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?