Vague Patch Notes: Why live MMOs struggle to onboard new players

    
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Bored, huh?

There are, at the time I write this, two basic approaches for getting new players up to speed in existing MMOs. Both of them are terrible for different reasons, both have passionate fans who are usually already vigorous fans of the games using one method or the other, and neither one even remotely actually succeeds at its nominal goal. Hooray for MMOs.

The first approach is typified and highlighted well by World of Warcraft, which allows players to get right up to speed to the newest expansion by making everything prior to the current game completely superfluous. You buy the expansion and you get a big level boost, and that boost lets you bypass all of the leveling that would otherwise be needed after a brief tutorial on your character skills. It’s a terrible system for genuinely new players.

The second approach is typified and highlighted by Final Fantasy XIV, which treats the new expansion as the latest installment of an ongoing process. If you buy the complete set of the game and the latest expansion, you won’t have to worry about buying the expansion later… but it’ll still require you first to level through and clear two other expansions, move through the story, and so forth. It’s also a terrible system, especially if the goal is to get new players to buy Shadowbringers today when they won’t actually be playing it for a long while even if they book it through the base game.

Those of you with a love of varied media might recognize that this is the same problem that television, comic books, and any other form of long-running media has long dealt with. To use comics as an example, it’s a challenge for someone new to a series to start reading midway through a book’s run. It’s hard enough if, say, your comic is doing self-contained stories every month with background continuity nods; it becomes nigh-on impossible to manage things if your book is running on a long-form story. At this point, you cannot pick up a random issue of Saga and expect to walk away feeling anything other than confused.

Of course, Saga has the advantage of numerous trade paperbacks to get you caught up, so you don’t have to go hunting for individual issues and hope to figure out things from context. But it still runs into that same issue wherein the series naturally has a certain drop-off. People who don’t like the fourth trade volume might not pick up the fifth, and people who didn’t like the first one but would like the fourth are already gone by that point. You face a struggle to get people on board.

And that’s with a comic that’s been running since 2012. Superhero comics running in more or less the same continuity since even as recently as the ’90s are going to have a different issue, one usually dealt with via continuity reboots and resets in the hopes of creating new spots for new readers to jump on board… which creates a different issue, since the creation of these jumping-on points are also a signal that existing readers stuck on more due to momentum than anything can now jump off.

Get in, losers.

Therein lies the core issue with what I am (rather unfairly, as plenty of other MMOs do this too) calling the WoW approach. By creating a setup which holds each current expansion as the only part that matters, the developers have told players that they aren’t really expanding the game most of the time. You don’t actually need to pay attention to the last four expansions if you don’t want to. It’s a trick that’s worked well for the MCU, but even there it’s a tricky needle to thread that winds up with some movies basically being ignored and quietly shoved into irrelevance.

By contrast, the (equally unfairly named, as again, it’s far from alone) FFXIV approach ensures that each expansion feels like an expansion of the base game… while also locking out new players. Heck, it even locks out players who played through the last expansion launch and now want to just jump right in and start the new expansion. The patches and the stories therein are necessary exploration for anyone who wants to get into the game.

And yes, that’s hostile to someone getting into the game fresh. There are going to be people who really want to experience the story of Shadowbringers straight off, and while fans are going to be quick to point out that the story kind of needs the background you get from the base game and the two expansions, there’s no jumping-on point.

It’s the balance between episodic storytelling and continual storytelling. If I had started watching Star Trek: The Next Generation in its first season, I would have been bored to death. I was young and wound up catching The Best of Both Worlds, Part 1, widely considered to be one of the best two-part episodes in the series history and well after the point that the show was considered to have found its voice. The episodic structure meant that I could get into it there without having to be bored for two seasons first.

Of course, now that I’m older and can actually watch these things back to back, I find myself preferring Deep Space Nine more with each passing year, from its multi-layered character arcs to its ongoing stories to its overall progression. But if I had just randomly caught something from mid-season two, would it have captured me in the same way? The third-season “cliffhanger” certainly wouldn’t have grabbed me unless, you know, I was already invested in the characters and the story.

Sometimes you know there's an ongoing story.

