Massively Overthinking: The curious cycle of MMO refunds, tutorials, and reviews

Eat it, eat it, put it in your mouth and eat it.

MOP reader Steve recently posed us an intriguing question about the state of tutorials in MMOs and other games – and how those tutorials’ increasing lengths have impacted everything from refund periods to reviews. He pointed out to us that in particular, Steam’s two-hour/two-week refund period no longer seems like enough time to actually decide whether a game is worth the cash, noting, for example, that the Assassin’s Creed Valhalla title screen doesn’t actually appear until several hours into play, as if the whole period before that is introduction, and that in SWTOR it can take “20+ hours of gameplay before you get your ship and the whole galaxy actually opens up to you.”

“It seems like that initial two hours is becoming increasingly inadequate as tutorial sections become longer and longer (admittedly often due to increasingly complex game design), quite possibly to make customer reluctant to give up on an unenjoyable game until long past the refund deadline. Additionally, it seems to act as a defense against bad reviews: Ten years ago if a reviewer played a game for two or three hours and said it was shit, no one batted an eye; but today, gamers expect that reviewers should have to play a terrible game for 30 to 50 miserable hours before they can be allowed to say it’s shit. Part of that can surely be laid at the feet of drawn out tutorials (and 40-hour “campaigns” that just drawn out tutorials) that are making it impossible to get an adequate taste of what a game is really like until 15 or 20 hours in.”

There’s a lot to unpack here, but that’s what we do here in Massively Overthinking. I’m going to give the writers and readers a couple of topic directions: First, do you think tutorials for online games have gotten gratuitously long, and if so, is an effort to thwart refunds behind it? And second, how much time should someone invest before conducting a formal review of an MMO?

Andrew Ross (@dengarsw): Wait, online games have short tutorials? Beyond most sandboxes, I’ve felt like the entire leveling process for most MMOs at least is the tutorial. Non-MMO online games, however, often feel like they get to the meat pretty quickly. Among Us, Fortnite, Overwatch, Pokemon Go, Monster Hunter… you have a quick tutorial and then BOOM! Meat.

Crowfall had some readers balking at a grind that was “only” about two hours, and I still feel it’s too long and creates a very false sense of what the game actually is. And I’d argue a new player not using the boosts will probably spend about 4-8 hours trying to get to the cap, which isn’t even when endgame starts. You actually have to change servers and join a PvP campaign to really see what Crowfall is.

As for the amount of time someone should invest in an MMO before doing a review? Damned if I know. I stand by our choice not to give scores and to push out continual coverage instead. These games – heck, all online games – can change as soon as devs let players into the game. You can’t just cover it and walk away, which is something mainstream gaming sites are only just starting to notice.

I think our Choose My Adventure column is one of the best ways to tackle MMO reviews. You literally get to watch someone tackle various aspects of the game in segments. MMOs are virtual worlds, and while, say, Monster Hunter has a world, it’s not going to juggle raids, solo quests, pet systems, mounts, etc. the way most MMOs will right out of the gate. It’s less about time than it is experiencing various systems and the community. Any MMO review that sticks to, say, 10 hours of linear questing is gonna fall very short compared to one that tries the quests, the crafting, exploring just to explore, and some commentary on the playerbase.

Andy McAdams: I started an answer and then convinced myself of the opposite, then convinced myself of my initial point again, so it’s safe to say that it probably just depends on whether tutorials are too long. On one hand, games can be pretty complex, and so a long tutorial might be fine as long as the game behind it is equally long. However, if I forget that I’m playing a tutorial, it’s probably too long.

But what if I never know that I’m playing a tutorial? Some games the tutorial is seamless to the rest of the game; I know I’m being taught all about the game but it doesn’t feel like it because it just flows. WoW’s new newbie island tries to do this with some success. I personally like those style of tutorials where it feels like I’m playing the game while I’m learning to play the game.

There’s also something to be said about learning the thing when you need it. You didn’t learn math in elementary school by sitting through one marathon session covering everything from multiplication tables to limits in calculus. You learned a little at a time, more or less when you needed it. There’s no reason why a game can’t sprinkle the tutorial throughout the whole game. WoW half-asses this approach. It teaches you the basics on newbie island, but it literally never circle back and cover the more advanced concepts. Like why is haste more important for me than versatility? WTF is versatility as a stat? I’ve been playing WoW for years and I can tell you haste is important for my Rogue and not versatility (for example), but I couldn’t tell you why on either of those because WoW never took the time to explain its stats in-game. Ever.

My gut reaction is to say that developers aren’t creating huge tutorials to head-off refund requests, but let’s be real: EA, Activision, and the like are constantly looking for the newest way to screw players out of a few more bucks, so I can’t completely disregard the possibility. Anytime these megacorps are involved, I attribute actions to malice, not ignorance.

