The noob experience

I noticed a piece of news about Ryzom and planned changes to the newbie experience and it triggered some thoughts:

The current “newbie land” system made of 4 separate islands, is completely changed and replaced by a unique island; and, the new players should also be able to find more help through new missions that will guide their first steps on Atys regarding the gameplay and the lore basics.

I don’t want specifically to discuss this game but just some general points. It is interesting because there’s a trend about consolidating the newbie zones and simplify a lot the offer in quests and content. For example it happened consistently in DAoC, with a progressive approach, and in the classic EQ with brand new “alienated” tutorial content that gets revised and redone from time to time. I say “alienated” in the sense that it’s like a different part of the game, like a “ship” that brings you later in the real game. A transition. The same approach was used in EQ2’s newbie island that is “somewhere else”. Almost a stand-alone game (“The trials of the Isle”).

The whole newbie experience is another crucial point in this genre because it brings up many problems, that get systematically ignored only to demand overhauls and redesigns later on. In fact I think Mythic hasn’t learnt from DAoC when planning Warhammer as I already commented about the introductory PvP model they have hinted.

Anyway, I can observe this general trend to restructure, consolidate and simplify the newbie content. This is probably the consequence of a “redistribution of the players” over time. Exactly what Raph explanied in this often-quoted chart (and that I commented specifically). The players behave like waves, moving uniformily toward the perimeter of the game, till they reach the dam and start to stagnate there (while the center exsiccates till it needs to be refreshed).

There are a few interesting concepts in there to consider, though. One is that I don’t think WoW will require a redesign anytime soon. What is different then? The fact that the game was planned and designed completely around the accessibility, something that noone else was able to reproduce well enough. WoW starts as a single-player game. The zone can be fairly crowded or deserted but the key element is that you are “emancipated” from the presence of other players. The game teaches itself, you follow along. There aren’t barriers to pass, you play it exactly as a single-player game, so if there aren’t other players the game doesn’t suffer. This isn’t only valid later on, but even during the off-peaks (that get always ignored in the design). So it’s a self-supporting part of the game and that is expected to work under much different conditions.

What have we learnt? I’ve written recently: the multiplayer part is a “natural drift”. The key point is that it is “spontaneous” instead of imposed. The idea of an connexion, a join. Or, as I defined it to go at the core design idea: a gateway. The single-player experience can be used as an efficient “gate” to bring the two parts together. To add the value of one, to the other. “Gated content” to make the impermeable barriers, permeable. To make the genre accessible.

Now there are a few other points to consider. One is how you can add new content to the early game. This is a common topic that gets frequently brought up. Recently I’ve seen Aggro Me writing about it. The content is always exclusively added at the endgame, following the linear progression model, opposed to a “systemic” approach. It’s a way to let the players surf the wave on the border and you have to regularly extend their space, adding “segments” through expansions and rising the level cap as a rarer measure. What about adding new content even for new players? It is not a simple consideration about the convenience (since there are more players at the endgame) but a risk. If you add new low-level content you risk to spread the players thin and fragment the playerbase too much. As we’ve seen in Raph’s chart, the noob to mid level content is almost always underutilized and frequently mudflated out of irrelevancy. It will be increasingly hard for the players to meet and enjoy the game together.

So are there ways to add new content for the low level players without damaging the game or change completely model? Of course there are. To begin with I consider stupid to erase and rebuild. You can work to reiterate the development, which would bring to very good results if it was actually done. Polish old content, refine the quests, update the monsters with new attacks and behaviours, loot, graphic, animations. Bring more life to what was too limited in scope. Then add more tie-ins, more connected plots, quests that link together and deepen certain paths. There is no need to stretch the content and fragment the players. There is no need to add ten more zones when the population clearly doesn’t support that choice. But you can bring new life to the old zones, not just reskinning a couple of mobs (Mythic has often this kind of superficial attitude), but with a more comprensive approach that delves in the content and makes it more interesting and complete. Something that could be positive not only for the new players who are presented with a better game, but also for the veteran players who may enjoy to reenact past experiences that were made more rich and would present interesting variations in the gameplay.

So it’s interesting work that could be done on both fronts: update and refresh the content already there and add new one that blends naturally with the rest. That completes it without dispersing. That is enriching instead of diluting. Instead of creating more and more and more space, you optimize, polish and reiterate.

