One of the first things I learned as a game designer is that the first 15 minutes of your video game is critical. It is during this brief window of opportunity that most players decide whether to invest their time in your game. The sobering reality is that after 15 minutes most players have made up their minds whether your game is a piece of crap or something they will keep playing. A video game that fails to capture the interest of a player during that time is essentially dead in the water.
Smart video game companies realize this and plan accordingly with regards to budgeting and production scheduling. Initial content for video games should never be completed first because at that point the team is not experienced enough — you don’t want players to have to suffer through not quite perfected content and untested design ideas while the team is figuring out how to create and script the MMO. Introductory content should be attempted only after the team is experienced and has a clear vision of the game.
For example, Blizzard spent many months refining and polishing the WoW newbie experience of the human lands of Elwynn Forest. Eventually they ended up with a newbie experience that was so completely perfect that they used it as a template for all of their newbie starting lands. And the rest is history.
In view of this cardinal rule and with a fresh set of eyes, let’s take a look at the first 15 minutes of a MMO that had showed great promise but somehow missed the mark: EverQuest2.
Back after playing EQ for many years I had pretty much given up on SOE due to the poorly quality of their expansions most notably the disaster that was Gates of Discord. Back then I was so upset for SOE for letting EQ deteriorate that I swore I’d never buy another Sony product — I’m not kidding.
Despite my feelings about SOE I felt compelled to give EQ2 a try. Previously to this article I have played EQ2 on three brief occasions: once when it was released, again during the release of the Faydwer expansion, then after the release of the continent of Kunark and again just recently to try out the game in it’s Shadow Odyssey incarnation.
For some reason I EQ2 never quite clicked with me, therefore I have no real knowledge of the MMO as a whole except my own brief experiences and what I’ve heard from others. This lack of familiarity is useful when approaching an analysis of the first 15 minutes of gameplay as I will try to do all of the typical things a newbie player might do as they stumble into a re-imagined Norrath for the first time. Where I differ from a newbie is that I will present my analysis of what I encounter both by providing constructive critiques and offering solutions to problems.
By many accounts EQ2 has improved over the years. Let’s see if any of those improvements made it into the first 15 minutes of gameplay.
My Character’s Setup
I’ve decided to play a male barbarian mystic with a good alignment starting in the Qeynos newbie area called the Queen’s Colony. When EQ2 launched 5 years ago it was called the Isle of Refuge and was meant to teach players about the MMO and give them some details as to the back story. Once they reached a certain level they had to make a choice between choosing the cities of Qeynos (good) and Freeport (evil).
Since then SOE has created additional newbie starting zones in Faydwer, Neriak and Timorous Deep which is a reversal in the original design philosophy of herding players into one of two alignments/starting cities. The new starting zones are a wise and sensible return to they way characters started back in the original EverQuest and in WoW. (These new starting zones also are significantly more polished and refined then their older counterparts and I hope to discuss this in part 2).
I chose Qeynos newbie zone for a reason: given the stirring EQ2 opening cinematic that sets the stage, many new players would gravitate toward selecting that and Freeport as starting cities.
Minutes 1-2: The Loading Screens — A Missed Opportunity
Let’s start at the beginning. On the first loading screen the ESRB notice is too big and distracting — it’s dead smack in the middle of the screen — like a bulls eye. Instead it should not be on its own page. Compare that to the tiny ESRB notice that is tiny and tucked away in the bottom left hand corner of the WoW login page. It’s a mistake to emphasize what the game has that could offend people; instead it should trivialized by making the warning smaller.
Then you have the practice of concept art being used as disconnected filler to entertain the player while the game loads. I’m not a big fan of the decision to have random concept art being displayed while the player waits for the game to load and for zones to load. I’ve noticed that SOE makes this mistake in Free Realms as well. Loading screens that reflect the zone the player is about to enter are a great way to get the player in the right frame of mind and help to strengthen the notion of immersion.
It seems to me that SOE is missing a major opportunity to be promoting the current storyline in EQ2: the Shadow Odyssey. I’ve been playing EQ2 now for about a few weeks and I still haven’t a clue what or where the Shadow Odyssey is. Contrast that with WoW’s Wrath of the Lich King opening screen that previews an expansion where the viewer instantly knows that it takes place in a northern, snowy and hostile environment.
