6 things MMOs should do to make a good first impression

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You’ll never get a second chance at a first impression, or so the saying sort of goes, so it’s vital to make that impression count. For players — seasoned and fresh meat — who venture into an MMO for the first time, that initial hour or so can be a vital make-or-break moment that will either keep a gamer playing… or send them packing out of frustration, boredom, or annoyance.

So how can an MMORPG make the best-possible first impression? How can it get off on the right foot and serve to suck players into the experience from the start? I have six suggestions from my journey through many games.

1. Have an in-depth character creation system

It’s mind-boggling to me how many MMOs put forth little more than the bare minimum into character creation: pick a class, pick a head, name your guy, let’s gogoGO. Tell me, what does that do to invest a player into his or her character? Nothing. Go out and watch YouTubers who try out different MMOs, and you’ll see sighs and groans when they get games with bare-bones character creation — and you’ll also witness excited squees when they find an MMO that gives you many options (visuals, background, choices) before you get into the game.

City of Heroes and Guild Wars 2 are two excellent examples of MMOs that worked hard to give you a lot of character choices during this stage so that by the time you logged into the game, you already knew a lot about who you were and were connected with that character.

2. Give you tutorial flexibility

Not every player going into your game is coming from the same place, so they don’t all need to be pigeon-holed into the same inflexible tutorial. WildStar had it right on with its tutorial revamp that allowed players a full-fledged “I don’t know anything about MMOs” approach, a “this is my first time in WildStar but I’ve played other MMOs before” path, and an option to skip the tutorial altogether. When I make my 16th alt, I don’t want to have to beat my head against the tutorial popups or be told how to move my character with the WASD keys.

3. Pace things right — not too fast, not too slow

I find that pacing is a big problem in the early stage of an MMO. I’ve seen games that are just pondorously slow, which is made worse when your character has like one attack skill and no ability to move faster than a casual jog. Even worse are those titles that seem worried that they’ll lose your interest and keep shoving cutscenes and inescapable actions at you instead of backing off and providing some breathing room for players to comprehend and absorb. Find a good middle ground here and test the crap out of this intro.

4. Let players explore off the rails

This is my big thing: I don’t want an MMO to be forcing me down a linear path for the first half-hour. It’s not immersive and it honestly makes me cranky. Let me wander around a little bit. Let me get a feel for combat on my own terms, not from carefully staged encounters. Let me have time to fiddle with the options and hotbars and everything else. Provide direction and then let players proceed at their own pace and in their own way.

5. Make low-level combat look and feel great

Just because a character at level 1 needs a lot of room to grow doesn’t mean that you need to punish a player for being at the start. There’s no excuse for making low-level combat as dull as possible. Give a couple skills that pack a visual and aural punch and have at least one ability that shows off the class’ signature approach. Oh, and keep it pretty fast (10 seconds or under) — a long time-to-kill is inexcusable for a level 1.

6. Provide social connections right off the bat

Players should be able to form guilds from minute one in MMOs. None of this needing to get a bunch of gold or gathering signatures crap. That’s antiquated and is absolutely stupid.

MMOs should be doing all they can from the very start to hook players up with old and new friends. Get those social connections going so that they don’t feel alone and so that they have an additional reason to log in. Does your game have robust player searching and friends lists? Do you have a chat channel devoted to newbie advice and help? Do you have any sort of auto-grouping for difficult encounters? In what way will you encourage — not force — your players to interact with each other in that starting area?

I would like to challenge the Guinness World Records, please

guinness1So it was brought to my attention that Final Fantasy XIV is the recipient of three recent Guinness World Records: most prolific game series (fair enough, there are a lot of FF titles to date to be sure), longest end credits (an hour and a half? did they thank the entire population of Japan?), and “most original pieces of music in a videogame (including expansions)” at 384 tracks.

Now I have no idea what goes into the selection process of picking a Guinness World Record, but often I get the impression that it’s more a thing where people and companies call up Guinness to submit an entry rather than  Guinness going out and doing the homework. Especially when it comes to video games, it seems as though the records took the first applicant who made a claim and could back it up without checking all of the competition to see if there were any others that actually deserved the record more.

Final Fantasy XIV has a terrific and diverse soundtrack, and obviously at 384 tracks, it is no slouch. But it’s also most definitely not the world record holder for most original pieces of music in an MMO, never mind video games at large. I’m not an expert, but I have dabbled in video game music (and MMO soundtracks in particular) over the past few years, and off the top of my head some challengers come to mind.

RuneScape, for instance, boasts a staggering 1,151 original soundtrack pieces, with more coming every month. My World of Warcraft music folder has 772 files, and even if some are variations or duplicates, I’m pretty sure that easily tops 384. Both of these titles have the advantage of having been out a lot longer than FFXIV too, so it’s not to diminish FFXIV’s musical accomplishment to date that I post this, but just that it would bug me if it went unsaid.

