MMORPG developer Raph Koster recently put this neat article by experimental game developer Nicky Case on my radar. Case notes that common wisdom is that players learn by “doing,” but that isn’t actually true – for beginners. It’s true for experts, though. And apparently, the best games make you feel as if you’re learning by doing because they’ve hidden all of the hand-holding – “so you can feel smart,” Case quips. The perfect combination for teaching through games is to highlight important things at slightly above the comfort zone for learning, with fun integrated only for utility, and with an emphasis on stoking curiosity.
I fully recommend reading the whole blog post because there’s much more to it, but for this week’s Massively Overthinking, I want to apply Case’s thinking to the MMOs we love so much – specifically, to their tutorials. I’m having a hard time thinking of an MMO tutorial that doesn’t suck, frankly, and I suspect it’s largely because they’re all defying the “rules” Case has identified. When developers are trying to create one tutorial that works for both MMO experts and newbies, they can’t possibly hit a sweet spot that works for both when both have different needs. Most tutorials feel as if the devs are rushing you through a need-to-know checklist rather than actually undertaking any quality teaching of concepts.
Consider the tutorials in your favorite – and least favorite – MMORPGs. Which one offers the best tutorial, and why does it work so well?
Andrew Ross (@dengarsw): This was basically how I taught, and also probably why I’m so hard on most tutorials and demos. I’m sure I’ve mentioned this before, but the way Nintendo did the very first level of the first Mario game comes to mind:
Pay attention to the first gap. It was made intentionally because it’s harder to clear than the previous ones, so players learn they need to get a running start. It’s harder, but it’s also in a safe space – they don’t die from that. I will say, however, that I also don’t think players consider that because there’s no threat. There’s a learning opportunity, but one thing that’s really important in education is saliency. You have to be somewhat aware of the lesson for it to make an impression. Think about training a dog. We all know those dogs that no matter how many times you press down on their butt, they don’t seem to connect that the treat comes from the butt hitting the ground. Similarly, if you’re just given the math answers, you won’t learn the process.
And this is probably why I really can’t think of many tutorials in MMOs that really teach the players – of any skill level! I actually used to do small-scale studies where I’d introduce non-gamers to games, and MMOs in particular were terrible at teaching players games. I had thought ArcheAge was rather good because it front loaded a lot of the features back in the Korean closed beta 3, and that’s probably why it stood out to me the most: As a veteran MMO player, I had an idea of how MMOs worked, but AA had things like boats and gliders that handled differently than traditional movement. However, the controls were similar to what I’d expect from a console game, so even though it was a little harder than the traditional WASD movement of most MMOs, I could pick it up and feel satisfied.
I honestly can’t remember any other MMO doing something that appealed to me that much, but worse, I can remember seeing my non-gamer friends literally drop controls and walk away from titles like AA, TERA, World of Warcraft, and Darkfall (which I really don’t think had a tutorial). Pokemon Go had the same effect on some of my students (and admittedly, their teachers).
Andy McAdams: I’m actually struggling to remember anything I would consider to be a tutorial in any MMO. I guess WoW’s revamped starting experience. I know it’s better, but then I prefer tutorials feel like part of the world and part of my story as opposed to huge overlays with sequins, flashing lights and marquees that declare “BEHOLD. THIS IS A META-EXPERIENCE WHERE WE TAKE YOU OF THE GAME TO LEARN TO PLAY THE GAME.” It’s not like insta-quit or anything like that – more like an annoyed look and a quick check to see if I can opt out.
I feel like most MMOs spend so much time explaining the basics, assuming that “newbie” means “have never turned on a computer before installing this game,” which in most cases isn’t true anymore. If we take WoW as our example, the tutorial spends a lot of time explaining the W A S D keys and targeting and 1 2 3 4 + keys but then spends literally no time explaining itemization or what Mastery is or what Haste is or Critical Strike means. Or we can do the FFXIV side of things and say “what the eff is Piety?!” because literally no other MMO I’ve played uses the term.
But your success in the game is predicated on understanding these terms, what they mean, and how they are important to you (or not). Only theorycrafters devote literal man-days to simming out different scenarios, while the majority of players are forced to use external sites to just tell them what to do because they lack the time or the desire to plot it all out. Without dedicating days into spreadsheets in a game like WoW, there’s no way for the average player to understand whether more mastery is important or more haste is important.
While the “basics” tutorial is important, I would argue that most of that information frequently included in tutorials is common sense at this point or can be communicated through better interaction design. The part that actually varies from game to game, the part that people actually need tutorials for, is just ignored and outsourced to players to figure out, plan, and tell the rest of the playerbase what’s best.
