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What The Elder Scrolls Online can teach us about tutorials in the age of free-to-play
by Nicholas Lovell on 02/10/14 12:16:00 pm   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


This post originally appeared on GAMESbrief.

This past weekend, Zenimax Online has been inviting journalists into the persistent, multiplayer environment of Tamriel, the world where Skyrim, Morrowind and Oblivion take place.

It has not been pretty.


The VG247 reviewer said, “I did not go in expecting to be utterly bored – and I was.” John Walker of Rock Paper Shotgun had a pretty boring experience, too. He then had this to say about The Elder Scrolls Online pricing model (£50 up front, followed by a £15 per month subscription).

“These are, I stress again, just the opening few hours. But they’re crucial hours. Playing them, one could put together a rationale why Bethesda have opted for a massive up-front fee of £50 to start playing the game, before a monthly tithe thereafter. Were this to use the far more sensible free-to-start option, before asking for a subscription to carry on, I can imagine a lot of players would feel no desire to open their wallet. However, if you’ve put half a hundred quid down, you’re going to feel pretty determined to keep ploughing through in the hope for more.”

This is not about F2P

The problem with The Elder Scrolls Online, to my mind, is not that it is not free. Companies are entitled to charge what they want. Two of the most successful MMOs in the world (World of Warcraft, Eve Online) are subscription, although both allow users to spend an enormous amount with a variable pricing model using microtransactions or ingame currencies. The problem with The Elder Scrolls Online is that it has not accepted how F2P has changed what gamers expect.

We’re making TV, not movies

AAA game developers have had it easy for many years. They know that they don’t have to show players that their game is any good in the first few hours. The marketing department has persuaded gamers to play the game based on the marketing promise. The gamer has paid £40 or more, so they are now committed to the game. The designers can make the first few hours dull, worthy and full of boring teaching-of-the-basics. If the worst happens, and players leave because the initial experience is so dull, commercially that is not a disaster. Professional pride might be dented. Review scores might be lower than you would like. But the cold truth is that these designers already have the player’s money.

That does not work for F2P. All the marketing spend and marketing promise can do for a F2P is to drive downloads. If players play the game and it is a turkey, they’ll leave without spending any money. If they play and it is boring, they have low switching costs to transfer their playing time to a different game which has shown them fun or enjoyment in the first few minutes.

A AAA game has to invest heavily in making its games look  as if it will be fun. A F2P game has to, for its very survival, convince the player that this game will be worth playing – fun, rewarding, exhilarating, satisfying, however you define it – in the first 30 seconds, or it is in real trouble.

Think of a movie director. She knows that the filmgoer has travelled to the cinema. Paid for a ticket. Bought popcorn and settled into a seat for 2 hours of entertainment. That filmgoer is not going to walk out in the first twenty minutes just because the opening is a bit dull. They are already committed.

Compare that to a TV director. He does not have the same luxury. The viewer can switch at the touch of a button. Boredom or a dull start are deadly enemies for the success of a television series.

Over time, we’ve seen movie directors adopt television sensibilities. They want to grab the viewer and convince them this story is worth sticking with.

The Elder Scrolls Online assumes we are in a previous age

Bethesda have form for making dull, worthy intros. I often give talks based on the Design Rules for F2P Games. Rule 11 is “Kill the tutorial.” My primary example that gets it wrong is Fallout 3 (yes, I know it’s not a F2P game). I borrowed the game from a friend to see if I would enjoy it. I spent the first 45 minutes cursing the game for taking me through a dull, worthy backstory that showed me little about what I was going to get from the game, except that the designers were happy to play fast and loose with my time without showing me what the heart of the game was going to be like. That goes down as one of the least enjoyable First Time User Experiences I have had.

The criticisms of TESO suggest that its initial experience is not trying to show you why this game is worth sticking with: it assumes that you are going to stick with it. It doesn’t try to earn your love and respect. It assumes it. In the era of Free-To-Play, with boundless choice and designers setting out to demonstrate to their players why their game is awesome in the first few minutes, this approach is going to be very challenging for Zenimax.


Nicholas Lovell is the founder of GAMESbrief an author and consultant who helps companies make better F2P games. He is the author of The Curve, Design Rules for Free-to-Play Games and How to Publish a Game. His next book, written with Rob Fahey, is The F2P Toolbox.

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El Winchestro
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It's funny because Jonathan Blow said almost the same thing from the opposite angle a while ago in a talk and critisized that the f2p games like bad tv shows from the past, compared to tv shows most people enjoy nowadays, like breaking bad, the wire or game of thrones. I don't know if you've seen that talk, if not you may want to check it out.