Any other challengers? I don’t have a definitive count on EverQuest II tracks, but I know that game’s been adding them since launch and there are quite a few. WildStar is about 280 tracks, and I have about as many for SWTOR, so they’re up there but not quite. Lineage II or Aion? Maybe but I’m not sure how much are in those games that haven’t been officially released. I have about 245 tracks for LOTRO, but I know that there are a lot of more ambient pieces I haven’t gotten yet. A weird challenger might be City of Heroes, which had around 370 mostly short pieces of original music (20-30 seconds apiece for the most part).

The Great MMO Culling of 2017

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Last night, the lights went out on one of the strangest and perhaps saddest chapters in the EverQuest franchise history, as Daybreak closed up Landmark and evicted however many inhabitants it had to other sandbox worlds (I hear Trove is doing well, if you like the blocky style…). It was triply depressing, because it was not only the end of Landmark, it not only reminded Daybreak players of the failure to produce EverQuest, but it was the latest casualty in what I’m calling the Great MMO Culling of 2017.

MMORPGs, both young and old, shut down all of the time (and new ones start up as well, so there’s a churn in the industry at large). But once in a while we get a tight bunching of shutdowns and it feels like there’s some sort of small-scale apocalypse going on. Within the first three months of 2017, five MMOs are being sunsetted: Asheron’s Call, Asheron’s Call 2, Super Hero Squad Online, Landmark, and Club Penguin. Now most of these have asterisks beside their name, perhaps noting their diminished populations or, in the case of the last entry, the fact that the game is being retired in order to prepare for the launch of a mobile sequel. But still, five games gone in these first few months with no major launches to counter that streak.

I’m not really down on this. Asheron’s Call was a crying shame, and I think Daybreak’s handling of Landmark as a whole is just shameful, period, but these aren’t tragedies on par with City of Heroes or Star Wars Galaxies. And even though 2017 has yet to counter with expansion and game launches (apart from Conan Exiles’ early access, if you want to toss that in), there are a lot of signs that by the end of the year, we’ll have seen quite a bit:

  • FFXIV: Stormblood and Elder Scrolls Online: Morrowind are going to dominate the news — and players’ attention — in June
  • LOTRO and DDO both have expansions on the way with keystone settings
  • Revelation Online should be this spring’s Asian fling MMO once it hits soft launch
  • The Repopulation is coming back under new management
  • Ashes of Creation is really shaping up into a fairly major MMO deserving of attention. Crowfall and Camelot Unchained should both have an active year of development and discussion, even if betas aren’t in the cards for 2017.
  • Plenty of indie crowdfunded MMOs are starting to bloom and will be springing up left and right with early access and launches. Project Gorgon might even launch by the end, fingers crossed.
  • What’s going on with Amazon Games Studio’s various projects? Of note, New World and whatever John Smedley is now heading up both could be worthy of some excitement and coverage.
  • Seriously, there are some interesting and promising titles on the way with potential to be breakout hits, such as Worlds Adrift, Sea of Thieves, Peria Chronicles, and maybe possibly probably Destiny 2.

It’s just a bummer that 2017 has to start out this way. We’re heading into convention season (PAX East, E3) over the next few months, and that’s always a good time to see what surprises may be out there.

I guess I’m personally rooting for a year in which studios operating live MMOs make wise decisions and shore up their games and design direction. If World of Warcraft can keep these meaty patches coming, if LOTRO is getting its second wind, if WildStar can actually survive somehow, that’ll be a win for me. Just… no more shutdowns for a while, OK?

LOTRO: Hero for Shire

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Over the past weekend, I finally had time to give my fledgling Hobbit Minstrel some time. With my daughter at my side, I ventured back into the Shire for the first time in many years.

And let me tell you that when they say you can’t go back again, they don’t have MMORPGs in mind, because jumping back into early level zones can often be like a time machine or time capsule. It’s even better, in a way, because it triggers a flood of long-dormant memories that you may have thought were completely forgotten.

As I downshifted from the crazy huge conflict of Gondor and Rohan vs. Mordor back to the pastoral hills of the Shire, it was as if I had stepped into another game entirely. This is the LOTRO I fell in love with back in 2007, a slower paced intro zone that was more concerned with running mail, retrieving pies, and uncovering squirrel ghosts than it was fighting through armies of foes.

