Early prep for newbies

Getting people started in an MMO is the hardest part. Their first hour has to be informative but also incredibly entertaining, and it has to set expectations for the entire game, too, so they know why they should stick around. That’s a really tall order!

And the annoying part is that you have to do most of it last. It’s got to be really detailed, which means the rest of the games details need to be sorted out first.

But you can’t put the whole newbie experience off! You have to plan the technical parts early or you may not be able to add them later.

When I started this project, I had three technical goals for the newbie experience.

No Screwing Around With Accounts

Almost every MMO I’ve tried in the past six months works like this: you go to the website, find the “Play Now!” button, and then get ready to play… and then have to fill out a web form. That’s a huge turnoff for people who are just driving by the website. Why don’t games delay that part? I just want to be able to play for a few minutes, see if it’s worth my time, and then sign up.

So that’s what I’ve done with my MMO. You click “I’m a new player”, it brings you to the character-creation screen directly. And then you’re in the game. After a few minutes of play, a little box on the toolbar starts blinking, warning you that your account is only temporary: you need to make it permanent by providing a username, password, and email address.

And what happens if players forget to do that? Well, if they come back within a few days, their temporary account will still be there and they can just jump back in where they left off.

This is a pretty easy feature to implement, as long as you plan it from the beginning, and I think it will make a big difference.

No Fussing With Downloads

Once upon a time, everybody downloaded and installed games in order to play them. Unfortunately, those days are coming to a close. More and more people are unwilling to install any new apps on their computers, but they’ll try out browser games.

I need to be able to reach those players, but since my game is fully 3D, this is hard. I’m using Unity in order to help with that: Unity can run as a browser plugin, so you don’t have to download the game. However, you still have to download the Unity plugin! (Except under Chrome, where it magically installs itself when needed. Go Chrome!)

So that’s still a barrier to entry. But it’s better than a full download. My experience is that players are a lot more willing to install a plugin than to download and run a full-scale game. (Which is why there are so many Trojan-horse plugins… sigh, unscrupulous dicks are always ruining everything.)

Sometime next year I can hopefully take it further: Unity will have a new version that compiles to Flash Player 11 (the version of Flash with 3D support). I really hope that works out, as a Flash version of the game will be even easier to jump into.

And the nice thing is that Unity lets me have it both ways: For people who are willing to download games, I’ll also have a stand-alone version with higher-res textures and no streaming delays. (I’ll probably keep that as a little perk for paying customers.)

No Worrying About Quality Settings

The other hard part of 3D is the hardware settings. I’ve never heard a player say they enjoyed futzing with their graphics settings… but a lot of gamers now don’t even know how to do it, or what it means! And no, that doesn’t mean I’m targeting Farmville players here.

I wrote a quick game for a Kongregate.com contest earlier this year. (The Curse of Plum Mountain is a survival-horror adventure game.) Kongregate.com is full of gamers: everyone there identifies themselves as a gamer and they think they’re good at games. But lots of people said they had a hard time learning the keyboard+mouse controls. That blew me away, because my control scheme was exactly like World of Warcraft’s. These are people who have never played WoW. But they were playing my game and they liked it. I can reach some of these people, so I can’t just write them off.

People using Mac OS X had it the worst: Apple’s 3D drivers are incredibly buggy and need to be tweaked carefully. But they don’t understand about that. They just think I’m a fuck-up with a buggy game. But for most people it worked out okay. I wrote a complex auto-adaption system for the game, and it seems to have worked out for most people.

However, the MMO is graphically much more complex. So I’m trying very hard to make the auto-detector smarter, but it’s really hard to do. Especially since I don’t have very many devices to test on.

I think the best thing I can do in this department is optimize the game. The less intensive it is, less I have to worry about performance. But optimization is extremely expensive, both in coding time and in art money: optimized graphics are more expensive than quickly thrown-together assets.

So this will have to be an ongoing task, where I work on performance bit by bit over the months (and years) to come. In the mean time I’ll just have to hope that my current auto-detector works well enough.

I also have a full set of manual overrides, for people who aren’t afraid to dive into the control panel. One of the goals during the beta will be to get people to optimize things for their particular hardware and then send me what they did. In other words, I hope to be able to crowd-source the hardware configuration task.

Pre-Alpha Is Coming… And I’m Scared

The longer I work on the game, the less ready I am to show it to people. What seemed really cool to me last month now seems stupid and terrible. I don’t want anyone to see any of it, nothing’s good enough!

But I’m doing a web-based game here, so I really need to get something live ASAP. I need to find big problems before I go too far in. I also need to hear what players are actually interested in, versus what they find boring and dumb. I just have to bite the bullet and start being more public.