In other words, both of these approaches are locking someone out. The real choice is whom you lock out and why. And both of these games follow a more extreme version of this same core concept; Final Fantasy XI, for example, has the main story of each expansion locked behind a certain amount of expected progression, yet it also gives you access to new zones and jobs and so forth even before you get up there.

So which one is right? Neither one. And both of them. And it depends a lot on what the studio intends to do.

If I ultimately have to make a choice between the two design styles, I’m generally going to come down on the side of expansions that feel like expansions, rather than episodes that set progress back to zero. While giving new players a place to jump on is a good thing, having it come at the expense of the game people are actually playing ultimately leaves the whole experience feeling just a touch shallow, as if it’s really a sequel episode with only tangential consideration.

At the same time, this is one of those cases where the fact that it’s a problem doesn’t indicate that there’s a solution. Sometimes things just are problems, and you have to choose on a design level which bad solution is the best for your game. You’re not going to be able to have both. You can’t have both constant jumping-on points and a continual sense of expansion and improvement.

I know which one I would pick, but that doesn’t make it the good solution. It’s just the bad solution that I find more satisfying in the long run.

Sometimes you know exactly what’s going on with the MMO genre, and sometimes all you have are Vague Patch Notes informing you that something, somewhere, has probably been changed. Senior Reporter Eliot Lefebvre enjoys analyzing these sorts of notes and also vague elements of the genre as a whole. The potency of this analysis may be adjusted under certain circumstances.

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Jeromai _

And GW2 cleverly utilized -both- the solutions mentioned in the article, offering new players a max level boost to skip practically all the systems learning aspect, running them headlong into hostile mobs and players with the new content, while making them play (and pay) catch up with the story, which involves tracing convoluted threads through a troubled timeline of iterated storytelling experiments.

On the bright side, this is apparently what new players used to WoW and FF14 systems expect. ;)

I suppose another reverse of this would be having the systems progress linearly based on the player’s entry into the game, but the stories themselves broken up into non-linear contained aspects. Oddly enough, this also sounds like GW2’s open world, as well as any other MMO’s traditional questing systems, so perhaps it’s the scale we are looking at.

Other alternatives have been mentioned in the comments, self contained story episode/campaigns, periodic game resets, non-static always developing persistent world, etc. A Tale in the Desert utilizes the latter two, for example, letting new players onboard at the start of each Telling and the story like an ever flowing river, never the same every time you step into it. It has its own problem tradeoffs too, losing players once they feel they’ve done it all already and don’t want to restart and repeat the next cycle.

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Anton Mochalin

Accent on storytelling is totally distracting here. MMO can have no story (Albion) but still require some progression like level or gear to do particular things. That could be just straight locking you out of things till you have a proper item/level or more like getting killed in 10 seconds by enemies in higher level zone. And if we view it like that those differences of systems providing access to other systems and building upon other systems is the meat of both gameplay and story. We meet some NPC on some stage in the story and then he becomes our quest hub or our gear vendor etc – it’s quite similar to meeting that NPC as a way to unlock the next chapter in the story.

If we want a game to be played in different ways (and that’s what most MMOs strive for) we could want to make some parts of the game skippable. I think MMOs is the type of games that needs to make skippable as many of a game’s parts (story, crafting, questing, anything) as possible. The art of creating an MMO is to make the parts you don’t skip working well – and working together well – regardless of what you choose to skip. In a perfect MMO anything you do makes a lot of sense and a lot of difference while being completely optional.

smuggler-in-a-yt
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smuggler-in-a-yt

Really appreciate the deconstruction, this is good analysis and very observant.

I wonder, and I didn’t see it really discussed, but why do we continue to link story and system? Onboarding in an MMO is 2x as hard as any paperback or graphic book because you’re not just expecting a level of storytelling consumption, you’re also expecting a level of process consumption.

If you could split those apart, you could then at least deal with story expansions, which advance the story, and system expansions, that advance the gameplay aspects. They are two very separate things, and it is just a damn shame we can’t seem to untangle them.

Yes, in a lot of ways story drives systems – it is much, much easier to develop if you have an idea what you’re developing for. But linking the two also creates significant problems because you end up bound scenario where often times one or the other is holding something back because…reasons.

