I want you to imagine back in the day playing a side scrolling game for your Genesis. The manual is the usual paper booklet, and pretty flimsy. Unfortunately though, it doesn’t explain adequately how to do the bonus stage, which you need to do to get enough extra lives to have a chance of beating the game. There were no saves for it back then, and this one doesn’t even have a password. Your friend comes over, and you both play the game for hours, trying to puzzle out how the minigame works.
Flash forwards to today. You play a new MMO, and it’s pretty opaque. You go to the help channel because you are stumped on a specific mission. You are told to go to a forum, or to google it.
I say to hell with that.
I say it because I was hanging out in the rookie pilot chat in EVE, and I saw question after question asked which could have been solved by a little effort reading the help text, either in a mission journal, or on a specific item. I also saw some questions which were met with “google it.” Want to know the best agents? Google it. Want to get an online mining guide? Use the wiki.
This needs to stop, because it does nothing but breed passivity and deference to authority. We need to learn games by our own experimentation, even if it is redundant or time consuming, because it binds us to the game and gives us confidence. Whether a sandbox or themepark style, we should be able to make the game our own and learn by exploring. When we learn to ride a bike, we don’t go online, download a bike FAQ from gamefaqs, and then a third-party GPS app which gives us the optimal route to maximize our time spent on the road. We get started, with just enough help to get us going, and then we learn.
I can think of three ways to stop this, one on the players end, two on the devs.
- Players: do not be afraid to experiment and solve things yourself. This means do not rely on external help unless at a very last resort, and do not surrender your decision making to Elitist Jerks or the Wiki. Test things out, try different approaches, spend money and time and fool around. You may very well reach the same conclusions as those two sources, but you have done so for yourself.
- Developers: Make information as transparent as possible. EVE does this well by adding detailed info and contextual help for each piece of equipment, each ship, each mission, or even players. If your players have to hit outside sources just to understand your game frequently, you may want to just think about including more information to the game. FFXI was horrid at this, with players never being told how basic stats worked, and experimentation was made as painful as possible because the information was so counter-intuitive.
- Developers: Encourage players to fail. EVE seems harsh initially because one wrong move and you can lose your ship. But early on they give you enough money and ships to mitigate failure. You can do tutorial missions and get an impressive amount of basic frigates and industrials, and the basic ships remain inexpensive enough to replace until you are in the game long enough to know how to mitigate failure, and what plan or goals you want to pursue. FFXI rationed money, making it hard for players to experiment with gear builds. They also made the early partying experience hard enough and penalizing enough to make failure hurt, and what happened is that players wound up toeing a strict leveling line.
I think a good amount of the disenchantment with themepark MMOs like WoW is that they do not encourage us to experiment or play. I’m not talking about the need for player-driven choices or sandbox gameplay. If we rediscover that, I think we would see much more enjoyment and activity, even if it means less efficiency and more failure.