Series Info...Storms on Cloud Nine #17:

Fishhooks and Firewood

by Scott Holliday
August 22, 2003

I had a few spare minutes to relax this past week, so I decided to try out a new online computer game. In truth, I was just relaxing, but I had plenty of other rationalizations to back up my decision. Shannon stated it very clearly in his TT&T: Play Your Games article. He was speaking of playing the game that you are building, but my addition is that anyone building a game better have a love of gaming itself. Regardless, by playing someone else's game, you can learn lessons in parallel. Which brings me to today's article... how games catch the eye but often fail to land the hook.

Which new games did you try out this year? What did they do to catch your attention? In my case last week, it was a cool name, a pretty logo, and a free trial. Clearly, my article is meant to be about game design, not marketing. However, it is certainly true that marketing is the first step in how a game catches players. I'm guessing most of us play games based on word-of-mouth, but without the initial players, there isn't anyone to talk. As a developer (or marketer), you must somehow light that match before you can build the fire. Though, using the same analogy, you better have the wood ready to burn!

So, I downloaded the game, extracted and installed, no problem. In my experience, this can be a real stickler — especially in the case of a "free trial" game. If the installation causes headaches, the price of playing is now a headache. I'm sure some of you have also purchased a game, then taken it right back when it won't even install. That happened to me last year, and the company is now on my blacklist. I might give them another chance someday, but not before reading user comments on how smoothly it installs and runs.

Everything looked good, so I hit the icon and jumped into the game. Great interface, pretty pictures, but a few minutes later the game was in my recycle bin. The reason? I had started to build my character. Why would this be a problem? I was faced with a million different character decisions, with no knowledge of what any of it means. Admittedly, the game had come with a huge readme.txt play-manual and world-history, but they hadn't proven to me yet that the time investment was worth it. Instead, I would play something I already knew that I liked — or look for something else.

This is one of the same factors that most impressed me when I tried out Marrach the first time. Character creation was a simple step-by-step process. In addition, each choice gives you an immediate hook and a better understanding of the character that you will be playing. Simultaneously, you are given the back-story for what you should know upon arrival. One step at a time. When you are done, you know the basic situation, some of the back-story, and some of the feeling of the game. You've probably even considered the character's personality and behavior. Although your choices in character building might someday influence the game, they are still character design choices rather than critical live-or-die decisions. As an example, the decision that you have black hair is very different from choosing which disadvantages to take. "Hmm... claustrophobia is worth 10 points, so it must not be as bad as arachnophobia since it's 30?" Or even worse, "Yrtblis must be better than Jurneps — or should I choose Bithlor?" I could see just from the character creation screen that I was going to be lost without reading the manual. Sure, I could just jump in and suffer the consequences — that can be fun RP. However, I didn't feel like playing at a disadvantage, and I certainly didn't want to build (and rebuild) the character until I had min-maxed some design.

Assuming I had made it past character creation — I knew what to expect next. Was it Marie Antoinette that said, "let them eat cake?" I wonder who said, "let them kill rats?" My guess is that more newbies are casualties of the newbie lands than anywhere else. Naturally, the designers want to provide a newbie-friendly area where players have a chance to learn critical skills. But does it really have to have rats and bunnies? I've seen a few games that put new players right into the middle of the major action, which seemed to work really well. Unfortunately, strict level-based games just don't have that option. However, this same design keeps the players best suited to helping (veterans) completely separated from your new players.

Once upon a time, I got heavily involved in a Star-Trek based MOO. Even now, I still think highly of how it handled new players. Upon entry, you would choose a race and some description. Then, you were stuck on some neutral-zone starbase. Not much to do except meet people and play in the simulators. The trick was that representatives from each of the races were watching the proceedings in the simulator. People who excelled in starship dueling were quickly recruited by the different factions and trained to fit into the organization. What a feeling when a veteran player approaches you to ask you to join! Never mind that I accidentally crashed my first spaceship under his command... hehe...

Which brings me to my last point before I close. Games are like drugs. Ahem! Well, sort of anyway. As the developer, you want to bring in new players and get them hooked. If they don't like it the first time, they aren't likely to give it another try. From the moment of entry new players must have something to do. In the Star-Trek example, playing in the simulator was only a small percentage of the content available in the game. Later, you could pilot a real starship, which was quite a bit more difficult. Or you could run cargo. Or spy on the enemy. Or start a war. The key was that the game had a simple, entry-level activity. You had fun playing the simulator. If you didn't feel like advancing to other activities, you could play that simulator forever. Some players did. However, by the time you were ready to move on, you had already learned more of things to come and become invested in the game.

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