Also where is the Shadow Odyssey opening cinematic? Does one even exist? If not, then why not?
SOE should play to the strengths of the Sony Corporation and enlist the expertise of its film division Sony Pictures to help the produce cinematics that would help promote their expansions. Blizzard has no such motion picture division in its parent company but somehow it manages to produce world class cinematics for their games.
- Show scenes from the current expansion to whet the player’s appetite for what’s to come. Look at how and why trailers are made in the motion picture industry and emulate that philosophy.
- Players should be salivating to experience that new content. Remember, you want long-term subscribers. They need to be able to see themselves experiencing that future content. The opening screens and cinematics are a great way to do that. Give potential players goals, aspirations and dreams!
Minute 2-3: Character Creation — Inappropriate Background Screen
No matter which race you create you have the same bucolic background screen that reminds me of Rivendell from Lord of the Rings. While the current artwork may be fine for some of the good races it is inappropriate and far too cheery for the evil races. This is really a missed opportunity to give players a sense of the history, lore and culture of the race they will choose for their avatar.
A picture is worth a thousand words and Blizzard pulled this off brilliantly with their character backgrounds giving each race an appropriate setting that gives a well- defined sense of content for each possible race at the character creation screen.
The one-size-fits-all background screams “cheap” at me every time I am forced to look at it. It’s amazing that this glaring omission has not been addressed yet after 5 years.
Suggestion: Have SOE artists create a unique background for every race which would at the very least inject some polish at the front end of your MMO.
Minutes 3-4: Character Creation — Too Many Choices
Once the player chooses a server they are faced with the daunting process of creating a character from scratch. Every race that I clicked on had a randomly generated appearance; quite a few of them were downright ugly and made no sense. Having to see a motley crew of ugly characters that look like they just escaped a carnival side-show is going to be quite disconcerting to new players. Let’s not forget you as a MMO company are expecting players to identify and bond with these avatars. Players don’t generally like UGLY avatars.
The problem is obvious: there are too many choices and options for appearance. It’s all very overwhelming and the player can get lost in the minutiae of it all. Players — at least the males — don’t want to spend half an hour customizing the tilt of their nose and the shape of their ears. Instead they want to experience the fun of your MMO right now.
It’s easy to forget that many of your new players may be entirely new to MMOs — they are not experts on human anatomy nor are they artists that understand the human form. Having to create an avatar from scratch can be hard.
Giving the player too many choices this early is somewhat misguided. I got the feeling when I created my characters that I could stay at the character creation stage forever as my avatar was never quite right. What if I chose the wrong beard or didn’t like it later on? Players should be able to change their appearance later on once they know how to play and are hooked. (I believe this feature is in game now).
Another problem is that for some reason all of the variations seem to have little effect on the race of a character. Dwarves, elves, humans, barbarians all seem to look exactly alike despite the myriad of character feature options. The end result is that no matter how much time your players spend creating their EQ2 characters they will all look strangely similar.
- No ugly random character appearances from the outset.
- SOE should make about 20 stock archetype pre-set character appearances for each race and gender (after writing this I noticed that NCSoft has done this with their Aion MMO).
- Lock up the EQ2 art team in a log cabin and have them create these characters using the character creation screen and have them make the avatars as attractive and handsome as possible.
- This way the player could scroll through a multitude of ready to go awesome looking characters, choose a class, then name and immediately enter Norrath and start having fun.
Minute 5-6: Alternate Appearances
It would be remiss of me to not to mention the inclusion of “alternate appearances”. Just as the original EQ has the confusion of having 2 distinct art styles for their player avatars to choose from so too did SOE make the mistake of allowing this to happen in EQ2. Having these alternate appearances is another frustrating distraction to the new player. It basically sends a message that “we don’t have a unified art style in our MMO”. Most new players will wonder what this is about and may be tempted to click on this feature.
