The Uncanny Valley of Genre Games

I tried Rift again yesterday. I still find myself unable to get very far out of a sense of “different enough to feel uncomfortable, similar enough to feel like I have already seen it all.” (Gameplay wise, not whatever the world might be.) The discomfort might not be there if I was a player of WoW rather than the similar games with slightly different controls; I am not sure if that would be good or just leave “same.”

I presume that goes away as you get into the Rift-unique stuff that lies beyond the introduction. That is a big problem. The tutorial zone is horrible in the sense that it shows off every way that Rift is like its competition while highlighting none of the ways it is unique beyond a small taste of the soul system. If you are making things familiar to target the audience that already plays this genre, you also need to make things different enough to give a reason to switch games (with all the related inertia. Not that “former WoW players” is not a huge market, but expect Blizzard to put in something special to convert them (at least temporarily) to “current WoW players” just before you launch, just to make it that much harder for you to get entire guilds to switch.

: Zubon

24 thoughts on “The Uncanny Valley of Genre Games”

  1. What did you mean by use of the term Uncanny Valley in the post title? It just doesn’t seem like a good fit to your points here.

    1. That sentence in quotes in the first paragraph is the same feeling as in the uncanny valley. It’s just that in this case rather than “not quite human” it’s “not quite WoW”.

      1. Rather, in this case, “similar games with slightly different controls”, although I agree with the statement several have made that it feels a lot like launch WoW.

        Personally I think the tying of abilities to talent points and making the higher-point abilities simply better, so that you have to max out every talent in a tree to get the best of them, was a poor choice. It seems to drastically reduce the chance of building anything effective in a tri-class combination, and you need rather strong synergy to make it effective as a dual-class.

        1. Good points. While the uncanny valley analogy was a bit unusual, I think it does cast the problem RIFT has in a new light, which was surely the point. :)

          As to you point about souls, in my limited reading and experimentation, it did seem like cookie cutter builds would develop pretty quickly. There are a ton of ways you can really fundamentally gimp yourself, and it doesn’t seem like all that many ways to really build a unique combination of skills.

          Basically the formula always came down to “Pick one soul to specialize in, and pick another one that fills a couple glaring weaknesses in the first soul”. I.e. my character is 90% chloromancer, with just enough points in warlock to get some mana longevity, and nothing more.

      2. The Uncanny Valley is all about the unexpected drop-off in empathy as fidelity of emulation increases. Low emulation = low empathy, higher emulation = higher empathy, but almost perfect emulation = yikes, I want to like it but something is creeping me out.

        Question is, is the uncomfortable feeling Zubon has that of “disquieting creepiness”, or “out of comfort zone challenge”. The latter would probably be desired, and is probably the intent of Trion.

        Incidentally, the slow morphing of WoW (Classic >> Cataclysm) is possibly giving rise to a similar reaction: veterans are playing Cata and while it looks like wow there is something wrong (as in Came Back Wrong).

  2. Um… hate to break this to you but other companies have tried to be “different” from the outset and they are no longer around.

    Gamers weep/rant/rage that they want something completely new and untried. But when companies give them what they want, they instead flock to “like-WoW” games because that is what they love. And then they accuse every game (Everquest included) of copying their lovely game.

    When you are aiming for a specific age/genre group of players, your game better be something familiar in the beginning. After the player gets into the “oh, I know how this works” tutorial, that is when a game should start changing the game-style, mechanics, and systems. It is like fishing… lure them in with similar bait and get them to bite, then set the hook and reel them in.

    And sorry, but games to players are suppose to be entertainment… not the answers to longing that people are missing in their real life. To developers, they are a means by which they can pay their rent.

    Fun to us, money to them. So the developers are going to follow where the current money stream flows. Similar games with slight design changes = $$$.

    Sorry I sound so jaded. I’ve see this many many times… history keeps repeating until something like Minecraft pops up and everyone goes “WHAT! But…HOW!”. ¦Þ


    Dolnor Numbwit
    Eternal Newbie

    1. Dolnor, I have little doubt that going down the “identical to WoW, but with shiny graphics and two new ideas” route will probably be a successful one for Trion.

      Many players are looking for just that, and will flock to Rift.

      I won’t be one of them, though. Well, especially since it’s a lot more similar to the WoW of 2004 than the WoW of 2011, and the start of the art (especially when it comes to questing and PvE content) has rather moved forward since then.

  3. It takes about an hour to get to the end of the tutorial since you’re spending time learning some of the minor details before that. Though it would be nice to actually have Rifts in the starting zones, they are so small that your group would be 4 people, compared to the dozen+ that you see in the real game.

    This beta, they moved rift combat rewards to the first hub after you start the proper and have added a lot more to that whole aspect of the game. They appear to be keenly aware that those sky tentacles are where the money is at and doing what they can to showcase it early.

