I concur with his point that while MMOs may ask us to experience them for the long haul, first impressions still count. And if those impressions aren't favorable right out the gate, it's not likely that we will be around for hour two, no matter how good it is.
I know what you're thinking right now: "What is this itching, burning sensation between my toes?" It's Athlete's Foot, and you need to get on that ASAP. You're also thinking, "But Justin, whose opinions I respect, admire, and use to teach my children, what drives you away from MMOs when you give them a try?" Again, it's an itching, burning sensation between my toes.
No, not really. It's more complicated than that -- so complicated, in fact, that it requires a 10-point presentation on what turns me off when an MMO is making a first impression. Imagine that!
I don't care if this marks me as a superficial, shallow hipster (although I think the glasses, scarf, and skin-tight jeans do that for me), but if an MMO looks like a PlayStation game reject from 1996, it won't matter how deep and awesome and innovative it is. My eyes will literally leave my head until I go elsewhere.
I'm not saying that every game has to be the second coming of graphics or whatever, but since MMOs are a visual medium, it behooves them to at least look presentable or interesting. Horrible art style, chunky polygons, and graphic glitches are a quick ticket to Uninstall Land.
Going along with #1 there, a terribad user interface is just about one of the worst moves any development team can make when putting together a product. UIs should be functional, reasonably attractive, and somewhat modifiable. UIs should not make me backpedal from the computer, screeching in real pain as my soul crumples into a heap.
This is why I'll always remember loading up EverQuest last year only to see the UI vomit windows all over the screen, and it's why I still can't let go of the weird design decision for Tabula Rasa to have its chat window in the upper-left hand side (with no way to move it). Crappy UIs with tiny fonts, hard-to-navigate screens, and unintuitive controls are Justin-repellant in their purest form.
There's nothing like logging into an MMO for the first time only to see your chat window scroll by in a blur as every gold seller in the Eastern and Western hemispheres spams the crap out of it, is there? Makes you feel right at home, knowing that the game's dev team has no apparent way of clamping down on these textual graffiti artists and that every step of the game from there on will be accompanied by misspelled pleas to "u buy guld cheep!"
What I'm about to say next holds true for the rest of this column: I do not want to feel overwhelmed one minute into your game. MMOs are already fantastically complex and "busy" games, and if you just grab me by the scruff of my neck and throw me into the deep end, I'm not going to be thanking you with money later on.
A great way to provide this overwhelming feeling is for the game to be spewing popup windows at me left and right. I know that there's a lot of information the devs want to convey to players -- especially players new to MMOs in general -- but a couple hundred popups in the first 10 minutes is not going to help. It's going to make me feel like I'm in a bad dream where I'm cramming for a final exam of a class I don't remember taking.
Along with the sentiment expressed above, when I log in I generally need a bit of time -- say, five to 15 minutes -- to get familiar with the game. I think of new MMOs like test driving cars. I generally know how to drive them by now, but if I'm in a vehicle I've never used before, I want to have a minute figuring out where everything is so I'm not scrambling to find controls when I'm going 70 mph down a freeway.
MMOs need to give new players the option to proceed at their own pace instead of being yanked forward by a tutorial that's incessantly giving them tasks with no breather in between. Hey, I might just want to run around in circles, read my tooltips, and customize my keybindings first, OK?
Speaking of tutorials...
Both of these are equally bad. A lack of a tutorial is just laziness on the part of the dev team, but a halfway-implemented one can prove just as damaging to a first impression.
A great tutorial tells me what I need to know, usually through a series of simple quests or a fun little storyline. It's patient with me, allows me to roam a bit, and helps me to become comfortable in this game's "skin." I'm generally less concerned that the tutorial itself is super-exciting and action-packed, although that seems to be a selling point for others.
Tutorial or no, once the game dumps me into the world proper, I'm usually feeling more than a little lost as I try to get organized. If the game doesn't provide me with direction but rather merely cuts me loose to figure stuff out, more often than not I'll lack that initial drive to keep going. It's not to say I'm lazy (OK, I am, but that's not the point here); it just helps to know where I'm generally supposed to be going and what I should be doing during those first 10 levels.
When I first started Fallen Earth after its launch, I quit after the tutorial because the game does kind of let you go and hope that you find your way in the world. It wasn't until I forced myself to sit down and take a day to play the game that I bridged the gap between ignorance and knowledge and finally started to have fun.
MMOs are often judged by their communities, and for new players entering the game for the first time, the community could make or break their desire to stick around. Upbeat discussion, helpful advice, and a sense of camaraderie scrolling through the chat window make me feel like, yeah, this is a good place to be.
But if that screen is filled with jerks? Endless -- and pointless -- debates about how this game compares to World of Warcraft? Insults thrown at newbie questions? Slurs and swears from the Xbox Live exchange program? I'm gone, and glad to leave the prison to the inmates.
I've run into this problem with older, more established MMOs because they've simply grown over the years with all the patches and expansions. Experienced players don't really acknowledge just how many options are at their fingertips because they've gradually gotten used to them. But if you log in for the first time and have to assimilate knowledge of dozens of different systems, many of which you won't really be able to dive into for a while to come, then it can paralyze you as a beginner.
I felt like this last year when I gave Star Wars Galaxies a try. In the middle of the tutorial, I was trying to muddle through all of the screens, interface, and options available -- and there really was too much there. Do I need to do anything for this Chronicles system now? What about player housing? Oh, an achievement -- is that important?
In my opinion, these types of feature-heavy games would do well to initially throttle back the onslaught of these systems until players reach a certain level or turn them on manually.
It's the MMO equivalent of showing up to a first date a half-hour late wearing raggedy clothes and a smirk. Sure, there could be something promising under there, but if your game is buggy and obviously unpolished from the start, why am I going to agree to a second date anytime in the future?
I'm easy, but I'm not that easy.
Justin "Syp" Olivetti enjoys counting up to ten, a feat that he considers the apex of his career. If you'd like to learn how to count as well, check out The Perfect Ten. You can contact him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or through his gaming blog, Bio Break.