I spent two or three hours today trying out the WildStar Free-to-Play PTR beta and from what I’ve seen, I’m optimistic about the game’s future using the new payment model. I spent my time going through the new player experience from levels 1 to 11. I rolled up an Aurin Spellslinger and decided to pretend that I was completely brand new to the game to see how I’d be treated. On the whole, I was pleasantly surprised with the extent to which the designers have gone to great pains to give players a no-nonsense learning experience that welcomes them to the game’s universe while retaining its characteristic quirks and flair.
The character creation process has been made much more visual; rather than relying largely on blocks of text to explain things, accompanying symbols, pictures, and videos illustrate in a very direct fashion what each faction, race, and class is about. Selecting Spellslinger, for example, told me that it’s a Healer and Ranged Damage class and showed a bordered video of the class in action. The customization process was the same as before using sliders. I did notice that we were back to copy-pasting character creation strings rather than being able to load and save customization sets, but it’s the F2P PTR beta, so I suppose it’s to be expected.
I jumped into the super-newbie tutorial which was utilitarian and sparse. Run through these circles using your directional keys. Fire your weapon at these holographic targets that don’t attack back. Jump up these steps. You’re done! No frills, just learn the basics and off you go to the arkship tutorial.
The first thing I noticed when I got there was that the size of the starting area had been reduced drastically. I appreciate the fact that what programmers would call cruft had been removed: in other words, unnecessary or inelegant code. Let me take a moment to say that I am in love with the WildStar universe and the wonderfully whimsical and vibrant environment that game’s developers have created. With that said, I appreciate the fact that they realize that what was fun for them to make from a design perspective is superseded by the need for players to be able fully comprehend every aspect of their starting experience from the controls to the combat to the environment (in addition to needing to know their reason for being in this universe). By essentially truncating their own original design, they make it possible for players to immediately sketch out the bounds of their starting environment which makes them feel more at ease and gives them a sense of confidence. (This includes Belle’s Sanctuary, whose atmosphere and music I absolutely adored.)
There are thus three abbreviated segments in the initial Exile starting experience: the medical bay, the command bridge, and the greenhouse. The associated quests have had their numeric and specificity requirements relaxed (“kill fewer X than before, any of type Y will do instead of specific names”). Having completed these, players are free to teleport to the starting area of their choosing. Once on Nexus, they can travel between different starting areas at their leisure.
In the starting areas, things become more expansive and open-ended – to a degree. Permanent non-combat sprinting allows for relatively quick travel throughout the environment which is a plus for getting new players to experience the good stuff right away. This is a key feature of the new player experience in the free-to-play model: I think that many potential customers are going to make the decision to continue to play (and thus possibly consider spending money) based on their first twenty minutes to an hour in the game. Giving them fast travel in starting zones and the means to breeze through them is therefore highly desirable.
It also sets the tone for the game: the mechanics of WildStar are such that it would be what I would call a relatively fast-paced game. Permanent sprinting, fast mounts, and the ability to double jump would lead new players to believe that experienced players who have mastered such things are capable of incredible feats. Why wouldn’t you want to learn how to move like a ninja and dodge like Muhammad Ali?
I had Loyalty Points from my time as a subscriber and was also able to immediately unlock an account-bound Badlands Raptor mount which I could use once I landed on Nexus. I kept forgetting to press Z to activate it because I was transfixed by the elegance of my Aurin female’s running gait while not in combat. Once I hit level 10, I was able to whip out my Eldan hoverboard and start swooshing all over the place in true WildStar style.
Players are given an entire set of viable starting equipment in the tutorial rather than earning it piecemeal (and potentially forgetting to equip it). Subsequent rewards are frequent and typically require players to choose between Assault or Support power (or some secondary stats which are not terribly important at lower levels). The updated character screen explains each statistic in the tool tip; the fun flavor of names like Brutality, Finesse, Integrity, Grit, Tech, and Insight, much like the awe-inspiring (and framerate-spiking) open spaces of the previous tutorial, have been dumped in favor of stats which can be understood without difficulty. Assault is for doing damage and Support is for mitigating damage (tanking or healing). Shields buffer your health. That’s it. And to top it all off, your average item level is displayed in your character panel as well.
There are a boatload of secondary statistics in the right-hand side panel which new players are not expected to understand. In condensing the primary stats, the developers seemed to have channeled this desire for complexity into secondary stats which cover a range of PvE and PvP situations. Things like Critical Hit Severity and Glance Chance are self-explanatory to experienced MMO players; new players, not so much. One of my concerns with these stats is that the depth the developers are presumably seeking via increased complexity may actually lead to a race condition in which iterations on the functionality of these stats are bullied into motion by brokenness or being broken by min-maxing players. Anyone who remembers Armor Penetration in World of Warcraft understands why “Wrath of the Plate DPS” was an appropriate play on the title of that expansion. One of the new stats, dubbed Critical Mitigation, should immediately raise red flags with long-time players of EQ2 who recognize this statistic as a content gating mechanism that, when first introduced, required players to achieve crit mit caps via gearing lest they be wrecked by raid bosses with enhanced critical capabilities.
