Why do so many games have starter isles?

Every game needs some sort of starting area. Sometimes there are several to choose from, but in the end, there needs to be a spawn point that the game drops your newly created character into. There are a few sensible constraints that come to mind:

  • It is generally not a good idea to have newbies start in the middle of your biggest city hub. That can easily be overwhelming. Someone who logs in for the first time will have enough other things to figure out, such as the UI. They don’t need the additional complexity of 100 people bustling about.
  • Following up on this point, starter areas are generally designed exclusively for this function. They don’t have many things that would entice anybody to come back regularly.
  • Often enough, they’re sheltered away by means of a mountain range, a dense wood, or any other thing that can function in the context of the world as an impassable barrier (the ocean!). Again, this probably helps to reduce sensory overload in the very beginning, and it will give a sense of the immenseness of the world once they leave the area for the first time and have access to all areas, at least in theory.
  • Finally, most games, for practical reasons, will have the starter area still reasonably close to a main hub, or at least easily reachable. This is helpful for alts of experienced players that want to skip the introduction (or maybe even only run another mule-alt to the city, where they can fill their bank slots).

One of the more popular ways to house your starter experience is on an island, the “starter isle”. I originally noticed the fact that there were a lot of such islands in games, but then I realized a second factor that was much more important. Let me make the distinction between those two kinds of islands:

  1. The geological island. This is a piece of land surrounded by water, with the sole purpose to create a starter and leveling experience for the first couple of hours. Once the characters are done, they’ll leave for the big wide world.
  2. The functional island goes a step further. This might not be a geological island at all, but it is separated from the rest of the world by other means. Often, this “island” will be so separated that once you leave, you can never return. In contrast to the geological island, this means higher-level characters will never be able to interfere with the low-level experience.

Let’s look at a couple of examples. I don’t claim to have a very broad knowledge of different MMOs, but I’ll give whatever I know:

  • EQ2 had two starter isles, one for good and one for evil factions. They were geological islands as well as functional ones. You sailed off, and could never return. They did away with them at some point in favor of starter zones. Interestingly, Halas still has the “starter isle within an island zone” thing, but it’s not a functional division.
  • Vanguard released without a starter isle, instead had distinct starting zones that were no functional isles. You still can opt to start there. The starter isle though is one in the geological and functional sense.
  • DDO added a geological isle (Korthos) in a later patch. It is a kind of functional isle, in that you can return to it later on, but will be in a different layer/phase than the starters. You can choose to skip the newbie experience altogether though.
  • LotRO has no geological isles. Which islands in Middle-Earth, anyway? However, for the first couple of levels, you are instanced in story-mode. This serves as a kind of functional isle.
  • WoW never really had starter isles. Until Cataclysm, interestingly. Both “completely new” starter zones for Goblins and Worgen work as functional isles that you can never return to once you leave them (the Goblin one is also a geological isle). The DK starting area was also a functional isle. But it wasn’t a starter isle, because you couldn’t roll a DK until you had another high-level character, hence there was no genuine new player experience involved.
  • EVE: Of course not. I don’t want to try to define what a geological island means in space, but there is no instancing/layering/phasing. You’re a newbie, you better learn early on what it means to be griefed! (Ok, this last point was maybe a bit unfair. But you have to admit there’s a grain of truth in it.)

So, after this very lengthy introduction, the main question I want to ask is: why? Why are islands that popular, especially of type 2? None of the original four reasons for a starter area requires a functional division between starter area and the rest of the world. In fact, the only reason I can come up with is that you want to make sure higher levels cannot interfere (neither positively by helping, nor negatively by griefing) with the starter experience. Why would that be a good idea?

Rummaging a bit through my Bartle, I can come up with the community idea. Let’s consider a new player that has just joined.  Since an MMO is a social thing, you (as a designer) want him to form bonds with other players. Forming bonds is easiest if you have common goals. Joe and Joan Newbie would share the common goal of finding out what this game is about. They would easily meet each other because they start in the same area. There would be as little anxiousness as possible, because they can both assume that the other is also new and at about the same level of ignorance. Their common goal is to figure out the basics, and to progress. Immediately, there is a community of interest and, if all goes well, after a short time, a community of practice.

There’s a couple of problems with that idea, though. First of all, Joe Newbie can’t be sure that Joan Newbie is actually new to the game. She might be an alt. So the anxiousness barrier isn’t necessarily lower. Similarly, the common goal of figuring out the basics is also gone. However, they still share the common goal of progressing. That’s good, right?

Not exactly. First, they don’t necessarily share the means of reaching that goal. An alt-player will often try to progress quickly through the content he has seen a dozen times, while the newbie will want time to check out stuff. In addition, there is no incentive to group anyway, because today’s MMOs are designed for a solo experience while leveling. In fact, there’s little communication even at high levels in some games (WoW dungeon finder *cough*). If there is no incentive to group and communicate, there is no real reason to give newbies a sheltered experience. Unless there is another reason here that I can’t figure out.

I’m a bit at a loss here. Is the idea of a separate starter zone a relic of days when MMOs were group-based games before the level cap? Is it one of these things that just gets done “because X did it”? If you have any ideas, please let me know! I’m really curious.

2 thoughts on “Why do so many games have starter isles?

  1. At one point the first few steps in the EVE tutorial were in an instance of your own. It was a big step up from the tutorial before that where you were assigned tasks in open space that others could (and would) prevent you from completing.

    And in LOTRO you get the option to skip the intro and just get the goodies and exp if you don’t need the learning aspect of the whole thing.

    Back in day one EverQuest you were pretty much dropped down out in front of your home town and left to figure things out. That worked for some. I was fine with it, but I came from MUDs where they would drop you in your class guild hall and not even point you to the door.

    I’m sorry, what was the question again?

    1. I can’t even remember the instancing in EVE, and I played it for a couple of months myself. Also, while I skipped the intro in LotRO, I think that only skips the very first quest? As in, you’d still end up in Archet doing the defense, which is separated from the rest of the world?

      I’m just wondering whether there is a good reason to have instanced or otherwise separated areas for newbies in MMOs these days. There is little bonding going on with strangers, and if your friends happen to not start out with you, but are higher level, you can’t even meet up with them until you’re done with your first couple of levels. I’m not sure why this would be good design.

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