Aug 20 2010

New Players & WoW’s Learning Curve

Today I want to write about newer players and the learning curve for a game like World of Warcraft. Compared to many other MMOs, World of Warcraft has a low learning curve. It is friendly to newer players and fairly easy to pick up even for people who haven’t gamed before. WoW proves this by appealing to a very wide demographic that you probably wouldn’t find in, say, an FPS player base. You can also see this in Blizzard’s famous 11-million-subscribers figure. But while the basics of playing WoW are simple, the massive size and complexity of the game and its vast world can make truly learning all the ins and outs a daunting task. Much of the game requires outside research and preparation in order to perform adequately enough for any group work.

Learning to play the game “right” is something established players rarely need to think about and, if they joined to play with mentoring friends, potentially something they have never had to consider. Yet much of the latest game development has brought this issue to the forefront. Recently many of us have started encountering “less knowledgeable” players frequently via the new Looking For Group dungeon tool. There has also been a great many changes in recent patches (and planned in future ones) to make the game more accessible or, as dissenters might frame it, “too easy.” With these types of players impacting everyone’s gameplay, the issue is now relevant to all WoW players.

Whether it’s the Death Knight wearing spell power, a mage that is incorrectly gemming for crit, or a rogue still playing combat daggers, many of us have found ourselves frustrated at these players. Doesn’t he know anything? How hard is it to look up the correct talent spec? Everyone knows ability X does more than Y! But it’s not that simple, and such judgments are, at least partially, unfair.

I didn’t fully realise how much about WoW I’ve really learned outside of the actual game or from friends who also played until I bought my father an account as a gift. I gave him the very exhaustive run-down of all the basics, which are more than five minutes of explanation. I showed him the various hotkeys and shortcuts, the way to control his character and access the game menus, maps, social pane, spell book, etc. I explained his abilities, the questing system, how to find things in the world and in cities, how to tell if something is worth saving, class roles, professions he could learn. I informed him about the bank and auction house, and told him about needing to repair and train weapons. I had to go over how to communicate, and how to specify if it went into a private whisper, or was out loud, or in party or guild, and when it was appropriate to talk where. Then, thinking he was set, I left him to his own devices thinking he would figure out the rest by exploration and experience.

However, when I checked in on him when his character was around level 30 (which is a only a handful of hours of gameplay, even for a brand new players) and found he’d spent no talent points — if fact, didn’t even know what they were because nothing in-game explains them to you. He was also wearing [white] vendor gear because it had “more armor” than some of the greens he was getting from quests. I told him magic items were better and that armor didn’t matter very much, only to catch him wearing cloth with useless stats for him at a later date. So then I had to explain that only some stats on magic armor were good for him, and that was followed later by me having to explain why that spell power item was bad for his hunter even though it had hit and crit on it which I had put on the list of useful stats for him. And so continued the endless cycle of me being frustrated with him not understanding and his being frustrated because I was seemingly contradicting myself and not making any sense. Even explaining something as simple as buying an epic mount reflected what a vast divide there is between his perspective and that which I am used to (“Why do I need to go faster? If I’m going a long distance I use the flight master anyway”).


Think about the following questions: How do you know what specs are “best” for leveling, that someone probably doesn’t want to level as a holy priest or a protection warrior, especially if they’re still learning the game or aren’t playing with a friend? Why isn’t “mana per five” something they want on their mage, even though they use mana? How do you clarify armor classes to someone without misleading to them to think that armor is more important for non-tanks than it is? And how would you explain why a piece of cloth armor piece with stamina, intell, and crit is bad for their leveling warrior after you just told them that crit is useful for them, stamina is decent, and armor doesn’t really matter? Furthermore, how do you explain the differentiation on why stamina is something that you don’t gear for but that it’s nice if your armor has it, but intell is something you don’t gear for and isn’t really okay if your armor has it? How do you clarify the ambiguities of all those kinds things that don’t really matter, except when they do? How do you enlighten someone as to the delicacies of why it’s better they let the hunter take that gun, even though it has stats on it that are useful to their rogue? Where in-game do you learn about the existence of enchants, belt buckles, and armor kits, if you don’t have one of those professions? How do you know that you can put a green gem in a red socket, or whether you should?  How do you learn the value of professions in the first place, especially what they will mean in “end game?”  For that matter, how does one know definitively that a particular piece of armor, or enchant or gem or glyph or talent or ability is “worth” more than another?

I always took these types of things as blatantly obvious before but now I was beginning to see that they are pretty complicated to a player who is new to the game, and especially confusing to a person who unfamiliar with the RPG/MMO genre entirely. Today my father has six 80s (he levels them quickly and then immediately retires them after reaching the cap) but still asks me questions that kinda horrify me. He’s an intelligent man, but not only is he not a part of this “world” of outside reading and research, I don’t even think he realizes this world exists. It just doesn’t occur to him that not only do people see it as a “big deal” if you’re not doing things perfectly correct, but that people go as far as to run simulators and use spreadsheets and argue on message boards as part of the process of determining what is correct.  And even if they knew, it would probably sound like absolute madness that we do these things for a game.

It may sound bizarre to the people here. As evidence by the fact you’re reading a WoW related blog, you are the kind of person who already uses resources outside of the game to improve your characters. However, players like you and me make up a minority of the player base. For the average WoW player, it probably has never even occurred to them to do outside “research” on a game. There are tons of people whose relationship around WoW is limited to the times between opening and closing the client. Those people may not even realise things exist beyond that. So something is not made apparent through regular gameplay, they’d be oblivious of it through no fault of their own.

On top of struggling with all of this, newer players also have to face negative judgment from older players who take for granted all the knowledge they’ve acquired over the years, who assume that everyone should know the correct way to spec or gem intuitively and who resent players that don’t do so as “lazy,” even though it is fully possible that many of these players don’t even realise there is such thing as a “correct way.”

It is perhaps time, with this in mind, that we learn to adjust our tolerances and, when really exasperated, aim for educating not berating.

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