Vague Patch Notes: Returning MMO players need tutorials too

Feelings felt

One of the nice things about Final Fantasy XIV is that it is explicitly designed by someone who thinks that it’s not just reasonable but expected that you’ll take some time off from the game. While there’s certainly nothing stopping you from playing the game on a daily basis, producer and director Naoki Yoshida has said explicitly on multiple occasions that there’s every reason to take breaks if you need them and to not feel as if you have to keep playing the game exclusively for months. Go ahead, take a break!

But there’s a catch there: If you take a break for a while and come back to the game… will you have any idea what you’re doing?

This is not a problem that I personally have (to my great shame, it is likely I could do rotations for Black Mage in my sleep at this point, and that’s not even close to my main), but it is a genuine problem that a vast majority of MMOs have. It’s something that came into my mind, and as soon as I thought of the premise for this column I sat up straighter in my chair. We don’t need tutorials for new players nearly as much as we need tutorials for players who are coming back.

Now, in the broadest strokes, MMOs do not want you to leave. The business models for these games rely upon your playing for an extended period of time, probably through a series of small incremental changes to how you play and what rewards you get, and this should be self-evident. But it should also be self-evident that players are going to stop playing at certain times and take a break, and the question you then run into is what you do for these players who log back in and suddenly have to put a lot of stuff together.

You have to remember how your character plays, possibly adjusting to the fact that subsequent updates have changed how your character plays in significant ways. You also have to remember what the heck you were doing at the time when you stopped playing. Furthermore, you have to figure out what you want to be doing at this point and whether or not it’s even still relevant.

Oh, and that’s all before you get into any new content that might have been added, which is probably what drew you back to the game in the first place.

Who are you? Where are we? What are we doing now?

This is a big problem! It’s probably bigger than you tend to think about because again, if you’re playing the game on a regular basis, you don’t need the refresher. You know what you’re doing today because it’s based on what you were doing yesterday, and the reality is that if you think about it your game of choice isn’t really that complicated. All you really need to know is X, Y, and Z; how hard is that?

And you’re probably right. But again, that’s also from the perspective of someone who is regularly playing this game, not from someone who is logging back into the game in the middle levels and being greeted with an inventory full of stuff that was once relevant but now might not be, trying to figure out what the heck is going on, what the game wants you to do, and how you’re supposed to play your character or why you have these items in your inventory or what you were even doing before.

To some extent, sure, it’s a fun game of looking at your stuff and laughing and being amused at what you were even planning with all this armor you’re never going to use. But the flip side is that a lot of players are going to log in, struggle to remember what they were doing and what options they had, fuss about a little bit trying to figure it out, and then just… leave. They’re going to sign out without signing back in because figuring out what the heck the game was about is too difficult.

So why don’t we have tutorials for people returning to the game in some capacity?

FFXIV does try to help this a bit with Returner status, which lets you rejoin the novice network chat and look to other players to help guide you in playing the game while you get your feet under you. I’m told that The Elder Scrolls Online offers some useful guidance to help players get back on their feet (I can’t speak to that myself, I haven’t tried getting back into the game myself). But these are the exception rather than the rule.

But the struggle of getting players on board with the game is not limited to new players who are trying the game for the first time; it’s also a problem when it comes to people returning to the title after some time away. These players might start again just because they don’t know what in the world they’re supposed to be doing with their high-level characters, and that carries the very real risk of making people bounce off again. Other methods of trying to get back into the game involve basically making your own tutorials, and that’s never ideal.

Fire is hot, professor.

Let’s be fair to designers, of course. It’s not really the game’s fault that it can’t tell me why I have seven impulse engines in my inventory in Star Trek Online because that decision is on me and there’s no end-of-play-session survey asking why I had been holding on to these items. Their guess is as good as mine. It’s really difficult to provide you with a full rundown of what your particular character build does in a lot of games, and even in games with more constrained build options like FFXIV there’s no real mechanics for saying what you were leveling or why you were keeping certain gear around or what you were working toward.

But I think that in this year of 2021 we need to stop pretending that the people who need to be coached into how a game works are solely those who have never played the game before. The fact of the matter is that a lot of people are going to take breaks from MMOs at this point. It’s inevitable. Making it harder to come back just means that more people are likely to see the barrier to figuring out what they were doing and decide it just isn’t worth it.

Yeah, it’s a complicated problem. Ideally you’d take notes before putting the game down for a while so you can jump back in, but that’s assuming you plan your breaks instead of having them just happen. More likely is just that you log in religiously for a while until you don’t, and then you forget what you were doing and why. And the easier any game makes it for you to log back in and get up to speed again amidst all of the chaos, the more likely you are to feel allowed to stop and start up again.

Now, if you’ll all excuse you, I have to figure out why all of these old holiday tokens are in my inventory and whether or not any of them are still useful. Time for some wiki searching.

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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