A Non-Gamer in a Massively Multiplayer Online World

“Can I see you play ArcheAge?” I must have read her message ten times before it sank in. She remembered an MMO’s name and actually wants to see it? This was a big deal.

My newest Japanese girlfriend was not a gamer, at all. She played the first Mario game on NES (“Famicon” in Japan) and some puzzle games at a friend’s house as a child, but she wasn’t a gamer. Not “She plays Farmville or Candy Crush, but no ‘real’ games,” she outright doesn’t play them unless I pass her a controller or 3DS. And that only started about a month ago.

She knows I write about games and play them with my friends and brother, but most of the activities we did together at first were not that geeky (though my shirts always were). New restaurants, the zoo, a garden… pretty normal dates. She tried to read a review I’d done once, and while her English skills allow her to lord over her translator minions co-workers, she couldn’t finish the article. It truly was a different language for her. Great woman, but again, not a gamer.

But here she was, asking me to bring my laptop to her place, about two hours away by train, so she could see me play an MMORPG. Remember, non-gamers don’t always have the best computers (a 22gig download seems insane to them), or might not know how to install a new game in their home language, let alone a foreign one, so this was something I had to be around for.

Now, some quick backstory: this is a woman who can analyze artsy movies ultra-violent ones, can explain her own culture without getting into a petty argument, and can tell you exactly how you put your foot in your mouth without making you feel like less of a man (or at least, she can do that with me). Finding a woman who has all that and can comfortably jump into Monster Hunter is difficult to find, but this gal could do all of that non-gamer stuff, in a foreign language, and was at least willing to talk Nintendo.  She’s quite different from the other Japanese women I’ve seen except in one aspect: her working hours.

For those who don’t know, Japanese working hours are brutal. Forget 9-5. I have a Japanese family friend, my “sister,” who leaves for work at about 7am and sometimes isn’t home till 11pm, and no, she’s not partying. My girlfriend’s hours are sometimes similar, but she also has clients making angry phone calls on the weekends too. Extra commitments come up that sometimes prevent us from going out. When I do see her, she’s sometimes already exhausted. This is not someone I would expect to have any interest in a game genre that usually asks you to grind levels for weeks/months before actually letting you play the “real game,” let alone want to watch me play one.

However, here she was, asking me to show her a real up-and-coming MMO. She only knew about ArcheAge because I’d sent her a link to the Japanese version’s website so that the genre might make a little more sense. I’d also mentioned it once when she asked about my favorite games, but I didn’t think she’d remember anything.

I’d already shown this woman New Super Mario Bros Wii U and she enjoyed that, but it was more similar to what she’d already known. Tomodachi Life wasn’t too hard to introduce either, especially due to the casual nature of the game. These were baby steps. MMOs are a whole other game.

I told her that showing her an MMO would be a good opportunity for me to try something new, and asked her if I could write about the experience. Much like in science, I told her I’d be ethical about this. No real names, no pushing her to do something she was uncomfortable with, and that she could stop the “experiment” at any time, decline any question she wanted to, and that I wouldn’t bother her about it again. She was fine with all of that, so that weekend, I made the trip over to show a non-gamer ArcheAge.

Once I got the game started, I asked myself how I should introduce a modern MMO to a non-gamer. Especially after E3, I thought I knew at the very least what not to do: a newbie experience just filled with killing stuff and following a narrative that, honestly, very few people care about the first time, let alone the second or third.

I thought I should show someone how the game is different from other games, especially other MMOs. I thought I should avoid quests, dungeons, and raids, and focus on everyday activities (especially since most MMOs still want a monthly fee from you, even if the initial installation is free). Interacting with world objects, sailing against the wind, and having a mount as a separate entity sounds interesting, but doesn’t make a lot of “wow” impact on someone who isn’t used to games lacking these features. I realized that the way I look at MMOs now, as a veteran, has really changed.

For my first MMO, it was easy to get into. A friend showed me his screen with tons of characters moving around and said, “These are real people.” He then proceeded to beg for items and got some, which was enough to prove to me that the people were real (and that I probably shouldn’t play with that friend). I was already hooked. That whole, “These are real people” line worked on pretty much everyone I introduced MMOs to back in 1999-2003.

Fast forward to the past few years. I remember trying out TERA and just being in love with combat that was so much different from the normal tab-target, auto-dodge mess I’d been playing for years. I remember trying GW2 and being able to do instanced PvP on equal footing without having to grind first. But mostly, I remembered the Korean closed beta 3 ArcheAge starting experience that introduced so many unique features of the game in a short amount of time.

However, this all came due to experience with both games and the genre. For someone brand new, I quickly realized I was wrong. A (required) tutorial honestly should be trying to teach veterans the game, sure, but I realized it also needs to address people who are brand new to the genre. I hadn’t thought about what would impress the uninitiated or what would be too technical to have any meaning for them, and perhaps developers have forgotten this too. After all, how often do MMOs really get MMO virgins after World of Warcraft? I figured, I should ask her what, exactly, made her want to try ArcheAge in particular.

Her answer was simple: it’s pretty. She was amazed at how realistic things were, how human characters looked, how the hair moved, bodies rolled down hills, plants swayed in the breeze, everything was just alive. I know some people are complaining about it having “dated graphics,” but she was more used to 2D, to cartoons, simple puzzles, or random violence where everything on screen blows up. The MMO world has a very different appeal. It’s a lot different from the Mario game of her childhood. I decided that, if she liked the look of the game, she should try playing it. I offered to let her make a character and try it out, and she accepted.