Ordani Briton
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There is also this one from Extra Credits.
Which I thought is was good too.

Nicholas Lovell
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I would accept that many F2P games are like early bad television. The F2P industry is barely a decade old. Developers have only just got past the stage of filming radio presenters reading scripts into a microphone and broadcasting that to television. They've barely invented daytime TV and soap operas, let alone high quality drama, comedy or long form TV films.

That will come.

Leandro Pezzente
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Not really a AAA Game , but Shadowrun Returns has , in my honest opinion the best tutorial mechanics I have seen so far.

Nicholas Lovell
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I'm sure there are paid games with good First Time User Experiences. My pint is that F2P is driving an improvement in FTUE design across the board, because it is so important to F2P and players are beginning to expect a high quality initial experience to earn their attention.

Michael Donovan
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I think the tutorial level was the least of Zenimax's worries with ESO. I was utterly bored during extensive beta testing. I expected to go in and feel as though I was playing an Elder Scrolls game but surrounded by real people. It seemed like a sub-par MMO with the Elder Scrolls logo and lore on it. Was definitely disappointed, and am no longer excited for the game. Sometimes, games should just stay single player.

Arthur Hulsman
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You sir are absolutely right.

David Fried
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So... Wait, did they lift the NDA? Can I talk about my ESO experience now without any legal ramifications?

James Yee
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Only if you're certain press people. Most of us are talking about Chocolate Chip Cookies.

Gustav Andreasson
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This blog post raises some good points. Indeed, Elder Scrolls games are renowned for their inability to throw players into the action. This usually leads players to create mods for their games, where the opening scenarios are skipped.

However, this is an MMORPG at the end of the day. People who join in will do so with the expectation that the real game is to be found at endgame. More importantly, they will expect a long-term support of the game with continous releases of high-quality content.

Look at Guild Wars 2 and you'll sort of see my point. While a beautiful, immersive, and generally fantastic game; it does lack the lasting appeal that MMORPG players have come to expect.

Elder Scrolls Online, while relatively slow in the beginning, will have the advantage of excellent endgame content for years to come. That's what people will remember - not the 2 hours of initial gameplay.

Alex Covic
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I would not compare Bethesda Game Studios games (the Todd Howard branch of 'real' TES devs), with the MMO Zenimax Studio, even though the Morrowind/Oblivion opening tutorials and MMO ones 'seem' similar, to some.

Zenimax/Bethesda is in a pickle?

They started this MMO thing several years back, when the F2P model was still new and unproven? Upfront and monthly fees seemed the right business strategy? At this point, I fear, this is going to be yet another case of 'Star War Online', 'Matrix Online', 'Knights of the Old Republic Online', etc ... - their only hope IS to cash in early, before the well of excited players dries out?

My biggest fear though is that the money, the 'real' Bethesda Studio earned the parent company with Skyrim, was burned on this, the now more popular than ever 'brand' is torn to pieces online and that Todd Howard's team has to suffer for the success they had. It would be a bitter potion to swallow.

Btw, there was a good article by Ben Kuchera from the press, on the topic of Elder Scrolls Single Player vs Multiplayer (MMO) a few days ago:

"Skyrim's success is the best argument against The Elder Scrolls Online"

TC Weidner
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in game tutorials used to work and work well because they were new, a new experience. People were in the game quick and playing, and learning the controls and so forth.. neat they thought. Now its old hat, gamers now know this tutorial thing, they know that the first chapter of the game may be meaningless and just a tutorial and they are bored with it. The feeling "GET me to the REAL game already" is taking over.

So perhaps its time for something new again. We have gone from actual physical paper manuals, to dreaded in game txt file manuals, to in game play manuals, and now ..... why not simply be upfront and have a quick video teaching players the controls and UI of the game. They can be viewed when games are just started, or viewed on you tube anytime. You can release them before the game releases.. etc..

Production cost for such things are way way way down and easy these days. Perhaps its time for the next change in how we teach gamers how to play, especially in complex games with lots of features.

Ian Richard
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To be honest, I think it'd be easier to just ask "Would you like to play the tutorial?"

We don't actually a new way of teaching people to play... we need to stop wasting all players time because a tiny percentage might not know that the control stick is used for movement.

Adam Bishop
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"The problem with The Elder Scrolls Online is that it has not accepted how F2P has changed what gamers expect."

I think there is a pretty major flaw in treating "gamers" as a single class of people. It would be like treating "sports fans" as a unified group. But they're not.