Just one other comment, really enjoy these sorts of meta conversations! Good stuff.

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Robert Mann

I think that would be interesting to see. I fear that the system expansions would be seen as nothing but a grind, and the story expansions as painfully dull, unless other aspects of things were to change. MMOs don’t exactly do a great job of making fun systems or good story in general, it is the combination of elements that makes for a better product for most people.

I still think it would be interesting to see what could be done, given that things don’t HAVE to be that way.

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Anstalt

Again, this is another example of why vertical progression (combined with linear content) is a bad idea for MMOs.

If the game was designed around horizontal progression, new players could jump in and try out the new content immediately (unless devs put in artificial gates ofc), and then later go back and play the rest of the game if they so desired, because it would all still be relevant.

As for the actual question – what can devs do to help get new players into the game – the answer is nothing direct. If I’ve left a game I was already playing, or previously passed on the game, there is literally nothing the devs can do to get me to play it.

What they can do, is improve the game.

If they improve the game enough, and then the word gets out from the people actually playing it, then and only then would I reconsider rejoining the game. I wont trust the devs, but I would trust the players. If enough of them seem to be enjoying the new changes and their reports on the changes match my desires, then I’d be tempted.

bereman99
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bereman99

Relevant from a power/progression perspective.

How would your horizontal solution work when the main connective thread is a narrative that reads more like an ongoing series?

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Robert Mann

See my posting just below for an example of that. You don’t have a static story, but one that is truly alive. That is completely, imo, different from what GW2 did… because in my thoughts there you would have the entire world as something less of a static entity, and you would have to incorporate more simulation elements (which means a whole different kind of AI than MMOs are used to using).

In short, you can’t have replay-ability alongside the other good that comes from something like this. There’s several different desires and goals at play, and some of them directly oppose each other.

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Anstalt

Tough one to answer.

If story remains the primary driving force behind players (i.e. quests constantly telling players where to go, as well as having lots of rewards attached) then you lose some of the benefits of horizontal progression because your quest system will still segregate the players and make it hard to team up.

I personally hate story in games, so any game I designed would have minimal story.

That said, there are ways around it.

First, detach story from rewards, or at least detach it from character progression. Why should I earn XP for completing a quest, surely the experience should come from carrying out the quest (killing stuff, exploring stuff etc)? By doing this, you make the story optional. Players like me could ignore most of it and just go off to find interesting things to fight, whilst story-focused players could still do the story because they enjoy it.

Second, don’t make your story linear, and dont make me the chosen one! Make quest chains at most 5 quests long, and don’t make some quests a requirement for starting others. That way, when a new xpac comes out it doesn’t matter if I haven’t done the story from earlier, I dont need to, I can just come to the new zone and start with everyone else. Isn’t it enough that I’ve come to the aid of Gondor? Do I have to have saved the Shire, Bree, The Lone Lands, Rivendell, The Misty Mountains and Rohan as well?

bereman99
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bereman99

You’ve basically highlighted what I was getting at – your solution really only works if you separate story from gameplay, or reduce it to the point where it doesn’t matter.

My question is more wondering how you’d apply your horizontal progression to the narrative thread that goes through it while also keeping that narrative thread…but to be fair, it’s not really a question that has a solution that keeps both elements.

Which was my point – your solution, like the ones above, is not a perfect solution and doesn’t solve all of the above issues. Sure, it creates a game that is easy for new players to get into, but it loses something in the process (and for some games, that *something* is a major something).

Which, I think, is the point of the article – that these problems may be ones that don’t really have solutions, so much as other choices that do it differently but come with their own problems…and you just choose the one that best works for you.

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Robert Mann

Expansions as expansions is good in general, but if the story and world aren’t static and there isn’t so much a level system… then you don’t have the problems with the jumping on point (It’s the date of play starting, and a lack of central main story that everyone has as a static thing to complete means that the worst is a need for a little backstory on what is currently happening) nor the issues with being unable to play with friends unless they do something different, nor the lack of progress in what is going on in the world, etc.

