Kill Ten Rats

If we want to keep them, we need to make our players passionate about our games. The best way to do that is to have them kick ass as much as possible. In the case of MMOs that means completing tasks that make the player feel heroic or villainous (as appropriate) but always as though they are important and successful. So why do we so often start players out with quests that force them to fill the role of exterminator?

Vanguard: Case Study of Heroes
Take for example, these two starting quests in Vanguard. These are the first quest offered to humans and orcs, respectively:

Vanguard starter quests

The human on the left is being asked to kill 8 Leafsaw Crawlers, which are a kind of beetle about two feet in length. The orc on the right is being asked to kill a slaver, release a fellow slave, and make his way across the slaver-infested beach to safety. Which one of these players do you think is going to feel like they’re doing something important?

Just so there’s no confusion, this is what a Leafsaw Crawler looks like next to my human psionicist:

Leafsaw Crawler

This distinction continues well into the beginning quest chains of both characters. For the human the first several quests go something like this:

  1. Kill 8 Leafsaw Crawlers
  2. Collect 6 plants and deliver them
  3. Kill 10 scorpions (also about 2 feet long)
  4. Kill 10 giant scorpions (which turn out to be about 8 feet long, but aren’t any tougher than the little ones)
  5. Kill enough rat-men to collect the right number of rat-man parts
  6. Kill 15 rat-men of a higher level (who have scorpions working for them)
  7. Collect 10 miniature scorpions
  8. Deliver the miniature scorpions to the rat-men and see a little in-engine cut-scene
  9. Escort a camel to the city (along a perfectly safe path)

Contrast that with what the orc does for the first several missions:

  1. Kill a guard and use his key to free a slave
  2. Escort the slave to safety across a beach full of hostile orcs
  3. Kill 10 or so more of the hostile orcs to help the defenders on the beach
  4. kill 10 of a slightly different kind of hostile orc to collect medical supplies for the wounded defenders
  5. Use the supplies to heal the wounded
  6. Travel inland a bit to a friendly goblin agent
  7. Kill enough frogs to get the frog-parts you need to…
  8. Mask your scent from the hostile orcs’ guard dogs so you can sneak into their camp and steal their invasion plans
  9. Kill a hostile orc boss

These are just the first missions in each of these areas. I gave up on the human at that point, but the orc goes on to muster defenses to push the hostiles back into the sea (and various other interesting and useful things.) This represents the first two hours of game-play in each case.

What about other games?
This problem is not unique to Vanguard. In fact, many MMOs make player spend their first few hours doing shit-work:

  • World of Warcraft — For at least Night Elf, Dwarf/Gnome, Orc/Troll, and Tauren, the first few missions are all either simple “carry this over there” missions or involve killing the local fauna for their fauna-parts. Eventually, right at the end of the newbie areas, you usually get to fight some minor humanoid enemies.
  • Auto Assault — You spend the first hour or two in this game driving around killing irradiated crabs with your turret-mounted machine gun.
  • Star Wars: Galaxies – Pre-NGE you spent a few hours killing local animals until you leveled up enough to start taking on smugglers and bandits. Post-NGE you kill a couple stormtroopers, and then it’s back to animals for another hour.
  • Everquest — My human monk killed lots of bugs on his way to level 8 (which is where I quit the game.)
  • Guildwars — You actually start running into undead about an hour in, but up to that point it’s all killer plants and local fauna.

We should strive to be more like the games that let you kick ass from the beginning:

  • City of Villains — The first thing you do in CoV is break out of jail. And you get to beat up a bunch of fellow prisoners in the ongoing riot on your way out.
  • Everquest 2 — After a false start killing a rat or two on the boat your first few quests on the newbie island are about defending the village from invaders.

This isn’t about mechanics

None of the differences here are about the power-curve as you level, fighting multiple opponents, speed of advancement, or any thorny tuning issues. The magic ingredient in an ass-kicking newbie experience is context. The player needs to have their important status in the world established through mission design, character art for opponents, and flavor text. They don’t need to be the most powerful character in the area, but they do need to feel like they are able to excel at their tasks, and that their tasks aren’t just busy-work.

Are there other ways the player can kick ass in their first few hours? What have you tried in your game to give players this sense of success?

~Joe


2 Responses to “Kill Ten Rats”

  1. sidereal commented on :

    LotRO’s an interesting case. I haven’t made it past 12th level in any race, but they make great use of instancing to let your player be epic without ruining it for everyone else, which is one of the main reasons designers stick with rat killing. It’s easy to make an infinite supply of rats. Harder to make a village that can try to prevent you from escaping while not messing it up for everyone else.

    In LotRO, the first bundle of quests are instanced to a single player, so all kinds of cinematic work with Black Riders and so on can be done. After that, there’s definitely some rat killing, but they still do a reasonable job of framing it within the lore, which makes it slightly more tolerable.

  2. Joe thought on :

    I heard a bit about the first few levels of LotRO the other day. It sounds like they’re definately on the right track (and I just pre-ordered my copy. I’m looking forward to checking it it.)

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