Character creation was certainly fun for her. She’s not the kind of person to spend hours on customization, so ArcheAge‘s option for allowing people like me to control fine details is nice because people who want to jump in, like my girlfriend, can hide those and still make a character that looks good. She jumped in, skipped the intro movie (since we’d just watched it), and began trying to learn the controls.

The controls were more complex than I’d considered. Granted, I’m an elitist and remap a lot of the basic controls anyway(rant: A&D to turn are honestly wrong input methods and often prevent you from being a top tier player). That being said, strafing and moving the camera at the same time, while normal for me, is pretty tough for a new player, especially one coming from side-scrollers. Toss in keys 1-0, shift and alt modifiers, and long spell descriptions with combos, and it’s all quite daunting. She still just wanted to jump in, but part of that may be because I was there  to help, or maybe just because she wanted to play rather than read. Just the same, she said she felt like she could eventually master things on her own.

Which brings me to the next thing I noticed: tutorial overload. Even though she was brand new to the genre and game, she started ignoring the tutorial (audio and visual) pretty fast. She just learned by trial and error. I find that I do the same as a veteran. If a game is going to do a tutorial, maybe it’d be best to put us in specific, perhaps instanced, contexts to make us use that new ability/feature and then build on it and/or advance it. Just the same, give players the option to skip around and look it up later. As it was, MMOs were looking more intimidating for a new player than I’d really considered.

Right after her first quest, my girlfriend started following someone. It took me a minute or so to realize that she had mistaken a player for an NPC. Once I revealed this, she took a look at the player, checked him out a bit, and moved on. Even though she was in the same world as other players, she didn’t interact with them. Granted, she had me there trying to help her out, but she didn’t try saying hi, though after logging out, she asked if she could have, and she was a bit surprised I said yes.

no adventure time_aa

I asked her about the presence of real people in the game. She liked that other people were in the world, and she sounded like she liked the idea of playing with me “on the same team” (or possibly killing me), but in her short gaming session (1 hour watching, 1 hour playing), the other people hadn’t really registered to her.

I think that’s a very real symptom of modern MMOs. At the worst, I feel like people are in my way during tutorials, and at best, there is someone to help me with a boss. As my girlfriend said, “Everyone looked too busy.” If there’s a social event going on these days (as opposed to a grind of some sort), it’s usually because I’m the one organizing it, and these days, people find that more weird than normal. Mostly, people grind.

Though she was only level 4 when she was done playing, I felt she said something very telling about the current situation of the modern MMO: “So those people (quest NPCSs) were basically giving the player simple quests… not a big adventure?” On her own she made that distinction between quests and “adventures.” To me, I felt like she both immediately understood what a game like this is capable of, but at the same time noticed it was caging players into tasks that didn’t take advantage of the medium.

Now, let me be clear: I’ve never told this woman about my gaming adventures. She didn’t know about how I was tricked into taking a bad portal in Asheron’s Call and had to find my way home (or how it lead to one of my first online gaming friendships). She didn’t know about my raft nearly being stolen by a pirate in Darkfall. She never heard about me staying up all night to kill a boss with 39 other people just so we could say we got a server first in World of Warcraft (before achievements were in). Just the same, she immediately recognized what this genre is capable of and the limitations of the leveling/questing model. Quests are training at best, and are kind of boring these days. You need to find an adventure, not worry about “busy” people.

This was completely different from my first experience with people in MMOs. I had died, learned I had lost some things, and had to ask strangers to help me get my stuff back. They then ask me about when I started playing, often showed me a place more suited for my level, and sometimes gave me a nice item to welcome me, if not offering outright friendship on my friend list. Immediately that helped me feel connected to other players, to feel the uniqueness of the genre, not some second job grinding out levels/gear.

It wasn’t all bad though. She liked killing, but she liked it because she was learning something. She got to test ideas and see her results, but then wanted to move on. Again, the quest for her was simply a tutorial that should end. I said I thought she was nearing her first mount, and she was excited about that. “It takes too long to run around sometimes,” she said. I had earlier tried to explain portals, and she understood that in terms of wars, you shouldn’t be teleporting everywhere if you want regional conflict. However, when you’re just playing mail man, why can’t you just climb a wall? Some Chinese games let you run up the walls, I told her, and she liked that idea, but she said, “I can’t do that here, can I?”

bug kicker_ass

Perhaps, to me, this is why it seems that MMO animes are more popular in Japan than the genre itself. The idea is very pleasant. When someone sees MMOs, they have certain ideas about what’s possible, especially because it can seem more like a world than a game, and in the old days, I felt this perspective was more respected. It’s something we’ve lost along the way to bigger subscription numbers. A story can be shoe-horned into the game, but as she said, the written story coming from the NPCs was usually pretty boring and didn’t help her much with her quests (she loved those arrows on the ground, but sometimes missed them if something about an angle ruined her view).

Like many veteran MMOers, she often skipped the text and just jumped into the quest, though she’d watch a cut scene if it was new. Killing was fun, and I do wonder if she might enjoy short, light dungeons (due to limited time).

However, an adventure takes time, but when you have little free time and so much to learn, that’s difficult to find, even in a game like ArcheAge. You need to invest in a world. I was hoping she’d get to see some world building, planting of trees, raising of her mount, that kind of stuff. Maybe next time. Those can help tie you to a game. Once you keep spending time in a game, especially one that allows for real conflict and punishment so that you want or need help (like ArcheAge), that’s when you can start having an adventure. It’s just difficult to survive to that point sometimes.

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