So here’s the thing about Elder Scrolls games: Most of them start out with the same hook. From Morrowind to Oblivion to Skyrim, you start out as a captive, and you’re either escaping or being set free under mysterious circumstances. Even in Daggerfall, you’re trapped in a cave, and the original version of Elder Scrolls Online had you start out in the Wailing Prison. It’s just a thing with the franchise: You know exactly what to expect from the beginning of the game, even though the rest of the game is a big of an off-the-rails sandbox. It’s a comfort when you’re leaping in to each new installment.
We’ve been talking a lot about newbie onboarding and the beginnings of MMOs in our staff channels lately, thanks in part to some interesting questions from podcast listeners and the recent newbie overhaul of Legends of Aria, so I thought we’d take some time to mull over the topic in Overthinking this week. What, specifically, do you expect out of the first 10 minutes of an MMO? Should it be more about lore and setting or mechanics and explanation? Are those first 10 minutes really as critical as we think? What sort of turn-offs make you log off, and what sort of hooks do you need to keep you going?
Andy McAdams: I think the first 10 minutes is important in a game, though I will often give it a couple hours to shake out. Those first 10 minutes really set the stage for the game. When I think of the first two minutes of WoW — you have a nice in-game fly through with a voiceover that really sets the lore for who I am and what I’m doing. It’s the right amount of time, just a few seconds to seed the story for you. But it also needs to set what I think of as the control paradigm, how is that you interact with the world. That’s things like movement, talking to NPCs, stabbing things or melting things with your asbestos fingers. A game that does this well gets you just enough to get you moving without overwhelming you. I’m playing Breath of the Wild right now, and the first 10 minutes in that game gets you everything you need to know with a hook to get you interested.
Contrast this with games that don’t do this or do it too much. In general, extremes are bad when it comes to those first 10 minutes. If I start the game feeling like I’ve got an overbearing parent everything for me, that’s bad and it’s a turn off for the game. If I feel like I’ve been blindfolded and lead into the middle of a dodgeball tournament without any explanation, that’s also bad because it ultimately ends up with my being pelted in the face repeatedly without knowing why or what to do to stop it and then quitting the game being frustrated.
Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): I think the answer here is always going to be “it depends,” but let me break that down – what I really mean is that a game needs multiple entry points for the different types of players it’s hoping to grab. My intro here talks about the beginnings of the Elder Scrolls games, but what I didn’t say is that after I’ve played through those starting experiences once or twice, I drop in a mod to get rid of them so I can start however I want, at least in the offline games where that’s possible. Veteran players don’t need the super basic intro, but newbies do. Provide both and make ’em skippable.
Personally, I’m looking for an MMO intro that is compelling but not melodramatic. I don’t need to be the center of the story, but it’d be nice if there’s some kind of story to set the stage and tone of the world. I do want some slight guidance, but I don’t want to be stuck in a 15-minute escape room where I have to prove I can dodge and roll before I can flee. Mostly I want to be given an idea of what’s possible. Whether it’s a themepark or a sandbox, I want to get an idea of the scope and purpose of play. I don’t want to wander around for hours or read a wiki before I even know whether vendors exist and housing even a thing I should be working toward.
Carlo Lacsina (@UltraMudkipEX): The first 10 minutes should go straight to gameplay. I’m not a huge fan of long-winded cutscenes. I want to explore the world, see the folks and start killing monsters! Literally just spawning in and letting players play should be enough. I just started playing Final Fantasy XI, and I love how it just threw me in without direction. It gave a quick intro, and the game pretty much let me have my fun.
A strong start shows the world. I don’t need to be told that the world was created by two warring aspects of light and darkness. I’m not invested enough at that point to even give a crap. Let me explore, let me get to know the folks, and let me get that engagement piece locked in before I get a creation myth shoved down my throat.
