Tobold moves the discussion on to recommendations specifically for people new to the genre and focuses on World of Warcraft as an example of a particularly newbie-friendly game. That, of course, is its reputation. Mrs Bhagpuss and I were actively put off trying it for years because of the stories we'd heard about just how over-simplified it was.
|Boots: zombies for the burning of|
What it wasn't was fall-off-a-log easy, even in the starter areas. There was a lot of traveling to do and not all of it was safe. It was entirely possible to jump the rails right from the start, set off in a random direction and explore the world at your own pace. Even at the time (which was somewhere around 2009 I believe) I wouldn't have said it was the easiest of MMOs for a complete newcomer. Indeed someone I worked with, an experienced console gamer new to MMOs, started playing WoW around the same time and made quite heavy weather of it, giving up around level seventeen and never going back.
He did start as a blood elf, which might have had something to do with it. WoW, in common with many MMOs, doesn't offer anything remotely resembling a uniform experience for the new player. The starting areas vary wildly, in color palette, emotional tone, layout and visibility. The forest where the blood elves lurk is dark and difficult to navigate whereas dwarfs start in snowfields bright enough to cause snow-blindness.
One of the things that struck me as I played through the Goblin islands recently was just how newbie-unfriendly WoW seems to have become. Bearing in mind that I was playing the introductory free version designed to lead new players on to permanent residence, the whole experience, while highly enjoyable, seemed almost designed to confuse.
For a start I was level twelve before I saw another player. The entirety of the Goblin storyline prior to reaching Oggrimar seems to take place not just on islands geographically isolated from the rest of playable Azeroth but in some kind of private instance. I did quite literally see no other players at all. Someone must have been able to see me, or at least find my name, because I received one very polite tell inviting me to join a guild. Other than that I appeared to be playing a single-player RPG.
|Vents. They're vents. Not holes.|
Doing the first dozen levels not just solo but alone would be off-putting enough to a would-be MMO initiate but then we come to the mechanics. They may have been state-of-the-art in 2004 but things have moved on a little since then. There's some great, intuitive connectivity between the quest journal, quest tracker and the map, but the choice of brown-black against brown-orange for the quest window looks idiosyncratic, putting it politely, and the font is...odd. It seems to use a mix of upper and lower case in the headings. The quest text itself is dense and oddly formal. The whole effect is strangely old-fashioned.
The map goes one better (or worse) with an orange on orange theme. It looks weary, somehow, as if the game itself is feeling tired. Apart from major geographical features all you can really see are places you've already opened up and any quest objectives you're tracking. There's absolutely no sign of the kind of hand-holding now common in MMOs; no glowy trails or arrows on the ground let alone an auto-route feature that runs you like a robot from quest-giver to target and back.
In the Goblin starting town, the first place a new player playing a Goblin would ever see, getting to anything by following the map requires a good deal of luck. It's an amazing, fascinating, hysterical place but Goblins built it and they don't abide by zoning regulations. Just because you have a quest marker on your map don't think you can walk in a straight line to get to it. It's probably behind a barbed-wire-topped wall with a gate on the far side below the loop of sky-hanging freeway.
|One rocket-propelled shark with laser attachments, hold the irony.|
Whoever did the quests for the Goblin isles clearly wanted to show off every tool in the kit. Drive a car, pilot a mechanical shark, ride a wolf, use an exoskeleton, ride on a rocket, fly with rocket boots, place bombs, throw bananas...a seemingly endless succession of new ways to click on things in a certain order or a certain place, never to be repeated exactly the same way again.
Even for someone steeped in arcane clickery it was confusing. For a genuine first-timer it could be overwhelming, especially with the island shaking and rumbling and fiery meteors landing all around. And with no-one there to ask I ended up tabbing out to look things up several times.
As long-term, committed, highly experienced MMO players we almost certainly underplay the complexity of the systems and processes we take for granted. Tobold pooh-poohs the idea that you need to be an intellectual to play MMOs and he's right as far as that goes but you do need to be both literate and able to interpret poor or partial instructions because most MMOs require you not only to read a lot but also to read between the lines. A good sense of direction, a good visual memory and some better-than-basic map-reading skills are important, too.
When it comes to recommending an MMO to someone who's interested but completely inexperienced I think the most important factor is who is going to be playing it with them. If there's someone patient around, willing to answer questions without getting frustrated at the apparent obviousness of the answers, then which MMO probably doesn't matter all that much. If the newcomer is planning on flying solo from the start then I'd look for an MMO with an open, non-judgmental, co-operative ethos where players like to be helpful.
On that basis both The Secret World or GW2 would indeed probably be a better place to start than WoW. The mechanics and the jargon are going to be tough enough to come to grips with no matter what the game.