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One of the reasons why the Shire works so very well — more so than the other two starting zones of LOTRO — is that it paid careful attention to all of its parts, not just one or the other. The Shire feels BIG and diverse, which is not exactly something we usually associate with newbie areas. It’s much more focused on the life and times of its inhabitants than being a carefully designed battleground. It has just as many non-combat quests as combat. And the sound and music design is simply sublime. For however many nights it takes you to get through all of this content, you feel as though you’re an inhabitant.

I think then-Turbine could’ve made an interesting niche MMO that existed fully in the Shire, with new and rotating quests to keep occupants interested. I remember there used to be a kinship (still might be) where all of the members never left the zone. They did the quests, roleplayed, and simply enjoyed Shire life.

I’m not going that far, of course. It’s quite liberating to ignore virtues, but I am still paying rapt attention to class and racial deeds. Also the quests — my goal with this character is to just do them all, even if (when) she outlevels the content. I was enjoying being a tour guide to the Shire to my daughter, who was negative three years old when this game first launched. We were “ewwing” about how the swamp slugs turned into green goo when killed, cheering when I defeated a stone troll, and laughing about all of the weird Hobbity bits. I found myself taking a lot of the same screenshots I’ve probably taken years before, because you simply can’t be in this zone and not want to fully document everything.

To keep things interesting with this character, I’m concentrating more on being a clothes horse. I made her vault as large as possible and will be saving some of my favorite outfits that she gets from questing and drops to pull together her own outfits (for this character, I’m ignoring my wardrobe to simulate starting from scratch). I also have a few housing items already, but I don’t think I can get my house until level 15 anyway, so no rush there. I’m hoping to get enough rep to get into the Mathom House and pick up some other cosmetics by the end of the zone, so we’ll see.

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For all of my intense familiarity with this zone, at least there was something new: the Bingo Boffin quests. I’ve never played these and went through the first two missions as I puttered about Michel Delving and Tuckborough. The character seems a complete doof, especially with that hairstyle, but I’m on board with the light-hearted world-crossing antics of a Hobbit adventurer in training. Even if the quests don’t amuse me, there are barter items to get, and I’ve got my sight set on a hatrack for my future abode. Oh yes, it will be mine.

SWTOR: The Marr and Satele Show

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Back to SWTOR for part two of my largely unnecessary vision quest through the gorgeous Odessan wilds. Satele and Force Ghost Marr show up to do their song-and-dance routine (not literally, although if SWTOR suddenly became a musical, that would have made my day) that pretty much boils down to the same lecture that both the pretentious Jedi and the stuck-up Sith have been giving since Day One: The Force is awesome. The Force guides you. There is no resisting the Force. If you expose the Force to direct sunlight, it may explode. Keep the Force out of reach of small children, especially with high midichlorian counts. The Force is good for a 20% discount at most local diners. And so on. Blah blah blah TALK.

If I as a Star Wars fan was enraptured with the whole Force element of the franchise or if my character was a Force user, I suppose I might have received this differently. But there is a good reason why I went Imperial Agent, which is that I didn’t want to be waving neon tubes around and mucking about with the most ill-defined and ambiguous religious concept in the galaxy. I want to win by practical, non-lecturey methods.

But even though I try to shut these two down any chance I’m given, I still have to go on the rest of this walk and accept their help. Wait, “help.” Yes, that properly conveys my annoyance.

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You simply cannot blame me for seeing these “training poles” in the wilds and instantly assuming that some sadistic BioWare designer had come up with another jumping puzzle. I mean, right? That’s the first thing anyone playing this game this far would assume. But it was just a shortcut and nothing more.

Huh. Sometimes SWTOR surprises me.

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Love the overhead perspective of this cave shot. So we get to visit another Force cave (I’m assuming), where Marr and Satele set up some sort of visionistic fight against Vaylin. It’s not a terribly easy fight, but thanks to my self-heals and the fact that, oh yeah, I’m an awesome Imperial Agent who actually trains hardcore and doesn’t expect the universe to jump at her finger beckoning, I win the day. Kind of a hollow victory, but oh well.

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Marr and Satele offer to help me build a special weapon that might actually kill the Emperor. I was thinking about how I was doing just fine the last time I fought him, but hey, free gun, who am I to say no? There are options here to have one or the other or both help you make the weapon, as well as an option for the weapon’s focus, but the game doesn’t explain any of it, so I made a couple of random picks and here I am with my new cave gun.

I finally stumble back to the base, determined to kick Lana’s butt for suggesting that I take a stroll in the woods for clarity. Next time, she gets to do it while I sit in my office and devour a whole box of Valentine’s Day chocolates. The coconut ones are my favorite!

Duke Nukem 3D: Death Row

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(This is part of my journey going checking out Duke Nukem 3D. You can follow the entire series on the Retro Gaming page.)