Simply put, I believe levels existed for very good reason in the single player spaces. I’m not convinced they serve any meaningful function in something like an MMO, and I believe that a different sense of character progress would be something far better (with ‘new’ characters generally being proficient in their main profession). Whether that is learning more variety of skills, becoming slightly more adept as a master instead of just proficient, or whatnot… none of it need make a new player a negative.

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Robert Mann

P.S. The difference here to ESO is that continuity is not an issue as the entire world moves forward, but you also can’t just go back and relive story easily. This would be the tradeoff there. I think there’s room for a variety of styles, I just find the world staying static to be a little odd.

xpsync
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xpsync

Deep Space Nine, that’s too funny as when it was out i never watched it, i watched it first time a couple years back and is the only other series i’ve watched through twice outside TNG. Friends told me back then, watch it it’s good, i couldn’t have been less interested? Now, well like i mentioned twice.

Yea i feel, well know that coming into an mmorpg after it’s been out for a long time has “perceived” pit falls. The thought of catching up is basically daunting, and everyone has been there done that, you’ll never get certain things, or never be as good as long time players, before you even start you feel left behind… the list goes on.

Although i played wow from launch i never really got very into it, it was a fun thing to do with the fam until a couple months back and now i’m into it on a new server so effectively a new player starting from scratch and yea i’m feeling the behind thing a lot actually, all the news is about the new zones and dungeons and raids, but i’m into WoD atm and my little nooblet mage, where is my news of interest, right forgot no one cares about that expac anymore.

I thought i had an alliance version of most classes but i only had one of every race (i htink there are 7 so i dunno?), so still many classes to dig into, but i don’t even have a capped toon yet, even on alliance, now i’m eating massive quantities of crow as i’ve always bashed wow, i mean who hasn’t at some point but i can admit when i’m wrong, well it was more about how the industry behaved after wow was my reaction. ok tangent lol

So yea, i have many characters but nothing still at end game and as fast as the leveling is, it’s not like i play for hours on end daily at an average of an hour or two a day, it’s going really slow when i think about getting to actual end game, it feels glacier slow looking at the horizon and where those gaol posts are, and now i’m into my mage so it’s ever f’in further away.

Another part of the problem is that you level way too fast to really enjoy anything but… but… that’s ok at the same time as you want to catch up to everyone, so it’s kinda messed up.

Sure i could go back to my old server and pick up most of my toons which are close to cap but they are all alliance on a overly busy server, i don’t like alliance all that much anymore after finding out that Horde are what blizzard looks out after, and it’s a busy server, so this fresh start on the right server on right side of the war, works! Horde is so much cooler overall too.

Now my highest is 90 Horde (118 on alliance) and i purposely have it parked in wod as i wanted to slow it down and do some garrison stuff and all that but, what’s got me also thinking is that after wod is a garrison of any use anymore anyway or am i just wasting time there and i should keep focused on hitting cap as yea i’m maybe going to take some raiding serious here (maybe) i dunno, but i wont know until i get there, and no way i’m paying for a capped toon. I’ve been with the game since launch and coming back even has some difficulties, those perceived pitfalls are real, depending entirely on the player’s style and goals.

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IronSalamander8 .

After WoD the garrison’s only use is an extra hearth location with its separate stone. I also have the shipyard compass so have 2 hearths to go back there is my Dalaran and regular hearthstone are still on cooldown somehow. WoW virtually throws away the previous expansions each time.

xpsync
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xpsync

Yea i was into it but i started thinking is there really much use after? and this is prolly a waste of time in my goal of getting at least one toon to cap.

Thanks!

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David Harrison

FFXIV and WoW are two completely seperate game designs that just happen to both be in the same genre.

WoW is designed around the game being what ever the current max level is at the time you are playing it. It is all about racing to max level, and then grinding gear until the next expansion comes out. Everything you did before you reached max level is completely unimportant and meaningless.

FFXIV is designed around the game being all about the story. The story starts at level 1, and it progresses on as you level up and move through the expansions. If someone was to race to max level and avoid the story (by purchasing a story skip for $25), they have essentially cheated themselves out of the best part of the game; the story.

The real game starts at level 1 for FFXIV, and the real game starts at max level for WoW.

