Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

2 March, 2008

Weekend Design Challenge: Training the newbies
Filed under: — Psychochild @ 1:41 AM

This weekend’s challenge comes from Bobby Thurman. He writes:

Problem: How to do you teach a friendless and newbie player about MMOs without overwhelming them?

I thought this was an interesting question, so I’m presenting it to you guys. More thoughts after the jump.

Bobby also wrote:

MMOs lose more players in the first 30 minutes than any other time. You have a lot of players that have never played an MMO trying to catch on to your game. These newbies are the creme of the crop for MMOs because people keep a special place in their heart for their “First MMO”.

Here’s a list of things a new player has to learn:
* Fighting
* Getting Quests from Quest Givers
* Finding the Quest Objectives
* Using the Mapping System
* Using your economy (inventory, vendors, etc…)

So, what do you think? How can you introduce the newbie to your game? How can you keep them past those critical first 30 minutes? What else do players have to learn besides what Bobby listed above?

This is a good exercise because it forces you to think like a new player. It’s amazing how much knowledge we automatically assume in our players. However, many players aren’t old pros at playing these games. As Bobby points out, the truly clueless ones are the ones to be prized, since it will be your game that will be their fondest memories. That is, before they turn on you viciously and decide to hate you forever and ever.

I’ll post some more of my thoughts if I get time later this week.


  1. I think we need to start even before that. Most MMO’s require some kind of sign up/account creation prior to even being able to play, I’ve seen friends and family get frustrated at this point and give up.

    Why does the account need to be created prior to the game starting? Wouldn’t it be easier for the player to start the game enter the game world (on a temporary account that is more or less hidden from them) and then go through and easy interactive process for creating their account? One that gently leads the player through collecting the relevant data. Couldn’t it start with default information taken from the users system to minimise data entry?

    The next step is generally avatar creation, once again many assumptions about the player are made here, that they know what each of the class types are or what kind of game play they can expect for each choice they make. Personally I liked the Oblivion approach, you designed how your character looked and then the gameplay of the initial stage made as stab at determining your gameplay style and from that a character type was suggested, but you’d need to give an option to allow more experienced players to skip this step and just create their character and jump in.

    Once the player starts playing I like the idea of a companion that takes you through the steps of playing the game, a computer controlled mentor that explains in a patient and easy to understand fashion every aspect of gameplay and who becomes almost your first team mate in the game.

    There is an example of some voice interface user testing I remember reading where an older user testing a phone based voice user interface couldn’t get anything to work, couldn’t set up an account and couldn’t complete any of the tests. Upon completion the testers expected the user to hate the system and feel frustrated, instead the user indicated that they really liked the system and the reason they gave was that it was the most patient and friendly person they’d had to speak to on the phone for a long time.

    A patient AI mentor who can gage the level of player experience and advise/help as needed or just step back and let the player go if that is what they prefer would certainly add a significant amount of effort to the development but I think it would be worthwhile as this avatar would effectively be a substitution for the person who helps out the newbie when they first start. Of course you’d want to make sure that the design is not based off of the MS Office paperclip avatar ;)

    Comment by TickledBlue — 2 March, 2008 @ 1:22 PM

  2. You sign them up for WoW. Seriously.

    Their newbie experience is the best I have seen in any of the MMOs I’ve played. You start out in a tiny area thats only a subset of the “newbie zone” proper. There’s a questgiver directly in front of you with a giant exclamation mark over his head. There’s on-screen tutorial bubbles and stuff. Your first quest is to kill 10 foozles, which usually gives you your first level-up. Your second quest directs you to the trainer for your class, where you can learn another ability or spell to go with the ~2 that you started with.

    Within an hour of play, you’ll have gained a couple of levels, found your way out of the starting area into the rest of the newbie zone, discovered the general chat channel, learned how to sell things to a vendor, done half a dozen quests and gotten to choose a couple pieces of equipment as rewards. Depending on your progress, you may have grouped with other players already to do a quest around level 4 or 5.

    WoW does a very good job of coaxing new players into the game. I think that was one of several factors in them growing the MMO market and capturing so many first-time players. Having a spouse or friends encouraging you to try the game is a factor that can only go so far. Once you get in there, it has to be fun, non-threatening, and give you plenty of encouragement and guidance early on. Your first few hours of WoW provide lots and lots of this.

    Comment by moo — 2 March, 2008 @ 5:40 PM

  3. Few problems with the system above…

    1. Players don’t want you taking ANYTHING off of their system.
    2. You can’t get their credit card/money info from them up front if they “play” first and decide they don’t like it later. The whole point of investing in an avatar is to associate with the self.
    3. FAR too many games associate a biote with the avatar so that you can’t actually DO anything until you have an avatar. How do you play?