Captured by the pigs at the end of the last level, Duke is stripped of all his weapons and brought to a prison to be electrocuted. In fact, right as the level begins, I’m in the electric chair being fried — gotta move fast out of that! Not quite sure why Duke isn’t strapped down, but we’ll chalk that up to him being so powerful that he broke out of the restraints.

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All hell breaks loose as Duke kicks the first guard to death and then picks up a shotgun to even the score. I like how there’s a nearby observation room, although the curtains were closed when you were being fried because… privacy? I guess? Don’t read too much into it, Syp.

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There’s a chapel nearby with the encouraging instructions of “SILENCE. DISCIPLINE. REMORSE.” written at the entrance. I’m trying to figure out what these stainglass figures are supposed to be. The lizard troopers?

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Here’s something I never knew existed: A dead monk, hanging from the rafters. Sure. Why not. Totally makes sense for death row to have a medieval monk hang himself in the chapel. Honestly, I’m reading too much into everything when the key design decisions back in the 90s were made by this: “Does it look cool? Wicked? Evil? Go for it!”

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The team provided a bit of a nod to Doom in this level. You can click a button that turns the cross in the chapel upside down, activates red lights (to make it look hellish), and opens a passageway to “one DOOMED space marine” behind it. It’s all good natured fun, right?

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Following that is a lot of very boring hallways and rooms (pretty dark, too). There are showers, just in case you were worried that this game wasn’t going to fully check off the “prison must-haves” list. It would’ve been hilarious to see the mobs actually taking showers, but no. Opportunity missed.

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A little further in, I stumble upon this ugly looking hologram. Pucker up, sweetheart. You’re going to kiss the sky soon enough.

Breaking out of the prison is actually kind of ingenious. Remember Shawshank Redemption? So did the makers of this game. In one of the jail cells there’s a pinup on the wall hiding an excavated tunnel that leads down into the sewers, and then out to…

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A nuclear submarine floating in a lake? pond? Nearby. Duke grabs some scuba gear and goes up into the sub from below, taking it for a ride to the next destination.

Great level on the whole, although sometimes it was far too dark for my taste. Nothing really makes sense in this game but once you get into the spirit of it, it’s a blast (pun intended).

LOTRO: The size and shaping of Middle-earth

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The other day I was poking through all of the additions and changes to LOTRO from the past couple of years and found this map lurking, for some reason, on the collections page.

Why isn’t this the real game map?

This is a complete side tangent to what I want to talk about today, but can I say that it’s utterly baffling that THIS isn’t the default stable and game world map? It’s so clear to understand, it shows all of the stables, and it gives a whole-world overview in one fell swoop. Why oh WHY is this shoved inside a tab inside another UI window? Why are we still using the really antiquated stable interface to get anywhere? Probably because LOTRO wants you to spend real money on buying ports to these through the maps.

Another side tangent: I only noticed last night that now that I was in Gondor, the regional maps went from a hand-drawn style of the rest of the game to a more Google Earth-style top-down photo. Aesthetics aside, I actually like this style a lot more. It certainly makes the trickier parts of the map easier to navigate.

How big you’ve grown, LOTRO

OK, let’s get back on course with the discussion at hand, which is to boggle at how big this game has grown over the past decade — and yet still see that it only covers just a small swath of the full Middle-earth.

You can see how the map has been gradually filled in by the expansions and zone additions over the years, going roughly in a diagonal slant from north-west to south-east. And all of it is continuous, save for Ered Luin which is removed from the rest of Eriador by a loading screen and a so-far unfilled-in map. You can visit as far west as the Thorin’s Hall, as far north as the icy bay of Forochel, as far west as Gondor and Mirkwood, and as far south as the ocean that laps up against Gondor’s borders.

A few other observations:

  • Looking at all of the map segments, it’s very apparent how much actual space was given to the plains of Rohan to accommodate mounted riding and combat.
  • The core of the launch game wasn’t insignificant, but look at that map and subtract all of the expansions, plus the post-launch zones of Evendim, Forochel, and Eregion. That means there were only eight zones (by my count) in 2007. Right now there are about 40 zones, if you count both PvMP regions, the Beorning starting area, and all of Moria’s maps separately.
  • And we haven’t even gotten to this spring’s Wastes nor this summer’s Mordor expansion, which will continue to enlarge the map.
  • The gaps and unfilled-in areas of the map fascinate me. Probably there’s a lot of nothing in those areas, but look at all of the unclaimed and unexplored regions in the west. HUGE amounts of land there, all just possibilities.
  • Mirkwood is massive in total, and the bit we got for the expansion a while back is only just a small chunk of the southern forest.
  • Prior to playing LOTRO, I never really thought of Gondor as being both a mountainous and coastal country, even with the book maps.
  • Coming in 2022: The overseas expansion!