Populating Ghostville Part 2: Hooking the Newbies
by Heather Logas
Last time, I discussed efforts our LARPing community made to pull in new players. This month I will turn the discussion towards hooking those new players who do decide to try out your game. With the vast variety and number of online games out there, every game has to compete with every other for the few gaming hours a player has. As a newbie, it is easy to feel lost and disoriented. If not gently but quickly guided to the fun the game has to offer, it is easy to become bored and wander off.
The Welcoming Committee
Our LARP was never invite only. Anyone could show up and play. During the better periods of the game, every night there was a storyteller dedicated to helping new players make characters and getting them oriented. The players themselves were happy to point new players to storytellers, or to try and convince them to join their particular clans before they had even made characters.
Plenty of online games have a beginner’s tutorial that introduces the player to the game. The better tutorials don’t overwhelm the player with too much information at once: they give just enough to get a newbie on their feet without making their head swim and the game feel more complicated than it probably is (or at least than it will be for the new player for some time). Taking this a step further are games that induct other players to become part of a “welcoming committee” for new players to get them started, answer questions, etc. Having a real person to talk to when one enters a game is a huge improvement over just having a tutorial introduction. People who volunteer to welcome newbies usually have a good deal of enthusiasm for the game they are playing, and that tends to show. It makes a new player feel secure that there are people here having a good time, which makes the game that much more enticing to explore.
Remember that first impressions count!
Getting Them Involved
Getting a new player quickly involved in a game can be tricky. They need to be able to feel relevant to the game from their very first playing session. In our LARP, I witnessed many new players hanging around on the outskirts for a handful of games and then vanish, never to be seen again. Don’t let those little fishies get away! Grab them and reel them in!
Getting newbies connected to other players early in their gaming experience can do wonders to pull them firmly into the game. There are many strategies for this; I will outline the ones that worked best for our group.
Hook Ups and Clan Structure
Hooking up a new player character to an existing player character will quickly get them involved in plot and make them feel as though they are part of something. In our vampire LARP new players would be steered towards established players if the background the new player had written offered convenient hooks. For example, a new player may have indicated in their background that they worked as a blacksmith in the Wild West during their human years. An established player may have a background in which they were a cattle rustler in this same time period. If these characters had been based out of completely different geographic areas, the ST may try to nudge the new player to change this part of the background, or else encourage the established player to come up with a reason their character had at one time passed through the new character’s area. This allows the ST to basically set up an early encounter for the new player which in turn helps get them involved right from the beginning. It can be as simple as a “Don’t I know you from somewhere?” type involvement to a full-blown “Oh my! It’s my long lost cousin!” Either way, it gets the new player rolling.
In many ways the setting of Vampire: the Masquerade lends itself perfectly to being played as a LARP. One of these is the clan structure, which is a larger scale version of the “hook up”. The idea is that when someone in this world becomes a vampire, they automatically become part of the same clan of the person who brought them over. The power’s in the blood, you see. So the difference between a vampire clan and the way guilds are set up in most online games is that (to the character) joining a clan is not voluntary, and the character can’t just leave the clan whenever they wish. This has some interesting and valuable results for strengthening a role-playing game. A new player can come in, pick what clan they want their character to be, and automatically have a group of player-characters to work together and plot with. Best of all, the player didn’t have to previously know any of the other players. It is usually to the clan’s advantage for them all to work together, and so the new character is quickly evaluated for their strengths and how best to include them into the clan’s plans. Of course there is often inter-clan politics too, and the new player can eventually get their character involved in that as well. Having a clan structure like this immediately involves the new player and their character in what is going on.
Clans and guilds add quite a bit to the experience of playing an online game. They offer an in-game social group for a player to involve themselves in and can sometimes be the sole reason people keep logging into a game long after they no longer find the gameplay itself to be fun. SW Galaxies, and factions in similar games, throw characters together who would share certain agendas and are not necessarily friends in real life. It would be fairly easy to have a player choose a clan or political faction at character creation and thereby “throw in their lot” with characters they have never interacted with before.
In the world of Vampire the Masquerade, a “ghoul” is a servant of a vampire that isn’t undead, but shares some of the powers of their vampire masters. (Think Dracula’s Renfield, but usually more in control of their faculties). For awhile our game had a policy where if a newbie agreed to play another player’s ghoul for a set amount of time, they would gain a certain amount of bonus experience points toward their first vampire character. The bonus wasn’t enough to unbalance the game, and the new player gained many more intangible rewards. They got to gain an overview of the game and learn the rules with minimal risk towards getting their character killed right away (vampires are usually at least nominally protective of their ghouls). They also got to watch a more experienced player at work and get a sense of the type of politics that went into a vampire session. Finally they were immediately drawn into the game through playing closely with a more seasoned player. While there is no requirement that a player continue playing their ghoul character after their set “apprenticeship” (the bonus points could be applied to a brand new character) many players chose to keep playing that ghoul, usually as a newly made vampire version of the same character. At this point they were already sufficiently involved in plots via their vampire “master” that they didn’t want to give up by playing a new character.
