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.

Notably after!

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.

Everyone likes a good list, and we are no different! Perfect Ten takes an MMO topic and divvies it up into 10 delicious, entertaining, and often informative segments for your snacking pleasure. Got a good idea for a list? Email us at justin@massivelyop.com or eliot@massivelyop.com with the subject line “Perfect Ten.”
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Daedalus Machina

1 – Regarding system requirements, I wish that devs finally abandon DX9 (since WinXP is obsolete in every way and no longer the dominant OS outside of maybe China) for good. It is the single-biggest ‘deal-breaker’ for many MMOs I’d otherwise be interested in. Have a 64-bit build and DX11 (or OpenGL/Vulkan) build ready to go at LAUNCH or don’t bother. CPU-bound MMOs by far are the worst offenders and really need to step up their game when it comes to optimization.

2 – Frakking Square-Enix MMOs. Their sheer arrogance and hoop-jumping to play FF14 Online makes me never want to bother with it. I actually wanted to try the trial but the launcher kept throwing up ‘update errors’ and nothing seemed to help. Uninstalled and moved on…what a damn waste of time.

3 – MMO devs by and large absolutely fail at tutorials. Every single time. To this day, WildStar is still the best one when it comes to tutorials for beginner players new to the genre. I feel that WoW also gets an honorable mention by virtue of doing it right way back in 2004.

4 – Every East-Asian MMO ever completely fails at a good UI. It is as if there is not a single person working on making MMOs who has ever created a good UI in their entire life despite having an entire region bursting at the seams with artists. Most of them (Blade & Soul, Black Desert) ended up just copying what Guild Wars 2 and ESO have done, almost to a fault. As in borderline-plagiarism of icons and aesthetic type of fault. Praise be to Guild Wars 2 and ESO for having really great interfaces! :)

5 – Disability support should be government-mandated in the USA under the Americans with Disabilities Act. It is disgraceful and inexcusable that this is not already mandatory under law. Every East-Asian dev ever just acts completely surprised when people ask for disability accomodations like colorblind and FOV options. Of course the devs outside of Asia don’t do much better.

6 – Fair business models will not proliferate unless the payers of scummy MMOs decide to close their wallets and walk away. This won’t happen as long as there are people who delight in schadenfreude even if it costs an arm, leg, and kidney.

7 – This is a community problem. We need to be more welcoming and helpful to new players and not use the term ‘noob’ at all. The term is either ‘newbie’ (new player) or ‘asshole’ (toxic trash). The whole ‘noob’ thing to refer to new players has always been both reductive and exclusionary. Kindly GTFO with that ppl. SRSLY PLZ STAHP. >_>

8 – I support more games having built-in gamepad support and a controller-based UI. I’d also love for improvements to the controller UI for cross-platform games like TERA to be ported back over to the PC build as an option. Also, WarFrame is another big offender for something like that. The PC build of the controller UI is an absolute mess. What a shame.
Any games that demand a fixed control scheme (SkyForge being a notable non-EastAsian game to do this) are a no-go for me.

9 – I’d rather have paid guides instead of volunteers. The volunteer system is rife with abuse and favoritism that is a disgrace to the gaming medium. Pay them as employees and demand they follow the same rules.

10 – This is kinda a repeat of the ‘tutorial’ thing but it seems devs once again target a niche audience instead of trying to help players learn the actual game.

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kgptzac

It’s kinda funny that I feel if every MMO makers out there follow these advices to the letter, then most of the MOP readers, myself included, will be stop playing these games because they will be generic, bland, and plain boring.

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ghostlight

Thank you Justin, I enjoyed the read. A couple of comments:

Sign up process – The one that really stood out for me in the negative was the old Secret World via Steam. As I recall there were about three or four verification hoops I had to jump through before playing it. Yeah, it’s like do you want me to play your dratted game or don’t you???

Beginner Experience – Really like the Star Trek Online tutorials since Cryptic revamped them a few years ago. They are fun and don’t throw too much information at you too quickly. I recall thinking when doing the KDF tutorial how very true to classic Klingon lore it was, and I loved the pastoral ‘calm before the storm’ beginning of the Romulan tutorial.

Good and bad with Guild Wars 2 – The good news is yes, they have a very good volunteer guide system, in fact the only mmo I’ve seen this in. The bad news is when you said ‘haves and have nots’, the GW2 griffon mount was the first thing that came to mind. As I think I said before, for all the things I like about GW2, it is indeed very much a ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ mmo.

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Dread Quixadhal

A game doesn’t need a “tutorial”, what it needs to do is provide the players with basic tools to figure it out on their own.

Back in the early 90’s I played (and helped run/build) text MUDs, which were the ancestor of the MMOs we play today. In later years, many of them started adding the dreaded “mud school” zones, where new players were forced to slog through boring and uninspired “tutorial” content before they could play the actual game.

