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MMO game mechanics learning: I've seen this before

This article is aimed to explore some issues a new MMO player would face from a design point of view. Not everybody likes playing MMOs so... What makes of MMO gamers a different breed?

Abel Bascunana Pons

March 5, 2010

5 Min Read

I'll try to collect these random thoughts in my mind to depict what is currently going on behind the scenes in designing MMOs.  But first, what is an MMO? should we assume we already know how an MMO would look like? Should we assume we would know how to play throughout its contents: the mission and crafting system, the PvE or PvP, the reputation system? Many game elements are assumed as de facto in MMO design without thinking on the potential issues that will arise as insurmountable barriers for new players.

One thing that no MMO has yet achieved (not even WoW), is an ideal way of displaying the myriad of info pieces -as the interface or game mechanics- in a gradual fashion so that players don't get burdened for having to learn too much in a too short time.

Someone will say that this ain't much of a problem, as a player will further learn almost all the stuff on his own, or that he will find a correct answer on the internet thanks to the community... and I would diligently agree with both arguments, even I would deem it a flaw of the game mechanics planning no to provide a reasonable answer within the same game context.

What's a reasonable answer within the game context? It's providing contextual help in a non-intrusive, easy way to grasp so it doesn't let the player behind if he found stuck in some point of the gameplay. Working in this 'prevention' mechanics it's a tough thing per se, as it means the designer must look at the game with a fresh mind each time, without the inevitable burden of having played MMOs for years. What would the player feel at this very same moment? Would he find his way when searching for an specific item in the inventory? Would he understand what all these gauges and meters mean? And these acronyms: RP, MP, INT? How would he better assimilate all the instructions he's given so he can cope with them without being overwhelmed?

'Ovewhelmed', another term to take very seriously. At early stages, 'overwhelming' is the primary source of frustration, and frustration is the reason why many gamers have never gone too far playing MMOs. Here we can trace a defining line between console and PC players. Console games are direct, easy to get into. They can be played in a matter of seconds, and it will only take some minutes to the player to have a working knowledge of the game mechanics, which will allow him to make his way to a more complicated mechanics later, always gradually.

Damn, what 'gradually' means in this context? Presenting info gradually would mean that the player finds a much needed piece of info when it's needed, not before or after that. If the info provided is not presented in the right moment and context, it won't get stuck in the player mind and hands... Hands? muscles of the arm, hand and the whole body in general have their own memory.

A good example of that is Mirror's Edge: the introductory tutorial, is awesome overall. As you follow your friend and make your way through the top of the buildings, you are presented with ALL the character movements you'll need to finish the game. There are many of them, but we could separate them in two different groups:

motion movements - these two words are redundant, and it's only to make explicit we are referring to current movements such as walking, bouncing, jumping, etc...

attack/defense movements - no much to say here, these are movements used when you face a single enemy or a group of them.

The tutorial starts showing you different movements. Some of them you'll have to try several times until you get the correct timing to succed and avoid falling down the building. When the time comes to show attack and defense skills, your tutorial-friend NPC will show you how to block a blow and project your enemy far away from you, also how to pick up a pistol, that you can throw away or use, how to hit with your fists and even how to give a flying leg kick. Some of these movements require a combination of mouse+key plus a camera movement to properly face the enemy, added with the right timing to execute the move. From the very start and without even started the game, the complexity presented in the tutorial regarding motion movements has increased dramatically. What should be done then so players can better assimilate this great deal of information, totally necessary to play the game? certainly, not what Mirror's Edge tutorial offers in this point, even with the best intention. The thing to remember is that all of these combinations are 'thrown' in a row upon the player without letting him some time to realize and better assimilate the different mouse+key+camera combinations. 

After this charge of information, the tutorial finishes and the player is thrown to the game. When he faces some armed enemies, an average player will die many times because:

1 - He doesn't remember quite well how to perform attacks, as he has been saturated of new info without allowing him the time to assimilate it through an easy, gradual and repeated practice.

2 - Enemies are too aggressive from the very start.


To sum it up, we will agree that the volume of casual players is currently surpassing that of hardcore players, so MMO designers should think about the multiple barriers that interfaces, enemies behaviours and systems complexities pose to them.

'Gradual' should be the term to keep always present when it comes to designing even the slightest game elements that require some learning and assimilation by new casual players, otherwise, they'll quit the game out of frustration.  


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