Friday, September 07, 2007
Accessibility is king
I was playing Everquest 2 last night, trying to see whether I could get a Legends of Norrath booster to drop. No luck, apparently they are very rare, nobody in chat even knew somebody who had seen such a drop. But I was having fun anyway. Everquest 2 has an incredible breadth and depth, I'd even say it has more depth than World of Warcraft. On the other hand it felt as if I was playing the last of the dinosaurs of MMORPGs, with EQ2 scoring very low on accessibility, intuitivity and user-friendliness.
Compared to somebody who is starting to play his first MMORPG, I have a huge wealth of experience. I played MMORPGs nearly every day for the last 8 years. And yet in EQ2 I often come across features that catch me by surprise, or that it takes me quite a while to figure out. For example, and I don't know if that is a graphics bug or just badly designed, the little white numbers showing you the numbers of items in a stack in EQ2 are not inside the icon, but below and to the right of it. But they are further away from the icon they belong to than the distance to the next square in your backpack. Thus the number belonging to one stack looks as if it was printed in the upper left corner of the stack below and to the right. The stacks on the right column or lowest row of a backpack have their numbers not or only partially shown, as they would be outside the backpack. That is rather confusing, and takes a while to figure out and get used to. I'm tempted to download some interface mod with better inventory display. Another example was me doing a quest and suddenly receiving an achievement point for it, which is kind of like a talent point in WoW. Great! But why was I completely unaware of the existence of achievement points before I stumbled on it by accident? So on the one side I'm extremely motivated to keep playing EQ2 over the weekend to explore it more. On the other side I feel I'd need to read a third-party newbie guide to not miss half of the features of that game. I already discovered so many things, like collections or the "legends and lore" quests where I had the feeling that I could well have totally missed them. I'm feeling like a noob again.
That is not just because I don't know the game well. I've played other games and betas since WoW came out, and none of them had me feeling so lost. It is the specific design philosophy of an older generation of games, which aimed to create a sense of wonder by having you figure out everything for yourself. That can be fun, especially if it isn't your first game, and you know at least the fundamental and important stuff. But I would never recommend Everquest 2 to somebody as his first MMORPG.
So now I understand how Everquest 2 lost the fight for subscriber numbers against World of Warcraft back in November 2004. EQ2 picked up a solid percentage of MMORPG veterans, many of them EQ veterans. WoW picked up a good share of veterans too, plus millions of new players. World of Warcraft is simply more accessible. Even people who never played a role-playing game before understand WoW immediately. WoW does a brilliant job of teaching people how it works, and guiding people to where they should go. And I do think that most post-WoW games are at least trying to be as accessible. For example LotRO is as easy as WoW to get into. Accessibility is king, because MMORPGs aren't just for EQ veterans any more. Being newbie-friendly is an important part of the game if you want to break into the mainstream.