So I click to attack? Who should I click? This one is blinking red. Does that mean I should attack it? How do I use this piece of artillery? Am I supposed to click that too? Won’t I swing my sword at it if I click it? I don’t want to swing my sword at a piece of artillery. It might break, right? Are the short, stout people on my side?
These are some of the questions that a player new to MMOs might have the first time they play Warhammer Online. As developers who are also avid gamers it can sometimes be quite the challenge to take a step back from your own experiences and put yourself in the shoes of someone logging into an MMO for the first time. However, it is a necessary exercise when approaching the design of the starting player experience.
Conversely we must, of course, also consider the veteran MMO players. The sort who might ask questions like:
What does Warhammer Online have to offer that other MMOs do not? How is it going to elevate the genre? Why would I want to subscribe to it instead of Other Game A, B or C?
Though these questions are typically the easier ones to be mindful of, the true challenge lies in creating an experience that caters to both the new player and the veteran. Excellence in starter area design is achieved when we create a gaming experience that answers both types of questions in a timely, invisible and, most of all, enjoyable manner.
With our motto, "WAR is Everywhere," we cannot simply have starter area populations consisting of mindless critters scurrying about. We catapult (sometimes literally) new players into the war effort. When you roll a character in Warhammer Online, you don't start nestled away in a comfortable cottage with a backyard suffering from an infestation of problematic pups. You start on the front lines. Your enemy race is in front of you. Your friends are behind you, and you are sent in guns blazing.
As exciting as that sounds for the veteran player, the experience might intimidate a new player adjusting to the feel of an MMO - the sort who might appreciate a group of mindless creatures scurrying about. How then can we cater to both? The short of the answer is careful, methodical design that builds upon what we have learned from our games and competitor’s games.
First thing first we identify the basic skills a player is going to need to survive in the MMO-verse. Things like understanding red means hostile, blue means ally, how to use their abilities, accepting and completing quests, earning influence in Public Quests, leveling up, etc. Then we identify some of the key features in our game we want to ensure players experience in the first couple hours. Such as Kill Collectors, the Tome of Knowledge, Public Quests, dynamic encounters, tactics, etc. Next we consider the starter area storyline goals. Ensuring we communicate what the player’s race is about, what their goals are, what part a player will play in those goals, who their enemies are, etc. We organize all of those elements into a logical progression and graduate it over a gameplay timeline. Finally we lay in a series of encounters serving those needs and a series of quests directing the player through this framework.
To illustrate an aspect of this, take for example the starting Dark Elf player. By virtue of our motto the first thing you must face is your hated kin, the High Elves. Unfortunately they despise you just the same and so would naturally be aggressive in return - the kind of moving in an aggressive way that does not cater to the starting player’s general lack of reaction time at this point. As he would still be reading the tool tips, learning his character’s abilities, accidentally right clicking instead of left, etc. As a starter area designer, the last thing you want a new player to experience when he first logs into our game is death. So with some ingenuity and fuel from an extensive intellectual property we are able to construct encounters that serve both needs.
Carrying on with our purely hypothetical starting Dark Elf player example, let’s say you arrived on the shores of Ulthuan having just exited a Corsair galleon with the strength of a Black Ark behind you (for those who are unfamiliar it is essentially a fantasy medieval Death Star). The awesome destructive power of this floating citadel has already disrupted High Elf forces nearby. From this basic conceit we can develop a litany of encounters which abides by our motto, gives new players the room to become comfortable with combat, and gives veteran players a taste of what's to come. Such as populations comprised of Swordmasters locked in perpetual combat (and therefore won’t aggro until the player is ready), Archmagi disoriented from the dark magics, Sea Guardians busy rebuilding fortifications, etc.
Of course that example addresses only one of the many design needs in a starter area. After addressing several others, testing, redesigning, retesting, redesigning, etc. we know we have achieved our goals if after the first couple hours of gameplay our players, new and veteran alike, are saying things like:
This is joyous. I can’t wait to experience what’s next. Check this game out, Bob. We can do date night tomorrow night, dear. Must level faster. I’ll sleep when I’m dead. Warhammer Online is awesome!
2006 Aug 27 21:38 GMT