My months-in-the-works post on how the starting experiences of MMOs are often a deterrent to new players prompted a lot of great discussion, but in particular, I wanted to zero in on two points that came out in discussions in the comments of that post with Asmiroth.
I do this for a couple of reasons – one, long comments can be hard to follow and obscure points made, and I think there’s a lot more to say than what fits neatly into a comment!
With that said, this post assumes that you read that full starting experiences post, so if you have not, I’d suggest doing so since it provides some context before continuing, but I’m also not your dad (and if I am, that prompts more questions!) and this should reasonably stand on its own as is!
In that aforementioned post, one of the things that I really focused on was the idea that leveling is, in effect if not intent, practice for your chosen class and role at the endgame. In writing it, I left it as an implicit assumption that A. that learning is a real thing that absolutely happens during leveling and B. that implied and assumed learning has value to players at the endgame of all MMOs.
For this first addendum, I want to kind of tackle that, because in truth, we all know that this is not inherently true. To focus on my prime example, I will talk primarily about WoW here, and then we’ll fold in some other games as the post moves on.
The ideal as stated by Blizzard when they revamped the leveling process and introduced whole-game world scaling in patch 7.3.5 is that leveling should be balanced such that combat takes longer than 2-3 GCDs and allows players to gain exposure and understanding of their rotations through applied learning and usage in the leveling process. They sort of got there, in that combat does take longer and players are more likely to be able to try at least a majority of their rotational abilities during open world leveling content, however, the question I am concerned with here is if that process adds value.
In WoW, my argument is that it doesn’t, for a few reasons. Firstly, leveling no longer has any sort of teaching mechanics that used to be served by class quests or trainers introducing you to new spells by forcing their purchase. You are simply given abilities without an explainer of what they are useful for short of the standard tooltip, and that often creates a lack of information about how the rotation works. Granted, Blizzard’s assumed rotation for many classes may not hold after community theorycrafting or with certain talent choices, gear levels, and the like – but the game doesn’t help players that are new to the genre build an understanding of rotations. In some ways, Blizzard has tried to remedy this by using hard walls in the rotation and gameplay of WoW – cooldowns on abilities, requirements for procs that mandate the use of builder abilities, or resources built on the build/spend model. Even in cases with choices, it can often be hard to make a wrong one – rogues have multiple combo point finishers, but they carry cooldowns or offer lower penalties for wrong usage – you can hit Slice and Dice repeatedly, and you lose potential DPS that way, but it doesn’t completely kill your flow.
However, the larger point I find is that Blizzard makes drastic changes from expansion to expansion, leading to any such learning being invalidated in the first place. My priest, my original main character, had a talent system that no longer exists in retail, racial-specific priest spells that no longer exist and were of little use at the time (thanks, Night Elves!), and even core spells at that time no longer exist with the drastic changes made starting in Cataclysm to move to a 3-heal foundation and then additional abilities that build on that foundation. I had to gear Spirit and Mana per 5 seconds, stats which no longer exist, and the gameplay of early raids was built on dispels with no cooldowns, which has not been the case for nearly a decade. Now, it might be cherry-picking in a way to talk about a character I leveled in Vanilla and still have today, but even the leveling done subsequently in future expansions has often been invalidated even just an expansion later. Inner Fire changed forms drastically, and then was made into a choice system in Cataclysm with Inner Will, which were then removed in Warlords of Draenor. In Mists of Pandaria, I took the whole expansion to get a good grasp on the use of Void Shift, only for it to be gone the next expansion.
Now, from a new player perspective, this is worse. If I am learning how to play any class right now, that knowledge is only going to get me as far as the 9.0 pre-patch, so anything I learn today as a newbie is only good until around October.
FFXIV is not altogether immune to this either. While the game has had far fewer shifts in gameplay for each job, some have been reworked in ways that invalidate the job quests – Machinist famously most recently required reworks to leveling because their early job quests were fundamentally broken by job changes made. FFXIV’s gameplay lends itself better to teaching rotations thanks to its combo system – which takes the guesswork out of a basic level of play – but it also doesn’t do particularly well at teaching you things like weaving in off-global cooldown spells, advanced management of buff windows in raids, and the community often discovers mind-numbingly complicated openers and rotations that involve 30-hotkey image macros showing you the full flow of the first minute of combat including when to use consumable buff items, even for healers and tanks!
FFXIV’s core leveling experience is better in this regard, in that a player who levels their first job through the game will get a good sense of how to play that job correctly and at a reasonable level of skill. However, the game also has a huge disadvantage in that any subsequent job you level will not offer the same degree of learning. You do get the job quests, which are pretty reasonably built to teach, but the game’s built-in armory bonus then allows you to speed through those levels in-between. You get a lot of combat leveling alternate jobs because it ends up being the only way short of sidequests, but the faster pacing can make the feeling out process less effective.
In both games, there is some difficulty in learning about non-DPS roles as well. Healer leveling remains a challenge, because it is vastly more subjective in how to approach different situations compared to a DPS. For tanks, this is much the same – they have a responsibility to maintain DPS as a contribution to their groups, but then also have to learn how to weave in defensive abilities. WoW deals with this in modern times in a interesting way – for most lower level content, tanks can simply not press their defensive buttons in a lot of scenarios and get away with it with a halfway-awake healer. This changes drastically later on, and the end result is that you can learn some awful habits early on because there is no penalty for the bad habit until it is ingrained. FFXIV allows tanks to get away with a similar degree of lackluster gameplay but amplifies the problem because it allows this to happen for longer thanks to some clutch healing abilities from healers and also hides some of the best defensives under Role Actions, meaning you need to be taught to go there and pull those abilities down, which the game doesn’t teach as well. Even once you do, some of the abilities aren’t clear in how well they work. Arm’s Length is a tank Role Action that applies a slow effect to enemies who hit you. This doesn’t innately sound defensive, especially coming from WoW, but since slow works on almost any enemy in the game and slows attack and casting speeds, it is actually an incredibly potent AoE damage reduction – and I see tanks every time I heal that still don’t know it works that way!
All of these things then lead to an obvious follow-up question – if leveling doesn’t teach, and feels slow and meaningless to some players or like an obstacle, then why is it there?
Well, that is going to be the topic of addendum 2, so I’ll see you there for that one!