Openings, Good and Bad

Your MMO must convince me that it is worth playing in less time than it takes me to download the next one. If your tutorial/introduction does not include heavy doses of awesome, soon, you will not be getting my credit card information. If you cannot bother to make the game look good in the one bit that you know every single player will see, I must assume that the rest of the game is worse.

Warhammer does this very well. Tutorial? More or less none; proceed straight to the war. You start on a battlefield. I started as a Greenskin, which is probably why I bought the game. Take a few steps forward from the log-in spot, and you can see dwarves attacking. The Dwarf area is much the same, with squigs and goblins running around the cave next door and giant cannons pointed at the enemy. NPCs are blasting each other in case you did not get the idea. The elf pairing has the gentlest, and therefore worst, introduction. Your starting spot feels safe, and your first enemies are tiny fairies. Even there, you have attacking forces 10 seconds away, and the good guys get to shoot down harpies with a ballista. Win.

The Lord of the Rings Online™ does this pretty well. The opening is pretty tame, but it immediately tosses in the things you want from Lord of the Rings. If you are a hobbit, you immediately see a Black Rider. Dwarves start next to Gandalf in a scene referenced in The Hobbit, and they proceed to a troll fight. Elves get a troll too, and humans and elves both start with the world burning down around them. It is not a great, action-packed intro, but it gives you the setting while you get your bearings.

City of Heroes is a mixed bag. Outbreak is very weak, notably the “run in a straight line” bits. Breakout is better, with a more interesting map and a mass NPC slugfest. The real awesomeness of City of Heroes, however, is the costume designer. Even before you put your character in the world, you pick from a mess of powers, see the cool toys that lie in wait, and then probably spend a ridiculous amount of time playing with paper dolls. That kind of thing makes the slow start of actual gameplay tolerable.

Many other games do it badly. I don’t even bother to mention most that I try. They were not worth the time to download, even if I downloaded while I slept. That thread has a bit of hate for Age of Conan, but they had the presence of mind to make the 1-20 game one of the most celebrated bits of content around.

: Zubon

Anyone want to comment on WoW’s opening? I tried a few way back in beta. The Undead was the most impressive. Dwarves were kind of meh.

13 thoughts on “Openings, Good and Bad”

  1. The normal level 1 starting zones in WoW were kind of slow. Most of them involve fighting against internal enemies like the Wretched, the Defias Brotherhood, Burning Blade traitors or tainted nature, but it starts to ramp up at levels 10-20 when some of the major threats are properly introduced. The Draenei and the Blood Elves and the Forsaken get to deal with their traitors and strike a blow against their primary enemy (The Burning Legion and the Scourge, respectively). The Night Elves are busy against the defilers of nature. The Humans, the Dwarves and the Gnomes get rid of the Defias and encounter the Blackrock orcs, and the Tauren, Orcs and Trolls show that they’re a force to be reckoned with by securing footholds in the Barrens and Stonetalon mountains.

    However, the Death Knight starting zone is anything but slow. The “Survival of the Fittest” style of Death Knight training is made apparent in the first few moments, and it’s all-out war afterwards, culminating with an epic assault. However, being dumped in the classic Azeroth afterwards is kind of a letdown after an adrenaline rush. Fortunately, Outland is just a level away.

  2. Atmosphere-wise, playing through the Tauren starting zone was one of our fondest memories in WoW. Comparatively, the other zones seemed to lack a certain luster, and though none offered a ton of action from the get-go, the Tauren pacing was pretty good, and set the stage for a young character making her way into the world.

  3. WoW’s first 10 mins is not full of awesome, but it does a lot to suck the new player in with immediate and varied quests designed to teach the basics of gameplay. The pacing, difficulty level, and visuals of the new player area reflect the attention to detail and polish necessary for this “make-or-break” part of the game. The environments are well suited to each race, from the Night Elves’ lush shadowy forest to the Forsakens’ crypts, and are enough to encourage immersion in the new player’s racial choice.

    Those starting experiences are now years old, too. You can see advances in the design thinking when you look at the starter areas for the Draenei and Blood Elves, the races introduced with the first expansion. There’s a lot more variation in the quest choices, and a ton more story tying it all together. The Draenei experience leaves you with a good sense of surviving the crash and making “first contact” with the other races of Azeroth. As a Blood Elf, you participate in helping to pick up the pieces after the Scourge invasion of your homeland.

    I’m not sure packing *too* much awesomeness in a game’s first 10 mins is such a great idea, if it’s immediately followed by go-kill-10-foozles-and-deliver-the-foozle-tails-to-that-NPC-right-over-there-yes-the-one-with-the-question-mark-over-his-head. That’s the sort of design that leads to “30-day” players. Better that some of the awesome sauce be saved to punctuate the player experience regularly, especially, but not restricted to, the zones that your metrics show most players being in at the 20-30 day mark.

  4. Does the ’10 minutes of awesome’ always apply though? I’ve played enough MMOs to know that generally the first few days are usually a lie, and that the majority of my time (should I stick with it) in any MMO won’t look like the first impression. With that knowledge, the potential of a game is far more important to me than how great the first 3-4 quests are.

