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Guided Experience: How Much Handholding is Too Much Handholding?

Over the course of my last couple years MMO hopping, I’ve noticed a great divide in how some games approach progression. Effectively, your time in a game can be broken down into a series of micro activities and macro activities. Micro activities would be things such as questing, crafting, and exploring the zone you’re in. Macro activities are those that effect the larger scheme of things: level progression, zone progression, and story progression.

Each of these impacts how a game translates into the MMO market, which is why it’s striking to me just how many games feel the need to keep you on a rigidly defined path. Yet, there are others who do very well with only the smallest amount of handholding. My recent trip into Vanguard made me question my own expectations. What better place to do that than here?

Micro

The Aion quest log - ready with hyperlinks!

If someone were to ask me what I felt was the most important part of a traditional MMO, I would say the leveling experience. Over the years, we’ve seen a huge boom in devs trying to guide the player from point A to point B, with no downtime in between. This is very different from even two years ago, when most games required players to read quests for clues on how to complete them. Today, there is almost a built in expectation that, if you’re a theme park game, you’ll include some form of Quest Helper. WoW has it. LotRO has it. Aion REALLY has it.

Now, there’s something to be said for this. I don’t enjoy having to search a zone for my entire playtime in the vain hope that I’ll find the mob spawn I’m looking for. These systems evolved out of player demand. For the most part, I appreciate them and use them regularly.

But, look at a game like Aion. That game will not only tell you where to find your quest target but also comes with a series of hyperlinks to help you pin it down. They may as well have included a wiki, right there in game.  In my opinion, that’s a bit much.

The problems with each of these are obvious. The first, while nice, instantly sends the impression that quest content is to be rushed through instead of enjoyed. That’s sad but alright, if you’re an end-game focused MMO. The second simply removes too much thought.

At this point, I think I’m beyond wanting to search out every single quest. I like being told the general vicinity of what I’m looking for. Stepping into Vanguard, I’ve found myself at a bit of a loss going without. Sometimes, “the hut to the west” is just a little too vague to pin down. But, when I play a game like Aion, I feel rushed. Questing is a series of explosions – BAM, BAM, BAM – and hope for a ding at the end of the night. Before you know it, you’re at a point where questing becomes boring and you’re left with the remains.

My thought: pinpoint locations are too much. LotRO has it right, I think, in outlining their map. Not every quest is tracked, too, so I never feel dependent on it. Many folks will say that working around handholding is as simple as not using the tools provided by the game. I’ve been there. I’ve tried it. The result is always feeling like you’re doing things the hard way – not playing as intended – and that’s just not much fun. This is an issue that needs to be designed around not compensated for.

Macro

No one can question the narrative of LotRO

And then there’s the larger picture. This is where the terms “theme park” and “sandbox” come into play.

In my opinion, if your game has a story the player is supposed to care about, it is absolutely the responsibility of the designer to guide the player through it. Dropping a series of narrative arcs into ten different zones and telling the player to have at it is simply bad storytelling. Now, that’s not to say giving the player multiple entry points is bad – it’s actually the opposite – but those same points must be guided. Otherwise, it’s like giving a reader the chapters of a book out of order. It doesn’t work.

Theme park games, right. That’s what we’re talking about in the above and, for the most part, the current crop of MMOs do well. In most games the story guides the player towards the zones appropriate for their level.

Then, you have sandbox games like Darkfall. Story means absolutely zero in DF, which is to its advantage. The same thing applies to EVE. You do what you want when you want and craft the world around your play experience. The problem with this type of game is that it leaves the player out to dry. They become dependent on other players and certain key missions to tell them where to go and what to do. Frankly, they scare people off as their design flies in the face of most games that have come out in the last 20 years. Sandboxes have existed, sure, and the only ones that don’t fall into a niche are those that make story paramount.

But, there are a lot of games that fall somewhere in-between. Fallen Earth, for example. There’s a story there. But there’s also a sandbox. Thankfully, the quest system is done well and keeps players moving where they need to go. Then there’s Vanguard, which I feel doesn’t guide the player well enough for a game so large.

These in-betweens face the unique problem of lacking a true identity.

For myself, I’ve come to the conclusion that if you’re game has a story I should care about, it should guide me along its path. That means never feeling lost or unsure of where to go to continue. There should be freedom built in there, lots of it. We don’t want another Tortage from AoC. But, the only games who get a pass on guiding their players are those where being guided simply doesn’t matter. There’s not many.

I guess that, overall, I prefer to have my hand held. That sounds bad but it shouldn’t. The truth is, I think that’s what most of us want: to follow a quest line, to have a goal, and a means to achieve it; to never feel lost or without something to do. Hand holding is a cavalier way to say guiding – and, there’s a definite difference between guiding someone and telling them exactly where to go and what to do.

At its center, perhaps the question has more to do with the type of game you prefer to play: no guiding or limited guiding; theme park or sandbox; EVE or LotRO.

More importantly, how much challenge do we really receive  – or want, even – when we play?

I’d like to end this week with a message of welcome to all the new faces around here. It’s true what they say about comments being like blogger currency and it delights me to see new ones popping up every day. THANK YOU to everyone who’s taken the time to say hello and share a thought. There are a many that stay silent and I thank you for reading still. It’s immensely satisfying to know that people are reading and responding to what you write. I only hope that I make it worth your while to stop by. The same thanks goes out to all of my fellow bloggers who link back here on their sidebars and in their posts. The MMO blogging community is one of the most welcoming and kind in all of gaming. I am happy to be a part of it and happier to link back to you — so, if you’re not on the sidebar and would like to be, email me!

Have a great weekend, everyone!

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