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Free for All: The importance of those first moments in a game


This week, I decided to download and install Aion. I haven't played it since beta. Although I was not impressed with it at the time, my favorite Aion columnist has been covering the game in such a way that I knew some good things had happened to the game. And after all, it's free now. Right?

I was nervous from the moment I installed the game. NCsoft hosts a notoriously odd account management system. Sure, once you break the code and understand how to make an account for your master account that signs into your game account (or something like that), it might seem elementary. Until that moment, though, the system makes you feel like an idiot. It makes you feel as though the publisher literally doesn't want you to play the game.

I had a week filled with such moments. The frustration I felt led me to today's topic.

NCsoft account screenshot
Recently I wanted to return to City of Heroes for a bit of fun and finally accessed my old account -- once I got past the account management system. I must have blocked the traumatic event from my memory because I have no idea how I solved the riddle. I didn't find the time to play the game in the end, so I deleted it. It's a shame because I was truly enjoying the alternate reality storyline.

I foolishly expected to be able to sign into any NCsoft game with my "master" account information. I don't know why I expected a "master" account to have such an ability, but the website let me see that my Aion account was free, playable, and -- I thought -- ready to go. It seems I need to create some sort of sub-account, figure out the name of my third unborn child, perform a handstand, and recite the pledge of allegiance backwards. Then, if I am lucky, I will be privileged enough to log into NCsoft's amazing, life-changing experience of a game.

I'm exaggerating just a bit, and I could have found the answer within maybe half an hour on Google, but why should I? Why would I want to? I have to be blunt here and tell you that there are so many titles out there, fantastic titles that are just waiting to be played, that I have no time for even a pause. Get me into your game, developers, and let me play it. Make me wait and I'll move on. Go, go, go. Is it any wonder people have moved in such masses to the instant-access world of social and phone gaming?

Compounding my annoyance, the "help" link on my NCsoft page led me right to a dead page. How helpful.

Help page screenshot
Let's move on to my recent Rise and Shiny game, Gemstone IV. At the time of this writing, I am still struggling with some of the basic navigations of the old-school MUD, but I am enjoying it. Once again, however, I am sort of questioning my sanity as the game seems to be pushing me away. I don't get it -- I thought games wanted to be played by people?

I don't mean to spoil the details of my write-up of the title, but let me give you an example. I loved making my character and enjoyed spending time with a small sprite in a sort of tutorial mode. It had been many years since I had even tried to play a MUD, so the text descriptions were exciting. I was finding myself dreaming about the game even. That's always a good sign. Then the confusion started.

"In my pack appeared some sort of coin. Once I investigated it, I found out that I needed to give the coin to a travel guide, and that guide would give me a 'free' trip to, I don't know, somewhere."

In my pack appeared some sort of coin. Once I investigated it, I found out that I needed to give the coin to a travel guide, and that guide would give me a "free" trip to, I don't know, somewhere. The mystery of "where" intrigued me. I found my way to the travel agent and gave the coin to him. Next I was told that I needed to pay off my debts before I could move on. I asked for help from a "mentor," and to the community's credit, I was immediately aided by some very helpful players. They told me I needed to go pay off a debt that I had incurred when I first started the game before I could take my free trip. The city loaned me some money for basic gear (it happens automatically), and now I needed to pay it back. This wasn't the problem. The fact that my "free" trip was actually not free was fine. The information was more likely given to me at some point and I had missed it. After all, there is a lot of text in this game. It's all text, so I'm sure I missed something, but the helpful mentors were stumped when I wondered how a new player would ever know that the debt I had would interfere with the free trip.

Once I got on with the free trip, the travel agent acted as a sort of non-stop train ride to my desitination. I mean non-stop, by the way, as in there was no way to stop the guy when he started moving. I was essentially kidnapped and pulled through scene after scene of text. How was I to know that this would happen? Again, I am sure that I missed the description of possible outcomes somewhere, but even with a helpful newbie guide that I can read on the website, there were many examples of confusing gameplay mechanics that could not be explained. I could always call a mentor, for example, unless I was too far out in the wilderness. For a new player, this might be the moment he leaves the game. Luckily for me, the community is fantastic.

"There are more and more gamers coming onto the scene who are used to quick, easy, and accessible gaming."

It's always easy to look back and say "Oh, so that's how it was done," but the fact is that more and more titles are introduced every year. There are more and more gamers coming onto the scene who are used to quick, easy, and accessible gaming. A recent report showed how many players are moving on from traditional gaming to more "social" gaming. It's not hard to see why this is happening. Many teenagers now have their own smartphones or access to a computer. Facebook alone hosts thousands of games, games that can be loaded and played within even seconds. Although we MMOers might not enjoy the less social experience of a social game, they are social enough for millions of gamers. On top of that, the games typically work without requiring wacky logins and big downloads.

Each generation is less patient than the last. If our email takes more than a few seconds to load we might smack the screen, but just a few years ago we spent minutes listening to that horrible sound of a dial-up modem attempting to connect. Each one of those small mistakes, bugs or glitches in a game could cause a player to just skip the game altogether. That's what I did with Aion. Technology is going to allow nicer looking games to be made for less money, and faster internet access will make that 20-gig download less of a commitment. Heck, many gamers don't even want to commit to a box price anymore. I know I don't.

The newbie experience and those first few moments with a game are now more important than ever. If a gamer finds herself faced with a game-stopping bug or confusing issue, another game is only minutes away.

Each week, Free for All brings you ideas, news, and reviews from the world of free-to-play, indie, and import games -- a world that is often overlooked by gamers. Leave it to Beau Hindman to talk about the games you didn't know you wanted! Have an idea for a subject or a killer new game that no one has heard of? Send it to!

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