Wow, That?s Complicated

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When idiot teenagers act out or want attention they usually turn to self-destructive behaviors like cutting themselves, doing drugs, or dating celibate vampires. But now I’m an adult and have to find a more grownup way to ruin my life, which is why I reactivated my World of Warcraft account. It’s working out really well so far. My productivity has dropped to almost zero. I’ve only just paused the game long enough to write this article, and as soon as I’m done I’m going to log in again. In fqact, I’m so apathetic at this point that I’m not even going to go back and fix the typo at the beginning of this sentence.

I’m surprised at how much the thing has changed since I first installed the game two years ago. The first thing I noticed – which is the first thing all non-blind people will notice – is that they have gone out of their way to provide a ton of tutorials at the start. I left them on for a lot longer than I should, simply because I was curious about what sorts of things Blizzard decided to teach new players.

If you’re one of those players who thinks that “newbie” is a synonym for “stupid”, then you’re excused from the rest of this. I know MMO interfaces are “so simple” to you. That’s because you’re so much smarter than new players who haven’t learned to play yet. Just like babies are all morons because they can’t read. Really. You’re awesome. Don’t ever change.

Now go back to trolling the forums with your level 1 sock puppets, because it’s time for the grownups to talk.

Is he gone? Good. I hate that guy. Anyway, massively multiplayer games are crazy complicated. The gameplay dynamics and terminology can be overwhelming to anyone new to the genre. Hit points, mana points, rage points, stamina points. Burst damage. Area of effect. Damage reduction. Buffs. De-buffs. DPS. Channeling. Tanking. Aggro management. Pulling. Pets. Quest makers. HOTs and DOTs. Roots and dazes. Cooldown timers. Elites. Minions. Tapping. Conning. Then you have the different races, classes, primary professions, secondary professions, and character builds. The different travel systems from your “home location” to travel waypoints to personal mounts. Crafted gear vs. drops. And all of that is stuff you’ll need to understand just to play solo in the general open-world game content. But eventually you’ll end up learning about instances, PuGs, bind on pickup drops, PvP, guilds, and (eventually, if you go the distance) RAIDING, which is almost another entire game on top of everything else.

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I submit that World of Warcraft and its rivals are some of the most complex forms of entertainment, ever. Heck, it’s more complex than most people’s jobs. (I’m saying this as a programmer. I think you could teach yourself C++ faster than you could learn WoW from rolling to raiding. )

Even with just a single character and a couple of abilities at level 1 the interface will easily surpass the complexity of an automobile interface. Now, you can throw newbies into a sea of information and let them sink or swim if you want. Those that are up for the challenge can stick with the game and learn the hard way through failure and newbie chat. (I think EVE Online is probably the ultimate example of this design philosophy. That game seems to be designed to cull newcomers so that only the tenacious remain.) Players that aren’t in the mood to learn through confusion and failure can leave for simpler games with gentler learning curves. But if your company runs one of these games and you’ve got (or want) millions of users, then it’s in your best interest to design a game that can teach people to play it. If you discover that half of all trial users play for ten minutes before they die and quit forever, then you might be looking at a situation where slightly altering your starting areas could make you millions of dollars. If people are getting frustrated or confused before they get to the fun parts, then they will walk away and never learn what they’re missing.

Carefully teaching newcomers how to play will also reduce the load placed on your support staff. If 1 in 20 newcomers mistakenly right-click on a button instead of left-clicking and then get confused by the unexpected behavior, your in-game help personnel will end up being tasked with answering the same simple questions again and again instead of helping people with genuine game malfunctions.

I’ve never seen an MMO game go as far towards helping newbies as World of Warcraft, although sadly their tutorial still isn’t very good at its job. The tutorial system consists of a great big question mark that hovers in the bottom middle of the window, and a popup box that appears whenever you do something new. WoW might be ahead of the game when it comes to teaching people to play, but it’s still a long way from solving the problem. In fact, the tutorial system might cause as many problems as it solves. One of the most daunting things about these games is the sheer information density at the start, and I don’t think adding two more doodads to the mix is the right answer, even if they are helpful and informative doodads.

I think the ideal solution would be to begin the game with a very simple interface and work your way up, the way some single-player games do. You start with a health bar and one ability. Once you defeat a few mobs the game gives you your stamina / mana bar and a couple more abilities. After you play around with that for a few minutes you get your map, then inventory, then quest tracker, and so on.

Of course, this process would be torture for existing players. You’d have to make this tutorial a “level zero” zone and make it easy to skip for people who know what they’re doing.

Actually, the ULTIMATE solution would be simply to…

Ah screw it. My Gnomish Mage is calling to me and I need to get back to the game. I’m sure you can figure the rest out for yourselves.

Shamus Young used to produce Twenty Sided, DM of the Rings, and Stolen Pixels, Shamus Plays, and Spoiler Warning, but now he just plays WoW.

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