Tuesday, October 15, 2013

I Wouldn't Start From Here : WoW

The return from holiday (yes, we really did go to the Costa del Sol, albeit only for as long as it took us to put our backs to the sea and head for the mountains) brings with it a blog backlog of impressive size. Working my way through it I came across a Tobold post in which he bounces off something Syp wrote for Massively about recommending MMOs.

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
When we finally came to play WoW our experience turned out to be very different from what we'd expected. The world was complex and detailed, the mechanics were solid and had depth and the quests and other activities were thoughtful and entertaining. It was, in other words, a solid, satisfying MMO.

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.
As in many MMOs I spent a good few minutes at the start of most quests taking wrong turnings, doubling back, climbing up things and dropping off and ending up back where I started before I found my objective. Once found a new game began - figuring out which clever trick the quest wanted to teach me this time.
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.


  1. Having been through any number of MMO starts, I think they all have pluses and minuses. I did not find GW2 any more friendly or inviting than WoW, not in UI, guides, or the varied friendliness of fellow travelers in the world. EQ2 spoon feeds you very slowly, but still seems to forget to explain its own odd views on UI. And heaven forbid the new user open the options or try to do the starting quests as a group. And LOTRO seems full of contradictions in how to do things.

    The easiest thing to do is go to a game where you have friends who can answer questions and get you set on the straight path right away. It is not, however, the most satisfying.

    I have taken a good deal of satisfaction in being lost or uncertain or otherwise having to figure out which end is up in the world, as it tends to bring me much closer to the game/world itself. In early EQ2 I knew how to find stuff and remembered landmarks and locations because there was no little glowing feather on the map or over NPC heads. You had to find them yourself.

    BTW, what happened to your blogroll? It is pointing to everybody's RSS feed from the looks of it. As pro-RSS as I am, that seems sub-optimal.

    1. Ah, you appear to have fixes that blogroll thing while I was writing the comment. Nevermind.

    2. Learning the ropes in a new world is one of the best parts of playing MMOs for me. All the multifarious systems, their similarities, differences and idiosyncrasies, discovering, understanding and eventually (maybe!) taming them is much more of a pleasure than a pain. Although there are exceptions (cough *FFXI* cough).

      You're quite right about having to work things out for yourself bringing you more into tune with the game world, too. Overenthusiastic friends who insist on explaining everything or worse doing everything for you can be more of a hindrance than a help and its even worse when its a complete stranger. EQ used to suffer from a particular kind of jolly scout leader type who'd hang around the newbie yards and "help" you to within an inch of your life. I do like a general or zone chat channel that's willing to answer questions without too much snark, though.

      In the end even when it comes to brand new players who've never set foot in an MMO before I'd guess that if the bug bites everything else will fall into place somehow regardless of how much or how little help is on offer.

      Oh and I never touched the blog roll. Must be Blogger acting up again. Google's being weird today, keeps talking to me in Spanish.

    3. keeps talking to me in Spanish

      You just were in Costa del Sol, no? Google is watching your every move...

  2. Quote: 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.

    Huh. Well, I started WoW about a year into its run, so it was a simpler game then (no goblin starter zone for me!), but I find it really interesting that this is so common. Because for me, wasn't part of the game going out and finding where stuff was? Getting a quest was the start of the adventure. Then you go have your adventure while looking for whatever you were asked to do or get. The idea that I'm just there to auto-run over following the big red arrow, kill some clearly marked stuff, pick up some more clearly marked stuff and auto-run back over to complete the quest just makes me tired thinking about it. So, what makes that fun, anyway? Where's the adventure part?
    The really weird thing to me about this comment is that the amazingly stifling handholding on the part of the quests in WoW is part of what drove me from the game. Every single quest hub is "Kill ten X. Pick up 8 Y. Twiddle 6 Z on the ground." All of these items clearly marked on your mini-map. No exploration. No searching for anything. No thought whatsoever required.

    All that being said though, I think you have a point. In these MMOs, we end up with a certain level of "everybody knows" knowledge, some of which carries from game to game and some doesn't. And new players by definition don't have that knowledge, so certainly filling a newbie zone chock-full of vehicle quests and stuff that isn't in the usual "things you do" is probably not helpful. I would also hazard a guess that coming into any mature (ie. been around for years) game is hard for someone who's never played them before. First of all, I'm not sure even the developers can always get past the "what everyone knows" issue sometimes, although they ought to. But certainly players get a sort of question fatigue when it's something that's been asked in /general by every single newbie for the last 5 years.

    1. I wasn't really endorsing the "run you to your target" model, just pointing out that what was once seen as state-of-the-art hand-holding in 2004 (markers over NPCs to indicate quest-givers being a prime example) has long been superseded by far more intrusive methods. Given Blizzard's willingness to crib anything successful from any other MMO (a trait common to most MMO developers) it's quite surprising some of these haven't found their way into Azeroth yet.

      I loved the Goblin starter experience for what it was but as a lead-in to WoW it seems an odd choice, most especially for the fact I never once saw another player. I'm going to try the Panda one next, I think, and see if it works the same way.

  3. I think that you have to remember that most of the people writing about how simple WoW is are still comparing it to Eve, EQ1, and the other games of that generation. WoW was remarkably simple for a newcomer and very welcoming. I still remember using the wrong button to interact with my trainer in EQ, at level 2 or 3, and being summarily executed.

    I just started a new character in WoW and I'm unimpressed by how much hand-holding and railroading there is in the starting game. It's nothing like GW2 but still, what happened to doing things like giving me quests to kill an elite or having zones that are just dangerous to travel through? Who, on the Alliance side, doesn't remember having to run through Stranglethorn at entirely too low a level to catch the boat a Booty Bay?

    1. Typically not many people would do elites -- especially before cross-realm zones were invented (let alone virtual realms) which meant you likely could not find enough people at your level range on your server in that area who were interested in the quest.

      Also...I don't remember having to run through Stranglethorn to catch the Booty Bay boat. I remember running through Wetlands as a Night Elf but that was a conscious choice to avoid the night elf starting areas -- not something intended to be done.

  4. They did away with most wandering elites around 2008. Prior to that there were a lot of elite mobs (ogres in particular) even in low level areas such as Loch Modan. You would be dealing with them doing quests around 16-20, and generally needed to team up with other players.

    Also, you typically ran Stranglethorn around L30 and Wetlands around L20 - not because you absolutely had to, but to open up the map. And even sticking to the road there were mobs that could kill a careless or inexperienced player, especially of the flimsier classes. (Bear in mind that monster aggro acts at a greater distance if the monster is high-level compared to the character, so they would come onto the road to get you.

  5. @rimecat, Balkoth & Gerry Quinn What's happened in WoW is very much the story of MMOs. Things that were originally seen and accepted as content, activity or just the way of the world become labelled over time as nuisances, inconveniences or barriers to entry. Out comes the sandpaper and all the rough edges and snags get smoothed down until there are no sharp corners to knock against and no-one's likely to get a splinter.

    Just like sanding and polishing something in real life, if you do it with care and caution you bring out the grain and get a beautiful shine but if you go at it carelessly or too hard all the pattern comes off and you can barely tell what what its supposed to be any more.

    In the case of WoW and EQ2, to take a couple of games I'm playing currently that have been through the process, there's still plenty of good grain left although some of the character that used to be there has definitely faded. I'm not really worried about those. It's the games that arrive pre-polished and playground safe that concern me because from what I've seen there are very few devs willing to keep the sandpaper and polish in the drawer and if you polish some of the newer games up any more there's going to be precious little left.


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