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2008 Indie MMO Developers Conference - The Newbie Experience

While attending the 2008 Indie MMO Developer's Conference in Minneapolis, Community Manager Laura Genender sat in on a panel discussing the importance of the newbie experience. In this report, she brings the thoughs of the panelsts and those of her own to the table as she discusses this important element of game design.

The Newbie Experience

The first ten minutes of your experience in a new MMO world are pivotal. The fate of your character (and subscription) rests on the back of you enjoying and understanding gameplay in those first 10 minutes; your continued interest and intrigue depend on the challenge and distinctiveness of the world and game systems. An MMO must be revealing enough to gain your interest, but secretive enough to make you log back in. It’s like some cybernetic courting dance of man and program.

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So why the heck do so many newbie experiences suck?

This past weekend at the Indie MMO Game Developers Conference, I attended a panel featuring Brian ‘Psychochild’ Green, Meridian 59 designer and founder of Near Death Studios; Scott Hartsman, previous EQ2 maven now gone indie; Kelly ‘Ophelea’ Heckman, game journalism diva and now running Gamersinfo.net; and Jason Murdick, Product Developer for Simutronics Inc. This panel dealt with the all important topic of “Designing the New Player Experience.”

While the IMGD conference mainly deals with Indie MMO design, the concepts discussed in this panel should, in my opinion, be applied to every MMO in past, present, and future existence. I cannot stress enough the importance that I, as a frequent new player in dozens of MMOs, see in the newbie experience. I don’t even what to impart tales of how many times I’ve encountered newbie frustrations, from becoming lost in a dark FIELD due to my inability to use a lantern, to being killed repeatedly by malicious and bored high level players. And I consider myself a savvy MMO player and I quickly pick up new controls and commands – imagine how it is for the true newbies, fresh off the google.com street.

Our first topic was the concept of social learning vs. tutorial learning. MMOs are inherently social to a certain degree; even if you’re a soloer, you surely buy/sell armor from your peers. Even if you are killing those peers, well, that’s interacting. Is it best to induct new players to your gameplay via social methods (such as newbie channels, mentorship programs, etc), or a tutorial?

While I was an active mentor in A Tale In The Desert and am always a proponent of community interaction (go figure!), I’d have to agree with Hartsman’s view of the situation: you just can’t count on gamers to have friends. And even more importantly, you can’t count on gamers to have good friends! Whether you use a referral program or a mentorship program, there’s such a risk of players participating poorly, or for the wrong reasons. This was one of the failings of ATITD’s mentorship system, where players earned shrines that helped progress them through the game by getting 7 newbies to subscribe. Sure, some players took time to nurture and teach their newbies, but some brute forced it by intercepting as many as possible and hoping that ONE of them would stay. For the developer, that’s a lot of lost potential.

Personally, I think EVE achieved a perfect mix here; when I started playing, I played through the tutorial and gameplay for about two hours, then was contacted by a player guide to check on my progres. You get the best of both worlds!

But then, tutorials are no perfect creature, either. Returning players and rerollers don’t want to sit through the same tutorial umpteen times, and should be given a skip option – hell, a lot of veteran MMO players who understand concepts like WASD and I for inventory want to skip. But as Green pointed out, every game has its nuances and players often end up skipping the tutorial, then finding themselves over their head, with no way to return to that skipped content.

Myself, I’m one of those dreaded tutorial skippers for the pure fact that I know how to move, open my inventory, use skills, etc. and I am unwilling to sit through that half-hour explanation waiting for the game-specific stuff. Until recently, I was somewhat perplexed at the sheer levels of simplicity that you see at the beginning of many MMOs, until the beginning of this year, in fact!

What changed my mind? This past January, my mother visited town and spent a full five days touring my new hometown of Austin. While we hit the movies, some fancy dining, and checked out a colorful – if rainy – downtown, my most enlightening experience of her visit was when I decided to show her Portal.

Now, my mom isn’t a gamer. Oh, sure, she smiled politely when I ranted about castles and dragons all through my youth, but she’s never really participated in anything more hardcore than virtual solitare or Snake for DOS. When I showed her Portal, which has 3 or 4 levels dedicated to teaching the basics up front, even that was not enough; she spent about a half hour looking straight up and running into corners before giving up.

There are solutions for this to, of course: EverQuest, for example, allows you to select “Enter World” or “Tutorial” on the login screen up until a certain level. One panelist also suggested a system like BioShock’s, which was basically an adaptive tutorial: there would be a wrench on the ground, and if you didn’t pick it up fairly quickly, you’d get a tutorial window telling you how. Personally, I’d love if tutorials went the way of hint boxes and quests, or if there were ways to select “I’ve never played a video game before”, “I’ve never played this game before”, etc.

And then there’s the most common and most punishing problem with the new player experience, in my opinion: most of them suck. Especially at release. From Lineage II to EverQuest to even EVE, too many games launch with sparse tutorials that are later revisited – after the initial gold rush of players has been dissuaded. I remember starting Lineage II with no tutorial and little information about game commands, besides maybe how to move and what button made me swing.

Even EverQuest on the progression server, years after it had updated its tutorial to the Gloomingdeep experience but on the progression server, where this universal start zone was gone and I found myself in Freeport with several hundred other people after enough XP to move to a new zone. Competing with people who understood the game mechanics was impossible, and I basically delegated all my time to crafting armor for those bloodthirsty mobs rather than attempt to contest. The panelists emphatically urged developers: “if your turnover rate for the low levels is horrible, redo your tutorial because it isn’t working!”