Many online games have experimented with different “apprenticeship” models--from requiring more experienced characters to pass on skills, to the Asheron’s Call fealty system. The system in Asheron’s Call was interesting, because it rewarded the master for having apprenticeships. Unfortunately, since the number of underlings one had granted different levels of power, the master characters would just collect as many underlings as possible without really showing any of them the intricacies of the game. Also, a master character gained a small percentage of their apprentice’s experience points. Some of these characters had so many underlings they gave up on adventuring and just chatted with others while gaining experience points.
In Yo Ho Ho! Puzzle Pirates, there is an in-game mechanic that acts as an incentive for a more experienced player to help a newbie out. Players of Puzzle Pirates get a certain amount of time to play for free. If, during a player’s free play time, a player is recruited into a crew (PP’s guild equivalent) and then decides to start subscribing, that crew gains “shanghai points”. Shanghai points are not used to give a crew any distinct advantage in the game. Rather, they allow a crew to rename one of the pre-named pirate ships that belongs to any crew member. The incentive is an aesthetic one, yet the shanghai points are very desirable. Thus, a crew has to engage the newbie in the game to the point where the newbie is having enough fun that they actually want to subscribe. And everyone wins.
In a game where story and politics are very important, one of the best ways to hook a newbie is to get them involved in plot very quickly. This is a tricky bit for an online game, but I will first give examples for successful ways it was handled in our Vampire LARP, and then give a thought experiment to how it might be accomplished in an online game.
One of the best storytellers I knew in my time playing Vampire was one who introduced me to the concept of “trickle-up plot”. Instead of running plot-lines aimed at the long-term and powerful vampire characters, plots were run that began with the newer and less experienced players. When the game was going well (which it was at the time) the longer established players would embroil themselves in all sorts of elaborate scheming and politicking. Sometimes when plots were handed to them, they were so busy with their plans within plans that they couldn’t be bothered. When they did bother, they had all the resources they needed to deal with the issue, so none of the smaller power-level characters ever even knew anything was going on. On the other hand, when a plot was presented to a new player they were eager and willing to let the ST lead them into whatever was on his devilish brain. Furthermore, since they often didn’t have as many resources at their fingertips, they usually needed help, and would drag in other newer characters. If enough hub-bub was created around what was going on, the mid-level characters would certainly hear about it and probably get involved. Sometimes even the high level characters would come in so that by the time the plot was resolved, a decent portion of the game had touched it. Dealing with these situations well could get a newer character recognized by some of the older characters and that in turn would lead to more plot opportunities which, this time, weren’t generated by an ST.
Anything that requires ST involvement can be quite difficult to think of how it might fit in an online game. In our LARP we had one ST and maybe (max) 50 players. A small healthy online game will have hundreds, and a big one thousands (a giant one hundreds of thousands), all without anyone (or very few people) to distribute and run plots.
So bear with me as I explore an idea. Suppose you have a database of “plots”. These plots wouldn’t have to be special one-time only events. They could be things like peasant revolts, illnesses sweeping the countryside, or undesirables trying to slowly infiltrate the kingdom. They should be things that will involve a decent number of people. Now one of these things is picked from the database, as from a deck of cards. X ideal number of players, filtered first by certain criteria and then picked randomly, receive messages from NPCs that they have important information for them. Now those players go to the NPC who usually spout the same types of things over and over and instead are given some tasty rumors. What the players do with the rumors is up to them of course. Are they in a position to profit on this? Maybe they should keep it to themselves or share it with a few trusted companions. Is this of great importance to the country? Maybe it’s the perfect opportunity to prove themselves to the powers-that-be and they gather a coalition to personally deal with the problem. Or maybe they just try to get in to see someone in power that should know about it. Once the information is allowed to drift into the community, it won’t take long before the whole game knows about it. The trick then is to make sure there are still things that the low level player alone can contribute. For example, maybe your game has a “fame” meter and the NPCs with the key information are intimidated by people whose fame is too high.
You have them, but new games are constantly vying for their few online gaming hours a week. The final chapter of Populating Ghostville will deal with making sure you keep hold of those players you’ve worked so hard to get in the first place.