With the Star Trek beta coming to its conclusion, there have been lots of articles written recently about its starter area. The general concensus seems to be that it's not very good. I've played it for about six hours or so and there are still parts of the game that have me baffled.
Starter areas are really hard to do because, firstly they have to introduce the player to the game smoothly, and secondly, they need to teach the player how to play an MMO. Many games don't even bother with the second point, and make all kinds of erroneous assumptions about what the player already knows. The second point is especially important if your game is IP based, as hopefully you are trying to attract fans of the IP itself, not just MMO enthusiasts.
Most MMOs have some kind of help/tutorial system or new-user experience. But how good are they? How well do MMOs do at easing completely novice players into the MMO groove?
Whenever I have to start worrying about UI design on a project, I like to do an experiment to test this. I usually use WoW as the test game, since they've managed to grab more new MMO players than any game in history. They must be doing something right, right?
The idea is to take someone who has never played an MMO before and throw them into WoW for 60 minutes with no help. Sink or swim.
I was lucky enough to get the help of my wife's friend Jeannie. Jeannie plays a lot of Facebook and casual browser games, so she is familiar with some gaming conventions, but has never played an MMO. Beforehand, I told Jeannie that I wouldn't answer any questions, but encouraged her to vocalize as much of her experience as she could.
Ladies and Gentlemen, here are the adventures of Jeannie:
Character Creation 0.01: Immediately became female, then definitively human. Went to the face options and clicked through all of them. Then hair. Asked if she "looked cute".
0.02: Commented on wanting to change clothes. Clicked through classes and ended up with a rogue because of the starting clothes. 0.04: Chose a name, Debbie, which was unavailable. Changed it to DebbieLyne, which was available. 0.05: Entered game. Watched all of the human/Stormwind cinematic. Time elapsed: 6 minutes: Not bad at all. Some people get paralysed at this stage.
First Blood 0.06: Appeared in Northshire. The first help window pops - it's about the camera and mouse-look. Reads it. Another window pops. This time, it's Quest Givers. Reads that too. 0.07: Successfully opens the first NPCs quest dialog window, reads all the text, and accepts the quest. Using just the two mouse buttons to move, moves directly to the quest target NPC and completes quest. Gets hit with a Mr T Mohawk grenade. Says nothing. 0.09: Gets confused momentarily and loses character. "Is the game first person or third person?" Can't find the next quest. 0.10: Successfully uses the minimap to find and track back to the quest NPC, but doesn't complete the quest. Notices that quest objectives are shown in the quest tracker. Starts looking for Kobold Vermin. Mouses over a monster. "Is that a Vermin?" No, it's a wolf. A "Combat" help box pops up (in the nick of time). Double clicks on the wolf, initiating auto-attack. While attacking, repeatedly clicks on the wolf thinking that one click equals one attack. Does not use any abilities during the attack. Wolf dies from autoattacks. (The keyboard has not been used at all yet.) 0.12: Notices that wolf was not a Kobold Vermin, but can't find where the vermin are.
Almost a Disaster 0.12: Heads toward the occlusion bottleneck that leads to Elwynn Forest. A "How to Loot" help box pops. "Now you tell me!" Heads out of the starter area into Elwyn Forest looking for things to loot. 0.14: Heads back toward Northshire Abbey, possibly because she knows there are potentially lootable corpses there, and luckily manages to stay in the starter area.
Searching for Vermin 0.16: Kills second wolf, again using keyboard-less ability-less autoattack, and again clicking repeatedly during the fight. This pattern will be repeated throughout the entire 60 minutes. Successfully loots a dead wolf. 0.18: Gets frustrated. Can't find the Kobold Vermin. Manages to get the quest window open and reads the text, then leaves the window open afterward filling up lots of screen real estate. Finds a Kobold Vermin and initiates autoattack. Walks too far through the Kobold Vermin. Since she is now facing the wrong way, autoattack switches off. She is also now standing in a fire and almost dies. Realizes something is up. Brings the map up by accident, but knows how to X it down quickly. Manages to turn around using the mouse. Clicking repeatedly on the Vermin switches auto-attack back on. The Kobold Vermin dies. DING! Level 2!