Help Me, I’m New or Returning

The topic of the week in the particular part of the blogosphere I frequent seems to be about perceived game difficulty.

Bhagpuss has a nice piece up about how GW2 can be paradoxically perceived as a relentlessly unforgiving chaotic mess or a casual stroll in the park.

This was originally all prompted by the very valid first impressions of a couple bloggers, Ultrviolet and Aywren, who are less familiar with the specific vagaries of GW2 combat as it’s not their primary game and something they check out only now and then.

Possibly because both of us really love the game (despite its various wrong turns and lunges in eyebrow-raising directions from time to time) and would love for others to have less frustrating difficulty with GW2 so that the good points of GW2 can be enjoyed, we’ve ended up in a discussion dissecting the differences of GW2 action combat (being mobile saves lives) as opposed to more traditional tab-targeting holy trinity MMO combat.

What I want to do is bring up the other very important point that is inherent in the first impressions of players unused to the franchise and coming in fresh to check out the preview weekend or the expansion proper.

The New Player Experience

Or rather, how designers can and should scaffold and teach new players who know nothing about the specifics of that particular game, through a smooth level of difficulty curving upwards, rather than creating difficulty cliffs that are opportunities for players to get frustrated and stop playing.

Heart of Thorns absolutely made this mistake, essentially dropping off new players unfamiliar with their skills in the heart of various war zones.

Ok, they did try. I seem to recall that the original start is the Silverwastes, if you use your level 80 boost.

Which, when compared to Verdant Brink, is a relative cakewalk of flat land area… but less so in terms of Mordrem mobs who charge at you and do increased damage if they flank you (wolves), charge at you leaving acid trails (vile thrashers), don’t charge but heal up to full if you get within and stay in melee range (leeching thrashers) or have such high armor that they shrug off direct damage and are more vulnerable to conditions (husks.)

And how many new players would stay in the Silverwastes to get familiar with their class anyway? Nope, it’s off to the new zone, following the story instance. Gotta get the glider, after all.

The moment they wind up in Verdant Brink, they’re looking down steep vertical cliffs into a full out war zone and no more game guidance.

I once watched a new player streaming Heart of Thorns playing the shiny new class of a revenant with his HoT boost, and it was very telling. He struggled to figure out Masteries.

First of all, he didn’t even know where and how to bring up the Mastery screen. Then he looked at it and had no clue that they had to be trained up with experience. He thought once selected, it meant he had it, so why his glider wasn’t working was a mystery to him. Then finally, once he had enough experience, it took a while for him to figure out the UI once more and click to train the first mastery with a mastery point.

Twitch chat walked him through it. Imagine a new player with no Twitch chat to help them out.

Oh, and for the record, every time he ran up to melee a Mordrem tendril, I got triggered, though I said nothing.

Why? Because as a veteran with experience, I -know- that vine tendrils have certain attacks. They do a spinny knockback thing in melee. Thus, do not melee them unless you are prepared to negate the spinny attack somehow.

You think he knew? Course not. Knockbacks ahoy. Once, he even got punted off a cliff.

It’s something that must be learned. But I despair sometimes that some players simply don’t make the leap of understanding. I wish I knew how to broach this knowledge gap in a constructive way.

Sometimes the only way a player learns something is when another player loses their patience and snaps a sentence that helps them make the connection. Once upon a time, I got yelled at for leaving my warrior banners on top of the dungeon group because that’s where elementalists pick up their conjured weapons. I don’t play eles. I would not have known or learned that what I was doing was a right nuisance without that player snapping.

But it could also have been taught in a more constructively calm manner, like “place your banners outside of the group, so that eles can pick up their conjured weapons without accidentally grabbing a banner.” Desired action + reason.

Anyway, Path of Fire appears to be trying as best they can to avoid the unfriendly skies mistakes of Heart of Thorns…

… except that the introductory story instance difficulty is apparently still fairly offputting to someone not used to GW2 combat. (Thanks, Balthazar faction mobs.)

I do hope someone at Arenanet is monitoring deaths in the story instance or checking out first impressions feedback across the internet and tweaking accordingly.

Core Tyria’s difficulty is very carefully graded. Low level zones have mobs that are fairly harmless and don’t do any special attacks like stuns or dazes or what have you. It ramps up slowly over time, until players hit Orr – which has seen quite a few balance passes to nudge down its difficulty over time.

What Anet seems to be struggling with is teaching players how to progress from there, post-level 80.

I’d like to contrast this with the excellent difficulty pass that Grinding Gear Games has managed to pull off with Path of Exile’s 3.0 patch.

