Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

21 January, 2009

Watching a new player up close and personal
Filed under: — Psychochild @ 4:39 AM

My WoW-playing friends have not been overly impressed with the expansion. So, after two of them bought the latest LotRO expansion, and one bought it as a gift for another friend, we’ve been playing that game a bit more than we’ve been playing WoW.

The twist in this story is that I got my better half, Kat, to try the game out using one of the buddy keys that came with the box I bought. Long story short: she was hooked. But, it’s given me a really interesting perspective on what a new player really experiences when playing a game.

Despite living with an online game developer for over 14 years, Kat never got into online games. I warned her away from text MUDs in college because she was already struggling with classes (but failed anyway). She never got into M59, either. I let her play with my WoW account, but that failed to capture her attention. She also played a bit on my Age of Conan account, but she seemed to enjoy the character creation more than the game itself, despite continuous complaints about how the crappy camera and lighting made it hard to really select good details for your character.

Now, keep in mind that we originally met playing D&D in college. She also has a fantasy book collection that shames our current local library, including a nice leather-bound version of The Lord of the Rings. So, it’s a bit surprising that she hasn’t gotten into a game before now.

It was interesting to see how she tackled the game. Despite having a bunch of experienced people willing and able to help her at her call, she stubbornly wanted to do things alone. Of course, when she ran into a group quest it was time for her to change tactics.

Once we started grouping she started to notice the inconsistency of how group quests are handled. In some cases, each person can pick up the same quest items. Other times, only one person can grab a quest item. In one case, there are quest where you have to run pies from one area to another; sometimes it takes a while for the pie to respawn after one person has taken it. She commented that it would be interesting to see that quest truly embrace the multiplayer aspect: instead of each person having to run a pie to the destination while avoiding characters that will end the quest, what if other people in the group could run interference?

She also interacted with the tutorial system as we fear most people do. She was quick to close the “information” boxes if she was doing something else at the time. She didn’t figure out some aspects of the game (such as using the Bard to assign your traits) until she heard us talking about it. This is one reason why I thought about last weekend’s design challenge, because she was not served by the existing system. It’s also interesting to note that she ignored the tutorial signal in WoW and never read the tutorial text there until I pointed it out, too. She did note that the WoW tutorial text tended to be brief and informative, whereas in LotRO it seems like the tutorial text is wordier and trying to be more “in character”.

It’s also been interesting to see what idioms she doesn’t understand but that the rest of us are already familiar with. Understanding that the game won’t always be consistent, for example, about how many people can pick up a quest object in a group. However, she does have some experience with RPGs and even computer RPG games, so she has some of the assumed knowledge the rest of us share. But, it has made me really take notice about how much of playing an online game we already know about from playing other games of this type. And, it’s been interesting to see the learning curve as she tries out different characters and has an easier time working up each subsequent character.

At any rate, I’m having fun playing with her in addition to the rest of my friends. She and I have characters we play with our friends, and some other characters we can play when our friends aren’t online. We’ve rolled a couple of Hobbits and done a lot of quests in the Shire. She really enjoyed most of the quests in the area, commenting about how they’re “very hobbity” and not entirely focused on just mass murder of anything in sight.

Have you ever watched a newbie play an online game over their shoulder? If so, what did you learn?


  1. I’m not sure if I’ve told this story here before, but once upon a time, I was startled to learn that my future wife, who “had played Civilization for years and loved it,” in fact ‘plays’ Civ by roaming the map looking for special resource tiles. When her settler is destroyed, the game is over. The moral I suppose, is that ‘experienced’ gamers often have prewired concepts about hurdles and goals, and how to relate to them, to the point where confrontation with an entrenched alternative can be initially dumbfounding.

    Comment by Bret — 21 January, 2009 @ 9:47 AM

  2. That’s interesting, Bret. I had a friend who played the arcade game Discs of Tron in an unusual way: instead of trying to kill the enemy opponent, he tried to destroy the discs the enemy threw at him. Because the enemy wasn’t killed, the game stayed at he initial pace and he could play the game for much longer than if he played it the “right way”.

    For online games, it was popular to talk about “alternative ladders of advancement” in the past, where you could do something besides go practice genocide on monsters and animals and still advance in the game. The problem is, of course, that the more moving parts you put into a game, the more likely something will grind against another part and break the whole thing.

    Comment by Psychochild — 21 January, 2009 @ 4:54 PM

  3. That is an interesting story! I’ve never watched a newbie play an online game over their shoulder, to answer your question, but I can relate to your wife in that I tend to not figure out certain features until it is pointed out to me. It’s great that you guys are enjoying playing together…my husband is sort of a non-gamer (although, he couldn’t put down World of Goo at my sister’s house over Christmas – literally, he played the whole time). :-)

    Comment by Elicia Basoli — 22 January, 2009 @ 2:10 PM

  4. I rarely look over the shoulders of mmorpg newbies. I have however gotten totally dependant on virgin testing the designs I work with on a daily basis. Perhaps because they generally are a lot shallower than a mmorpg, but I also believe virgin testing is the only reliable source of information that can tell you if you are on or off track as designer.

