how to replay every character. It makes that process of knowledge collection worthless. But at the same time, ensuring that players must work to keep their knowledge up to date means that current players can feel a sense of achievement, and that there will be payoffs for keeping up to date with the game.

The persistence and progression of player knowledge (along with a social network of gamers) is the true persistence and progression of MMOs. This is one of the reasons it can be so difficult for a new player to join an older game. Because they are consistently playing with people who just know more than they do, and may have no reason to either share the knowledge or teach newbies.

We tend to wrap game knowledge up as a part of gaming skill. ie. you can’t be good at game X unless you know A, B and C.  This is fine for people who enjoy collecting knowledge. Of which I am one. MMOs suit me fine; I have a good memory, like learning pointless trivia and don’t mind relearning it regularly. Being expert about in game lore and mechanics can also be quite sociable, it isn’t really a twitch game, and it encourages community/ blogging/ etc.

We really should stop treating in game knowledge as if it was optional or unimportant. And the game that can crack the nut of encouraging player communities to welcome and teach new players will have solved the numbers problem.


How should new players learn the ropes?

One of the comments on my post yesterday (about the trend for people not speaking up if they don’t know an encounter), by Boatorius was:

It’s simply not acceptable to require that a fresh level 80 learn _48_ or so boss encounters (16 dungeons * 3 bosses) before they ever click that “random dungeon” button.

That is a lot of different boss encounter strategies. More than that, it’s a lot to throw at a player at once. It’s almost the opposite of a well designed game. A good game should include a learning curve that makes it easy for the player to pick up the skills and strategies they need to defeat harder content. That’s certainly one of the ways we regularly assess single player games.

And then you have the MMO. Here you are expected to learn the strategy by joining a group and throwing yourself at the boss, learning more from every wipe, and finally killing it. Or alternatively wait a few weeks and watch the tankspot video and read the strategy from Elitist Jerks.

And yet, it is still hard to come in later on in the progression and be expected to memorise tens of boss fights all at once. I remember joining a raid guild in TBC when they were working on Lady Vashj. I’d never even been into Serpentshrine Cavern myself. So for my trial period, I had to try to memorise all those fights that I’d never seen. To be fair, the raid leaders did take this into account, but it felt like a lot of pressure at the time. I could barely even remember all the boss names.

God help the player who joins the game six months or more after the content was new. By that time, most of the player base will have learned the group content and won’t be so patient with new learners. And you’ll also be presented with all the current endgame content in one lump when you hit max level. Probably with no clue where to even start. How exactly will you know which is the easiest heroic instance? Which of the LOTRO hardmodes should you try first, and when?

The answers to these questions sit deep down in the primordial lizard brain of prehistoric MMOs. Because at their core, they were designed as social games. Players were going to figure out how the game worked and inform each other. If you wanted to raid in EQ, for example, the idea was that you’d join a raid guild and they’d teach you what you needed to know. One of the functions of the guild was to teach new players. One of the functions of the community was to teach new players.

The community does still teach new players. Guilds help newly levelled 80s through instances and raids all the time. There are thousands of blogs, websites, forum posts, addons, and guides available. If you ask for help in the game on a help channel, there’s a good chance that you’ll get an answer. (This is true in any game I’ve played recently, including WoW.)

Teaching is part of the glue that holds communities together in games. The need to keep recruiting and keep training is what allows newer players to join older ones and play together in the same raids.

But the times have changed. And 48 boss encounters is still a crazy amount of information to take in at once.

Only the first wave learn as intended

Now, the reason this never struck many players as an issue was because we took the instances as we levelled up. In fact, I suspect active use of the dungeon finder while levelling should make the sticker shock at 80 a little milder. But in any case, most of the active players at the start of an expansion learn as intended and receive the learning curve as it was designed into the game. They tackle the new content with a group of slightly undergeared players who are all learning at the same time.

The important thing about being undergeared is that you do have to learn the encounter because you cannot brute force it.

Later on, newer players will be able to lean on more experienced and better geared friends (or randoms). Maybe they’ll be able to ignore the tactics –- that depends on the game and the designers.

How could we make it easier?

A lot more of the teaching side of the game could be automated in an MMO. If WoW included some boss mods as standard, you could imagine text flashing up on the screen in big flashing letters to explain the boss attacks and standard tactics.

“LIGHTNING NOVA! RUN AWAY FROM THE BOSS NOW. YOU HAVE 6s” (and maybe it could even play the Countdown music)

And as much as people would complain about the game being dumbed down, this would not be greatly different from the typical raid experience using boss mod addons.

Alternatively, we could imagine single player versions of some of the bosses, giving players a chance to learn them quietly on their own.

Or maybe a pause button – I have no idea how this could work in a multi-player game but giving people the chance to pause the game so that they can take their time to look around and think would help a lot of people with slower reactions.

And the trouble is, it doesn’t stop at tactics. Tactics alone won’t teach a new player which instances they SHOULD be going to next, where the best upgrades can be found, what’s the best way to spend tokens. But a lot of the information about upgrades is in the game also. If you check the WoW Armoury, you’ll can ask for suggested upgrades for gear in any slot.

Again, even if the game was able to say ‘Ah, you really need a new shield now. Try normal Halls of Reflection, second boss,’ this is still no different from the way experienced players use addons.

But at what cost? If the teaching burden is completely removed from guilds and from the community, then what is left?

Perhaps the answer still lies in sandbox games, a model that has been largely abandoned by the big AAA MMOs recently. So you could imagine PvE with lots of game tutorials, boss mods, and in game help. Perhaps PvE will become more of a polished, console-esque experience. And if that means that new players aren’t pressured to learn 48 boss encounters as soon as they hit 80, that has to be a good thing.

And yet a newbie would still need to lean on the regulars for help with the in game politics, the wide ranging PvP, figuring out the economy and keeping up with the ebb and flow of the other players.