Perfect Ten: How MMOs can become more accessible
Back in the late 1990s and early 2000s, I was remarkably reluctant to enter into the field of MMORPGs despite being a perfect candidate (a gaming geek who loved fantasy and sci-fi RPGs). All of the reasons that I had at the time for stalling really could have been boiled down to a single word: accessibility.
MMOs back then looked — and probably were — very inaccessible. They had a payment barrier. They required a lot of setup and hardware. Their interfaces were cluttered and their gameplay interactions were obtuse. Frankly, I got the impression that a lot of them were a mess that was only understandable to those who had put in hundreds of hours to decipher the format.
When MMOs started to become more accessible, particularly with City of Heroes, World of Warcraft, and Guild Wars, I eagerly jumped in. Those three titles in particular made giant leaps forward in opening up these games to the first-time player. But that doesn’t mean that MMORPGs have arrived at universal accessibility just yet. Here are ten areas that studios could be improving in order to make their titles more appealing and understandable to outsiders.
1. Decent system requirements
On a recent episode of the Massively OP Podcast, I was making the case that RuneScape initially did so well because Jagex really saw the value in making the game as accessible as possible to the broadest possible audience. Part of this effort was making the game playable on pretty much any computer through a browser, which eliminated any hardware barrier.
While some MMOs try to win the beauty contests, it’s the titles that have the most reasonable system requirements that stand a chance of growing a good-sized audience. Not every gamer is updating his or her rig every year, after all. Keep it fast and zippy on most recent computers, and Aunt Penny might actually come try it out.
2. Streamline the sign up process
A pet peeve of mine in this industry is when a game makes me jump through so many hoops to be able to sign up, download, log in, and play it. Square-Enix, I am totally staring at you. This whole process should be streamlined as much as possible, perhaps down to a single “PLAY” button that will start the download, perhaps stream the opening zone, and then pave the way for registration once a player has experienced it a bit.
3. A genuinely helpful beginner experience
I sometimes suspect that because developers know their games intimately, they assume that everyone else has that level of understanding as well. It’s hard for them, in other words, to experience the game as a newbie would, and you can see this disparity emerge in some tutorial experiences.
Devs, don’t vomit numerous pop-up windows full of information that I may not be absorbing and won’t remember in an hour. Don’t hold my hand so tightly that I feel like I’m a toddler being led to day care. What you do need to create is a genuinely helpful, intuitive, and informative beginner experience that teaches players in stages what they need to know about your game. Make it fun, too. Sell them on the good points. Add some story and show off what you’re capable of doing.
4. A clean user interface
This particular point came to mind the other day when I was looking at a current version of the EverQuest interface. Maybe mods and options would help with this, but egads, it was so cluttered, ugly, and overwhelming that it made me want to run away screaming. I’m glad that the genre has started to appreciate the value of a clean, useful user interface, although some games still haven’t learned that lesson. We’re past the era of sixteen hotbars and four pixel-square debuff icons.
5. Visual and audio help for disabilities
Just because a game is accessible for you doesn’t mean it’s accessible for everyone. There are MMO players who are colorblind, partially blind, deaf, or only capable of using a single method of input. Developers need to provide options and features to cater to people with disabilities so that they can play without feeling like they’re at a disadvantage.
6. Flexible and fair business models
We can (and have) debate the best business model for MMORPGs, but it is not an aspect that studios should stop examining and improving. Gamers who would otherwise really enjoy a title might feel completely turned off if you’re shoving lockboxes in their face, hitting them with paywalls, or creating a caste system of haves and have-nots.
Make money, yes, but make sure that you’re doing it in a way that doesn’t push people away and make them resentful of the game.
7. Descriptions that aren’t couched in buzzwords or obscure acronyms
Just like how developers might forget that fans don’t have a complete knowledge of a game’s systems, devs and veterans alike tend to get so couched in the lingo of a game or the genre that it confuses those on the outside. And since you want the outside to come inside, you have to tamp down on too many weird acronyms, buzzwords that mean nothing (“living world,” “dynamic voxels,” “early access”), and otherwise exclusive language.
8. Multiple control schemes
On the whole, most MMOs are pretty good at giving us choices in how we interact with the game. On the whole. But some titles are more restrictive than others, and I definitely have rejected a few newer games because they insist that I play with a very rigid control scheme that isn’t like what I’m used to. Having titles that allow for gamepads too is a nice touch, I think.
9. Volunteer guide programs
There are few things more frustrating and humiliating than being in a game and feeling lost. I hate standing around, not getting it, and being too self-conscious to ask for help. Nobody likes to look or feel stupid, particularly in a game. And guess what happens if you’re frustrated or feeling stupid in an MMO? You’re going to leave and never return.
MMOs that have put an effort into creating groups of trained guides or opening up advice channels have my respect, because they give new players permission to ask without any consequences (real or imagined).
10. Continue player education throughout the entire game
Finally, I would plead with MMO developers that accessibility needs to continue through the ENTIRE game, not just in the first hour. So many games wind up creating a hydra (hail hydra!) of an endgame experience, with so many systems, features, and paths of progression that it makes anyone’s head swim. And just about none of these are clearly explained by the game, because there’s this assumption that if you’re a level 50, you should just know it? I guess?
We need guides at the endgame. We need education in the mid-game. We need clarity and information at our fingertips. And if you say that players can help each other through wikis and guide sites, then guess what? You’re failing at your job as a game designer. Assume responsibility for your product and educate us.