Massively Overthinking: The best newbie systems in MMORPGs


One thing I’ve realized from my time in Black Desert so far is than even for a die-hard sandbox fan, the introduction is pretty overwhelming. I can see how some folks would run screaming from all the pop-up windows and blinking guides and creepy smoke monster buddy, I really can. Games have come a long way since the days of just throwing you in and having you figure it all out on your own, but in some ways I miss the personal touch of the early MMOs that had actual people serving as your tutorial.

And that observation leads us to this week’s Massively Overthinking question, provided this time by Das Tal developer Alexander Zacherl: “I’d love to ask people about the best newbie onboarding systems they have ever seen in an MMO,” he writes. “Early MMOs had full-time newbie greeters and later ones (such as Darkfall) had one-on-one mentorships. I wonder if people had any good/bad experiences with those?”

I posed these questions to the MOP writers!

Andrew Ross (@dengarsw): I really liked Asheron’s Call and even Darkfall in terms of a newbie experience, mainly because it gave social reasons to help others out. AC provided mentors or “Patrons” experience points should they be able to convince someone to swear allegiance to them, and the easiest way to do that was to give items and advice to new players. Darkfall was similar in some ways, as it was a small community that had many who understood that driving away new players could kill the game. In addition, up and coming clans needed bodies and presence in order to expand, so training new players was a decent way to do that.

However, if someone is simply looking to jump into a game as if it were a singleplayer experience, that system is going to drive a player away. The problem, as least for me, is that most MMOs don’t get newbie experiences correct. On the one hand, most MMOs have very similar systems, and holding back content for several levels makes the grind all to obvious to genre vets. On the other hand, these “everything box” MMOs can overwhelm someone new to the genre by bombarding them with everything at once.

One of the things I wonder about is if, perhaps, its best to go with a level agnostic system, having stat increases based on easy to unlock achievement systems that clearly label how the achievement is unlocked and what is earned via the unlock. I believe this was the system I saw in Albion Online’s alpha. It serves as a good way to guide players and for them to explore their options. If needed, it could be combined with quests that add in tips from the UI or guide players around town. That would allow for players to find the content they want, jump into the game more easily, and maybe even still leave room for social mentorships for those who want advice on the “feel” of certain aspects of a game.


Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): I’m with Andrew — my mind immediately leaped to Asheron’s Call. I had fantastic experiences with Ultima Online’s counselor program, but I also saw plenty of corruption and burnout because of the way the program sort of sat on top of the game, separate from it — participation (or bragging rights) was left to be its own reward. Asheron’s Call improved on that meta program by pulling the sponsorship of newbies directly into the game and brilliantly rewarded mentors with measurable in-game leadership skills and mentees with experience boosts and a built-in social hierarchy. The monarchy system transcended the 8th grade drama of MMORPG guilds and made it really easy to hook people into a mutually beneficial support structure in a way that was so much more graceful and organic than “join my guild, make guild bigger, get perks.” It worked on so many levels — as newbie tutorial, as retention glue, as altruism incentive — that I’m constantly shocked no one’s doing much to copy it.

I will say the next best thing is player-made in the form of EVE University, another structure I wish devs would find a way to integrate without relying on the largesse of the community.

Justin Olivetti (@Sypster, blog): Generally I want an MMO to back off a bit when it first dumps me into a game to let me get my footing on my own timetable rather than being rushed by pop-up windows. Lord of the Rings Online and World of Warcraft both were pretty amenable in this regard. But to tell the truth, I can’t think of any MMO that did a great job teaching new or different systems as they came along. Lots of tutorial pop-ups and videos, sure, but nothing that stands out.

Wait, I might have to eat my words here because I do have to give WildStar credit for reworking its beginner experience to allow players to choose from one of three levels of need when starting out the game. That’s a good example for other MMOs to follow, to be sure.

Parallax has arrived.

Larry Everett (@Shaddoe, blog): I have always disliked tutorials in MMORPGs. For one, how do you encapsulate the complexity of an MMORPG in a short, even hour-long, tutorial? Secondly, they are notoriously boring.

Although I’m on a huge fan of these tutorials, I believe the ones that do it best are those that attempt to wrap you up in the story of game before really concerning the player with the mechanics of the game. Everything is done in broad strokes at first. Elder Scrolls Online is probably the best example of this. However, TERA and The Secret World have an interesting approach: essentially raising the character’s level so that the player has a goal or knowledge of where the progression is headed. But none of those is a sandbox.

In the case of sandboxes, the only game I didn’t play prior to the launch was Ultima Online. That basically means that I had to figure things out on my own before a tutorial was even introduced in nearly every sandbox MMORPG that I played. It was a lot of fun in Star Wars Galaxies to attempt to figure everything out with my friends, but we were dedicated to that game. Today, there isn’t nearly the level of dedication to a single game, so I’m not sure that cooperative learning would really work anymore, although it did work for some people in Landmark.

The simple answer for me is that I don’t know the answer. But I can tell you that tutorials with a whole bunch of pop-ups is not the answer because that only makes me more frustrated. I think I would rather just figure things out on my own.

Patron Archebius: The best newbie onboarding system I have yet seen was a player by the name of Maive of Narsh, in Guild Wars. After wandering around pre-searing for while, I had a question on something or another and asked it in general chat. I received quite a few responses (maybe it was my youthful naivety, but I still feel like that game had a great community), but Maive messaged me privately and walked me through it, answered a couple other questions I had, and then offered to party up and show me around. Maive spent a couple hours just hanging out, telling me about some systems later in the game, and showing me neat areas around Ascalon.

Many games try to create a new player experience that will get players up to speed, with varying levels of success. EVE has tried quite a few different approaches; Star Wars Galaxies added the Legacy quest to steer players through the galaxy. Black Desert has a variety of “helpful” videos that will play throughout your first few levels. If you’re an MMO who’s more focused on the solo experience and streamlined gameplay, then a well put-together introductory quest and a good wiki is probably just as good as a human tutorial.

But ultimately, if you want people to play together, your entire experience hinges on two things – keeping people from quitting immediately in frustration, and having a good community that will give them people to play with, advice to help them, and a reason to stick around.

So, in my opinion? The best newbie onboarding system is a game that encourages community at all levels, rewards teaming up across levels, and actively works to foster and support player relationships. It’s players who actually care about the health of the game and the quality of the experience. Wikis will go out of date, greeters and mentors might quit or get laid off, but ultimately, we, as players, are the best onboarding experience a company can hope for.

Your turn!

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