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Beating the Learning Curve

January 21, 2010

Arg, come on and hurry up so I can play...

For me, nothing beats the feeling I get right before I try out a new game. I’m in high spirits from the time I pay for it at the store to the moment I’m sitting in front of my TV or computer, waiting for it to load or install. I’m excited about things like the challenges I’ll encounter, the worlds I’ll get to explore, or the enemies I get to waste. But whatever. Before I can do anything of the sort, I have to learn the game.

This for me has got to be the worst part of playing any new game. And I’m not talking about things like finding out what races you can play or what zones you can visit, etc. That’s learning about a game, which usually involves exploration and discovery, and is actually the fun part! Contrast that with learning how to play a game, by which I mean getting right down and dirty to dissecting the mechanics–anything from working out which buttons to press to figuring out how much crit you get from each point of agility. I know I could very well be in the minority here, but while people who like this kind of thing can argue that it’s just another form of exploration and discovery, I just know it’s not the same thing.

To me, this is the stuff you have to get past in order to reach the meat of the game. Simply put, I start enjoying myself once I know what the hell I’m doing.

A newcomer to the genre won't understand why this is legendary.

Take any product with lots of features. In general, you don’t get the most out of it until you actually learn what all those features are. This is why your $2,000 cappuccino machine complete with a professional frother comes with an instruction booklet. It’s there to give you all the information you need to enjoy your purchase. Your average MMO is the same way; you get the most out of your game once you learn it inside and out. The thing is, for a first-time MMO player, that’s going to be a staggering amount of information. And unfortunately, most of it is not going to be in the manual.

The idea for this post came after talking to a friend of mine who says he will never ever play an MMO. To be sure, they aren’t for everyone, and I think the huge learning curve is part of it. Even the most experienced of MMO gamers have to go through a learning process with each new game (and sometimes with each new expansion or patch) and this is why I will force myself to suffer through even the most tedious of tutorials. And yes, I will read every word no matter how obvious the instructions. I just don’t want to be scratching my head later on because I got cocky.

Still, it’s a little easier for people like me, or for anyone who has had at least one MMOG under their belt. But consider what it might be like for your MMO newcomer. Even the things that we think are intuitive might not be that intuitive after all to the noobiest of noobs. For example, for someone who has never even played an RPG, the idea of stats would be a difficult concept to grasp. I had a friend in this boat, whom I caught with Intellect swords on his World of Warcraft lowbie warrior. When I asked about it, he told me. “I wanted a smart character.” While this is funny, I didn’t laugh because he was new, and also because it was then that it hit me. Stats are weird. Intelligence? Strength? Luck? Wisdom? Perception? These are all great qualities I would put on my own resume, so why shouldn’t the newcomer feel the need to take them all?

If you were just button-mashing as a kitty, you were doing it wrong.

Now, to the above example, I could have easily told the guy “L2 read tooltips”. But, please. We all know reading is optional in MMOs. All joking aside though, most people don’t like to play games that make them feel like they’re studying. And to someone who thinks reading tooltips is a pain in the ass…well, just wait ’til he gets to the higher levels. I’m going to keep using World of Warcraft as an example because most people are surprised when they hear about the complexities of theory crafting. “Why, that sounds like math!” they say. Uh, yeah, that’s exactly what it is. Pages and pages of mathematical equations exist out there whose sole purpose is to show you why that weapon is your best-in-slot or why you should or shouldn’t be using a particular rotation. That’s why it always makes me laugh when I see comments like “WoW is so easy my 7-year-old daughter can play it!” or “Oh, WoW is just all about button mashing.” Well, I can tell you that none of those people ever raided as a DPS feral druid (Note: experience is based on pre-Patch 3.2 observations). This was a class whose ridiculously complicated “rotation” inspired hilarious works such as this. One can argue that WoW has been dumbed down in many ways, but it’s still not as “mindless” as some claim it to be, not if you wanted to raid or PvP effectively (or in other words, not be bad) and if that’s what it takes to get the most out of my game, I will suck it up and learn, math be damned! The irony here, of course, is that the burnout from theory crafting is part of why I’m taking my indefinite break from the game.

Still, even before you get to this point, the MMO-newcomer has major obstacles to overcome. First, one must learn their way around the user interface. And I’ll tell you, the UIs on some of the MMOs I’ve played look more like mission control for a shuttle launch. Can you say, the hotkey is your friend? Second, there is the language. Like all cultures, members the MMO community use a collection of jargon and slang to communicate with each other. And yes, that includes a healthy dose of acronyms. DPS? PUG? WTS? BoP? LFG? How about WTF? Because that’s what the new MMO player is probably thinking when he reads something like “LF3M Kara, need MT and CC then G2G, PST!”

Frustration leads to the dark side!

There’s a lot more I can name that would make the MMO-noob’s head explode, but I think I’ve made my point. A learning curve is something we all have to beat in order to get the most out of our games, and the MMO can pose quite the challenge to someone who has never played one. For some, learning can be fun but it can also be a barrier. A person who doesn’t get it is not going to enjoy themselves, and they’re also going to struggle. Struggling leads to frustration, and a frustrated person doesn’t usually keep doing the thing that’s making them frustrated in the first place. So it doesn’t matter how awesome a game is, if it’s too complicated from the get go, the new MMO player won’t stick around long enough to find out.

For example, my best friend in real life who has never played an MMO couldn’t get into World of Warcraft after playing the 10-day trial. This initially surprised me, considering how much we have in common and the fact we share many interests because of it. But then I thought about it. I may have gotten hooked so quickly because I was fortunate enough to be part of a great guild soon after I started playing. Not only did that social aspect provide me with a fun environment in which to play, the wonderful people in it also helped me understand a lot of the game mechanics in a relatively short period of time. On the other hand, I doubt my friend even had the opportunity to join a guild in her 10 days of playing. God forbid, she might even have encountered the ugly side of the community during her adventures through the low levels. After all, nothing turns a person off faster than being subjected to Barrens chat.

It’s just a shame, as I was probably out of the country at the time my best friend was trying out the game because she never told me about it until after the fact. It makes me wonder if it had anything to do with the learning curve. Could she have gotten into WoW if I had been playing with her and had been there to give her tips? For developers, helping new players beat the learning curve becomes a question of how user-friendly (not the same as “easy”) you can make your game for newcomers to the genre, especially the beginning areas. However, I do believe it is the community that can make most of the difference. So what to do if you’re one of those who are looking to dive into the wonderful world of MMOs but don’t want to be overwhelmed by the deluge of information? Hook up with a friend who already plays! And if that’s not possible, find a supportive guild of like-minded people, stat! Much of what there is to know can only come from more experienced players.

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