Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

13 February, 2009

How to replace levels
Filed under: — Psychochild @ 3:42 AM
(This post has been viewed 9801 times.)

One of the common topics for how to "fix" online games is to get rid of levels. It's easy to say, but hard to do; especially if you're a developer and all you know is levels.

So, I figured I'd do some posts examining levels from a design perspective and see what it would really take to get rid of levels. I want to look at some historical perspective, what the goals are, and some thoughts on alternative designs. This will be spread out over multiple posts.

Today, let's take a look at some of the history and goals of levels in games.

The Brief History of Levels

The best known source for levels in games is Dungeons & Dragons. This was an offshoot of wargaming, where units participating in battles gained experience and more competence in battle. It's interesting to note that some of the predecessors to D&D, such as David Wesely's Braunstein, didn't have levels at all; they tended to focus more on interaction between the players in the scenario and had a definite end condition. More modern games, particularly GURPS or the World of Darkness settings have moved away from levels for various reasons, but you still have the concept of characters that grow in strength over time.

In addition, levels are a common mechanic in single-player RPGs. this includes both the PC and console variations of the games. It's relatively rare to find a computer RPG that doesn't use levels. Games that don't use levels tend to have some other mechanic to measure advancement.

The first online game to include levels is, of course, Trubshaw and Bartle's MUD. Dr. Bartle was primarily responsible for adding levels. He has said that the concept was borrowed from Dungeons & Dragons, but it was a reasoned design decision. It gave people a goal to achieve, and separated out the new player from those experienced and wise enough to handle being a "wizard" at the higher levels.

Design Goals

What are the design goals of levels? There are three primary goals for levels:

Achievement. Going up in levels means that you've achieved something. You've done what was required to advance, and the level is your reward to reinforce the sense of achievement. Levels also demonstrate to others what you have accomplished.

Information. Related to achievement, levels allow people to shorthand to information about the character. A level 10 Druid in WoW can shapeshift into bear, and at level 20 that character can assume the form of a cat. If you are grouped with a level 18 Druid, you won't expect him to be doing melee damage in cat form in the next encounter.

Pacing. In most games you only have a reasonable chance to affect an enemy that is somewhat close to your level. A level 1 character can't go into a level 60 raid, even if they could get stat bonuses to equal the stats of every other member of the raid. This requires that the player go through the "appropriate" locations before jumping into the higher level areas. This also allows for story pacing: introductory quests are at the lower levels, and the storyline progresses in higher level quests.

So, what are your thoughts about levels? What are the design goals of levels? I'll consider the pros and cons of levels in a future post.

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25 Comments »

  1. Levels can help pace and direct player progress.

    In a game that's completely devoid of improving your character's abilities, physically moving from one area to another has to be directed in a fairly linear fashion, e.g. by opening gateways only if the player has completed certain prerequisites.

    If all areas are open, though, players might wish to proceed to the end along the fastest route.

    In order to pace progress, while still keeping advancement more or less non-linear, you can place increasingly difficult to beat mobs in each area. If the mobs are reasonably easy to beat at one level of advancement, but hard before that, advancing in levels unlocks new territory to explore. At the same time, very good players can progress into new territory that bit faster, and very bad players that bit slower. Players essentially get to pick their own difficulty through playing.

    It's of course possible to e.g. pace based on a combat skill rather than an overall character level. But the danger here is that players overspecialize, and improve their combat skill quickly, while ignoring other skills until they're stopped short, because they now have to use them.

    I'd think it's entirely possible to achieve this pacing without character levels, but character levels give a reasonably good, single metric for what the game can demand of players.

    As far as I am concerned, levels are about pacing - or about keeping a game's challenge at a moderately constant level.

    Comment by unwesen — 13 February, 2009 @ 5:21 AM

  2. Levels are an easy way to provide "something to do" (get to next level and/or reach highest level). Content might be boring as hell or extremely repetitive, if you have levels, it will be enough for some (a lot?) to keep playing anyway just to hear "dings".