    Something interesting I have found from these kinds of tests is that a you can find ways to make the vast majority of virgin tester exhibit close to identical behaviour when they encounter a design. But you have to spend a good lot of time to understand the test results to find what makes one tester deviate from the intended path. Most mmorpg’s I have played seems to not have done much enough qualitative testing with virgin users. This, if my hunch is somewhat correct, keeps on limiting the audience of the product to match the mostly self selected group of players used for quantitative testing.

    Comment by Wolfe — 23 January, 2009 @ 8:35 AM

  5. MMORPGs have the most evil/complex UI of just about any game genre out there.

    Comment by Mike Rozak — 24 January, 2009 @ 11:04 PM

  6. True, but this is mostly because they’re also some of the most expressive games out there. The game allows you to not only engage in primary gameplay (combat), but also in socialization and in different types of secondary gameplay. We also expect these games to provide many more times the hours of gameplay of any other game out there. If the next Final Fantasy had to keep me interested for a year or more, I suspect you’d see a much more complex interface to that as well.

    Not to say we can’t get better and more streamlined, but there are reasons why the UI isn’t super-simple like some other games.

    Comment by Psychochild — 25 January, 2009 @ 1:20 AM

  7. I think you’re deceiving yourself, on two accounts:

    1) Even if the game is supposed to last a year, the UI could still be less complicated.

    2) I think the days of (most) people playing 20 hours per week for years, in the same MMO, are numbered, or maybe already gone. Players/guilds already hop from game to game. A new MMO comes out at least every other week.

    You’re seeing this in Tabula Rasa, AoC, WAR, etc. A lot of people buy, play for 2-3 months, then leave. One way to look at this phenomena is to claim that all MMOs since Warcraft have been crap. The other way is that people try, they get bored within a few months, and then go onto the next shiny thing.

    Comment by Mike Rozak — 26 January, 2009 @ 1:30 AM

  8. I’d expect two sides of the conventional complexity of mmorpg gui.

    1: UI complexity acts as a filter on the target audience where players without appropriate entry skills get more frustrated than pleased with the experience.

    2: The actual skills the game is built to teach to its users are similar as the skills measured and taught by the king of the genre (WoW).

    This leads to new mmorpg’s that follow genre conventions failing to reach a mass market audience.

    Comment by Wolfe — 26 January, 2009 @ 5:16 AM

  9. I got my husband hooked into online games when I became a beta tester for Meridian59 during the 3DO’s first beta test. Over the years we have gotten into the habit of playing games together. Currently we play a variety including LOTRO, WOW, Wizard101 and ToonTown. We play whatever we are in the mood for.

    Comment by sourpuss — 26 January, 2009 @ 9:14 AM

  10. “This leads to new mmorpg’s that follow genre conventions failing to reach a mass market audience” – Yes, which leads to the eventual extinction of MMORPGs. MMORPG UI-complexity reminds me of those hex-based war-games in the 1980′s (from Avalon Hill?) that took hours and hours for just one turn.

    Comment by Mike Rozak — 26 January, 2009 @ 3:22 PM

  11. Another look at game interfaces

    [...] My post last week about how a real newbie experiences a game spurred some interesting discussions about interfaces. Instead of posting a long comment, I figured I’d post some actual content on the blog about user interfaces. Mike Rozak kicked off the party with this comment: MMORPGs have the most evil/complex UI of just about any game genre out there. [...]

    Pingback by Psychochild’s Blog — 26 January, 2009 @ 7:43 PM

  12. Is the MMO malaise the fault of Byzantine UI or just plain poor game design (heavily derivative, strong reliance on DIKU treadmills)? I heavily suspect that it’s more of the latter than the former.

    Comment by Tesh — 28 January, 2009 @ 12:03 PM

  13. I play LOTRO, and to an outsider, the interface may seem complicated, but only because they are not playing the game. The game starts out with a very simple interface and eases you into it. The higher level you get, the more skills you get, so the more icons you’ll have in the interface. But you will completely understand it, it’s not confusing at all. And the game does have a good in-game tutorial that explains things as you go along.

    Comment by Mike — 28 January, 2009 @ 12:20 PM

  14. My experiences in Middle Earth

    [...] I’ve been playing LotRO for about six months now. I’ve been playing it mostly for fun, and I’ve had the extra fun of playing it with my better half. [...]

    Pingback by Psychochild’s Blog — 7 June, 2009 @ 3:13 AM

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