    For reasons beyond my comprehension to this day – 10 years now these games have been around – the first 10 levels are still the least important to design.

    I just don’t get it. If the least competent computer user can’t at least figure out how to enter their name and move, then you’ve failed in your tutorial. (You can always have an “advanced users tutorial”.)

    Comment by Ophelea — 2 March, 2008 @ 5:43 PM

  4. Hi Ophelea,

    I don’t really think it’s a matter of these players not being able to figure out the basics. They’re not stupid. In time, they could figure out the game basics, but instead they become impatient and leave.

    For Secondhand Lands, I’m trying to do most of the described techniques.

    * I have a fairy helper that answers player questions.
    * The fairy helper snoops the player actions and offers suggestions.
    * Also, when the player gets low on health, the Fairy helper butts in and heals the player.
    * I also have a world map with the quest objectives.
    * I have a quest journal with all the active quests.
    * I’m using once click actions like WoW too.

    Despite all of this, I’m still getting a few players not groking the initial game experience. While it’s fun to be disdainful or dismissive of these newbies, I can’t help but wonder what else could be done to retain them during the first 30 minutes.

    Tickled Blue has a great point. I’m worried that my Fairy Helper will annoy the player like the Microsoft paperclip. I despise that paperclip!

    People often can bridge that first 30 minutes of gameplay when they have a friend or buddy helping them, but games often have problems bridging that gap by themselves. That’s my problem.

    Comment by Bobby Thurman — 2 March, 2008 @ 6:23 PM

  5. Bobby,

    You’re making assumptions:

    1. The player knows how to use a world map and figure out quest objectives.
    2. They’ve seen a quest journal (my first 5 MMOs never had one – I used paper and still find this MORE intuitive than the idea of an in-game journal)
    3. That a fairy helper IS intuitive.

    Watch a child play games…they run around and click EVERYTHING. They hit EVERY button. Make those actions do something and you’ll start to develop an interactive tutorial.

    Comment by Ophelea — 3 March, 2008 @ 11:33 AM

  6. We’re on the same page here. This whole thing started because I did watch a 10 year old child with all of these ease of use features. She looked completely stupidified and got bored.

    I don’t want to dumb down my game to the level of Webkinz. However, I do think I’m missing something here.

    Comment by Bobby Thurman — 3 March, 2008 @ 11:43 AM

  7. A Tale in the Desert’s newbie islands might also be instructive. The UI has an interesting way of morphing around you, because it grows only when you demonstrate that you understand what’s already there. Also, the game itself rewards friendly people coming around to help newbies. Literally, each newbie who buys a paid account gets a leadership token, which they may give to the person who they feel best helped them acclimate to the game (or, to be fair, to any person at all). Those tokens are very valuable (they trade for unique and exclusive powers), so as you can imagine, old players fall all over each other competing for them, and the newbies feel popular right away.

    Comment by Bret — 3 March, 2008 @ 7:22 PM

  8. This may be a bit ‘old school’ but why don’t we see more things done like the original EverQuest did in having a ‘turtorial’ mode where it is basically a very short ‘offline’ game. Explain to them all the features (well not all) but the features of character customization, explain the classes to them even if they choose a fighter in the turtorial, explain to them what a Wizards, Priest, and Rogues do for the very limited WoW minded or all your gazillion other classes for the other games.

    If they decide to play, they can take this level 5 or 10 player into the ‘game proper’ and start the adventure with others.

    As was said before, it has to be fun if your going to keep the players (newbies) around. If your game is not fun then don’t worry about poslish on your newbie yards. I think a lot of us MMO veterans are also looking for something fun. There has been zero to little innovation in the ‘fun factor’. The games are the same old spam (skill / ability / spell) that was introduced with EverQuest and made worse by WoW and EQII (and all the others).

    Fun is greater than all when it comes to making your game worth while to play. I don’t care if your designing for the ‘newbie’ MMO player or a seasoned veteran. Don’t worry about how to keep the newbie players unless you rehashing the broken systems we have dominating the MMO space. Make it fun, fun, fun, and different.

    Comment by Boon — 5 March, 2008 @ 9:16 AM

  9. Hi Ophelea,

    I disagree about players not wanting you to take anything off their system, in user testing I’ve seen much more positive reaction to default information being in forms than them being blank – not only does this give an example of the expected information if they do want to change it but it allows them to speed up the sign up process, you don’t use anything sensitive. Mind you this was for web forms for signing up to a website and not a game. But I think part of our problem is designing for the existing PC gamers and not those who have gone out and bought a Wii as their first gaming experience. Those that are of a more private nature were happy to change the default details prior to submitting, but the majority accepted the default added the other data that was needed and moved on – afterwards they expressed a preference for this method. This is the same in theme as the current crop of consoles that have you create a gamer tag once and then use it for all games. Maybe for the more experienced gamers we could use something like OpenID to streamline the registration process.