We found that for every player who actually played the “school” zone, 5 more would just click through as fast as they could to get past it, and another 5 more would just quit and never come back. Nobody likes to have their time wasted, and nobody plays a game to be bored.

Instead, our game (being older) simply put everyone in the same starting village, with very basic gear, an NPC nearby that shouted out suggestions from time to time, and let them figure it out.

I’m sure some players got frustrated and left when they couldn’t figure out what to do, but those that stayed learned the game from the start to the finish, and were better players for it.

If an MMO wants customers to stick around, there needs to be a hook, and there needs to be solid investment in it. I’m starting to see a resurgence in subscription based games, as many developers are realizing that what happens when the market is filled with “free to play”games is that people who wouldn’t pay a subscription ALSO won’t dump much into microtransactions, and that without a subscription there’s less sticking power.

Likewise, if a game makes you spend an hour in a boring tutorial, many players will just quit and never come back, because they didn’t pay money for it and there are hundreds of other ones to try out there.

So, no… the don’t need to be more accessible. They need to be better! Better writing, more interesting story, simple interface but in-depth systems. Make the players WANT to play, and they’ll take the time to learn it.

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Tithian

Do we really need tutorials in MMOs? For the most part you start off with one attack and maybe 1 extra ability, and you mostly autoattack things to death for the first few levels. I know people that started playing WoW in 2004 while completely clueless about gaming in general, and they still made it to endgame. And if you ask them, the things they remember the most are the moments thing ‘clicked’ and they figured mechanics by themselves. The game pretty much pointed you to a quest giver at the start, and then left you to your own devices, which made the whole experience immersive.

I don’t know, call me oldfashioned, but I hate MMO tutorials, with a passion. The moment I step into an instanced one (as they usually are), I am immediately reminded that this is not a ‘virtual world’, or a true ‘massive’ experience, but rather yet another run-of-the-mill ‘MMO’.

And frankly, if someone gets overwhelmed at the start and quits, that’s fine. More than fine actually. Not all games have to cater to everyone with a pulse.

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GamingSF

Allow players to play with their friends as soon as possible. These are supposed to be social games. My early memories of WoW were tinged with the frustration that my friends were all at level 60, while I and my husband slogged through the game to catchup. We enjoyed the levelling, but a simple level-sync system or mentor system would have made all the difference. Other games of a similar age had this, it’s not rocket-science. Every MMO should have options now for players to “just play together” no artificial barriers. It’s especially aggravating to have a story go forced-solo every so often in a MMO, I consider this to be a major design-failure in a MMORPG when I encounter it (Funcom…)!

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8. Multiple control schemes

This is probably the one that has frustrated me the most (the business model probably would be #2). There have been several MMOs that I’ve enjoyed, but ended up dropping early because many of the advanced skills were hard-coded to specific key combinations and couldn’t be remapped (or some skills I could put on a skill bar while other skills could only be invoked via the pre-defined key combination). I’m big on remapping the skills to suit my play style and not having to learn 100 new key combinations every time I switch games, so games that are unwilling to adapt to my play style are a no-go for me.

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Carebear

Wow guys? Sign up? Really? Dont you have the patience to spend 10-20 min to sign up(i still dont know a mmo than need that much time but lets pretend there is one…)…

Thats why mmos are in decline? Players are so stressed to done with everything as fast as possible! Sign up quickly! Run the dungeon quickly! Go go go go! Oh shit!!! I have to travel to the other side of the zone?thats a money grab!they want me to buy speed or to miserably lose 5 min to travel!

I hope you dont bring the same mentality to sex too :)

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imayb1

2. Sign-Ups. If you want me as a customer for game T, I don’t want to spend half an hour setting up an account with the parent company, installing their all-inclusive, proprietary 25-game launcher, then setting up a separate game account. I expect some downloading for the game and probably some patching, but I will NOT spend all day just to sign-in.

4. (Clean UI) and 8. (Control schemes) I see as highly subjective and therefore it is necessary these items offer customization options.

7. I have to disagree about buzzwords and acronyms. Every profession has its own lingo; would you sell MMOs short and let them fall into unprofessional plebian obscurity? Buzzwords are also needed to show that MMOs are capable of change! We can’t say “server merges” anymore without a bad connotation of dwindling player base, so a new buzzword like “shard renewals” will make all the difference and may confuse anyone not in the know, or tempt them into joining the game to figure out what is renewed about it. Words are important!

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Schmidt.Capela

Words are important!

Yep.

My issue with buzzwords is that they are often misused. When properly used, though, I’m all for them.

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harbinger_kyleran

Not often I disagree with so many points in one article. Keeping it brief, I’d like developers to return to the days where you needed a decent PC to play a MMORPG, and I like 40 damn buttons.

I could go on but whats the use, definitely am at the opposite end of the spectrum and others here have brought up several good counters.