    1. I am open to the argument that, live, an hour might be less of a problem. If you expect to play 100+ hours, you will put up with an hour. You do not want to “put up with” your entertainment, but we’ll crawl through barbed wire for our games. Given the amount of time I expect to be in-game in beta, an hour per character (and my original server was full when I tried to join the stress test) is a really poor ration of good:suck.

      Funny, I would still recommend Buffy the Vampire Slayer to people, even though most of the first season is pretty poor.

  4. I’m repeating myself here (so what’s new?) but Rift’s tutorial zones are AWFUL. I sent vicious, corrosive feedback about the Defiant tutorial in Beta 1 and about both of them in Beta 2 and I’ve repeated it on the beta forums and in every blog thread on the subject I’ve happened across.

    The actual game of Rift is *nothing* like either of those tutorials. They appear to represent an entirely different game, and had that been the game I encountered beyond the tutorial then Rift would have been crossed off my list of “interesting things” after beta 2. Fortunately, Rift the game is completely different.

    I have to own that I hate the very concept of tutorials in MMOs and would do away with all of them in a heartbeat. The game should begin in exactly the world your character is going to inhabit. Tutorial quests, tips and events, fine. Special, segregated tutorial zones, terrible idea.

    And yet, no-one else seems to care. The servers are absolutely heaving and everyone seems to get through the tutorial and into the game without feeling like they are wading through hip-deep mud wearing a trenchcoat the way I did. Maybe Trion actually know what they are doing and their target market isn’t jaded middle-aged guys who’ve played a hundred MMOs before?

    1. I agree completely. I tried making an alt at one point, because the server my defiant character was on was full and I had heard good things about the guardian tutorial area.

      Suffice to say I didn’t make it to level 5, and the experience nearly led me to rage uninstall the game.

      It’s a major problem. Even if I’d wanted to try an alt in one of the betas, I don’t think I could make it through that first hour again. So when I started getting bored of my mage, I just sort of tuned the game out.

  5. Yes. I have huge problems with Rift, *especially* with the starting areas (though probably not for the same reasons as most). Sadly, since I cannot get past the starter areas before I have to log off from an excess of boom-freaking-boom-bommedy-flash-bang-boom (and no, it’s not as good as Motown), I’ll never find out whether RIFT is any good.

  6. Great post Zubon. The uncanny valley comparison is a very interesting one; my concerns about RIFT make a lot more sense to me when considered in that context. It’s a very interesting insight. :)

  7. I don’t get the vitriol directed at the starter zone. Sure, it’s nothing earthshakingly different. But there is a tiny rift to show off the rift mechanics in very simplified tutorial form, at the end of the tutorial.

    It’s a little stepping stone that helps introduce the idea that look, there are other people in the world around you, and together, you can defeat this thing that happens in stages.

    There is a narrative, corny dramatic text and all, running through the tutorial to either tell you that you’re being sent back in time as a Defiant to save the world from ending, or you meet a few notables as a Guardian, see the nasty outlaw Defiants doing anarchist things and get a visitation from an angel.

    There is a quest that lets you get a sneak peek at a mount. A bunch of books and collectibles you can pick up, a couple named mobs and sorta-elites you can find if you explore around.

    And they show off the basic FedEx quests you will expect to find in the rest of the game: kill X, click on Y, use item Z to trigger something else… and pray really hard that a quest doesn’t get stuck (or else you will have to learn to use the petition command and ask the GMs to reset it – something that most new people going through a tutorial won’t be able to do, but presumably something beta goers can handle.)

    It gives you enough time to pick two souls, contemplate and test their synergies out on kill X quests, play around with keybinds and fix your UI just how you like it. There are a couple scripted sequences – I recall an NPC golem escort in the Defiant zone at any rate.

    And the whole thing ends with a movie cutscene. What more do you expect a tutorial zone to do?

    Warhammer, Age of Conan, Aion, WoW, LOTRO, CO, COH, GW, DCUO, they all follow the same pattern in their tutorial zones, introduce necessary mechanics with some sort of narrative, done.

    If the tutorial is really that annoying for future alts, then request an option to skip it. Problem of repeat veterans getting bored solved.

  8. The tutorial area isn’t great but since it’s over in an hour I really didn’t find it distracting. On the other hand, even Blizzard has said that they lose most new customers before level 10. Even the great one isn’t impervious to attempting to create a calm introduction that doesn’t end up being boring and counter productive.