I watch a ton of hockey but no baseball. There are things I like about hockey (the fast-flowing nature, the physical battles, etc.) that are fundamentally not a part of baseball. And obviously vice versa for baseball fans. Maybe you could make changes to baseball to attract hockey fans like me, but if you lose baseball fans in the process what's the point? "Sports fans" are actually highly diverse groups, many of whom will simply never overlap for reasons that are built into the very fabric of the games they watch.

The same is true of video games. Sure, there's overlap between people who play casual phone games like Candy Crush and people who play detailed RPGs like Fallout 3. But there's also a huge group of people who play one and not the other. There is no "gamers" to appeal to, just fans of different things.

I thought the intro to Fallout 3 worked well for a lot of reasons: it connects the player to the central plot motivation, it takes character generation somewhat out of menus and into regular game mechanics, it introduces the setting, and it ultimately results in the moment when the player first leaves the vault that has become one of the most memorable moments of the last console generation.

People who play lengthy RPGs like Fallout 3 not only know that the experience will require an ability to dig into underlying systems and have patience for the development of a story over a long period of time, those people *like* those elements of RPGs. And yeah, you could re-write the intro so that it was more "casual" friendly, but if you lose RPG players in the process what's the point? Why should Bethesda try to turn baseball into hockey?

Simon Ludgate
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Skippable tutorials,

Skippable tutorials,

Skippable tutorials!

I really can't stress it enough. I can appreciate the desire to create tutorial zones or newbie islands or whatever, but they should be optional. I want a button to click during character creation that goes straight through all that. If that means starting me at level 20 instead of 1, fine, but don't make me sit through "and here's how to pick up and equip a weapon" ever again.

Sam Mason
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Just a break down of F2p, from the start of his review it seemed to be biased toward wanting a free to play model and then went with that.

So I was reading through a lot of comments on ESO being Pay to Play instead of the (surprisingly) popular free to play model. First things first, I work in the free to play business as a "product optimization manager" which can be translated to "monetization maximizer".
Yes f2p games are basically free to play, but let's be honest, if the companies behind them wouldn't make money the model would simply not exist.
The problem I have with f2p games is that I know the drive behind developing patches and content for one. You are no longer concerned with what your users actually want or what would be cool to add to the game, you are only concerned with how to get their money by pretending to give them what they want.
All f2p games strive to maximize their ARPU which is the average revenue per user. Whether you earn money with a free to play game or not is a simple equotation:
If your ARPU is Higher than your CPL you have basically won. CPL means cost per lead, it's the cost of acquiring a new user for your game with marketing, cooperations or other "user generating activities"
For MMOs the calculation is a bit trickier, because you have higher running costs on the serverside and for support as, for example, a Clash of Clans or Candy Crush Saga. So you have to get the ARPU even higher to become profitable.
That's when the so called ARPPU maximization comes in. ARPPU means, some might have guessed it, average revenue per paying user. This is how much a paying user spends in your game over a certain period of time. And you can increase this by adding stuff like those hated boxes in tera, mounts, vanity- and status-items. Stuff that (from a normal gamers' perspective) nobody even needs. If working in the field has told me one thing it is that if you just get enough people in your game, one person will buy that 1000$ Item.
It's not just that I don't like being thought of as a random number in a product optimizers' eyes (ironical I know), I also don't like the stuff f2p companies do to maximize their revenue.
They run ab tests, they will basically tweak the game for everybody who is not paying and try to make them pay. A lot of work during patch-cycles goes just into that, thinking of ways to make more people play. Fun becomes what I call a "secondary KPI", KPI meaning "key performance indicator".
Of course some of you might raise their voices and point out that companies like Wargaming, Riot, even the much hated EA are running free to play games and they are not pay to win.
But their games were either directly made to be f2p or, as in swtors' case, had to go f2p in order to earn their production cost back to a certain degree. Had SWTOR and LOTR not cost what they did, the companies behind them might just have shut them down, instead of reworking them into f2p.
And even if you think LoL is not pay 2 win, consider the casual players. Riot doesn't make their money off core gamers, they earn most on the casual. The guy who can't just grind all those points.
But enough hating on the business model that pays my bills...
If you think about the pay 2 play model ESO is employing and the megaserver the are using there are some interesting insights to be gained:
they can scale one server (yes technically it's not just one server, but for simplicities sake let's just say it is)
because they have paying customers they don't have to care about stuff like ARPPU and ARPU and can focus all their effort on the actual game
The suits will be silent. Believe me, nothing makes people in suits more uncomfortable than unsteady income. Just one bad day of payments in a f2p game can drag down whole developement teams.
They have to be closer to us, the community. Yes they will still use metrics, but in f2p games I often find players saying one thing, while the numbers (which in f2p are the holy grail) are saying something completely different.
because of this the feedbackloop between the players and developers is much much faster. And we, the players, have a much higher influence (whether we use it or not is up to us)
Finally I would like to break down, what ZO has to earn back per user: Lets assume ESO cost 150million up to now, which in my opinion is a nice estimate. The 200+ that were mentioned in this one post might also be possible and maybe even likely if you consider this game has been worked on for over five years now.
First: I never worked in the US and am not familiar with their business plans, or how they do their accounting. This are mostly guesses and estimates I think can add up to realistic numbers
Yes we will pay 75$ or something around that just for getting the game. Now for an MMO sales are something really, really funny. ZO will maybe get 20$ of those 75$ after tax, box production cost, shipping and distribution.
So let's assume 4 million people buy the game on launch-day. Yes Skyrim sold 7 million, and a healthy 20 million across all platforms. Zenimax online would make a whooping 120million with that. But
production cost usually doesn't cover marketing spending. A medium sized marketing campaign for an AAA-game in the US can easily cost 10million nowadays.
some running costs don't count into this as well. Those guys who handle their twitter and facebook page don't work for free
servers for MMOs are fucking expensive
a good support team costs a fortune
So let's say Zenimax has earned 80 million back with the sales, some more sales coming in over the next couple of months. Of those 4 million players maybe, just maybe, 3 million will stay and continue playing. That's another 45 million $ the next month, right? Wrong:
taxes: 15-30% (depening on how we pay them, also dependent on the country) = -6.75 million to -11.25 million
salaries: (let's say they have 150 people working, 50 on social media, the forums and support, 20 in marketing and the rest in development, each earns just about 8k a month) = -1.2 million
rent: Let's just say office space can be expensive. But I doubt it's more than one million. = -0.5 million
marketing: Marketing is expensive, but everybody does it, right? = -10 million (one medium campaign, not the shit GTAV pulled off)
servers: if they are good each user will cost between 0.1$ and 0.5$ = -0.3 million to 1.5 million (this is my biggest guesstimate here, I don't have numbers to back this up)
So of those 45 million there are, worst case, only 8.45 million left. Do the math, that's why EA decided to rework SWTOR. The problem with MMOs is the work only starts on release day. And it never ends.
TL;DR: I like p2p more than f2p and 15$ a month is nothing compared to going to the cinema or ordering food.