As for the time played before providing a review, it’s tough with MMOs. They evolve and change in a way that most single player games don’t. Reading a review of Wrath of the Lich King has close to no bearing on how the game plays in Shadowlands. So even if you do write a review of an MMO, it’s stale within a few months to a few years after you write it. For me personally, I try to give games the 6-8 hour test before I decide on a “I like it, don’t like it, meh about it,” If I’m looking at Steam reviews, I ignore anything below 5 hours and and weigh everything in the 5-10 range with a grain of salt, giving the most credence to the 10-hours+ reviews. That’s for all games, not just MMOs.

Ben Griggs (@braxwolf): Coincidentally, I was recently denied a Steam refund for exceeding the allotted timeframe, so I am now intimately familiar with the two-hour limitation. In my case, a tutorial was not involved, but I could see where a lengthy educational session would have exacerbated the situation. I think the best tutorials are the ones that just seem like the start of the game and then slowly melt into the meat of the game, making them nearly imperceptible from the actual gameplay. I want a tutorial that I don’t realize is a tutorial. When studios are able to achieve this level of integration, the tutorial length becomes immaterial!

Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): I have no doubt that some AAA designers are tasked with intentionally designing their tutorials to negate Steam refunds, though I don’t think it’s a problem plaguing many MMORPGs. But I will say the first MMO I saw run a “tutorial” intro so long that I actually felt suspicious about the motivation behind it was Age of Conan. A lot of folks played those first 20 or so introductory noob levels and thought the rest of the game was going to be just as good. And we all know how that turned out.

That does really dovetail nicely with the review question. I tend think I don’t really need all that long to figure out whether a game is going to be for me, but much longer to feel comfortable saying whether it’s going to be for other people. I give mobile games a few minutes before I uninstall, for example. I give MMOs much longer, but that’s just for the ones I bothered to buy or download in the first place and have already passed my first round of personal vetting. Plus, I always have to remind myself that some of my favorite MMOs don’t show well in the beginning and I might find a gem in there if I give it more time. But ultimately, I would only expect many hours in for a formal and comprehensive review, and for MMOs, I don’t see much value in that type of reviewing anyway, for all the reasons Andrew and Andy said above me.

Carlo Lacsina (@UltraMudkipEX, YouTube, Twitch): Can we just go back to those super thick manuals like the ones found in vanilla World of Warcraft and EverQuest please!? Most of this stuff can be covered in a manual. Better yet, do what Guild Wars does and have a /wiki command for easy access to the official and complete wiki. Tutorials should be something I can turn off.

My biggest complaint from Swords of Legends Online is the extended tutorial before hitting PvP. I feel like PvP should be available or the gate because it’s not the MMO basics I need help with – I just need practice. I want to kick butt, take names, and get better at the game. No amount of tutorialing in an MMO will get me where I want to get in terms of skill. All it’s doing is slowly killing my escape key.

Justin Olivetti (@Sypster, blog): MMOs are kind of on a different level of video games in that their “tutorials” can often be sprinkled over the course of the game as new systems and features open up. I haven’t encountered any tutorials that are overly long in MMOs, at least, although some are missing adequate ones altogether.

As for the amount of time, I am of the opinion that you don’t need that long at all to make a good judgemnt call on a majority of the game’s aspects — how it feels and plays, its combat system, its world building, and its core features. If an MMO holds back on these until you pour 100 hours into it, then it deserves any grumpy reviews it gets. MMOs, like all video games, need to be engaging right from the start. If I had to put a hard number on it, I think that a very adequate review could be done with as little as 10 hours into an MMO. Just look at what we accomplish in terms of coverage with our limited runs of Choose My Adventure.

Sam Kash (@thesamkash): It is an interesting topic. I’m not sure that tutorials are too long in general. There are certainly some games that take it too far, but on the opposite end of the debate are tutorials that are too short, leaving you without the knowledge to succeed in the game. In most cases I’d rather take the cautious approach and have too much tutorial.

I recall trying to play Mortal Online about 10 years ago. I think the game just started; it dumped your character in a town with little to no directions. After about a half-hour of clicking around, I finally asked for help and was told to go check the wiki or forums. There, I saw comments to the effect of, “You just have to try things and figure it out. That’s the fun :)”. Evidently this was not the game for me. I don’t consider randomly grabbing junk in a game and seeing whether it’s a magic combination that’s going to be useful a fun endeavor. So I logged out and never went back.

I suppose I do tend to side with “more info is better.” Also, while there’s no doubt that some developers might build in a long tutorial to extend beyond the refund period,I suspect it’s few and far between. Most legitimate games take years to build, and the amount of work spent beyond the tutorial is significant. It’s a pretty pessimistic thought to believe that the developers are just trying to fleece us.

And lastly, playing off my Mortal Online experience, I do think it only takes a few hours to write a legitimate review. I’d say two at a minimum. After 30 minutes and some research, I knew it wasn’t for me.

