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

    
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Who could have seen this coming.

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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