To me the alternate appearances seem to reflect a more cohesive art style that has become popular in MMOs like WoW. They are simply more attractive then the stock character graphics despite hints of an anime style which I’m usually not a big fan of. I feel it would be wise to offer these as the standard appearances and shelve the original appearances or at least make them optional in order to appeal to new subscribers.
Suggestion: Scrap both of them and hire a team of brilliant character artists to create new player avatars. Yes I understand this costs money.
Minute 6-7: Class Selection
Overall I thought the class selection screen is done very well. Lots of class choices is one of the strengths of EQ2. The good, neutral and evil restrictions make it interesting but not too onerous.
Suggestion: My only concern is that SOE should indicate in the class description how useful each class in different situations such as soloing, grouping and raiding.
Minutes 8-10 – The Player Arrives in Norrath
Upon entering the world of Norrath the new player is presented with a user interface (UI) that looks like a tornado swept through someone’s backyard. There are hotbars and buttons all over the place with very few of them if any in logical and customary places one would expect in a MMO.
Admittedly the first thing I tried to do was to replicate the stock user interface that exists in WoW. Replicating the layout that I was used to took me a few minutes and I find it disconcerting that SOE does not offer a “use WoW” user interface to their players. I do like the import UI settings from your other characters feature which can help the existing player get up to speed.
The quality of the UI itself just does not stack up competitively to what is found in most MMOs today. I realize there are some alternate UI mods you can use in EQ2 but it’s very disconcerting to see what comes standard with this MMO.
Here are a few issues:
- Player’s buff and NPC debuff icons are too small and can’t be re-sized as is the case with many parts of the UI including the chat font input bar.
- this is even more pronounced at higher resolutions such as 1900 by 720 which seem to makes the icons tiny.
- remember that this is an accessibility issue for older players who’s eye sight is not what it once was.
- Lack of a player and NPC portrait in the target box(include comparison graphic).
- Out of place icons include:
- compass icon
- experience bar
- threat icon
- time icon
- The UI needs a complete and total revamp to bring it in line with what players expect from a UI in a state-of-the-art MMO.
- Give players the ability to re-size spell/debuff effect icons — they are just too small!
- Create player and NPC portrait icons for targeting that reflect the current standards in the MMO industry.
Minutes 10-12 Newbie Tutorials and Quests
The tutorials which address most faces of how to play an MMO are generally fine but a bit too wordy. The nice thing is that they are purely optional.
Regarding quests, I like the fact that a player has a choice when proceeding down the pathway of quest dialog — players actually have a reasonable way to terminate their conversation with an NPC which makes sense. This approach is very refreshing from the typical non-interactive quest dialog typical in WoW.
Quests are not too numerous at this point which is a good thing. The player should be focused on as few tasks as possible during this critical time.
Suggestions: Cut down on some of the quest text — less is more.
Minutes 12-14: Combat and Abilities
Finally the player can get their hands dirty in combat and it feels fun. Mobs seem to be well tuned — they have a healthy amount of hit points and are relatively challenging but not impossible. This too is very refreshing from the cardboard NPCs that seem to go down after a few hits/spells in a shooting fish in a barrel MMO like WoW.
I noticed that most of the abilities have rather long cast times compared to WoW. I’ve noticed that this is a trend in EQ2 — everything takes a lot of time! Rarely if ever do you have any insta-cast abilities which I find strange.
The player hotbar is set up quite adequately with all of the abilities at their disposal. When you level, I found that some classes sometimes gain two additional abilities which show up magically on the hotbar. At this point one new ability should be sufficient per level as the player is still learning how to play their class — don’t overwhelm them with too many new abilities so early in their career.
One thing that bothered me was that it was hard for me at times to tell whether I was in combat or not. The only way to tell if you are is your name starts flashing red. For me this is not enough of a visual cue. Blizzard handles this very well with their flashing attack icon which also has the added benefit of displaying the current equipped weapon.