    The idea I suggested was to have an in game gentle sign up process, prior to even seeing and constructing your avatar, so you’d still get their credit card prior to play. The current common method has a link/button to a web form that is where I have seen others lose interest. Having an in game version (perhaps even during installation – I saw Hellgate London make a botch job of this, but it doesn’t mean it can’t be done right) to sign up with clear explanations and maybe even staggered over several screens using an interactive method similar to Pokemon that has it as part of a conversation with an NPC.

    Then the avatar construction would be done as a visual task without necessarily assigning powers/stats just how they look (I’d even try to avoid assigning them to a faction or side at this point). One of the frustration I’ve heard from newbie players is that they start a character then get a few levels into the game and realise this is not what they want to be playing, then they have to go back and start again. I know quite a few people who never get a character beyond 10th level (yes even in WOW) because they get to the 2nd or third character that they don’t like and just give up. This still allow the player to still ‘bond’ with their avatar but give them leeway to experience the game prior to setting in stone their character type, and as I mentioned in my first post you’d need to provide an experts experience where they could skip this and go straight to type choice and get going on the game without any hand holding.

    Comment by TickledBlue — 5 March, 2008 @ 1:54 PM

  10. Hi TickledBlue,

    You make a great point about games where you must make decisions early on that’ll affect you until the bitter end. (or sooner if you decided to delete the character)

    Comment by Bobby Thurman — 6 March, 2008 @ 9:39 AM

  11. You have to assume when your player enters your game that they know nothing. They don’t know your lore, they don’t know your classes, they don’t know your races, they don’t know your control scheme. Providing a mechanism that explains every single thing is very important.

    Also, providing a way to skip that for players who either a) are creating an alt or b) are mmo veterans and the type of player who prefers to dive in and figure it out as they go is key.

    Most tutorials don’t go far enough for teaching. They still make assumptions about what you know and don’t. If a player can click on everything, then you need something to display in their face telling them about what they are clicking on and why they might want to keep doing so (or not do so).

    Invariably players will also go places you don’t expect. You need to attempt to plan for that. For example, if the path branches and the tutorial told them to go left, they might go right. Most tutorials can’t or don’t anticipate this. And so the player is left in a situation without guidance because they didn’t do what the designer expected. And then they get lost, possibly die, and can’t find their way back to where they had been. Frustrated, annoyed, and confused, they likely quit.

    At the same time, you must make sure that the tutorial is engaging and fun and that the player feels that they are making enough progress to keep playing.

    One final thing, and I want to clarify that I am not attacking anybody here. But I did want to address the statement by “moo” that WoW had the best tutorial area.

    I would beg to differ. It was in fact a very poor tutorial area. There were lots of assumptions made about what you know and don’t. How does a player know that they are supposed to click on those NPCs with the exclamation point? There’s nothing that describes the UI to the player. Nothing that talks of the mechanics of how the game works. Or why you want to do X or Y. What good is the loot you find? Nothing tells you what to do with it. How do you manipulate your character window and drag new abilities to your toolbars? How do you split and combine stacks? And so on. There are lots of things that players need to do that WoW didn’t and in fact most games don’t. And this is why their new player retention is so low.

    Comment by Jason Murdick — 7 March, 2008 @ 8:44 AM

  12. To tell you the truth I think easier isn’t always better. For instance, making the first 30 minutes of the game as smooth as possible, where interface is as understandable easy to use and free from hassle, where the skills are straight-forward and easy to use, the quests are handed to you and the objective is right infront of your nose will leave the player with NO CHALLENGE.

    It doesn’t stimulate his mind or curiosity, there is no challenge, no inquisitive research being done.
    What I enjoy about new MMOs is perhaps just that, the first few hours. My first 30mins are probably taken up by reading about the different races, and classes. Then coming to a decision which one I will play. Once that’s done and I’m actually in the game I take a look at the UI myself. I go through all the options, the inventory screen, character screen, read all the skills I have and what they do. Once that’s done I pay attention to actually playing the game. Look for quests and so on.

    Taking a player’s hand and walking him/her through the entire game just makes for a bland game.

    My 2 cents.

    Comment by Roeland 'SandRock' Schoppers — 9 March, 2008 @ 4:04 AM

  13. Weekend Design Challenge: New player experience…

    One of the most vital aspects of online games is the new player experience. It becomes even trickier when you consider a person who has never played online games before.
    This week, let’s consider the new player experience in an online game.

    Trackback by Psychochild's Blog — 19 January, 2009 @ 4:19 PM

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