Series Info...Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities #90:

If You Build It, They Might Come, Part Four: Assistance

by Shannon Appelcline

September 26, 2002 - I'd like to start this week off with a dual "Happy Birthday!" Both Castle Marrach and this column are now two years old, plus a few day's change. Congratulations to all the players and StoryTellers who have kept Marrach going and growing and also to all you readers who have kept me writing this weekly column. Well, almost weekly. By my calculations Trials has averaged publication every eight days over the last two years, which ain't bad.

This week I'm going to be concluding my talks on player retention. As you might recall, over the last two weeks I've discussed two ways to increase the number of players who stick around. In Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities #88, If You Build It, They Might Come, Part Two: Discouragement I talked about clarifying your game and making it a bit easier for your players, then in Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities #89, If You Build It, They Might Come, Part Three: Encouragement I looked at the flip side of the coin and how you could generally please players and thus entice them into future play.

This week's conclusion, as noted in the title of today's column, is about assistance. In other words, you don't have to do all the work yourself. Your game will (hopefully) be full of players and they'll generally be happy to help draw new people into your game.

I've touched upon this topic before in Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities #43, The Power of the Medium: People. That was a more general discussion, however, discussing the many ways that having people in your game is cool. This week I'm going to be specifically addressing the interaction between those existing players and the new player retention problem.

And, afterward, I'll be done with new player retention for now, though in a couple of weeks I plan to offer up an example where I try to apply recent lessons learned to a specific game.

Players. Benefit or Liability?

Before I put my rosy-colored glasses on, I'd like to offer one caution. Existing players will not always be a benefit when you're trying to figure out how to retain new players. In fact, they can be a terrible nuisance if you haven't really thought about the new-player experience.

The most common problem is sandboxing, which was described in-depth in The Mummer's Dance #19, It's a Small World and which I described somewhat more briefly in Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities #52, Courting Misrule. In short the problem is that, in a social game, there will usually be a limited number of positions of authority, and once those are filled new players can't have any realistic expectations for social climbing.

In games about achievement you end up with a different problem: farming. Here the issue is that new players often have equipment that is disproportionately valuable in relation to their fighting ability. Meaning, it's often more profitable to attack and kill newbies than orcs or goblins.

I won't try and offer solutions for either of these problems today, as each could be worth a column on its own. Instead, I'll simply draw your attention to them, and then suggest that if you do a good enough job of creating reasons to assist newbies, these problems will eventually be overcome.

Players Just Want to Help

Here's the simplest way you can get players to help you retain newbies: let them. Within a few weeks of the release of Castle Marrach, a new guild call The Awakened (now The Awakeners) had come into existence. Their sole goal was to help out new players, all with no expectation of reward.

Thus, as game designers one of the best things we could do was empower these player characters as much as was appropriate given their in-game standing. So, they got a little room right where newbies appeared and a supply of clothes. And, they even got cool little talismans which told them when new players walked out into the hallway.

The idea of empowering players to help other players is an extremely powerful one, and we've thus extended it even further in the out-of-character arena. We choose some players to be StoryGuides, who have lots of totally OOC powers, like the ability to teleport people to them or teleport to people or even throw troublemakers in the oubliette. Thus, even when we're not around, even when the StoryPlotters aren't around, there are always people who can help bring order from chaos if they feel like it.

This is important enough that I'll repeat it one more time: Empower your players to help other players, both in-character and out-of-character.

Making Newbies Valuable

With that said, I'm now (finally) ready to get down to some actual game design nuts and bolts in order to answer the question, "How do you encourage players who might not otherwise help new players to do so anyway?" As always, as I've been saying since at least Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities #38, The Game Is what the Game Is, the answer is to design game systems to encourage the behavior that you want.

Specifically, if you want players to help newbies you have to build game systems that encourage helping newbies. Or, more clearly: Make your newbies valuable to new players.

Asheron's Call is probably the computer game that has done this the most explicitly, through it's hierarchical feudalistic system. If a player takes another player as his vassal, then he gets a percentage of the experience which that vassal generates. Thus, its clearly in the lord's best interest to ensure that (1) the vassal knows how to accumulate experience, and (2) will stick around. Worlds Apart adopted a fairly similar tactic in their "Mentor" role for Grendel's Revenge. If you mentor someone, you get a share of their favors until they go join another, more permanent grouping of monsters.

I also think it's very easy to build the idea of player value into guilds. If a guild gets more attention/recognition/gold-bullion/filthy-lucre if it has more members then naturally guilds will be out there competing on the streets for newbies. However, this particular tactic is a bit dangerous because, without refinement, it values newbies merely for existing, as opposed to the Asheron/Grendel model which values only active newbies.

If you're going to somehow place an implicit value in a newbie, it should probably:

  • Increase if the newbie does the fun things that encourage him to stay
  • Decrease if the newbie is inactive
Thus, you encourage newbie fun-ness and discourage newbie boring-ness — or rather you encourage existing players to encourage that, which is really the intention.

Work Ethics

Some variants of this idea, which I appreciate for their specificity, were discussed one evening at GenCon in the feared suite 443 (see Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities #84, Postcard from Milwaukee: Community, Collaboration & Creativity for the whole run-down of that event). I remember Aziel, Gareth, and Mandrake being part of the discussion, and apologize to whomever I left out.

The following new player scenario was suggested for Castle Marrach:

Start having snow drifts build up very high in the various courtyards that everyone has to walk through. Then, introduce some code that makes people slip and fall when they go through the courtyards, making them look generally embarrassed.

Put out some snow shovels, and allow them to be used to clear the courtyards, but make it clear that shovelling the courtyards is below the station of any guests who's been around for more than a few weeks.

Enter the newbies. They can shovel the courtyard without loss of station, and them doing so is beneficial to the oldbies, because they'll no longer slip, fall, and look silly. Thus, oldbies suddenly have very good reason to befriend newbies and even give them a simple task to do.

Overall, I liked the GenCon-suggested scenario quite a lot, even though it was simplistic. It had a lot of nice points, including:

  • A repetitive task that needed to regularly be done.
  • A reason oldbies couldn't do the task.
  • A reason newbies could do the task.
  • Incentive for oldbies to find someone to do the task.
Just taking those four components you could generate any number of simple interactions which gave newbies value to existing players.

Final Notes

Summing up this week's article, two great ways to get oldbies to help newbies in your game are to give those newbies intrinsic value or to make something which they and only they can do valuable. Using these ideas as a crux you could easily build a system of assistance which will increase retention above what you could ever do on your own.

And that's it for me on this topic, other than that promised example in the next couple of weeks.

Next time around: maybe something on Marrach two years later. We'll see...

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