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: