While raiding Karazhan last weekend, my guild brought a relatively newbish hunter along for the ride. Her spec wasn't terrible, and she brought a number of epics (albeit PvP epics) to the table, so we figured, "What the heck?" We didn't even get too worried when her DPS wasn't up to par. Things were going just fine until we got to the second boss fight and needed her to do a little chain trapping. A few wipes later, we realized that she had absolutely no idea how to use her frost traps effectively-- a core mechanic of her class. What was the problem there?
Well, there's no game tutorial that comes in, holds your hand, and says, "Hey, pal. You're going to need to use frost trap effectively in the end game. Let's practice it a little until you get the hang of it." Most MMOGs just teach you the bare-bones basics of the game (like running, moving, and auto-attack) before they abandon you to the wild. You're expected to figure out the rest on your own, and eventually to hit up sites like Elitist Jerks or the World of Warcraft class forums to make sure that you're being all that you can be. Is this necessarily the best way to do things, though?
What Peggle and Puzzle Quest Can Teach You
I think it might be beneficial, and less painful for everyone involved, if MMOGs took a little lesson from casual game developers here. Ironically, the mantra of almost every casual game is the same truism that the guys at Blizzard like to repeat over and over: "Easy to learn, difficult to master." Most of them start you out with a very basic game and then begin adding elements one by one until the games get pretty complex and interesting.
However, they don't just assume that you'll be able to learn on the fly. That's frustrating and punishing-- casual games are all about being fun and approachable. Instead, they explain every single game mechanic that you're going to encounter as you encounter it. This accomplishes a number of things for them.
First, they don't overwhelm the players with information. If you tried to teach the player everything about the game at once, you'd scare them off. After all, if you're not going to be encountering spinning balls of doom for 50 levels, why do you need to learn about them before then? By teaching players what they need to know when they need to know it, they keep the game information relevant, manageable, and immediately applicable.
Second, a tutorial gives the players a safe way to test the new mechanics they're learning in a consequence-free setting. Nothing is on the line, no one is watching them, and they can practice until they feel confident with this new aspect of the game. How would you rather learn a concept that was completely foreign to you? With the success of your group's instance run at stake, with everyone watching you and depending on you to do something you've never done before (or even knew you could do)? Or in a neutral, NPC-driven tutorial setting with no penalty for messing up and no one to give you a hard time for failing?
Finally, having advanced tutorials gives you all the tools you need to be successful at the game. If you ignore them and just try to learn on your own, that's fine-but then it's your own fault for failing. You can't claim ignorance because "No one ever told you you'd need to do this." You don't need to seek outside help, or go digging through forums. Not everyone is internet-savvy or ambitious enough to do that. Tutorials make learning how to be a good player part of the game.
Practical Application: Why Should You Care and What Could We Do?
In MMOG's, players often have many skills that they have no idea how to use. That's because these games rarely explain how to make effective use of your skills. The tooltips tell you what they do-- not why that's handy. I'll bet that there are plenty of WoW mages out there who took one look at their Polymorph spell and said, "Why would I ever want to turn my opponent into a regenerating sheep?" That's just one example.
So how can we work this idea of advanced-concept training tutorials into MMOGs without being overbearing or irritating for players? I have a few good suggestions:
The first is by abolishing the traditional idea you probably have about tutorials and making them into quests instead, a mechanic that many MMOGs use today. Every time you learn a new skill that isn't something very obvious (like a fireball), there should be an associated quest, obtainable right there at the trainer, to go use it. It could be something as basic as, "Here's how you use this skill. Use it on that guy, right there. See how that was useful?" This would also give class trainers something useful to do instead of just standing there and dispensing new skills to you.
The second is by taking that first skill quest completion and opening up a skill quest chain that teaches you all of the advanced mechanics with similar quests: "So you've learned how to sheep. Now let's practice sheeping high-priority targets!" You can reward players for completing these in the same way you reward them for other quests. Give them money, items, and a big pile of experience points. That's all the incentive most people will need to learn to use their skills.
Finally, give them an account flag when they complete these tutorial quests that other players can look at. It's one more thing for players to "collect," there's a social incentive to complete the quest (since players can see whether you've done the basic learning required for your class), and you don't have to do the quests again on subsequent characters (or different servers) unless you want to for the XP and loot.
Call me crazy, but I'd much rather learn my class that way than fumbling through pages and pages of messy forums, and I'd much rather everyone else learned their classes that way instead of not learning them at all.