A pair of good posts (well, rants, really) by Sara Jensen at We Can Fix That With Data on the newbie experience.  Just thought I’d follow up with a few random thoughts of my own on the general topic. 

As she delineates, the newbie experience needs to do three interrelated things:

  • Sell the game
  • Teach the systems and UI
  • Demonstrate gameplay

Seems straightforward enough… but it’s not quite as easy as it might sound.

One problem that can arise is that in crafting an activity that is complex enough to be enthralling for literal months of /played time, the interface to control the gameplay can get pretty… busy, cluttered, choose your own adjective.  It’s going to be hard to sell the game if the first impression of the player is “this reminds me of my Universal Remote… 1000 buttons, but how do I change the channel?”

One solution: an interface that changes over time, enabling only the portions that need to be revealed when they first become available, not before.  Challenge:  harder to design, harder to program, harder to test=more expensive.

Another solution: simplify the gameplay to allow a simpler interface.  Challenge: you need to keep the player interested and occupied for a _long_ time… don’t simplify it too much.

Holding off on character creation

One question I’ve kind of batted around a bit on my own is whether it would be possible to adjust the typical MMO paradigm a little bit by not making the very first step of the experience the process of character creation. 

Some games already do this to a degree… character creation consists of selecting a name and a basic look, the rest of development occurs in game.  However, I’ve been playing with a slightly different idea, due to the specifics of my little “dream design”.

One of the features of Voyages is to be a complex, detailed character creation process: attributes, skill selections, establishment of a character “history” ala Runequest/Traveller, the works.  The problem is, it is complex and involved… and while some people would no doubt enjoy tweaking characters endlessly, many will no doubt want to get to the actual game in fairly short order, at least the first time through, just to see if it’s worth going to the trouble.

One of the workarounds I’ve considered is allowing the player to do “test runs” with templated “pseudo-NPCs”.  Essentially templates with random names assigned, not tied to any one player, that could be accessed to “see what the game is like” without having to invest a bunch of time in personalizing an avatar first.  Rewards earned in such play would carry over to the player’s account, and be applicable in some way to their actual character once they set about making him/her.

It seems vaguely workable, but I’m not sure… it is quite different than current paradigms, and I’m a bit concerned that it would be rejected out of hand because of that.

Flashbacks

Another mechanism I’ve considered for training the player and mitigating the effects of the extensive character definition process is the concept of “vignettes” or “flashbacks”.  These would be optional instanced mini-adventures that the player could play through to explore specific elements of gameplay, tied in as much as possible to the backstory the player has been developed via the process. 

For example, a character that had chosen to study under a reclusive master magician would get a basic spell-casting vignette with that mage in the “trainer” role, set in a wooded area.  A similar character who had instead chosen to study at an academy would get the same vignette, but maybe with a randomly named “journeyman” mage they might never see again, set in more of a “gymnasium/arena” type of setting.

This type of mechanism could allow the player to explore the interface as much or as little as they like, in their own time.  Again, however, it’s a bit of a distinction from existing games, where the basic concept seems to be to dump you in with other players as soon as possible.  You could allow friends/guildies to interactively “share” such vignettes in real time, even players with established characters, via the “flashback” perspective, if that was a najor concern… but does it really fit the bill?

On a related note

One of the classes I recently took as part of an attempt to seek jobs in the industry was a class on Instructional Design.  It focused on various perspectives and techniques for communicating information, and I would highly recommend such a class to anyone interested in this part of the process.  The value of such a class is not in giving you answers per se, but in giving you models to create and evaluate potential concepts.

I loved this class (why, yes, I am a geek, why do you ask?)  Many of my fellow classmates were less than impressed, however, a few to the point of getting somewhat nasty about it.  “What does this have to do with making games?” was the common refrain.

Question, meet Answer.

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