All aboard! (Or: The problems of onboarding.)

July 26, 2020

Introducing players to new games is a kind of hobby of mine. It's always a pleasure to have someone over to my place and let them play on my Xbox and fall in love with something - even more so if they don't have a console, and even better if they're never owned one. Watching their eyes light up as they see just how astonishingly pretty modern games are, and seeing the cogs of their minds start to spin as the complexity of what they're engaged with starts to dawn on them are sights I'll never tire of seeing. At these moments, I can't help but think of Lenny Nero in Strange Days...

See? It's eerily apt.

 

So, introducing non-gamers to games and over time helping them to become fully realised video game players (NOT "gamers", as my feelings on "gamers" are well documented and can be succinctly summed up with a "fuck those guys") is something I get a kick out of - and because I get a kick out of it, I do it quite a lot. Or at least as often as I possibly can. I'm a sucker for positive reinforcement, just like the rest of the glorified apes that make up humanity. However, this little pleasure does have quite a big downside. 

 

To be clear (and in case the person reading this is one of those people that I've pimped gaming to!), this downside is a worthy trade off. I'm simply mentioning it because, well, it's a symptom of a problem that a lot of video games have - and the business model they're embracing is making it worse. It's an interesting problem, and it's one that I can't offer a solution to - and that just makes it all the more interesting to me. It's one to be discussed and debated, one that can be examined from a thousand different angles, all of which cause the light of scrutiny to reflect and refract in tantalising ways. Here goes.

 

A lot of games these days offer themselves up via the Games as a Service model - and these are the ones that are most badly affected by this problem. It can be summarised as thus: new players joining the game for the first time are, in my experience, left at an utter loss as to what to do, where to go, and how the game works. That serves to make me, the longstanding player, something of an all-seeing oracle in the eyes of the newbies that I'm introducing. A person who can answer questions on all the of the inter-connected systems that make up the game - whether it's who can provide different missions, what the different factions do, what the areas are... anything. The reason I end up facing these questions (apart from because I'm the guy who put these new players in the arguably unfortunate position of colliding with all this stuff for the first time) is because so far, no-one has a coherent answer to the question of how can developers simultaneously cater to hardcore, longstanding players and those who are checking it out for the first time? Because at the moment, it's something that they seem to be pretty much uniformly failing at.

Sweeping statement? Maybe. It's based on personal experience though - having introduced two non-gamers to Sea of Thieves, and one to Destiny 2 recently it's based on conversations I've had with them. For my own part, I tried Warframe and rapidly moved on - utterly baffled by endless menus and options.

 

Of course, for some new players the problem actually runs deeper than simply considering the complexities of the games that they're engaging with. The language of video games themselves is something that most of us video game players take for granted these days - we've grown up with them and are fluent, and seeing as you're here I'm going to go ahead and assume that you're on of us. We all know that holding 'X' does the thing. 'A' will most likely be jump. If you've got a gun in your hand onscreen, pressing the trigger under your right index finger is going to make it go bang and hurl small digital death projectiles in the general direction of whatever is occupying the middle of the screen. Beyond that though, we know that the left stick will move us around and the right stick will move a camera. The buttons on the middle of the pad will open up menus - through which we'll cycle on the bumper buttons. Yes, those are on top of the pad too, but they aren't the triggers. 'A' will confirm a selection, 'B' will cancel it. Saving is something most games will do for you, these days. We know this language so well that even when we play a game with its own peculiar dialect, or one that introduces some new grammatical syntax, we'll barely even notice it - simply absorbing these anomalies up into our lexicon and accepting them. For new players though, all of the above can take a phenomenal amount of explanation that the games and hardware themselves simply don't provide anywhere. Watching a new player grapple with all of this can be frustrating - akin to seeing someone becoming annoyed and short-tempered with a foreigner who is trying and failing to make themselves understood.

 

Assuming the new player can bend the new and foreign object in their hands to make the cursors on screen obey their will, they'll then come into contact with the games themselves - and this is where the challenge for the developers of those games really begins. Some games do it better than others - and there's definitely a relationship between the complexity of the game and the challenge that onboarding represents. It's compounded by constant onward development and an endless flow of new features - and it's made even more difficult when the content of a game has progressed to the point where the obvious jumping-in point for a new player has been rendered entirely obsolete for longer term players - which is the challenge for Destiny 2 in particular. As a new player, try finding where the start of the narrative quests are - without help. I guarantee you'll be looking for a while, unless you have someone around you to tell you. If you started the game when it was first out, you didn't face this problem - the main campaign was all the game had, and you were directed seamlessly toward it. Now though, with years of narrative progression and the various changes of gears that live games go through, there is more relevant content to be served up front and centre to most of the playerbase.

Onboarding new players is still important, though - make no mistake. Success here is a high-stakes game - if it's achieved, the game will hook the player into the loop and they'll stick around. If it isn't, they're likely to be on their way to the next massive free-to-play game and the opportunity to monetise them is probably lost forever - and it's that knowledge that makes me quite surprised that a greater effort hasn't been put into solving this yet. Games are famously iterative - and as soon as one developer nails this, you can bet that the process will be honed and standardised to the point of ubiquity. For the moment though, it'll carry on being one of the greatest challenges faced by service games - the only form of entertainment that has, to date, developed the need for an onboarding mechanic to ensure their own continued viability. 

 

What's the answer? I'll be honest - I have no idea. It's one that's being debated by groups of people, the majority of whom will be smarter than I am. The simple fact though is that the needs of the new player are to introduce the game's systems one by one in an approachable way. The needs of the established players - and let's not forget that they'll make up the vast majority of the playerbase at this point - are diametrically opposed to that. Destiny 2 has recently added tips to the loading screens. Sea of Thieves introduced a maiden voyage. From what I've been told by people who are new to those games, both actions have helped but neither have entirely solved the problem. For now, it'll continue to be an interesting thing to keep an eye on, I guess. 

 

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