Blaugust day 3 is here, and with it, something I thought about the other day.
A few of the people I follow play the game Riders of Icarus, and the screenshots always look pretty cool – bright, colorful, high-fidelity graphics with flying happening! Naturally, after enough seeing cool-looking things, I decided to try it.
It’s free-to-play and was easy enough to download through Steam, so I grabbed the game and spent a little bit giving it a whirl.
Something occurred to me in this process that hadn’t in a while, mainly because it had been a long time since I tried a new MMO.
I found myself thinking, “this kind of sucks.”
It wasn’t necessarily the game’s quality or a perceived lack thereof. It wasn’t that anything in the game was highly objectionable or irritating. I just found myself thinking that my current play wasn’t full of interesting combat or gameplay – it was just me plugging away with a two-hit combo and one charge ability – I rolled a Berserker because my most accurate first impression of an MMO is with a simple, low-maintenance melee DPS class.
If you asked me to identify what I would say is the single thing that holds back MMOs, it is this – the opening gameplay of the majority of the genre, including the games I like, is pretty dull. There is sort of an accepted wisdom among designers and developers in the space that dictates that learning new abilities and gaining more interesting layers to combat and gameplay takes time to acclimate players, and so the early levels – the ones most crucial for acquiring a new player – are often somewhat boring.
I do think that Riders of Icarus tried to get my attention well – the opening quests have a sense of panic and high pace about them that few MMOs capture. WoW starting zones are idyllic, sleepy places, and FFXIV’s are quite similarly peaceful and serene, where nothing threatens you.
However, the illusion of danger and panic is quickly broken when you are able to kill most things with one combo. I don’t dislike that, but when I am trying to get into the moment, it does throw a bit of cold water onto the scenario. I preferred that to the longer combat most early-game WoW mobs have these days, where it takes a longer time to win against simple kobolds.
The question in my mind, then, is how would you even really make a strong opening for an MMO? While I mention that early gameplay eases you in to the systems and called that a weakness, it is also sort of necessary – give a new player too much, and they will fail and then that will be what is blamed for their exit from the game. It is a tough balancing act.
If I was making an MMO right now, and I had to define the boundaries of my ideal starting experience, it would be pretty straightforward:
-Combat should be engaging, fun, and slightly drawn out, but shorter than the average fight
-Wherever you start the player needs to have a strong visual identity with at least a few landmarks with distinct visual style to pull the player in
-A player’s gameplay interactions should be around 4-6 buttons deep – you can give them a single 3-attack combo, some degree of utility, and maybe an item
-There should be a sense of danger and intrigue in both the style/lore and the gameplay – if you threaten the player, it should feel at least somewhat threatening in gameplay
The other compounding factor is this, though – most MMO players have a home MMO where they are most comfortable and any deviations will be harder to sell. In Riders of Icarus, having picked a Berserker, I took the action controls, giving me mouse aim and click-activation abilities on left and right mouse. The controls were simple enough, but the style did throw me for a loop, and I nitpicked any weirdness I felt (aiming was jerky and not smooth, there are still abilities that need keybindings for activation, etc). Likewise, the dialogue windows have a Confirm option right off the bat that didn’t do anything for me, so it felt a little clunky. Are these things actual problems? I wouldn’t say yes yet – I haven’t played nearly long enough to say with any certainty. But they, rightly or wrongly, felt like problems, and they did push me away from the game a little bit.
One term I enjoy in discussing game design is friction. The idea of friction is that players need it to feel like their time in-game is worthwhile – nothing worth having comes easy, as they say. However, like oh so many things in reality having to do with friction, if you apply too much, it becomes a sore point, inflammatory in its way. Starting a player in an MMO is a daunting design task – you need the player to feel reward systems, core gameplay loops, the system foundation your game is built upon, and at least to show a rough outline of the possibility space in front of them. If you give a player too much, it is intimidating, too little, and it’s boring, and if you go too hard on the friction, the player is going to pull out of the experience feeling a little bit raw.
When I logged off of Riders of Icarus, I wasn’t quite sure if I would try it again. Surely I would, at least to see how it felt – maybe if I had played the Trickster like the game tried to recommend, maybe I’d prefer classic-style controls with hotkeys and tab-targeting, and maybe I just needed to see more content.
However, I do often think back to my opening days in both WoW and Final Fantasy XIV often, and it occurs to me that my first time logging out was at a major milestone – around level 10 in both cases. Their early leveling experiences are low friction, but they outline the possibility space fairly well – WoW does so with its satisfyingly fast combat, and FFXIV does so by bringing the MSQ into focus and laying on the Final Fantasy design tropes heavy up front (boy, you hear SO MUCH about crystals in those first handful of levels). Those games effectively hooked me because they provided me a tantalizing tease of what was to come – WoW by laying on the abilities as you level and expanding your power quickly, FFXIV by pulling you into its world.
I have a massive pile of MMOs that just didn’t manage to really hook me – Aion, Age of Conan, EQ 1 and 2, The Division (in a way), and others. All of them had starts that sort of fell flat for me early enough that I pulled the ripcord on the games. I think often about those experiences too – Age of Conan had such a strong start with the directional melee attacks adding a fictitious depth to the melee combat systems, Aion had a gorgeous world, EQ had pedigree, and The Division was an action-heavy loot-shooter. Yet all of them had their sore spots at the particular time I tried to get into them.
So, I have to revisit the titular question of this post – is it too difficult to get into MMOs?
I think in a way, yes. The experience has to be so general and open while also trying to appeal to as many people as possible, and that is a tough balancing act. When you try to start matters too – a lot of people who tried WoW in 2005 and failed to get hooked might have it easier in 2019, or vice-versa. Patches and the forward march of change can often drastically reinvent the starting experience – nearly every major class design philosophy in WoW has changed the scope and shape of the 1-10 experience, and FFXIV’s deep job and class lore sometimes has rough edges added after the fact, like how many older job quests no longer make sense in Shadowbringers because of ability tweaking, reordering, and pruning – leaving quests referencing job abilities that might not be in-game anymore or might not be available at the level they once were.
Is it an easy problem to solve? I doubt it. If someone had an A+ fix to this, they’d be pushing it into every MMO they could by now. Instead, every MMO design team tries to iterate on what works, but with every game being its own beast, the task is a near impossibility to perfect.
But at least many of us understand that the first impression of an MMO isn’t the most important.
That’s why, for now at least, Riders of Icarus remains installed and ready to launch.
(Well, and the fact that it’s only 18 GB on a 5 TB hard drive!)