Thursday 17th October 2013

World of Warcraft is a complicated game. The Godmother’s recent post on the matter, and specifically on ways to improve the in-game ‘player education’ aspect of it, comes just as Bhagpuss published a post on a similar topic, that of how newbie-friendly the game is.

Both posts shine a light on the unfortunate fact that honestly, WoW doesn’t do much within itself to guide new players, or veteral players facing new content. Sure, it’s improved over the years, and things like the new talents system mean fewer objectively bad decisions can be made out of understandable ignorance, but there’s still not really much guidance on how to do fairly fundamental things. As Bhagpuss says, quests are basically walls of text within a UI that’s looking increasingly dated and rigid, still adhering to the nearly 9-year-old format of ‘speak to this person, then collect/kill x things’. Almost all quests are like this, delivered entirely via walls of text that eventually most people simply stop bothering to read, instead glancing just at the summary at the top. To top it off, there’s a lot of tedious travel between places, with little reason to head off the path to explore somewhere new.

That’s not to say Blizzard haven’t tried: the popups explaining how to move around, how to cast spells, etc. are probably quite helpful, although it’s hard to really put yourself in the shoes of a completely new player, without the knowledge that we take for granted now. Even so, to a player used to the very streamlined content provided by console games, being dumped into the open world of an MMO like WoW is a paralysing and disorienting experience.

A second chance to carve your skull

Then of course there’s the issue The Godmother highlighted, of how to explain new things to experienced players. When an expansion’s released, where do we go? What sort of gear level will we need to enter heroic dungeons? Where are the NPCs who sell Justice/Valor Point gear? All the questions that players might have, but historically have had to visit third-party websites to learn the answers.

Now, there are, more or less, two schools of thought in this regard. The first thinks the status quo is fine: the websites are a good thing, they encourage a sense of community, and players benefit more from a sense of involvement.

On the other hand, the rest think that the game itself should be the first stop for information, that it should at least provide some basic information about what’s changed, what all the options are for, and so on.

I don’t think either extreme is wrong, and, being extremes, neither position is really viable, which means the ideal is somewhere between the two, as in most matters. Yes, there should be more guidance in-game, but whatever’s there couldn’t possibly compete with the vast wealth of player-created content available. One of the commenters on The Godmother’s post mentioned the in-game browser, which would possibly make accessing the content a bit more streamlined, but only if you know the content’s there. In fact, for a lot of new players, they might not even think to look for help outside the game, especially if their only past experience with games is that of modern ones with all their training levels, greatly simplified design, and strongly-directed content.

Timeless Isle

In a way, the Timeless Isle is aptly named: those of us with adult lives and responsibilities have less time available than we used to, so having a single place we can go to for all our gearing-up needs is useful.

The Isle, though, is only a tiny part of the game, the newest part, the latest experiment by Blizzard to increase the value of the most constrained resource adult players have: time. The rest of the game suffers in comparison, both to the Isle and to other, more modern game designs. Guild Wars 2, for example, has a much more free-flowing quest system, where you just have to be in the right place to be on a quest – there’s no talking to an NPC and reading through three paragraphs of text to figure out what they want you to do. Just show up and do it, and if you wander off, you can always come back later and continue.

Hear me now

Guild Wars 2 also relies much more on cutscenes, especially for its Personal/Living Story elements, further reducing the need to read, and all (I think) of the dynamic events in the game have voiced NPCs who instruct players, telling them what needs to be done, where to go, and so forth, sort of how Dobablo suggests WoW NPCs should do, in a post on ways to improve player orientation upon path/expansion release.

This aspect of the game, that of using NPCs audio to guide players, is an important point, that I feel Blizzard should really capitalise on in the next expansion. Not only do more fully voiced NPCs add to the immersion, they mean players don’t need to spend precious time wading through oceans of (admittedly often well-written) text, both in-game and out, just to learn where they should be going next.

Already Blizzard have made some steps towards this ideal with the Siege of Orgrimmar raid: Lorewalker Cho’s audio before each boss, giving a bit of background about why we’re there, or Jaina’s “lead them into my blizzard” shouts in the Galakras encounter, for example.

So much more can be done, though: Dobablo’s ideas are good, and Blizzard could certainly take some inspiration from ArenaNet with regards to cutscenes or voiced events, so that hopefully when patch 6.0 arrives, Azeroth will be a more immersive place than ever, with much less need to keep breaking that immersion when we get stuck and fire up a web browser to look for answers that should be in the game in the first place.