    I have to say that if people aren’t experimenting with various soul combinations, that’s baggage they bring from other games by assuming the best way to go is max in one tree, less in the 2nd and almost none in a third. My melee build is extremely effective with equal in the 1st and 2nd and some fillers in the 3rd. The systems is only as restrictive or bland as players choose to make it. It’s much too soon to be putting yourself into cookie cutter builds. There is no armory, achievements or gear score checks happening before you start a quest or join groups for rifts. It’s open grouping. :-)

    I’m not sure what to think when players can’t get past an hour of the tutorial in any game other than, that game probably isn’t for you more than a deficiency in the game. I think the fundamental quest philosophy shows early and that’s probably what doesn’t suit. Like me not getting past 10 multiple times in LOTRO and can’t make myself quest in EQ2 no matter how much I want to like it.

    1. I do find it funny that Blizzard has said repeatedly that fact of losing people before level 10 and their solution with Cataclysm was to craft 2 starting areas that are very well defined and fun to play through… the first time, and almost unbearable to repeat because they only play one way and are identical, unlike previous designs that allowed alt-a-holics to have variety on new characters.

      As for Rift, I’ve only played through the starter area once as my intention in Beta is to so deeper into the game, and I’ll explore different builds after launch if I buy it, but I didn’t have much of an issue with it. I was done in less that an hour, then spent two hours in the next area doing quests and rifts. Clicking the Join Public button for rifts reminds me of the best moments of Warhammer, and so far Rift makes me think of “Warhammer that works” more than WoW or any other MMO.

  9. I think offering a way to skip the tutorial would be nice – but what’s going to happen, you’ll get auto-leveled to 6 and sent to the open world? That doesn’t make sense…

    So if skipping it won’t work, what do I expect from the tutorial? Simple, I expect to see a rift or invasion in the first 10 minutes I’m playing the game; not after 30 or 45 minutes. Consider that in the “real” game, it’s completely possible to make progress solely by stomping rifts and invasions, but would you know that from playing the tutorial?

    In short, people who are happy to level up in the game via dynamic content, but are unwilling to put up with static quest content, could easily drop out before completing the tutorial and never know that the game offers non-quest content. In short, they could lose players who would likely enjoy the real game, but whose first impression misled them into assuming they’d be forced to quest for 50 levels.

    Not even mentioning the absurdity of not presenting your most iconic and innovative feature right away – this is your best damn feature, show it off to people! It should be the first thing they see, their first damn impression of the game should be “damn, the world’s really alive!”

    As for the soul system, I’ll admit my experience is limited. But in my limited experimentation I found no effectiveness to be gained by spending points across multiple souls. And I did try a number of hybrid builds: Take my chloromancer, who only functions in her healing role by doing life damage, so if I spent any time using my spells from my other souls, nearly all my healing output ground to a halt.

    I’m sure some classes and souls will be much more hybrid-friendly. But I think it’s unrealistic to think that in time, specialization won’t be rewarded just as it is in every other RPG.

  10. I wouldn’t say that it is uncanny, but rather, the general feel of the game is similar enough to existing MMOs on the market to make player transition from another game easy enough. At the same time, it introduces a few changes such as the soul system and the concept of rifts. Gradual changes instead of overhauling the whole system at once also means there’s a lesser change of the game failing outright.

  11. The game needs to throw players into a big rift, scaling according to the number of players to avoid the WAR experience of empty PQs a month after launch, right away. A big rift with easy monsters (level 0.5), so the player feels like an ascended hero or a Bruce Lee charging through faceless enemies, right away. Then it needs to throw the player into a well-designed lowbie pvp battlemap (one thing WAR got right – I still love Nordenwatch), again very quickly. Then it can go into the quests.

    The selling point of Rift isn’t that it’s like WoW: it’s that it’s like what Warhammer Online was supposed to be at launch. It’s that it throws you into things immediately and then throws something else at you immediately. And it does that as you move up in level.

    I didn’t get to play it at all this weekend because we had guests and even during the two hour window when I had free time (it was just me, the dogs, and my six-year-old niece awake), I didn’t feel like going through the setup work of finding a rift amid all the questhubs. I can report that six-year-old girls love Vindictus, which most assuredly throws you into things immediately.

    The game needs more rifts, better scaling, and more casual pvp. It needs to do these things faster, rather than making players slog to level 20 to get to the good stuff.

    1. Showing how mileage varies, any game that “…throw(s) (me) into a well-designed lowbie PvP battlemap…very quickly” after I roll a character will almost certainly be uninstalled about 30 seconds later, since I find PvP tedious beyond belief at best, so throwing that at me right after character generation means you’ve just lost the sale.

        1. This kind of elevation of the level of discourse being one of the reasons I find PvP so tedious, of course.

          In an ideal world, PvP would be a mechanic like crafting, or player housing – nice to have, and a definite plus for a game to have if that’s what you’re into, but not something that counts as a negative if you’re not.

          Unfortunately in the real world it tends to drag the pvptards out of their basements.

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