The first steps into a new virtual world can be a daunting endeavor. Players are bombarded with so much visual and aural stimuli that it’s rather easy to become discouraged. There are pop-up windows, voice overs, foreign UI menus, giant questions marks, health meters and more. That is just the stuff on the screen, not in the world. In the world, we have our virtual representation, our avatar, and whatever her surroundings may be – a dinky town, life pod or wasteland. To the initiated, we can absorb and digest these oddities rather quickly. The newcomers, well there’s a good chance they won’t make it too far.
To date, MMOG tutorials and starting zones generally fall in to one of four flavors:
Sandbox (earlier games): The original tutorial wasn’t guided at all. You just entered the world, got bombarded by basic functionality (if you were lucky) – moving, character sheet, action bar, etc. – and went about your business. Whatever you decided it was. Maybe there’d be a quest NPC nearby to point you in a direction. Maybe.
Front-loaded (Fallen Earth): The Metroid design philosophy applied to MMOGs. Some game designers chose to show you how awesome you will be when you’re learning the ropes. Only to take it away once the tutorial is completed. Going from mid-level or level cap to level 1 is a jarring experience, but it has a great danglin’ carrot effect.
Chore-driven (Champions Online, World of Warcraft, Runes of Magic, most Eastern MMOGs): Kills 10 rats syndrome. Titles that subscribe to this grindy design hand you monotonous tasks for the early parts of your career. Once players have progressed past the basics, assuming they make it, the real fun starts to begin.
Story-driven (Dungeons & Dragons Online, Global Agenda, WoW): There are many examples of story-driven tutorials, which causes a wide variety of implementations. Some, like the DDO revamp, take the story very seriously, teaching the absolute basics of the game during the journey. Others, like Global Agenda, and many console games, use the story as an means to and end. The story is crafted to give a narrative to what would otherwise be a handbook.
Numerous developers have realized how important these first few minutes are. It just so happens to be after the game has been launched. Of course, many companies are probably busy finishing the game. Only allowing the designers to return to the early areas and streamline the content and learning curve well after the initial launch. For many, it’s far too late.
I hope that companies begin to realize just how important this first impression is, especially to those that aren’t indoctrinated. Growing the market is of the utmost importance, and WoW blew its chance, and possibly the genre’s chance, at securing my girlfriend as a casual player. I doubt she’ll touch another MMOG for the next five years.
My ideal tutorial experience, which, admittedly, would require a ton of development work, would allow the user to select their experience. Players could chose to skip a tutorial entirely (Global Agenda), or select from a variety of methodologies. Fallen Earth gave us a choice of content after its tutorial, which was awesome, but I’d want that option moved forward. Let me roam an open area as I get my barrings (sandbox) or hit me with a line of quests that require me to use all the early actions, abilities and spells (chore). Or, and this is what I’d always start with, give me a narrative that introduces me to the world, but also my character’s ambitions, past and her race’s history to me (story).
Not only do consumers love choice, but having these options means starting a new character wouldn’t be as monotonous. We’d be able to just select an experience we haven’t already ran through or skip it entirely.
What’s your ideal tutorial?