Of course, this whole situation side-steps the situation of why, exactly, are information, stats, itemization, and gearing so opaque in games to begin with? That’s a topic for another day.
Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): As I said during my intro, I can think of a bunch of MMO tutorials that are fun preludes to the game, the first time, like Elder Scrolls Online’s parade of onboarding scenes. And I can think of a bunch of MMOs that are the opposite of fun but manage to pack in a whole lot of information but somehow nothing that will stick in your brain for when you need it – Wurm Online being the most recent one I experienced like that. But I can’t think of any that are genuinely good in the way Case describes. Not one. Some of my favorite MMORPGs, like Star Wars Galaxies and Ultima Online, legit have the worst MMO tutorials in existence, so I don’t think it’s just bias speaking here. This just seems to be something that nobody thinks too hard about – or they think about it really hard and change it every give minutes, like EVE Online.
Carlo Lacsina (@UltraMudkipEX, YouTube, Twitch): Black Desert has two great tutorials to introduce players to the genre and help players find their favorite activity. A popular notion among Black Desert players is that the first 50 levels is one long tutorial. Its not all true, but I think the first 50 levels does a great job of teaching non-MMORPG players the fundamentals of every MMO game they might play.
Now, if we’re talking about a great tutorial for the game itself and its many mechanics, then it’s the season servers. Its a safe environment free of PKs and teaches players the many systems through profitable and worthwhile quests. Those who do it are also rewarded with plenty of loot, making it worthwhile for all involved.
Aside from that, here’s some food for thought: The first portion of high-level raid fights, be it FFXIV or WoW, are also tutorials. Each introduces the mechanic, teaches the fail state, and shows how each mechanic works. At every level, MMOs will have tutorials. My favorites are the tutorials found in the high-level raids, but every tutorial has a space.
Just please, don’t pause the game for tutorials. I cant stand them.
Chris Neal (@wolfyseyes, blog): I am legitimately hard-pressed to think of any MMO tutorial that wasn’t varying degrees of hot garbage. I guess the tutorial things in Valheim are one example of tutorials done right, as Munin and Hunin arrive at certain points to give a little bit of context and guidance to things you come across or items and systems you encounter. Otherwise, there are no tutorials that really stand out.
Justin Olivetti (@Sypster, blog): I think World of Warcraft’s newly designed Exile’s Reach zone is a masterful example of a genuinely good tutorial. From the start, the game strips away most of the interface and options to spoon-feed them to you as you expand in your understanding of how MMOs operate so that the very new player isn’t overwhelmed. But there’s still a lot of story, action, and combat right away to keep things from getting boring. Alternatively, veteran players can opt out of the hand-holding and gain instant access to all of their features as they go through the same content.
The full zone is a melting pot of many of WoW’s core concepts: the questing system, hidden treasures, side objectives, tougher foes, using vehicles, using quest items, and even running a very simple dungeon. And I feel it presents all of this in a nonchalant way that doesn’t feel as artificial or limiting as it could’ve. There’s some degree of freedom without worry that the new player will fall off the map or get in over his or her head, and I appreciate that.
Sam Kash (@thesamkash): Trying to think about tutorials that were actually solid, positive experience is pretty tough. I actually looked back through a couple columns to see if I had any positive ones! Starborne jumped out to me, though. I recall that it actually gave players a good introduction to most of the game’s systems from the build queues, cards, and even some combat. What worked well for the game was that the tutorial was laid out as a series of achievements, with each one progressing your colony from the starter state up to the next tier.
Now, for least favorite tutorials I don’t think any can claim the title – there’s just so many bad ones. Instead I’ll mention Sea of Thieves as an example of one that appeared to be really good but actually missed many key skills. I thought the tutorial taught me all the basic game skills, and maybe it did, but the problem is there are a ton of regular things you need to know to be successful in the game that it didn’t tell you. I didn’t even realize it until I’d played through a few sessions. I honestly wouldn’t have realized it if I hadn’t been playing with a friend who knew the ins and outs.
For instance, players can swap their gun on their ship. Long-pressing the sword swing will charge you up for a powerful thrust. When you have your compass up, you will take single, steady paces (important when your treasure map says to move eight paces East of the mammoth tusk). It didn’t explain how to even start a mission, so I was actually pretty lost right when the game began. So maybe there should be a category of tutorials that seem to teach you the basics, but those turn out to be too basic to actually accomplish anything in the game.