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The List: Top 5 MMO Learning Curves

Column By William Murphy on September 28, 2010

Last week signaled the launch of Square Enix’s Final Fantasy XIV. As anyone who once wandered around in FFXI can attest, Square Enix’s MMOs aren’t exactly known for their adherence to the “way things are done” in MMO land. The forums and internet in general are abuzz with people arguing and taking their stands on whether or not FFXIV is any good. The truth of the matter is, a big wall FFXIV might have working against it is the fact that it’s not adhering to many of the gameplay facets that your everyday player is used to. Say for example the only MMO you have any knowledge of is WoW. Are you going to have an easy time picking up FFXIV and jumping right on in? Probably not. But rather than sit here and tell you this game’s better than this other one because it’s easier to pick up and play (because that’s not really my style), I figured I’d use this week’s list to remind you that FFXIV isn’t the first game to make things hard on the newbie player. And in the spirit of ingenuity, both good and bad, hopefully it won’t be the last.

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5.) Final Fantasy XI

I didn’t pick up FFXI at its outset. I also understand that many of its features were designed with the PS2 audience in mind. I also know that despite its straying from the EQ norm, it was and continues to be a successful title that’s played by thousands with nigh religious zeal. I lost friends for weeks to FFXI. But that doesn’t mean I “got it”. The Linkshells, the absolute necessity of partying to advance beyond the first levels, the silent auction system, the actual combat within parties, it was all designed almost as though the Square Enix team simply didn’t care about the way things were done in other games. Sure there’s still the holy trinity, and sure there are still “quests” and “missions”, but the rest of the game was clearly designed more for a Final Fantasy player than your average MMO player and for that reason it deserves number five on this list. Oh, and let’s not forget the absolutely cumbersome chat system, which was probably the most difficult part to master (kidding… sort of).

4.) Pirates of the Burning Sea

Pirates of the Burning Sea often gets a bum rap for its less-than-stellar avatar combat portion. But I really think that the biggest battle the game faces on a daily basis is the daunting task of figuring out how to play the game. The tutorial can only do so much before players are left to figure things out for themselves. And while the game does an adequate job of trying to acclimate you with the very deep crafting and trade system that Flying Lab has in place, chances are that without the help of friends or a guild you’ll still spend the better part of a few weeks coming to grips with the ebb and flow of the economy… which also differs from server to server. Let’s not forget that combat on your ship is different depending on the ship, that players have to take wind into effect, and what type of ammunition to use, when to board and when not to board, and so on and so forth. It’s a complex game that often scares people away who may love its theme, but don’t feel like investing the time to learn its intricacies.


3.) Star Wars Galaxies (Pre-NGE)

Before SOE decided to take SWG in a more “user-friendly” direction, it was probably one of online gaming’s most revered sandbox titles. It never really attracted the massive userbase SOE and LucasArts were likely hoping for, but that doesn’t mean the game didn’t have its own share of hardcore faithful who considered Raph Koster’s design a great way of bringing the universe of Star Wars to life. The game was about living in that beloved galaxy, not about paying tribute to the movies or the even really the canon itself. And as such, it had a steep learning curve to surmount before a player could really feel at home within their profession and within the online society that quickly developed on each server. Every different character had its own ropes to learn, and then there was of course the complex crafting and economy, and the Jump to Lightspeed only gave players more new things to learn. Again, let me remind you I’m not saying this is a bad thing. I’m just stating that SWG definitely had more of a learning curve than perhaps The Old Republic will.

2.) Darkfall

There’s a strong core group of Darkfall users who will defend their game tooth and nail against the folks who think Aventurine’s title just isn’t very good. I’m not here to get in on that argument. I’m just here to say that Darkfall definitely requires users to rethink what they may have learned from traditional MMOs. Everything from the controls on down to the UI are done a little differently in Darkfall, and while many players might log in expecting the same ol’, same ol’ from another fantasy MMO, such an expectation couldn’t be further from the truth. It’s an old-school take on the hardcore days of MMOs gone by. And while it may not be everyone’s cup of tea, Darkfall certainly has its devout followers. Everything from the combat to the economics and politics of the PvP are something any new user will likely want to find help on when they first log in.


1.) EVE Online

There’s a relatively infamous graph image someone made out there that shows the learning curves of several popular MMOs. LoTRO and WoW go up slowly at a regular curve, while EVE juts up almost vertically, as tiny little stick figures die and are tortured by the escalating difficulty and the line winds backwards creating a cliff from which the little characters dangle at the game’s mercy. That almost perfectly illustrates just what new players face when they log into EVE for the first time. It’s gotten better, and perhaps a little easier to pick up the game over the years. New versions of the tutorial and all that being what they are. But though CCP can explain in the simplest terms just how to physically play their game, they’ll never be able to give players a real education on the politics and warfare within the title. That’s something everyone has to learn about and experience for themselves. EVE is one game whose steep learning curve doesn’t seem to affect its success to much, that’s for sure.

William Murphy / Bill is the Managing Editor of MMORPG.com, RTSGuru.com, and lover of all things gaming. He''s been playing and writing about MMOs and geekery since 2002, and you can harass him and his views on Twitter @thebillmurphy.

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