Am I going to give my first impressions of a game I haven’t played and have only watched a few hours of other people playing in beginner’s zones? Yes, I am. (I can’t claim credit for the title, though… I’ve stolen it from one of my Twitter followees, though I can’t recall which one.)
It’s true, I’m not on the TERA bandwagon, but I thought some of its semi-original concepts, as laid out in the marketing hype, had some promise. The most significant of these are the emphasis on action combat and Big-Ass-Monsters (BAMs). Yesterday, watching mostly MikeB’s livestream, along with a little Pokket and Jasmine, I saw three people fumble around — er, I mean, play very skillfully — through newbie zones and an abundance of panty shots. I saw nothing special to make me change my opinion of TERA or influence me to buy it.
“So what?” you might say. “That’s how MMOs work, you don’t do anything exciting in the first few levels.” Correction: That’s how MMOs used to work. Smart developers, like smart authors or smart moviemakers give you a “hook” early on — some sort of intense action sequence or dramatic scene — to lure you in right from the start. Go ahead and watch pretty much any movie these days and you’ll find something exciting happening in the first 10 minutes.
Now, I’m going to take a look at what happens in the first 15-30 minutes (depending on how fast you play) of some of the new MMOs I’ve tried out over the last two years:
Star Trek Online: You fight off a Borg invasion
Rift: You do battle with Regulos, die, and are reborn (Guardian) or battle one of his chief lieutenants and travel back through time — not to mention getting to play around with the soul system
Wizard101: You duel with Malistaire, the big nasty evil wizard
DC Universe Online: You escape Brainiac’s ship, fighting alongside Superman or Lex Luthor
All of those are exciting action sequences that get you hooked right off the bat. I could also discuss my main game of the last five years, LOTRO, which has you (depending on your race) fighting alongside Aragorn, Elrond, or Gimli, and squaring off against a Nazgul or giant troll. Most of us have seen video of the norn starter area for Guild Wars 2 and seen the confrontation with a giant ice worm at the end. All of these are exciting moments that get us hooked right off the bat.
There’s one notable new release I’m leaving off that list, and that’s Star Wars: The Old Republic. Admittedly, nothing terribly exciting happens during the opening levels of that game, at least for the two classes I’ve played. But they do at least fulfill BioWare’s promise of presenting a storytelling experience unlike pretty much any other MMO on the market and providing reasonably compelling dramatic moments that make us want to keep playing.
That, to me, is where TERA comes up short. The gameplay I saw yesterday didn’t seem particularly “action-oriented,” and there were certainly no Big-Ass-Monsters; it looked like any other MMO. There was a dodge button, yes, but since you could faceroll through pretty much any monster by spamming one or two attacks, it was unnecessary. Again, you’re right — that’s how lowbie zones typically work. But if you’re promoting a new style of gameplay as your major selling point, shouldn’t you try to incorporate it right from the start? How long do you have to wait until the game becomes “fun”? (And if you question whether players could adapt to a moving/dodging/attacking style of gameplay that quickly, I’ll point you toward the opening troll boss in Kingdoms of Amalur, which I thought was a great way to teach players that they’ll need to bob and weave throughout the game to be successful.)
That’s a question many MMO developers are having to answer, and the smart ones are saying, “as soon as possible.” Whether it’s introducing, if not outright requiring, the player adapt to new and exciting concepts or mechanics early on (like The Old Republic) or presenting big, dramatic moments (like Guild Wars 2), or even just not waiting until max level for “the real game” to begin (like The Secret World), MMOs have to grab players’ attention earlier than ever before. I know MMOs are designed for “the long haul,” but that doesn’t mean the trip to get there should be mundane.