Chris Neal (@wolfyseyes, blog): A solid tutorial that blends with regular gameplay is ideal. It would be nice if they got rid of the usual tutorial commands and got to the really unique aspects of the game first and foremost. If your game was awesome action combat and your class has specific tricks, I want to see that, not be told again how to move, look around, and access my inventory.
I usually don’t make up my mind within 10 minutes of playing an MMO and usually try to give it at least 10 levels before I start to formulate an opinion. So no, the first ten minutes aren’t super crucial.
As for turn-offs? I guess the biggest one is assaulting me with banner ads for your cash shop the second I log on. I saw your sale on the game launcher; I don’t need to be waylaid by a billboard when I load in to character selection, either. If anything, you’re enticing me to keep my wallet even more shut than it would have been.
Colin Henry (@ChaosConstant): A tutorial should teach you the basics of what you need to know about how to play the game, and sprinkle in some storytelling to keep you from feeling like you’re reading a manual. Then, as soon as possible, it should set you free in the world.
I recently wrote about the newbie player experience of DCUO on the Switch. I was frustrated by the character creation process and the “new” tutorial, which was almost literally just the old tutorial except that it didn’t actually teach you anything. After I was dumped into the open world, I didn’t really want to keep playing. I was determined to give it a fair chance, though, and I ended up liking it more as I actually got to run around and experience the game a little. This is kind of the worst-case scenario for an MMO tutorial; it frustrated me, it taught me little to nothing, and isn’t even a good representation of what the game is like.
I’d like to point to the tutorial for The Elder Scrolls Online’s recent Elsweyr expansion as one of the best I’ve ever played, including previous ESO tutorials (fourth time’s a charm?). It gives you an interesting introduction to the expansion’s story and also teaches you how to equip gear and the basic mechanics of combat: heavy and light attacks, when to block, when to interrupt, and how to exploit off balance – all the while introducing you to Khajiiti culture, a major protagonist, and most memorably, invading dragons.
Better yet, it doesn’t drag on too long. It could, for instance, teach you about crafting, but I don’t care about crafting when I’m level 1. Instead, ESO has NPCs in all of the main cities that yell, “Are you here for crafting certifications?” as you run past. When you talk to them, you get quests that walk you through the basics of gathering, refining, crafting, deconstructing, and crafting dailies. These kinds of secondary tutorials are great for things like crafting that don’t matter in the first 10 minutes of play. Not so great for combat mechanics.
Mia DeSanzo (@neschria): The newbie experience does matter for hooking and keeping me, but I feel like I have to give a game a real chance before I walk away. I usually give games far more than 10 minutes. I give them 10-20 levels (or a few play sessions, for games that don’t do levels) to show me what they are about. I do like a brief tutorial on controls and combat if it has some kind of unique mechanics I need to know about, and I like to get a taste of the essence of the world and lore, but I don’t want to be bogged down in an endless learning-to-walk tutorial or excessive exposition that reveals more of the backstory than I need to know in the first 10 levels.
On the other hand, if you tell me nothing and I can’t figure out what to do at all, I am done. I have played sandboxes that have had a few hints about what I could do, and I am OK with that, but if I am just wandering around wondering what there is that I can do, I am out. And if the world doesn’t capture my imagination in those first 10-20 levels, I am likely to drift away from the game and never return.
When I first read this question, I thought that I had become more lenient than I used to be, but a little reflection told me that’s not true at all. I played original-recipe EverQuest in its first year, when the newbie experience was, “Here’s a shirt and a dagger. Good luck, kid!” followed by being killed repeatedly by rats and bugs. I don’t think I’d tolerate that now.
MJ Guthrie (@MJ_Guthrie, blog): While I feel I am pretty open to various forms of introductions and willing to give games a fair shake, I do have a couple of “no way” deal-breakers that can ruin a game for me from the get go. One, the first 10 minutes needs to not be on kiddie-ride rails. If I am not just ushered through a tight little path but forced along it, unable to wander to the sides to take a look and explore the surroundings, I am super put off.