Most new players should be able to get up to speed by focusing on the primary stats, however. The most important thing is that they feel fast. Leveling nowadays should really be a fun romp through the zones in which your speedy and powerful character is able to smash through a great many things with appropriate gear and increasingly skillful play. This skill is, of course, ideally gained while actually playing the game. The 1995-esque approach of making players weak and requiring them to survive in a brutal environment may be philosophically attractive but not does not generate dollars in 2015 unless you are offering a survival-type game or an experience such as Daybreak’s time-locked EverQuest progression servers. Make players feel like they kick ass right out of the gates and they’ll be more likely to stick around and spend some money on cool stuff.
I checked out the limited cash shop offerings; you achieve points on what appears to be an experience bar that rewards you with items once you’ve “leveled up” by buying stuff in the shop. You earn OmniBits, an in-game shop currency, by playing the game; during my 3 hours from level 1 to 11 I believe I earned about 30 of them which doesn’t really buy me anything. Longer amounts of play should allow players to buy items over time. It’s just going to be slow.
It seems that GW2 has been inspiring WildStar in more ways than one: in addition to implementing a holo-wardrobe which resembles GW2’s inventory-less, skin-driven wardrobe, WildStar has started mimicking Tyria in other areas. For example, F2P WildStar now has GW2-style daily login rewards. I actually smiled when I saw them for the first time. WildStar, of course, in turning all the dials up to 11, goes well beyond GW2’s 30-day login reward cycle and plows straight through to 180 days of rewards. Interspersed throughout are purple-text items that represent the epic loot showered upon you in return for hopping into the game every single day, even if it’s just to collect your goodies and perhaps check your auctions.
Additionally, you are now able to waypoint around zones whose level ranges do not far surpass your character’s level. By clicking on the circular rocket icon located next to the mini-map, you can select a destination for immediate transport. Keep in mind that you’ll be spending substantially more money for the convenience of not having to sit through the banality of a comedian-taxi’s canned jokes. At level 8, fast travel cost me about 25% of the currency I had earned thus far.
The new player experience guides players through objectives with warmer hand-holding; pressing F while not near an actionable object often shows you an arrow to your next objective which, by default, will also be your nearest one. Tasks reward decent amounts of experience provided you are not two or more levels above them. I was regularly seeing experience gains of anywhere from 5-10% of a level per task. This is a welcome change from the previous leveling experience in which completing tasks was actually suboptimal because the experience rewards were so abysmal. As a Scientist, datacubes were highlighted on my map. Finding all of them was one of my objectives, which was pretty cool. And, finally, you’re given a purple-quality rucksack which contains level-appropriate rewards every couple of levels. I got everything from costume items to shiny pieces of gear to a potion that gave me full rested experience when consumed. Every time you open your rucksack, out pops your stuff and your new, higher-level rucksack. Bags within bags, just like in Guild Wars 2. (You can’t see my Colin Johanson smile right now, but it’s there.)
There were a significantly higher number of “discoveries” in Celestion, the post-starting-area low-level stomping grounds of the Aurin (my people). Clicking on these yielded similar rewards to the rucksack. In one case I found an Aurin cave whose inhabitant sold me an upgrade for one of my equipment slots; in another case I was given a short-term damage buff that helped me pew-pew through baddies even faster. I thought that was pretty neat. Throughout the zone, there seemed to be far fewer creatures that were aggressive by default. I also noticed what seemed to be lower NPC damage output across the board. At level 10 I was able to take down level 14 infected Mordesh by playing intelligently; previously they would have destroyed me. The same went for the giant Lopp Crusher creature near Hijunga Village who would normally swat me pretty hard. The new version was much easier to kite and dodge around. I never lost more than half my health.
Overall, I’m a fan of the new player experience. Make players feel like they’re just fast enough – empower them – and they might decide to spend some money on boosters to be just a little bit faster. (150 DPS is “insane” when you’re used to topping out at around 100.) Offer them cool-looking housing items and music tracks for their personal plots and they’ll eat that stuff up. We know this from other MMOs with well-designed player housing systems. Give players the tools to learn how to be super-fast and super-furious by playing a game that makes them want to play it and – if the leveling experience is smooth and speedy – they might just throw down for character slots so they can do it on alts. Let them select the “dodge or be vaporized” difficulty setting at the top levels and you can still maintain your hardcore edge – when players ask for it. Based on the first ten levels of the free-to-play PTR beta, I like what I’m seeing in terms of the way new players are being treated. Keep it up and we’ll still be playing WildStar years from now.