Series Info...Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities #88:

If You Build It, They Might Come, Part Two: Discouragement

by Shannon Appelcline

September 12, 2002 - Three weeks ago, thanks to carefully constructed themes and tag lines, you got a player to try out your brand spanking new game, as we discussed in Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities #85, If You Build It, They Might Come, Part One: Attention.

However, the battle's not over.

The fact is that the vast majority of players who try out your game will not stick around for more than a couple of days. If you're a pay service who offers a trial period, your ratio of people who try your game to those who pay will be somewhere between 20:1 and 200:1. Even for games like Ultima Online or Dark Ages of Camelot where the player has already made a large investment by buying the box, a notable number of players will drop off before they become monthly subscribers.

Fortunately, there are ways to at least partially alleviate this problem. For the next three weeks I plan to talk about things that you, as a game designer, can do to retain your brand-new users once you've grabbed their attention. I'll be breaking this up into three parts, and spending a week on each:

  • Avoiding discouragement (TT&T #88)
  • Providing encouragement (TT&T #89)
  • Enlisting player aid (TT&T#90)

I'm then considering closing off with an example in TT&T #91.

This week: discouragement

An Overview of Annoyance

The fact is: online games are hard to play. With the possible exception of the upcoming Sims Online, there are no massively multiplayer online games that are really mass market. Some games, such as graphical click-fests like EverQuest and Asheron's Call, are slightly better than others. Others are more obscure, such as Skotos' own text games which actually require players to type.

Every type of online game shares one particular characteristics however — it's written in a secret language.

As a game designer or long-time player, you have a decoder ring. You understand the idea of playing a character, the idea of making him better in time, the core concepts of monsters, loot, and all of that. You may even know how the user interface works for typical graphical games or how to type appropriate commands in a text game.

The thing is, you're in the minority.

A lot of people who try out online games are going to find out that they don't know the secret language. They're unfamiliar with the core concepts and they definitely don't grok the standard UI paradigms. They won't understand how they've gotten into a fight or why they're suddenly dead.

A lot of these people you're not going to be able to retain under any conditions — other than giving them their own personal customer service representative which sounds somewhat uneconomical.

But for the people with at least some inkling of what they're getting into, you can do a lot to help increase their retention.

Keep it Simple

The best thing you can do for a new user is to reduce his confusion. A player who wanders around and can't figure out what to do is going to get discouraged, and then he's going to leave. Reducing confusion should be an overarcing theme of all of your new user experience, but the following major points might help you get started:

Provide Contextual Help. In all honesty, your average user isn't going to read all of your documents or help files before he logs into your game. At Skotos we provide a 2-4 page quick start guide for each of our games, and hope new users read at least that, but we're not too optimistic that any decent number of players do. So, you need to provide help contextually within your game — players should see help "just in time" when they need it.

We have a couple of mechanisms for this in Skotos games. First, we provide a "tip" system. When a player logs on, he sees a tip which tells him how to do something in-game. We encourage the player to take that action, then run "tip" again, to get the next bit of information. Second, we provide specific contextual tips which appear when users arrive in certain locations for the first time. This allows us to help guide players in the directions most important to them at game start.

Grendel's Revenge is planning a more traditional in-game tutorial system. New players will wander through a set of initial rooms which provide information on how to access basic commands. Other Internet games, including the classic graphical game Underlight, and any number of free MUDs, offer similar in-game tutorials.

Contextual help could also be tied to finding certain objects, so that you can more easily use them, or to using certain verbs. For example, the first time you used the "give" verb you could get a mini-help file on how to give items to and receive items from other players.

Limit the World View. It's very tempting to tell players about your huge amazing world all at once. Unfortunately this is going to just add to the confusion level of your player, who is trying to absorb too much at once. Try and keep things small. Introduce players to a part of the world where they don't have to understand everything. Is your game set in a huge star-spanning galaxy? Start your players in a small desert town and give them plenty of fun stuff to do there without ever getting into a ship and jetting off.

Don't worry about the big story until your players have already inserted themselves into the small story.

Set Simple Goals. Very closely related, you should set a player's initial goals to be really simple. Don't worry about your big plots or complicated machinations. Just have a player get item A from location B to location C. Inevitably the player will slowly find out about more complex background and more complex goals as he undertakes your task — but let him take it at his own speed.

