Tuesday, June 30, 2009
Anno 1404 and sandbox MMOs
My copy of Anno 1404 (Dawn of Discovery) arrived yesterday, and I've also been reading up on that game. The game appears to cause some confusion among some players and reviewers. At first glance there doesn't appear to be a tutorial. The campaign is somewhat short, only about 20 hours, and the difficulty settings for the campaign are limited, ranging from trivial to far too easy. What's going on? The answer is simple: The 20-hour campaign *IS* the tutorial. The actual game of Anno 1404 is the endless sandbox game, where a single game can take over 100 hours. And you can customize the sandbox part with a huge number of parameters, ranging from the completely peaceful to the highly military, and from the very easy to the ultra challenging.
Of course I couldn't help but notice that this is exactly how I would design a sandbox MMO: Have an extensive tutorial explaining really every aspect of the game, before releasing the players into a completely freeform game.
Complex sandbox games, like EVE, often suffer from the tutorial not explaining anything beyond the most basic functions. The EVE tutorial has much improved over the years, but many new players still feel extremely lost at the end of it. And of course there is the Tortage risk as seen in Age of Conan: Players like the guided gameplay of the tutorial more than the freeform gameplay afterwards. But I do think that is an issue of properly managing expectations: Tortage was heavy on story-telling, and light on obvious "tutorialness", so it was easy to confuse it with being the actual game. In Anno 1404 the campaign is more easily recognized as a tutorial, although maybe it should have been named differently. All the main quests are about using new game functions or building new buildings, and you frequently get advice in case things go wrong.
Ultimately the main problem of a sandbox game is how to make it complex enough for players to be occupied forever, but still be able to integrate new players without them feeling lost or unable to catch up. Linear advancement, quest-based games can get away with much simpler gameplay, as long as you provide thousands of "kill 10 foozles" quests that superficially look different from each other. A sandbox game in which there is nothing to do but kill foozles isn't likely to be a big success. An extended tutorial could lead players into the required complexity, by helping them to build something up which they then need to sustain in the freeform sandbox main part of the game.