The classic EQ has in the work another expansion that will be released later this year and that will have content supporting the whole level range, from level 1 to 75. I think it is a good idea but at the same time I cannot avoid to think what will be the role of the old content? Is this going to be the biggest mudflation event ever? If they plan for an autonomous expansion, particularly focused on the solo experience, they’ll finish to obliterate the old content, which is the exact opposite of what I proposed above: reiterate on what is already there instead of dispersing, fragmenting and diluting.

When you think to these problems you always finish to imagine some sort of adaptable server structure that can support dynamically the redistribution of the players along the lifecycle of the game. Guild Wars is the only game that specifically put these problems at the center of the design and the idea would work smoothly even to support the off-peaks. The players would be clustered depending on the need and the single servers would become multi-purpose instead of zone-specific, so that they would be actively used depending on the necessity. If the first day of release you have 99% of the players in the newbie zones, all the server would run newbie zones logic, when most of the players will be at the high levels, all the servers would run endgame zones logic, adapting dynamically and grouping the players to avoid both the desertification and the overcrowding.

Is that the best scenario? Not really, because abstracting the space means that the only persistence that is left is that of the players and not that of the environment. It would mean that there’s little to no active interaction, that the players only move on a static background and that the PvP is extremely limited. No consequences, no roles, no ownership, no management. No self-consistence.

Ultimately, from wherever I start to think about these problems and and possible solutions, I always land at the same conclusions. My tripartite model takes into consideration all these variables: the ease of accessibility through soloable content progression, a spontaneous drift toward the multiplayer without enforcing it, “gated content” to blend and interconnect PvP with PvE and a server structure that keeps the servers all balanced uniformly while solving the problem of the lack of persistence (just examined). The removal of the “levels” also helps a lot to close the circle while still retaining the role of the “cozy worlds”.

In particular my model follows what WoW does and then builds on it. For example at the end of WoW’s newbie zones there’s usually a quest that is more group-friendly. In the Dwarf/Gnome zone you have to go kill a named troll in a cave. It is common to find other players in there, sharing the same objective and group with them for a short moment (weak-ties) to complete that quest. It’s the first “multiplayer” step you do in the game, your preliminary grouping experience. But at the same time the quest is still soloable, if there aren’t other players around you can still carefully move through the cave and manage to kill the named troll. The group is a possibility that is naturally given (and spontaneously taken), but in absence of that possibility you can still move on.

This is the same approach that I follow (the second layer of the tripartite model) and that I extend to the whole game. All the content that is *mandatory* for your character progression is soloable, but at the same time adaptable up to four players. This makes it flexible, if you have more than four players you can split in two or more groups, noone is left out or put in front of a barrier. Noone is excluded. Parallel to this the content is then expanded to become truly group-oriented and requiring more than five players sticking together and collaborating (up to raids), but in this case the functional purpose of THIS content isn’t anymore tied to your own character progression but instead to a “world progression” and then “gated” toward the player vs player. So the design idea clusters the players from the single player up to large raids, it contemplates content for all these cases. With the key design goal to make the character progression always soloable and instead motivate the communal, group-oriented content through exclusively communal objectives (or “horizontal” personal character progression and personalization, like armor and weapons that aren’t stronger but with an unique look that defines a “status” without unbalancing the game).

The accessibility is there, the adaptable servers are there, the persistence is there.

Think to a twisted WoW’s model: the basic landmass where we have now the horde and alliance zones would become the open PvP field where the players and guilds conquer territories and raid cities and castles, a truly persistent environment. Ironforge and the other capitals would be detached from their location and become the “planes” in my model. Suspended and intermediating between that open PvP territory and the new PvE. “Hubs” where the players would gather and then begin their journey into the different PvE adventures (the dungeon instances). With the raids inheriting a different role. Instead of becoming the only way for your personal character progression, they would acquire only communal objectives that would finally affect the PvP world. Bringing to concrete consequences in the persistent world (evocating heroes and artifacts and triggering events).

Every time I reconsider those basic points I arrive at the conclusion that those solutions I’ve thought long ago are still enough satifying and innovative. I don’t know yours.

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