Nicholas Lovell
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You went into a long argument based on nothing I said.

My point was specifically about tutorials and intros. I used TESO as an example of how traditional game developers don't think they need to earn their players' time and attention, because they assume they have it.

Feel free to read into this an argument that TESO should be F2P. That was not the point I was making.

Nicholas Lovell
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I also think that your maths is wrong, particularly in terms of the marketing budget. Development typically represents between 25% and 50% of the total cost of a game (it's less on PC, because you don't have to pay the $7 royalty or so to Microsoft and Sony).

Tee Parsley
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Seems obvious to me that the tutorial is designed with the 86% of the Skyrim crowd who played on console in mind. The idea being that they might indeed be a lot of MMO first timers, and might need some extra help to get acclimated.

Would be nice to have tutorials that, once completed, could be skipped forever after.

George Kay
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I find it difficult to credit the RPS writer's opinion because, having experienced the same content they did, I had the very strong impression they went into the experience looking for negatives to bring up. I have no trouble accepting an opinion differing from mine if I feel it is an honest opinion but when you feel it necessary to blast the first hallway you run down in the game and willfully misrepresent a quest to find three missing sailors I have to wonder if the rest of your comments came from your honest perspective or a desire to be negative.

Nicholas Lovell
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I think that is valid. But the more general point - that many AAA developers don't feel the need to earn their players' time, because that assume they have it - remains relevant.

Bob Johnson
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Eh something about what you said seems a bit too simplified.

Many publishers used demos to sell AAA games. And there is every incentive there for the demo to make a good impression.

And some games are just much more difficult to make fun in the beginning than others. IT's more about the type of game you are making than the business model. The more complicated the game the more there is to learn and learning what to do in a game is probably not the most enjoyable part of the game.

Yes a movie director probably doesn't have to worry about customers walking out, but they do have to worry about customers falling asleep or tuning out so they aren't pay attention to the rest of the movie. Plus a movie director only has 2 hours so there is already a natural incentive to make every minute count. Never mind no ones wants word of mouth that says you don't need to arrive early to this movie.

I wished you would have provided some equivalent F2P experiences as the AAA game you are talking about.