Massively Overthinking: The first 10 minutes of an MMO

    
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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.

Every week, join the Massively OP staff for Massively Overthinking column, a multi-writer roundtable in which we discuss the MMO industry topics du jour – and then invite you to join the fray in the comments. Overthinking it is literally the whole point. Your turn!

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MilitiaMasterV
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MilitiaMasterV

How awful/hard are the controls? Does it annoy me enough that I won’t stick around?

I mean, I almost didn’t give Wurm Online a try because it had such an awful starter character introduction.

(Because it’s one of the really really old games..looks similar to an old MUD, and they hadn’t updated the tutorial area in many years. It is actually the precursor to Minecraft, the guy who went on to make Minecraft actually worked with another guy named ‘Rolf’ to build a game, but they had differences of opinions so he left him with Wurm Online and basically took the simplistic idea behind the game, and re-released it as a ugly blocky world with simplistic mechanics, and that’s how you got Minecraft.)

Once you got past that, and actually started the thrill ride that was that game, it was good fun…as survival sandboxes where you try not to die and lose your starter gear usually are. Running in fear from things that could kill you/harm you easily. Then because of how most of the starter towns were run by players and a lot of players like to wall everything off…running into tons of walls/gates that blocked you from access.

Almost 4 years spent in the game and lots of fun had (Some bad times too…darn griefers…).

After all that time playing, I was able to sustain myself without a problem, but I generally didn’t go but maybe 2-3 hours out from my place…because of how long the trek back was. (Even after skilling up fighting enough to be able to somewhat take on trolls, which were basically ‘the hardest’ mob other than attributed mobs/the uniques which were basically raid bosses.).

It was a hardcore grinder, in the mode I wanted at the time. Only reason I finally left was because they banned me from forums for a month for calling out the corrupt head moderator (with proof) and they have to silence any dissent…so they will never get another dime from me because of it. -shrugs-

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Castagere Shaikura

I’m going to go back to 2001. The first 10 minutes in Anarchy Online gave me a sense that I was in a future world. The newbie back yard was exciting and scary at once. But a player/gm called ark came up to me and asked if they could help me. I was surprised and hooked from there. This person stayed with me for an hour so I could get to know the game. MMO’s today would never do something like that.

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Anstalt

I’m gonna agree with Carlos – the first 10 minutes should be all gameplay.

I want to immediately start having fun, seeing the gameplay systems and finding out whether it’s actually a good game or not. Later, you can start building up the story and lore, but I just don’t care right at the start (or, usually, later on either).

If you can add some sort of progression in those first 10 minutes, even better. Either leveling up, unlocking skills or at least some gear, that’s also good. That then begins to show me where the game will be headed which is really important.

Bereman
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Bereman

The first 10 minutes is too short a time, in my opinion, for an MMO to actually hook someone.

It does need to pique my interest during that time. In my case, that’s usually done through establishing the story or the setting in some way that has me wanting to learn more – the first thing you see in FFXIV, for example, is you floating in a weird space-like place, then a mysterious voice calling out and telling you to “Hear…feel….think” then a light that you start walking toward…then a shadowy figure shows up, you get powered up into some cool looking gear…shadowy guy charges you…then you wake up.

So right off you’re shown that there’s something interesting and mysterious going on, but the game doesn’t tip it’s hand too early. Can’t go all killer and no filler after all, or the good stuff just feels like more of the same and loses a lot of its impact.

The game has also shown me that there will definitely be lengthy cutscenes by that point, so I’ve already adjusted my expectations with that in mind…and the game holds to that expectation (unlike say Age of Conan, which had the fully voiced starter island, then dropped most voice acting as soon as you left it).

After that, it’s the first 2 hours that matter to me, as that gives me enough time to start to experience the combat, more of the story, and the world design in general.

WoW is of a similar design, minus the lengthy cutscenes (which, again, it establishes that it doesn’t really do those, and holds to that expectation), where it gives you a bit of info about important people that you haven’t met yet, but has enough facts about their current situation to give context to your chosen races starting area and situation…though in the first 10 minutes it currently commits something that I find drives me crazy. It treats me, the player, like an idiot – not a newbie, like say FFXIV, that blips up a “this is how this mechanic works” one time only help alert (that I can turn off) or shows me how to accept a quest in that game exactly one time (for the first quest, and the first quest only) while also introducing me to a bit more lore about the area based on who that first quest is coming from.

No, auto-accepting quests while having the quest have an “accept” button that doesn’t actually do anything for the first zone is treating your players like they are idiots.

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Schmidt.Capela

For me, the basic rule is: don’t bore me.

I don’t care much for the game teaching me how to play; I’ve been playing games for, quite literally, decades. Unless the game has some mechanic that is legitimately original, I’m most likely already used to something similar from some previous game I played. I also don’t mind being left without much direction, because I likely already did proper research on the game before even starting to download it, and thus already know what I want to play with. But make me bored and I will just skip to the next game in my ridiculously long backlog.

Caveat: as long as the gameplay itself is fun, I actually enjoy a good challenge right off the bat. Take Dark Souls, for example; I kept going after the Asylum Demon until I could defeat it with just my starting gear and without using black firebombs.

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Robert Mann

Show me how you excel. Give me a very quick tutorial on some basics, we can go over the rest later. I most likely know how to move anyway, and keybinds aren’t exactly some new and closely guarded secret. So give me what I need to know, then impress me.

If the game is going to follow suit, how you impress or try to impress will tell me what I need to know. My suggestion is to give a note that further explanations will follow, kick me into something that highlights the game, and then take me back to the more general content if you need.

What we tend to get is… a lot of details we already likely know, followed by some of the most boring and generic content ever outside cutscenes. If anyone didn’t know that was the status quo, they might well consider a game pretty trash-worthy before ever moving past the usually 1-2 hour intro sections.

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Ironwu

If I fire up a game and am immediately met with ‘hardcore ‘ and ‘steep learning curve ‘ style of design? Well that is pretty much an uninstall and refund without even thinking about it much beyond that initial impression.

Maybe not fair. Maybe I miss a good game (eventually) because of that. But experience has taught me that more likely than not if a game cannot be bothered to show me the basic rules and methods of game play, then it cannot be trusted to play fair with me further down the road.

My money, my choice. Just my 2c.

Alyn
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Alyn

I’m glad this topic was brought up. We are all different, this is true. The beginning of a good mmo for me is awe. Environment should also feel not only welcoming, but somehow mysterious or at least as if you are here for a purpose.

For me, a strong, long lasting mmo involves story from the very beginning. You as the player is asked to become involved with the struggle. You aren’t a champion, or a hero yet. You are asked to prove your desire to help the realm fight the evil that has befallen the area. Thus you train. The first ten minutes should be as rewarding on a level scale as it will become when you are challenged at the highest level.

The first ten minutes is a feeling you get looking over the shoulder of your avatar. You as the real sentient are asked to become your avatar. You feel your journey begin-

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Sleepy

Awe – absolutely. Back before MMOs had starter zones, one of the first things I always did in a new MMO was to find a high point; a tower or hill, and have a look around at the land. If the view made me want to explore, it had me hooked.

xpsync
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xpsync

If i log in and immediately feel lost, confused, overwhelmed, disoriented then i know i’m on to something.

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Rick Mills

I agree with Colin (and Bree):
“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”

I was so impressed with that entrance into the Elsweyr expansion when I first experienced it on the PTR that I quit playing it in the first minute so I could look forward to it when it released. It was very well done.