- Limit new abilities to one per level
- Reduce casting times by about 30% across the board for all spells/abilities
- Add some insta-cast spells/abilities wouldn’t hurt either
- Communicate a clearer way to tell the player they are in auto-attack mode
Minutes 14-15 – Exposing the Player to Crafting Too Early
Since I created a barbarian mystic that chose Qeynos as his home city, I ended up on the newbie island of Queen’s Colony. Evil aligned characters that choose Freeport start on the Outpost of the Overlord. What I found upon entering Queen’s Colony is that crafting is immediately available to the new player and it’s a mistake. This is the time that players should be getting right into the main part of the gameplay which of course is combat — killing monsters and taking their stuff.
Instead the player is presented with all kinds of raw materials such as ore, lumber, plants and even collectible items. To make matters worse the newbie grounds are swamped with these resource nodes.
Despite the fact that gathering and crafting *are* optional activities for the player, having all of these gatherable and collectible things available from the outset is sending the wrong message to the player at this early stage of the game. As a player, I immediately started gathering — after all those resources where there and because they existed I felt it was incumbent on me to take them. The problem is that gathering at this early stage in the MMO is a distraction that prevents the player from experiencing the main thrust of what your MMO is all about: the thrill of adventure via killing mobs and completing quests.
Additionally, gathering takes a long time compared to other MMOs and is tedious and laborious. This too sends the wrong message to the new player — things are a “chore” in this MMO.
- Reduce the number of resource nodes in the “old” newbie areas such as Queen’s Colony and make them more plentiful once the player reaches level 8 and higher. There is no need to confuse players with crafting at this stage in the game. Thankfully SOE already realizes this and has learned this lesson as crafting trainers are not initially available in the new newbie areas of Faydwer, Neriak and Timorous Deep.
- Increase the speed of resource gathering.
Today’s jaded gamer has certain expectations of what they want from a MMO. We can rightfully thank Blizzard for raising the bar on so many levels for this state of affairs. Previous to WoW consistency of art style, a culture of polish, fluid animations, balanced combat and an elegant user interface — just to name a few were almost non-existent in the MMO world.
Given these new realities, the first 15 minutes of EQ2 are not quite up to the current standards of what one would expect in a MMO today. It is in that crucial time period that one can easily see the fundamental problems that might continue to plague the MMO. From the lack of a polished presentation of the opening screens to the lack of a cohesive and functional user interface which could confuse a new player, EQ2 has suffered from neglect and a lack of refinement that veteran players seem to take for granted and have grudgingly learned to live with.
Probably the biggest offender of them all is the original character artwork which is downright embarrassing. Nothing is more critical in having the new player bond with their avatar then the artwork itself. This is a serious impediment that may be preventing new players from sampling and staying with this MMO. I strongly urge SOE to expend the funds to bring the player avatar artwork up to a respectable level of professionalism and artistry that is consistent with their competition.
With the exception of character artwork which is cost intensive I believe that most of my recommendations could be done with a minimum cost. Nothing is more apt then the old maxim that it takes money to make money. If SOE is serious about attracting new players to their MMO then they are going to have to make an investment to address these problems. It seems to me that spending some extra money to improve the newbie experience and sub-standard areas like poor character graphics and an unrefined user interface would improve EQ2 for everyone both newbie and veteran alike and ultimately increase profits for SOE.
If I were face to face with John Smedley I would tell him this: at the very least, halt all new development on EQ2 for one month and put everyone to work on polishing the newbie experience and revamping the user interface.
I want SOE to succeed with EQ2 because the more viable MMO alternatives we have in a market dominated by Blizzard, the better. I also want want EQ2 to become more popular because there is a certain sublime magic and charm about Norrath that more people need to know about and regrettably is betrayed by a lack of polish in a few key areas.
I hope some people at SOE will evaluate this article and take an honest look at their MMO with a fresh set of eyes. For most people that play EQ2 it may actually be an amazingly brilliant and immersive MMO but if a new player quits in frustration in the first 15 minutes then all of those millions of dollars of development spent creating all that expansion content is meaningless. Don’t just take my word for it; take it from the company that has this down to a science: Blizzard.
In part 2 of this series I’m going to go beyond the first 15 minutes of gameplay and address the next phase of the new EQ2 player’s experience in Norrath. This will include a look at the new starting areas to see how they stack up to the competition.