[Recently came across this: http://penny-arcade.com/patv/episode/easy-games]
In-game tutorials are a funny, if often maligned, part of playing an RPG or video game. In my experience, they rarely last longer than five to ten levels, which typically lasts about half an hour; this is assuming they didn’t annoy you and get themselves turned off almost immediately for being too obstructive while you were trying to play.
The problem with MMORPG’s, of course, is that a tutorial covering how one plays in the company of others could have many potential pitfalls. That said, it’s inherently feasible to set up staged instances that introduce group dynamics via NPC’s and scripted encounters. In a world where group play is becoming more and more convoluted (as well as more and more dominant), it seems strange that the prior preparation for it should be so abject. What consolidates this problem is that fact that “tutorials” never actually deal with game mechanics, instead focussing on aspects of the user interface.
A criticism often levelled at Blizzard’s Cataclsym expansion for World of Warcraft is the complete lack of challenge during the levelling process. I would happily admit that I’m one of the people disturbed by this, particularly the removal of any grouping requirements.
For those unfamiliar with it, a huge amount of resources were spent recreating the original world of six years in order to bring it up to date. Thousands of new quests were designed, many zones changed their layout somewhat and the entire experience was retuned to shoehorn the challenge out of it. Any grouping requirements were jettisoned, a queue was introduced for watered-down dungeoneering and the player characters were significantly increased in power straight from the off.
What this did was streamline levelling to get players to the level cap as quickly and painlessly as possible. That was the intention, so it did what it set out to do. What it also did, unfortunately, was remove the opportunity for players to learn the game as they worked through the levels. It’s no exaggeration to say that World of Warcraft isn’t really a game any more, rather a social hub of mini-games with no real attachment to one another. The best raider in the world may be useless at player versus player content, while the best player in the arena might be a terribly inefficient leveller. No one aspect of the game seems to relate to another, and this has shoved the player base further apart. Those who are willing to use external sources such as Internet forums or video guides are now at a skill level far higher than ever seen before, while those who develop solely in game are the worst players Azeroth has ever seen at the level cap because they are completely unprepared for the content.
Then enters SW:TOR.
As far as concerns me, SW:TOR has absolutely revolutionised the questing scene from World of Warcraft, in much the same way the latter did from games like EverQuest. Not only did single-player quests become more challenging again, the story-driven quests develop the character as well as the player by introducing particularly powerful single enemies that can require the whole shebang of your abilities to defeat. When this is added to heroic group quests and the introduction of companions that all fill different roles, you’re looking at a far more developmental levelling process that actually feels like it’s part of a complete game (with no insidious queue system to haphazardly promote disassociation). This is consolidated by the fact that certain powerful enemies introduced in your class quests become markedly easier depending on the companion you use. As a Sith warrior, I have three companions that I generally trot out; a tank (Lt Pierce), a damage dealer (Jaesa) and a healer (Quinn). Depending on what the enemy does, I could use any of the three in order to best combat it (I’m deliberately leaving out the droid, Vette and Broonmark for ease of reference).
As superior as the SW:TOR questing system is, for me, it just doesn’t go far enough. If feels like that stage in the kitchen before you cook a meal; all the ingredients are on the table, but you haven’t quite baked the cake yet. Everything is in place to go that one step further… And the game doesn’t quite take it.
I’m talking about a quest-driven developmental tutorial that teaches NEW players how their own class performs, and about how roles are designated for group content.
Don’t forget that I already KNOW what roles my companions fill. I know what a “tank” is, I know what a “healer” is. I know this thanks to prior experience in other MMORPG’s. The point is that players who are new to group-games (and MMO’s of this type in particular) will not know what these terms mean; they won’t have an understanding of the roles and what job each role does. And while SW:TOR is an almost perfect example of the scene being set, it only really went as far as putting everything in place.
I’ll paint you an example.
When it comes to raiding, not much is more important than not standing in the fire. The term has survived through thick and thin, becoming ingrained into the head of everyone who’s ever tried to take down challenging bosses in group content. SW:TOR does a great job of introducing players to this as there are many, MANY enemies who have an area of effect attack as part of their arsenal. Roughly speaking, the player can see the circle on the ground and, if it’s not cast by them, they soon figure out that standing in it isn’t very good.
Let’s take this a stage further.
Another important aspect of group content is the ability to interrupt certain powerful abilities. This could be introduced in the form of a combat quest where the final antagonist has a particular attack, described by the quest giver, that needs interrupted else you’ll be wearing this nuke.
“Remember, Sith, if Lord Buttmonkey is allowed those few seconds to charge his lightsaber, the results will be messy. Disrupt him at all costs!”
This immediately puts the idea into the players head that if they don’t stop this particular attack, they’re going to end up dead. Such a quest can come in the story not long after the ability (in this case, Disruption) has been learned, meaning the tutorial doesn’t end at level 5 – it can continue to level 45 if the developers wish.
Other examples of PvE mechanics that are dangerous and somewhat universal are things like cleaves, tail swipes or unavoidable nukes.
”He brutally swings that club in a wide arc; don’t stand in front of him!”
“The tail is a powerful weapon on these creatures, don’t be another victim!”
“Protected in a Force bubble, you cannot stop the Lightning – you must lessen its impact somehow!”
BioWare have created the PERFECT opportunity for this type of development to take place in their class-dependent instanced story areas, but just not gone that extra yard and put it in. Such quests could be reinforced throughout, other mechanics could be introduced and, of course, they could be mixed and matched for even more streamlined development.
Of course, this is all discussing the merits of developing individual skills. What it doesn’t talk about is how the dynamics of group play are introduced regarding tanking, healing and damage dealing. Once again, we have the best possible canvas to work with in the companion system and BioWare just didn’t quite put the ball in the net. I’ve mentioned my three companions that fit all three roles (Lt Pierce, Jaesa and Quinn), and the game could have designed quests that pick the right partner for you depending on where you’ve put your talent points and what the enemy mob tends to do.
If it’s an enemy that does a lot of single-target damage and your talents are Immortal, Jaesa will accompany you in order to kill the enemy while you soak up as much damage as possible. Should you be a Vengeance player, Lt Pierce will accompany you to take the hits while you bring him down in a timely manner. Regardless of talents, an enemy that does damage to both you and your companion will require Quinn to keep you both alive.
”You must last as long as possible to give your apprentice the time to finish the beast off.”
“Lt Pierce will hold the beast’s attention; but be swift, for he cannot survive indefinitely.”
“The beast exudes a foul odour, deadly to anyone near it. Quinn will ensure you both survive long enough to defeat it.”
Of course, don’t forget that nothing would stop the developers from implementing end quests that use more than one companion while you have direct control of none. Depending on the enemy, you can choose whether you wish to tank him or DPS him, and your companions will be picked according to this choice.
”The time is now, my Lord; but Darth Assplug will require more than sheer brawn. You must decide whether you desire to be the one who delivers the killing blow or whether you will protect your comrades long enough for them to defeat him. The fate of this battle is in your hands.”
Depending on what you choose, you will either have to deliver enough damage before Lt Pierce keels over or mitigate enough before Quinn is overwhelmed.
Ultimately, I agree with those people who reckon that learning outside of a game shouldn’t be necessary; the game itself should be its own training ground. What I’m trying to suggest is a way of developing levelling content that teaches players good habits as well as the basics of good performance and contributing to a strong group dynamic. Not only would this hopefully give new players an introduction to the game itself, it would make for far more involving gameplay that is (most importantly) connected to the rest of the game at level cap.