So I’ve declared that “Pre-Alpha 1″ starts at the end of this month and goes through next month. (It’ll probably be on-and-off throughout the month as I work on server stability.) My goal is to have a dozen simultaneous users logged in by the end of next month, and to have a better idea of what will make the game awesome.

Wish me luck!

Diary picture of the week:

I approach Fort Bekarre, one of the few "real" (that is, lore-based) locations in the pre-alpha. The dungeons underneath it are extremely deep.

 

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28 Responses to Early prep for newbies

  1. But lots of people said they had a hard time learning the keyboard+mouse controls. That blew me away, because my control scheme was exactly like World of Warcraft’s.

    And not just like World of Warcraft’s but like that of every single FPS since Quake II or so. I’ve had the exact same problem, and it’s driving me crazy. I suppose gamers are still a tiny minority, even today…

  2. Michael Kujawa says:

    Spiral Knights did the temporary account thing, and I thought it felt really good.

  3. Michael Hebenstreit says:

    about 2 weeks ago by accident (or rather a referral from a wow-insider article I think) I stumbled over your blog and have to say – I LIKE IT. Two items of your game already sold me – the inclusion of werewolves and your understanding that changing into a wild beast is something intrinsically cool.

    So how can one sign up for Alpha?

  4. Pascal says:

    I really don’t like to download real game clients as they are quite huge and often come with additional unwanted software and settings (auto starts suck and are normally not very userfriendly). Same goes for plugins like unity. It has some gain but as I don’t tend to play games made with Unity I disable the plugin for performance reasons.
    I really hope that cross compile function for unity works out as it should as I have already flash installed (with all its flaws. But it is already there).

  5. Jason says:

    As few clicks as possible is definitely a good way to go. We’ve done that on the current project I am part of. Click play and if you aren’t registered you are taken into the game with a default character and everything.

    And that might be the one additional area you might consider doing… default character. Depends on the game, of course, but if you are trying to get players into the “meat” of the game as quickly as possible then character creation (choosing from your hair choices, facial hair, race, and in some cases class) might be as much a turn-off as a web-form.

    Character creation certainly isn’t the gameplay so it really is just another step in the way of potential players. Of course, the downside is that you might have to provide some mechanism for guests who sign up later (the temporary accounts) to potentially re-do their character’s appearance and stuff. Which could have its own issues and problems.

    I like that you are thinking about this fact early though. Good for you!

  6. Anjin says:

    I’m continually fascinated by each of these posts. If you had a Minecraft like preorder option, I would pay right now to access your prerelease game just to watch it evolve.

  7. Indy says:

    Personally, I’m more likely to install Unity than Flash. I am almost certainly an outlier among potential players, I’m sure; I intentionally avoid Flash for security issues and won’t install it in my primary browser. On the other hand, I’m still willing to download a standalone client to give the game a try.

  8. Ibn says:

    I badly want MMOs to start partnering with OnLive. Free to play full-scale 3D MMO with no client download? YES PLEASE.

  9. Ryan says:

    Please do let me know if you need testers at any point. I’ve been following your project for quite awhile now and am very interested in your ideas.

  10. Aardvark says:

    I’ve been reading your blog for a while now and I always find it interesting. I have had an interest in MMO game development, because for the past 4 years I worked for an online game company in the UK that have a very successful mmorpg.

    At my company, we had a very similar idea to you: Wouldn’t it be cool if people could jump straight into the game without having to sign up first? In the end the answer turned out to be ‘no’.

    When we launched this feature, we expected that it would increase player numbers, so we were surprised when we actually found a dip in numbers. To confirm that this was the problem, we actually decided to make half of our players sign up for an account first, and allow the other half to jump into the game with a temporary account as you described. We decided randomly for each player whether to make them create an account first or not. In the end we found that a higher percentage of the players that had already created an account played through to a certain point.

    To be honest I can 100% see why this would happen – it’s all about the amount of investment you have in your account. To use WoW as an example, I clearly the remember the amount of effort I had put into that before even playing it. I paid my money, and then waited a long time for the download to complete. Once it had downloaded I created a character, and then took about half an hour finding a name that wasn’t taken. Once I had got past that hurdle I sat in a queue for 20 minutes as the server was full. By the time I had finally got in, I had already invested too much time into it to give up! Whether I liked it or not I was going to play it until I had something to show for all of the time / money I had wasted!

    On the other hand, I have lost count of the number of flash games that I quit within 3 seconds of seeing the first screen.

