Were I to explain to my father, who is currently in the other room with an iPad playing some version of Bejeweled, that I play MMORPGs and write about issues regarding gaming, he would say he understood and was okay with it, but I know deep down that he'd never quite understand.
Beyond certain types of casual games, he does not wish to understand the mental territory I work from, and why games and the issues behind virtual worlds are important. Were I to introduce him to an MMORPG, he would simply say that his computing skills lend themselves better to spreadsheets and Skype conversations with bosses (as opposed to DPS meters and Vent calls with raid leaders about bosses).
Today's Devil's Advocate isn't advocating a particular issue. Instead, it's clamoring for your solutions to a question: What's one thing you would allocate resources for if you were a developer who wanted to introduce people of varying levels of computer literacy into the world of MMORPGs in order to potentially expand the available world playerbase of paying MMO gamers?
For myself, the answer in my head had two parts: I would want to find a way to create a newbie-friendly environment for people using current technology, yet would have to do this in a way that did not alienate the existing playerbase by the sheer simplicity of instruction.
The Bursting Bubble
There's no denying that we're in a turning point for the industry at the moment. Since the time when World of Warcraft helped to increase the total number of MMO gamers worldwide, there was going to be a point when the total number of new people who wanted to play MMOs was going to slow down in one generation. We've pretty much reached that point.
Seeing as subscriptions as a model for revenue are slowing becoming a barrier to entry for an increasing number of gamers, the assumption moving forward is that we've reached that point where we either change the dynamic of the economic model of MMOs (which we're already doing), or find ways to introduce MMO gaming to an even larger number of people: those who never thought to try games out for whatever reason and have no experience with computer gaming at all (which few have attempted to address).
The problem with this is that tutorials tend to be forced as a result of the static nature of beginnings in a game. You want everyone to learn how to play your game, so you add tutorial tips that can help some people but not the least skilled players who don't know how to move properly. As a result, you alienate people with little skill, and annoy veterans of MMOs with the same tutorial messages whenever they make a new character (much like the old Super Mario tutorial pictures from 2010).
Enter the idea of optional newcomer assistance. Instead of changing the games to suit more people by lessening the choices (nice in theory, but long-time supporters of a game do not like drastic changes to rulesets, as with D&D 4th Ed.), we can change the games to have variable tutorials in the beginning to introduce everyone to the world and the gameplay concepts and giving everyone options as to how to start the game in terms of knowledge.
The idea in my head, which I really hope someone considers doing in the future, would be instituting an automated guide at the start of every MMO to determine the experience of a potential player with regard to gaming in general and MMORPGs in particular. After quizzing new players, they get a personalized tutorial that suits their skill level with regard to computer use and game experiences.
An example I wrote nearly two years ago in an old blog post came to mind just now. The idea of WSAD movement is common to many gamers coming from modern PC games like shooters, but some people who've never played games wouldn't be able to control naturally using this method. Rather than tell him the functions of buttons and leaving him to struggle, personalize his instruction him and give him immediate feedback on his progress, like so:
In the movement scenario, Step 1 would be forward-backward movement. Step 2 would be sideways movement. Step 3 would be using the mouse to view your surroundings. Step 4 would be moving and using mouse viewing. Step 5, the final step, would be tasking the player to walk in a Figure 8, using the buttons to move forward and the mouse to adjust his bearing.
Apply the same sort of reasoning to targeting, combat, looting, and other immediately needed systems and you can , hopefully, train someone who has never played an MMO into mastering the finer points of basic gameplay.
Again, the important thing to note is that with a tutorial system that can be personalized based on answering a series of questions, they can opt out of certain things, but incentives can still be made to encourage people to keep honing basic skills.
Notable MMO Tutorial Examples
From my experience, it's the child-friendly MMORPGs that do tutorials best. Games like Wizard101 and Pirate101 (which is now in soft launch!) provide clear step-by-step tutorials that gradually ramp up the action. Of course, you can't actually skip these, which tends to drive me personally bonkers as I would need to do the same thing again just to make a new character.
Other notable tutorials I've experienced include the Fallen Earth tutorials (which have gone through substantial changes since the first time I played it), as well as the Aion tutorials, which have actual video embedded that show you how to do things.
On the other opposite end of the spectrum, I would think that having text walls in small fonts assaulting your eyes is a bad design choice when trying to teach MMO controls and actions. EVE Online and the NGE from Star Wars Galaxies has this, though I'm hoping the new tutorials for EVE have changed significantly to allow for better learning.
As I mentioned above, today's Devil's Advocate isn't so much of me talking about ideas, so much as me interested in reading what your ideas are given an important premise.
If you have someone in your life who isn't skilled at video games or computers but is enamored by the idea of a virtual world, what would you suggest development teams try to do or add to a game to show people of varying levels of computer literacy how to play an MMO. Is there a specific game now you would recommend?