Mind you, Path of Exile’s difficulty curve has never been this good pre-3.0.

Case in point, I submit my fun little graph of Path of Exile’s difficulty curve three years ago.


It used to spike substantially at Act 3, before getting a little calmer on the next tier of difficulty’s Act 1 and going up from there.

From what the devs tell of it, their player retention problem was that most casual players finished Normal difficulty, decided they had seen all the story there was, and did not bother to repeat Cruel and Merciless. They never got to the map endgame.

If a player got to the maps endgame, that was a solid conversion. GGG has that player for life, pretty much. Though they may take breaks now and again, they nearly always come back.

Some people have wondered if this was a case of selection bias. Perhaps only those players who are in love with PoE as a game and are already converted are the ones who bother getting past all three difficulties and into maps. (Certainly there are always going to be players who only play for the story and don’t stay for any endgame.)

GGG is quite confident in the magnetic pull of their endgame though, so their choice of strategy was to extend the story as one complete unrepeated narrative, allowing the player to level up to the maps endgame without multiple difficulty tiers.

As best they can, they seem to be going for something akin to this:poedifficulty2

Path of Exile players are also on an entire spectrum of skill though.

Until I checked my PoE post history, I did not realize I’ve been playing this game on and off for 3 years now. Casually, but even the most casual player picks up some knowledge over time.

My reflexes are still questionable and to be worked on. Dodging-wise and animation reading-wise, I’m pretty poor.

Izaro is a good level of challenge for me right now that I’m working on, between having to dodge traps and read his animations (it didn’t click for me this playthrough until last night that I could also try to lure Izaro into a trap for an easier time).

Every time I get back into a playthrough of PoE, I reach level 80-86 or so and give normal Queen Atziri a shot… In the old days, I never even got to her, wiping on the first pair of Vaal bosses, then getting soundly pwned by the mechanics of the trio of bosses that I’m still not super familiar with. Lately, it’s been managing to get to Queen Atziri… before absolutely wiping out from not being able to dodge away from her flameblasts in time.

It’s not ping. The Singapore server I play on is 17ms when it’s behaving.

It’s probably not build. Even though I play SSF, I followed build guides on some playthroughs, and had lucky drops like Ngamahu’s Flame that made my characters pretty powerful. (If just not powerful enough to ignore mechanics and overpower the encounter stat-wise as might happen with trading.)

It’s not knowing mechanics and not having the reflexes and know-how to properly dodge with a movement skill and not having enough opportunity to practice long enough to link up animation tell => correct strategy and correct action taken.

There are many many players better than me. They’re no problem. They rush up to the top tier maps, and have the bosses on farm. Just give ’em more bosses with different mechanics and more challenge and more rewards every league and they are super happy.

There are many many players worse off than me. That’s a problem for GGG, because each player they lose from frustration is one less possible source of monetary support for the game and one less happy evangelist.

But how do you get players from here to there?

One thing GGG has been adjusting is the level of challenge in each Act.

In Act 1, you start on a beach with some really slow moving zombies and it’s a small tutorial zone to get a new player to grips with the introductory things they must know.

There is Merveil and Brutus as little mini bosses, to hint to players that stuff will get more serious with mechanics later on, but nothing too insane as yet.

By Act 5 and up, you’re killing gods, which are little boss fight encounters with a number of mechanics to keep track of, along with larger and more complex packs of mobs in zones.

The really neat explicit scaffolding that GGG has taken it upon themselves to introduce in 3.0 -in-game- is a very well done help panel.


A chapter unlocks every couple of levels or so, with a little optional prompt for a player to read if they want. There is also a button that brings up the entire thing for players to read like a full-out guide at leisure.


It’s really comprehensive, spelling out explicitly all the confusing little niggling details in a great summary.

When you have a game as complex as PoE is, it can’t be all learned in a day, but you can sure attempt to help players grasp it in parts just a little more with an explicit manual/guide.


Without having to google up third party strategy guides just to understand the basics.

It’s very well-written, comes with plenty of explanatory diagrams and even some video illustrations.

Whatever’s been done in 3.0 seems to be working. A number of variety game Twitch streamers like DansGaming, itmeJP and CohhCarnage are coming in completely cold and total newbies to Path of Exile…

…and they are surviving and thriving and getting past all ten Acts and hitting the map endgame. They are walking advertisements full of good vibes for Path of Exile now.

Such a renaissance and surge of popularity is exactly what GW2 needs. But it’s probably not going to get there until and unless a little bit more care is taken with what new and returning players are experiencing when they log back into the game.