But, hey. You do you. Keep chasing that carrot in WoW. I’ll be over here eating my carrot cake in FFXIV.

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Wilhelm Arcturus

MMORPGs are also strange in the world of video games where most games have a quick peak then disappear into the bargain bin. There are some outliers that have long lives, and as the industry gets older and needs to scavenge the past we end up with remakes and remasters of the outliers, but the natural order seems to be a short cycle.

MMORPGs have a business model that is predicated on these games lasting for years and even decades. I am going to guess that most games that launched along with WoW in 2004 are forgotten, and all the more so the games that launched in 1999 when EverQuest did. So they are fighting the natural trend of gamers playing a game, then moving on to the next.

They get away with that to some extent by constant renewal via expansions, but as you aptly point out, that has its own problem of either leaving new players behind or shoving them into the middle of the narrative. And even beyond those there is always the new player question about what they have missed, what they can never do because the game has changed, and how they can possibly “catch up” on things beyond mere level. A game with a long history can feel like an old club and when you join up you’re simply not part of the history before then.

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IronSalamander8 .

I’m glad to see that these ideas weren’t just my perception. One thing I have liked about WoW is that while I leave often, I can come back and just jump back in but this does indeed create the idea that the last expansions are largely irrelevant. If you’re not a bleeding edge raider you’d replace your gear pretty quickly and the reasoning behind it makes sense if you want to attract new people but based on opinions I’ve seen over the years, it does bother players that have been playing the whole time without or with minimal interruptions.

The approach FF14 uses does make it harder to jump in as a new player but it also means that it all builds upon what has come before. This approach is more rewarding for long term players but can make it more difficult to jump back in or to start brand new. It makes you feel you’re behind as you have to get through the MSQ from prior expansions to get to the new stuff. It certainly has bothered a couple of my friends that I played many MMOs with over the years and it can be off-putting.

I also concur that both approaches have problems and neither is the perfect solution. What I wonder is, what is the best solution to this situation? Is there even one? Do we perhaps have to just pick the one we find least annoying and deal with it? FF14 has those paid skips but to me paying to skip wide swathes of content doesn’t sit well and WoW’s level tokens aren’t a personal favorite either; I actually loathe starting a character at high level as I prefer the gradual introduction of abilities and mechanics over a long period of time so I can adapt and learn as I level up.

I’ve not played FF11 which sounds like it’s a bit of a hybrid if I understand the article portion about its approach, but I think that having a system that both eases new/returning players into the game as well as making veterans feel their efforts bear fruit is the ideal move. How to accomplish that is the very difficult question. Personally, I want to be able to jump in and out of a game and have my past play time mean something without feeling lost when I do come back. Of course what I’d love is a game that I never stop playing but that’s a tall order, at least for me.

xpsync
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xpsync

I know, i really don’t know how i feel about paying to skip what is basically an entire expansion, that’s a weird one, i get it as i’ve used it, i was going to play FF14 with a swl friend but they were on the next expac so i payed for that and the skip and we burned out for some reason lol.

Agreed it did not sit well at all, it’s like why the F am i paying you to not play your game? Huh? Even in SWG i used the one token to max a toon and immediately regretted it. Pay to cap a toon in wow, no, waste of money and i hate the feature to the core. Man what did the guy say in swg, is like playing with a piece of furniture, i dunno was funny af at the time.

I’m totally grooving on the slow intro to characters in wow, prolly why my warlock clicked so well too, well and i can focus on the game now tbh, where before dealing with game crises like…

DAAAAAAAD!!!!!!!!! race to son’s pc, what’s wrong? I can’t buy anymore bread, gave them gold, netherweave bags and they fill them up with loafs of bread lmao, (such little shoppers) so you know those kind of game crises :) good times, but that’s what i mean as in i can focus on the game now.

Crazy though as when we started out in the earlier pioneering years, the golden years of mmorpg’s these things would be unthinkable, yet now they are paid features cause the games got too big, pretty craptastic solution.

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Java Jawa

ESO got this right. You can jump onto any expansion and have as much fun without feeling lost or that you’re behind. It’s phenomenal.