Tyler Edwards (blog): This is a complex question. I think there’s really two things to unpack here: How thorough should tutorials be, and how much time do you need to play to get a fair impression of a game?

To the first question, I know this can be an unpopular opinion in some circles, but I am very much in favour of lengthy, hand-holding tutorials. I say this because I’ve seen what can happen when you don’t have them. While there are a variety of factors leading to the demise of The Secret World, I firmly believe a lack of good tutorials was the biggest factor. Almost no one knew how to play that game. You had all kinds of people running around complaining that it took 30 seconds to a minute to kill a single quest mob. That wasn’t the case if you knew what you were doing, but most people didn’t.

And I’m not knocking those people. It’s entirely the game’s fault that people didn’t know how to build their characters correctly. It was a very complex game with deep and unusual build mechanics, and it needed to give lots of instruction on that front, but it mostly just handed you a weapon and threw you into the deep end. What little instruction the game gave past then tended to do more harm than good. Decks were meant to be the game’s out for people who wanted to just follow a class, but decks were terrible, and following one was tantamount to character suicide.

So yeah, I’m all for tutorials now. At least for games that lean towards the complex, as many MMOs do. The alternative is a recipe for disaster.

Conversely, though, I am also all for giving up on a game within the first hour or two if you’re not having fun. It’s a game’s responsibility to entice us to keep playing; we don’t owe a game anything. That might seem like a contradiction with my above opinion on tutorials, but I don’t think it is. Tutorials can be made interesting. If you’ve got solid core combat, it should still feel enjoyable even if all the bells and whistles aren’t unlocked yet. An engaging story can also be a great way to draw people in off the bat.

Most importantly, you need to offer people the “meat” right away. Don’t make people wait for the selling features of your game. I actually think the two games cited in the original question are great examples of this. While it might take a while to get to the points in SWTOR or AC: Valhalla where things fully open up, you don’t have to wait to get to the essential experience of either game. SWTOR puts you into your class story right away. Valhalla doesn’t wait to allow you to experience combat, stealth, and open-world exploration.

The other end of this would be the infamous “the real game begins at endgame” issue that far too many MMOs fall into. World of Warcraft is an especially bad offender here. It’s a game that’s all about raiding and dungeons, but for a new player, you’re probably going to spend your first several weeks of play doing little but solo questing. I believe that such a sharp divide between the leveling game and endgame is a major contributor to the constant angst that seems to dog the game; its design is split between different kinds of players. Final Fantasy XIV is another offender when it comes to making people wait for the good stuff. I’ve heard many people say the story eventually becomes amazing, and I’m inclined to believe them, but the consensus seems to be it takes several dozen hours of gameplay to get to that point, and what I played in my free trial was the definition of tedium. I’m not going to suffer through the equivalent of several days of pure boredom on the promise it eventually gets good.

So to summarize, start with a small taste of what makes your game great — be it combat, story, crafting, whatever — and slowly add on complexity from there. It’s a tricky balance to strike, but if you pull it off, you can have a tutorial that onboards people effectively without boring them out of their minds.

Adam Babloyan, MOP Patron: I’m going to limit myself to the first question as I rarely find value in the formal review process and never when it’s regarding an MMO. You might as well ask a blind man if he likes the taste of yellow.

As for the first question, a year ago, I would have been quick to say that tutorials are annoying at best and gratuitous at worst, though I wouldn’t have attributed this trend to developers attempting to circumvent Steam’s refund window. I prefer my theories to be served without conspiracy, you see.

But then my wife, trapped in our small home for nearly a year, decided she’d like to spend more time with me. Naturally, this was after she’d exhausted everything of interest on Netflix. Certainly not before. Needless to say, not letting this come to pass while being careful not to give off that distinct impression became paramount.

Enter gaming. Up until this point, the closest she’d come to “real” gaming was Candy Crush and Match 3 puzzlers. Fortunately, ever since my switch back to PC gaming, I had an unused PS4 Pro and Xbox Series X just begging for attention and a good dusting. And so, I gleefully sent her down the path of single-player RPGs. If game genres were MMO class roles, RPGs are without a doubt the Tanks. FF7R might be more of an off-tank, I suppose; it certainly had the requisite identity crises to match.

Anyways, watching her struggle through the types of things we veteran gamers manage effortlessly really drove home the notion that we’ve picked up singular skills and even an intrinsic type of “game-logic” that is quite alien and unnatural to the uninitiated.

Which brings me to my point: Tutorials, when done correctly, are an attempt by the developer to bridge that gap, and while we may find them annoying, they’re entirely necessary. We should be doing everything in our power to attract and retain more people to this thing we so claim to love, not gatekeeping it further out of reach because we’re an indecisive and fickle lot who demand a Lord of the Rings Extended Edition runtime to make an inconsequential decision.

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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