    AoC and DarkFall are two examples of this. AoC is a lie 1-20, as anyone who bases their purchase decision on the 1-20 game is going to feel cheated. DarkFall on the other hand just drops you into the world and vaguely tells you to go kill goblins (if you even know to pick up the quest). However, at no point since the first minute does DarkFall turn into something else, what you can do in the first minutes is what the game is about. If that works for you, you won’t be disappointed, and if it does not at least you know right away.

    WoW is that odd middle ground, where the leveling is great, but then the game does a 180 at the level cap. You have to ‘grind’ through 1-80 if you like endgame, or the game ‘ends’ when you hit the cap if you like leveling/questing.

  5. I’ll half-disagree with Zubon and say the game doesn’t have to frontload the awesome, but it does have to frontload the tight.

    I can put up with a long road to awesome as long as that road is tight, varied and attractive. If I start sniffing “the proper grind” early on that discourages me to keep walking the path, tight as it might be.

    Another thing: I will always gravitate heavily towards games that offer marked and distinct variety in the experience of the starting areas and first third or fourth of the game. Not just cosmetics, but quest types, motivations, introductions to the world, etc.

    Subjective comment of the year: All this is overridden by games that just feel right. If a game feels right, I’ll play it. And I will not explain this, first because I can’t, and second because it’s like Soylent Green; varies from person to person.

  6. This is an unfortunate truism, because those first 15 minutes in the game are just a teaser really and rarely translate to how good the game is overall.

    I’ve become a firm believer in humble beginnings for an RPG, character-wise at least. That can be hard to translate that into great and glorious, although as Julian comments, it’s more important that it just feels right (and hey, I’ll give a nod to any Soylent Green reference). I dunno, maybe I’m an RPG snob, but I think RPG players can generally get a good idea of whether the game reaches what they want, without being overly harsh on the opening sequences.

    … Addendum:

    Just because it was brought up: Soylent Green has the distinction of the first film reference of a videogame. A pre-Atari Computer Space is highlighted, although sadly it was painted white instead of its usual metal-fleck disco splendor.

    Now, if you’ve ever played Computer Space, I’d say it’s a very poor first experience for games. Horrible, horrible game.

  7. I think there are design decisions that show within the first few minutes that hold true for the rest of the game. I loved the WOW leveling 1 to 20 actually which is probably why ROM hit an immediate chord with me. Yes, AOC 1 to 20 was the lie in polish but not in game design. Heavily instanced, trash loot, screwed itemization and limited exploration. That didn’t change. PoTBS was the same. I could tell within the first few minutes that it was an instance-fest even more so than AOC since every occurrence of combat is instanced in some manner. So while polish might not be certain that quickly overall design choices can be very apparent.

  8. I agree that Outbreak is too spread out. Half the time spent there is just engaged in running from one location to another. I favor immediacy in tutorials… put things right in front of the newb and explain it all clearly off the bat.

    WoW’s not bad for this… you can always (as far as I can recall) see the quest mobs for the initial quest from the NPC who gives the quest. So it isn’t “run wayyyy over in that direction until you see something that might be a target”, it’s “kill those things right over there”.

    I think there’s a balance to be struck in tutorials between introducing the complete novice to a wholly new game and gaming system, and introducing a player well versed in the genre to the specifics of this game. My bias is to err on the side of simplicity but allow players to skip any or all of the tutorial. That way total newbs aren’t overwhelmed, and more experienced players aren’t held back.

    AoC’s Tortage sequence was very well produced, but that’s not the tutorial. The tutorial was the single-player island sequence before arriving at Tortage. It was honestly a bit on the long side but well polished and generally fun, and did provide most of the explanation needed while allowing for exploration and experimentation (e.g. if you swam into the lagoon behind where you spawned, you’d find a treasure chest underwater). Though the rails were pretty explicit (and arguably need to be in tutorials) the island sequence had hidden content and the ability to skip sections, albeit with the price of being underprepared for later sections.

  9. I always thought the beginning of CoX was awful because it had that cumbersome character editor (and no matter what I did my character looked awful) and then, after that, you had to pick your powers — which felt like having to pick a WoW talent tree before I had ever played the game.

  10. My first experience in WoW was of getting lost. In the night-elf starting area. It took me ages to find where the quest giver was that I was supposed to return to. But I guess it didn’t put me off because I wasn’t paying for it, I was playing on a friend’s account.

    If a game rings true with me at the beginning during the trial I’ll throw money at it straight away, but not if my free trial is me playing the full game on a friend’s computer.

  11. Seems to me that Age of Conan’s biggest problem is neither the tutorial nor Tortage, but immediately after Tortage, dumping the players in a completely different experience at level 20. It goes from being all about dynamic story telling to being a typical grind extremely quickly.

    Really, if avoiding the typical grind was the goal, the game after Tortage should have been scrapped. Maybe give the players the first ten levels of Tortage, then slowly release another level every month as the rest of the game is trickled in. Continue an interactive story thusly.

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