7 min read
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Infinite Beginnings

In an MMO, the player is usually supposed to feel like a unique hero. The simple act of creating a new character can often destroy this illusion. This can be fixed by randomizing starting locations and adding dynamic difficulty adjustment for balance.

When I play MMORPGs, I make a new character and get plopped into a pre-chosen location to begin my journey.  In Tera Rising, everyone starts in the same place.  In Dragon Nest, there are two places to start, depending on your class.  In DC Universe Online, you get six starting locations, based on your chosen mentor.  In World of Warcraft, each race has a separate starting location, giving thirteen total options.

And a variety of starting locations is needed for MMOs and similar genres, because players are constantly making new characters and starting fresh, and the player may not want to see the same thing or go on the same journey every time.  And if they do want things to be the same, they can make a similar character.

But beyond the beginning, unfortunately, all of these games combine.  In Dragon Nest, for instance, it doesn't matter what class you pick, because by the time you get to level 10, you're following a story and quest structure that's identical to every other class.  Even WoW is guilty of this (despite it's thirteen starts), though much less so:  Trolls and Orcs, for instance, combine together once the player reaches the first city, as do Dwarves and Gnomes (I don't know beyond level 20, but I imagine that more races combine over time).

Yet oftentimes I feel that the content for unique character customization is far superior to storyline customization.  The first few times the player creates a character, they may feel that they are getting something unique... until they reach a point where their last character had been.

Now, I don't begrudge any game for being linear or having a linear story, since some of my favorite games are just that.  No one expects to pop in God of War, start up a game, and have Kratos appear in Egypt.  It's a linear story about a specific character, and his journey does not change, so a player restarting the game shouldn't expect to have a different experience.

But games that are heavy on customization, like MMOs, are trying their best to make the player feel like the game was made just for them, that they are an individual and are going on an epic quest that no one else has ever (or will ever) go on.  And surprisingly, thirteen distinct starting locations still isn't enough variety.

At least, not when it's predictable.

I've mentioned in an earlier article how MMOs can suffer from cloning because there is not enough variety is character customization, or in armor, etc.  But this is also very true for story.  If I know another player is experiencing an identical story, I don't feel like a hero anymore.  There is enough space between me and another player if I'm playing God of War, since I don't have to physically see another Kratos running around, but when I see another player completing identical quests (the worst offense is watching them kill a boss and waiting for it to respawn), I feel like a cog.

I think there are ways to fix this, and none-too-difficult, either.  Take a look at WoW, for instance:  there are clearly defined Alliance and Horde cities, where all races come together.  So let's take Alliance, just for kicks.  If you are Human, you start in a completely human area.  If you are Dwarf or Gnome or Night Elf, ditto.  They all start in areas where all players and NPCs are the same race as the player.

But if cities exist where all races join together, why should picking my race determine my starting spot?  It's not like choosing to be a Dwarf means I am born from a specific hole in the ground and by my nature I have to start there.  I could start in any Alliance city, outpost, village, etc., as long as those areas were set up for tutorial bits, and as long as the enemies weren't overpowering to a level 1 character.

The latter problem is easy enough to solve:  there is no reason today to have statically-stated (stat-ed? statted?) enemies.  Three words: dynamic difficulty adjustment.  MMOs use this concept already for PvP.  Players have their levels raised or lowered to average out teams and put everyone on equal footing.  This can be done in PvE environments, too.  A player who is level 1 might attack an enemy that appears to be level 1 to it, and deal out the appropriate damage, while a player who is level 10 looking at the very same enemy will see a level 10 beast.  And those two players can fight side by side, seeing the stats that match them.  This isn't impossible; it might not be the easiest thing to program, but the principle is there both in MMO PvP, as well as in games like America's Army where players see different things depending on their own circumstances.

The slightly less technical problem is the one of player tutorials being everywhere.  This however, doesn't need to happen nearly as much as you'd think.

Almost every stinking game I've played has a section where you have to test your first spell or skill on a training dummy, and there's no reason for it.  Half of the MMORPGs I've played also suffer from Glorified Exterminator Syndrome at low levels, where the player has to just go out and kill 20 rats.  Half of this nonsense can be eliminated.  Even if you are brand new to the world of MMOs, you don't need that much hand-holding.  "Click to attack, press the number keys for special stuff" is basically a combat tutorial for 90% of MMORPGs.  The tricky things for MMORPGs are those oddly specific mechanics like crafting which a non-gamer might not readily understand.  But everyone can understand "click on the enemy to kill them."

But, let's suppose for the sake of argument that we really do need those early tutorials.  Do it basically the way DCUO does it:  the tutorial sequence is the same for everyone, and then the player gets placed in their individual starting location after the first ten minutes.  It's not ideal, but it's an example to go by.  And if that must be done, making it skippable would be better.  No need for hand-holding the fifth time you play.

The opening level of a game has always been regarded as the most important, just as much as the opening chapter of a novel or opening scene of a movie.  In each case, it's to grab the audience and make them want to continue playing/reading/watching.  Games have an additional reason:  it's the part that's going to be played the most.  It needs to be good enough that it can withstand being played over twice as much as the rest of the game.

Multiple starting points fixes that, to some degree, but players do blast through them all if there's only a handful (and the most I've seen is only thirteen).  But if the entire game world were an option, with every town or city or outpost or any civilized area at all, the number of options would rise exponentially.

Then a player who makes a new character will certainly never get bored, and we can finally say they'll never play the same game twice.

To see this article with pictures and jokes, as well as other articles, reviews, and development logs, check out

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