Be Very Careful with Starting Stuff. Finally, you should pay extra attention to "stuff" that players interact with at gamestart. Does a player begin the game with linen wrappings? Then you should make darned sure that those wrappings work for an rational combination of adjectives and nouns. Does a player start off in a specific room? Then you should be very careful with that room too. Ditto for the verbs or actions you expect a beginning player to use.

Sure, there will always be bugs in a game, but if you allow some of those bugs to be part of a new player's starting experience, he'll leave your game forever with a bad impression, rather than shrugging it off as a continuing player who's seen all the cool stuff would.

Keep It Friendly

So, you've managed not to confuse your players — an excellent start. However there are a few more possible gotchas which can still discourage your players. Which gotchas you need to pay the most attention to depends on whether your game is mainly social or achievement based. I'll hit the social bases first.

If a main point in your game is socializing and roleplaying, your players will get discouraged if they can't. Duh. Here's a few ways to avoid that problem:

Offer a Good RP Basis. To begin with, you need to make sure that your players understand enough about who they are to be able to RP it. If you have weird races or weird cultures, provide brief, simple, and clear roleplaying hints. Again, this might be a great place to offer information contextually, in game.

Make Players Available. Many social games have a problem called sandboxing which has been variously discussed in The Mummer's Dance #19, It's a Small World and Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities #52, Courting Misrule. In short, cliques develop and old players fill all the positions of authority and as a result there's no place for new players to fit and so they're ignored.

I don't want to try and solve this whole issue today, because it's a big one. One answer is: dynamically expand your structures of power to allow for new players. Another is: make players valuable, which is something I'll hit more in Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities #90.

Encourage Good Conduct. Even if you've helped your new players figure out RPing and encouraged your old players to pay attention to them, it won't help a lot if your players are nasty to newbies. And, in all honesty, this does happen a lot in online games because of the cliques that develop.

Fortunately if you offer up some rules of conduct about working with new players, players will usually obey them and develop cultures that are much more newbie-friendly. It could be backstory — you could explain the confused behavior of new players by saying they're awoken with few memories; then, as in Castle Marrach, helping them acclimate can be a fun in-game experience. In a more rules-heavy game you can figure out ways to punish bad behavior... or reward good behavior, which again goes back to that aforementioned TT&T #90, which I'll get to in a few weeks.

Keep It Enthusiastic

In a less social game you have to worry about one other aspect that might discourage new players: the game itself. It's a common problem in online games to lose sight of the forest of new players for the trees of old players. You start tweaking the game so that it works right for your older players... and the next thing you know your new players are tearing out their hair because they can't get anywhere, and so they quit.

Protect Your Players. If death is a possibility in your game, be really careful with it for new players. If there's very little penalty for new-player death, as is the case with Grendel's Revenge, you can let it occur, but it shouldn't be common. Continued death, even without penalty, will be frustrating. If there is a significant penalty for death then you should make darned sure your newbies won't die until they've had a decent chance to figure out what's going on.

When you get killed off and lose your entire first hour of gameplay, there's nothing easier than hitting Ctrl-W, closing your window, and saying "screw this!".

Protect Their Stuff. But you need to be careful not just about new players getting killed, but also about taking their stuff. This could be a side-effect of death, or just of unscrupulous thieves in your game. What's good for the high-level players very often isn't for a player new to your game who's looking only for good experiences. Part of this might come from the rules of conduct I already discussed ("Don't steal from the newbies") but part of it might need to be coded.

Protect Their Fun. And finally, a more nebulous concept. You need to figure out how your players are going to have fun in your game — something I'll hit more next week — and then you need to make sure that's available to them. Do players enjoy themselves when they kill rabbits? Then they'll be discouraged if they wander for an hour and don't find any. Does exploring passages constitute a major fun element of your game? Then those passages better be available to new players. You get the idea...

Action v. Reaction

What I've discussed this week is entirely reactive. Think of it as the "mom test". You log your mom into the game, watch all the things that go wrong for her, then resolve to make those actions more pleasant.

Or, alternatively, you watch the things that are driving your beta testers loony, and make sure to solve them. And remember there are always a number of solutions — game design tweeks, better documentation, or just telling players what to expect.

Next week I'm going to hit the more active side of things — designing a course of rewards which make sure your players are enjoying themselves and continue coming back to your game.

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