    I understand what you are tryning to do, and intuitively everyone would think the same thing, but you may find that actually, that web form that you are trying to get rid of is actually something that would provide the players with a feeling of “I’ve invested X amount of minutes into this, so I am going to play it!”. Even better still, if you don’t believe me you can test this out for yourself by randomly forcing a certain percentage of your players to sign up. This is also a useful way of testing all sorts of features that you are unsure of!

    Either way, I love reading about what you are doing and I will 100% be trying your game!

  11. Gabriel Beal says:

    I would also pay for a pre-order that got me into Alpha.

  12. Scott M says:

    Add me to the list of people willing to pay-to-play the alpha version. I’ve been reading your blog for several years now, and would love to see how you implement the ideas you’ve set out in these articles!

  13. Void says:

    I love reading these posts about you developing this game. Everything I read makes me want to know more.

    Great idea about making it easy to pick up and play without a lot of hurdles to jump over. I definitely think that will help.

  14. Eric says:

    @Aardvark – that’s surprising info, thanks for sharing! I guess I’ll need to run that experiment myself when I have an influx of users.

    Did your tests account for bounce rate away from the signup page? (I assume so.) If they skipped “signup”, did you jump people in with a generic character, or did you still have them create a character?

    (My guess has been that character creation is enough of a hook, and is a lot more entertaining than a web form.)

  15. Eric says:

    People who would preorder to get alpha access: thanks for the support! That’s an interesting thought, and I’ll have to think about the logistics of it, but it could be fun all around.

  16. Sam says:

    What Aardvark says about signups is really interesting. I’m looking forward to hearing about your experiences when Gorgon goes up.

    On the browser plugin thing, how large are the assets that the player will need to download before playing? What with the Quake engine thing in Flash 11 people have been talking about triple A games coming to flash, but having to download several hundred megs of assets before playing could be an big issue.

  17. Bronte says:

    The accessibility goal is great and I would love to see it implemented.

    Downloads will always be a barrier to entry. In some cases, if you made the game fully flash, some players won’t have the flash plugin installed. I think this is one thing you should try to make as accessible as possible, without going out of your way to accommodate anyone. Eventually this effort will start offering very limited diminishing returns for effort put in.

    LoL is a decent looking game, but even my aging and ancient laptop can run it at 60 FPS. My point is that graphics mean very little if your core systems suck. So as long as the game plays well and allows you to have fun, you should be able to afford one graphical setting, that is low enough to play on most PCs that are a few years old. No tweaking = happy players.

    Can’t wait for pre-Alpha. Don’t be scared!

    Also: I have been thinking of trying out Unity. What is your experience with it?

  18. Luke says:

    @Eric
    What if the graphics defaulted to lower faster settings, and then people who know how to change them can raise them up? Would that solve your problem?

    Also I may be the only one in the universe who feels this way but could there possibly be an optional downloadable client?

  19. Aardvark says:

    @Eric
    I don’t really know all of the details, as it wasn’t really my project. I just remember having to back out a few of my changes when they removed the temporary account feature.

    All I know is that they did a lot of AB testing where they randomly gave players different experiences with slightly different features to test which one was the best, so I would assume it was a fair test. It took a significant development effort to add the instant play feature, so they would not have removed it unless they were sure that was the problem.

    If I remember correctly, when you loaded up the game applet for the first time there was an option to either log in, or play without creating an account. If you chose to just play you were dumped straight into the game with a default look, and had the option to change it once you had got into the game.

  20. Good luck, on the pre-release. I’ll make sure to put my two cents in.

  21. Mavis says:

    Good luck with the release!

  22. Josh says:

    I spoke with one of the live content producers of a certain large MMO and despite keyboard and mouse controls being a standard for PC gaming, they have a hard time retaining new players that don’t understand the scheme. The big question is, how do you train a non mouse keyboard player to use that control scheme? There’s no easy way to do it aside from anchoring the player and forcing them through the control paces ala Halo 1. “Look up, look down (invert?), move, target an enemy, etc. You could place this outside the game proper and have a button that say “I’m new, help me!” That way you wouldn’t force all players through that same tutorial.

  23. Andre says:

    @eric ,

    your fan-base has just increased by another one :)

  24. Jeremiah says:

    I’d like to help out with the testing.

  25. Christine says:

    Here’s another fan – been following your blog a while – if you do need a tester I’d really love to see your game growing – looks so interesting already! Sign me up as well :)

  26. Whorhay says:

    Me too, me too! Sign me up for testing and whatnot. A paypal contribution or something would also not be a deterrent.

  27. Rauxis says:

    so it’s end of month – any update on your pre-alpha testing plans?

    *waiting in front of a mouse hole with twitching tail*

  28. Ken says:

    Old AC2 player here, I would love to do some testing for you and provide feedback to help improve this game. Can’t wait!