Two, getting achievements for the dumbest things is a sure sign this is not a game for me. I am all for achievements you can get through regular gameplay, but no one needs 50 achievements in the first 10 minutes. “Oh wow, you put on clothes, yay you!” and “You stepped forward, look at you go, superstar!” really actually nauseate me. And it really annoys me when you have a voiced narrator in your face calling out these baby steps. Even worse is when they won’t shut up until you do what they say. (And yes, these all happened in games!) It is super patronizing and infantile, and I have no interest in playing in that environment; I will assume your intro is tied to the theme of your game and how it treats players, so that’s a hard pass for me.
Oh, I almost forgot a third: a super obnoxious level up sound/song/animation/fireworks display. I find this just intolerable, and I’ll shut a game off if I can’t shut that off. Sorry, cupcake.
What would I want in the first part of a game? I’d want the theme and feel to match the game ambiance-wise. If combat and movement are especially divergent from the norm, then definitely work that into some small — and relevant — story snippet. I also prefer games that stretch the intro a bit instead of making it a compact couple of minutes with command upon command upon command: Work through that story a bit getting a feel for those controls, letting the flow be natural instead of forced. Oh man I hate the feel of being forced! And have some lore and introduction to your world, even if you must do most in a video clip when you first log in. The most recent example of an intro done superbly to me was Elder Scrolls Online’s Elsewyr. I got to try the controls in a very organic way, I got to meander a bit and explore on my own time instead of being rushed to complete the tutorial, and by the end of it, I was really invested in the story and world.
Samon Kashani (@thesamkash): The first 10 minutes of a game are important to me. With the absolute deluge of games constantly being released and the ever-reduced game time we have as we grow up and add more and more priorities and responsibilities to our lives, it is critical that those 10 minutes are strong.
When I tried out Black Desert, I was immediately entertained. I was only left-clicking like a kid hitting puberty, but the combat made me feel powerful! Like damn, I’ll show these harmless foxes who’s boss! Wow, look at those moves! And of course, I know it’s en vogue to make fun of games that put quest markers over NPCs and guide you to the next piece of content because it’s on “autopilot” or “dumbed-down for casuals” and so on, but real talk: I don’t have the time to spend half a game session getting nothing accomplished. A lot of other gamers must feel the same, else we wouldn’t have the shift to games like Fortnite BR and the like that cut that kind of crap.
So yes, if even in the first 10 minutes I hit any sort of wall where I have to just wander around aimlessly, I’m going to be turned off. Why should I expect the game to improve if it can’t keep me engaged for even the first 10 minutes?! If you want me, my time, and my money, then you need to do some work for it. It’s not supposed to be the other way around.
Tyler Edwards: I’m pretty keen on the idea that an MMO needs to prove itself early on, but the first 10 minutes is rarely enough time to judge any game fairly. In that time you’re still learning the basic controls and the premise of the world. A few very poor games can turn me off in that amount of time if the controls or some other factor are just awful, but no game has ever won me over in the first 10 minutes. I guess at a bare minimum it should include some introduction to the story and at least some gameplay. I generally value lore over gameplay, but even I have limits. I think it took me at least half an hour to actually get to anything meaningful gameplay in Final Fantasy XIV, and that left me with a strongly negative first impression of the game, especially since nothing in all those cutscenes and dialogues was even memorable or interesting anyway.
I think the first hour or two is the real make-or-break moment, and even then it can take longer for some games. I was halfway through the Savage Coast before I became fully sold on The Secret World, and that turned into my favorite MMO of all time.
I could talk about things that win me over early on, but I think the really universally important thing is whatever makes your game special should be on full display as quickly as possible. It won’t matter what cool ideas you have if I have to wade through 50 levels of generic content to get to them. Not to keep bashing on Eliot’s favorite title, but again I think of FFXIV. I’m told the story gets really interesting later on, but the parts of it I played were tedious, and I’m not interested in spending my time wading through that to get to the good stuff when there are other games that are all killer and no filler.