February 19, 2009

Let players make informed decisions

You may have noticed that EVE Online is my hip-pocket example of a game that is constantly receiving major improvements. I mentioned the other day how EVE's new player experience seems to be its only significant weak point when it comes to player retention, but they've just announced some big new new changes:

...We eliminated choices that had no effect on you whatsoever and moved these choices to a more appropriate time where you could make an informed decision. You are in charge of your destiny...

...Many times, people would choose blindly, leading them to feel let down or disappointed later on...

...We have moved the allocation of the 5 free attribute points. A new player has no idea what the attributes means...

...Skills received from character creation have been re-visited and removed, many of which were irrelevant to new players...

...These choices, all important, are better made once you have a true understanding of how things work in EVE. Once you know what you want to do, what you want to fly and so on, that is when you should decide on your career and skills. And it is better that you understand what the attributes do, before you start fiddling with them.

This is something I've been meaning to post about for awhile. It's amazing how many games force players to make choices without understanding what they mean. RPG games in particular are notorious for this. I think games should try to avoid driving players to leave the game and look things up online, and this is especially true before they've even started the game!

Let players try before they buy

I remember being impressed with both Guild Wars and Planetside when it came to letting players try things out before committing to them.

Guild Wars does make players choose their initial profession at the beginning of the game without much information, but after leveling for awhile, the player has to declare a secondary profession. This is handled in a very elegant way though. There is a series of several quests that allow you to try out abilities from the other classes on a temporary basis.

I remember going to see the Necromancer trainer, and he sent me down into a crypt with 4 temporary powers which I could use to try out necromancy and complete some tasks for him. Each of the professions had a trainer that would allow you to get the sense of a class on a trial basis, before finally committing to your choice.

Planetside has special VR training areas where all training restrictions are lifted, and any player in the game can spend some time playing with all the different weapon types, special powers, and vehicles. This is a great way to never feel like you've wasted your hard-earned certification points.

Turn one big choice into several small ones

Tabula Rasa took the idea presented by Guild Wars' secondary professions and took that to an extreme, with 4-tiered class system: In TR, every player in the game starts out as the Recruit class. At level 5, they have the option to specialize further, then again at levels 15 and 30.

The game doesn't allow the player to try out abilities and classes before declaring them, but it does provide a fairly detailed UI highlighting some of the abilities and gameplay style of each class.

This is useful because it allows the player to not worry about advanced gameplay concepts too early in the game, but I imagine it also saved a lot of implementation time when it came to creating gear and missions: There's no need for any specific class-based drops at very low levels, because those classes don't exist yet.

Expanding on these concepts

The ideal game, in terms of allowing players to make informed decisions, would push all important decisions as late as possible. Every player would start the game without a class, and as a neutral faction. After learning the basics of the game, and some amount of fiction, players would be able to begin trying out some powers and eventually settle on an archetype.

Only once the player understood the game and their class would it become necessary to make players choose a faction and begin thinking about PvP. Players would weigh out their options, see what factions their friends were going to choose, and make an educated decision they would be much less likely to regret.

It wouldn't be difficult to come up with fiction and narrative that supported the idea of one group fracturing into two factions. Huxley would be a good candidate for this sort of treatment, with its two factions of humans and mutated humans.

A Star Wars game would also be an ideal candidate for this sort of thing: discovering Force sensitivity and declaring allegiance to the Light or Dark side is a big part of that fiction.


Tesh said...

This sort of thing is why I much prefer the GW model of secondary class choice and free respecs in town. If you can't give players all the toys up front, give them the means to revisit and change important decisions made without sufficient information.

Well, giving them sufficient information to start with is better, but sometimes the learning curve doesn't allow for that, and as we see in something like the WoW endgame, playstyle can change fairly radically as time goes on, like when shifting from solo leveling to group raiding. The choices made early on may not turn out as expected.

Excellent article. I've argued for giving players choices for a long time now, and making those choices relevant and keeping them from being frustrating is something that sufficient information would promote.

Mike Darga said...

"give them the means to revisit and change important decisions"

Ah, well now you've beaten me to the punch on my next post =)

Thanks for the feedback!

ikew said...

nice in concept, but postponing important decisions for after unskippable tutorial, taking hours or days, has been completed, is very alt-unfriendly and decreases replayability greatly. In MMO less alts means that low-level zones turn into ghost towns -> less people start new alts -> more people abandon the alts they are leveling ==> new players get bored & leave in two hours of npc interaction :)

well, that's the theory at least

Mike Darga said...

Well, I think throwing less at the player in the first hour of the game means that you can also have a much more simple tutorial and spread out that teaching through the next few hours.

You could actually choose to keep all your new players in one zone, regardless of what class or faction they'll ultimately be, say like EQ2's Boat or Ryzom's newbie island.

This would hopefully be a good thing for the ghost town problem, but to be honest that phenomenon is completely broken already in most games and will need a few posts of its own. Stay tuned.

Mike Darga said...

Also, there's no reason to slow down alts. Those quests in GW to try out all the classes are completely optional. If you know what you're doing already, you just skip it. Same with trying out weapons in Planetside or reading up on the classes in TR.

Tesh said...

Tangentially, I find that given my very fractured schedule, I spend more time preparing to play than I actually do playing, a lot of the time. I peruse theorycrafting sites, prowl the official documentation, and tinker with talent tree calculators or any other sort of "preview", even if it's just writing in my sketchbook.

I mention this for two reasons: One, a game should have sufficient documentation to adequately describe the gameplay and plan for these sort of decisions. Two, it's best if that sort of documentation is both outside the game, and more importantly, *in* the game. I should never have to go to a FAQ site or prowl the forums for data that should be provided by the devs, and I should never have to leave the game to learn how to play it. (Yet, it's nice to have that data somewhere other than in the game, for when I can't boot up the client and just want to prepare to play the game.)

Mike Darga said...

That's true. And since someone will create those resources no matter what, it might as well be the devs that provide them, in a well-integrated way.

Palli said...

Ahoy! fun to see myself quoted on your blog; honor indeed!

So first time commenter, long time reader (although been a while since my last visit).

What is interesting about EVE or the pre-apocrypha way of character creation is that it was indeed filled with alot of stuff for the player to choose from. My personal opinion on it is that it didn't really fall well into the "sandbox" of EVE, where you are a demigod, maker of your own destiny etc.

The change we made, was to emphasize to the player that he can indeed become whatever he wants. He doesn't have to "reroll" his character because he didn't like mining and his character is specced out in such a way.

The way it is now, allows players to be even more specilized and gives more options right up front, rather than forcing them into a linear path. Or perhaps gives the illusion that it is a linear path of no return (when it never has been).

But yeah, thanks for the quote, it was a nice suprise on a rather boring day at the office ;)

Mike Darga said...

Hi Palli, welcome back!

That makes a lot of sense. The first hour of the game is when you teach the player, subtly or overtly, what the world is and who they can be in it.

If the tutorial teaches them that they have no choices, they'll believe it, even though it's not actually true.

Heh, boring can be good. I'm in a very unboring phase at the moment, and I'm looking forward to a little monotony sometime soon.

Does your team at CCP include many foreigners? I think someday I may want to escape the US game industry =)

Palli said...

I suppose boring is the wrong word, "time between expansions" would be the right one. We just had 10 days off due to easter, but things are gonna be starting on monday, so it's just an interim phase.

CCP has quite a few foreigners, from all over. The Iceland office has mostly foreigners. It started out as a 99% icelandic, but soon after we released and started growing it's been steadily getting more and more people from abroad. I suppose same goes with the US and China offices, it's a good mix of people.

What is wrong with the US game industry?