    I don't like how levels are used to "unlock" content. Why must I wait level X to do this quest, talk to this NPC? Maybe I'm smart enough to find a way to complete the content while being weaker than what I'm supposed to be...

    Recent experience. Some weeks ago I got lost trying to take a boat ride that don't exist anymore in WoW. I walked about 45 minutes to get to that boat and went through areas meant for a much higher level than I was. That's when I thought "hey, let's start a new character and not do any quest, just exploration". Started a gnome, got herbalism to make some money and then wanted to learn fishing just to fish all around the world (go figure, I like fishing), leveling just with exploration XP.

    Of course, I wasn't aware I couldn't learn fishing before being level X (don't rememeber exactly). That was the end for my gnome. I don't get why I must do killing or deliver quests just to be able to fish.

    So I mostly see levels in MMO as a way to fill time. You can say it shows to other what you have achieved but too often is mostly tell how many hours you have been sitting in front of your computer (so anyone can get there anyway by spending appropriate time, so you're not really achieving anything special). In my D&D group, levels were a reward (often a reward for staying alive). Our DM didn't care much if we were too weak for what he was pushing at us. It was just up to us to be smart about it (don't rush to the dragon with your wooden sword, maybe you can talk your way out of it). Of course, pen and paper offers more freedom than a fixed set of data meant to be played in "that order".

    Comment by Over00 — 13 February, 2009 @ 7:11 AM

  3. I agree with Over00. I think levels are cheap achiever-crack. I hate to put it this way, but if you can't be the best, or pretty good, at a game, you can still have spent the most time. I think this type of rationale prevails because it allows MMOs to have much, much larger playerbases than they otherwise would.

    Pick any flash game on Kongregate at random. Play it an hour a night for a week without reading any walkthrus or strategy guides. You'll be better at it at the end of the week than you were on the first night. If you're particularly talented, and stick with it, you might even get and hold the high score. That's the real nature of 'leveling up'; you're actually getting better at something. 'Having a higher level' means you're better at this thing than others, whether it was hard for you or not.

    Now, I recognize that MMOs are fun because of the critical popular mass that they have. Not everybody can have the high score, and I wouldn't want to drive 90% of a server's population away (myself included) because they feel like they can't ever win. But I also think that leveling should be so much more than repeating the same moderately difficult action X times; it should model the thrilling real life experience of learning to do something useful or cool. Additionally, these in-game skills (imagine, for the sake of argument, having to get a four-stack in Tetris to pick a lock in an MMO) being learned need to be hard to transmit informatically, as in when Joe Blogger posts, "Raptors are easy to kill just climb a tree and shoot from there."

    In other words, I think achievers need to learn to be thrilled by the act of improving, not by the act of arriving. It'll make for better gaming all around.

    Comment by Bret — 13 February, 2009 @ 1:44 PM

  4. Levels

    [...] 13, 2009 · No Comments I was going to post on another subject, but then Brian Green asked what we thought of levels. I have strong opinons. They have their place as a measure of troop effectiveness in the tabletop [...]

    Pingback by Dancing Elephants — 13 February, 2009 @ 3:24 PM

  5. Good writeup.

    Of course, you can expand on the basic concept of levels:

    - Skills = levels, but multidimensional

    - Factions and/or how much a NPC likes your PC = levels, multidimensional, but based on NPC reactions

    Comment by Mike Rozak — 13 February, 2009 @ 7:40 PM

  6. Skills = levels, but multidimensional

    A lot of games have that. It's rather easy to make such a system, damn hard to design it properly (ideally, you want a skill for each activity - which in a typicall MMO are in the thousands - and skills getting better by using related skills, and worse by using opposing skills, without ever producing destabilising feedback loops), and equally hard to balance (I'd go for a dynamic balance - skills everyone has at a high level are less useful than those only a few bothered to learn).

    What then happens is, though: players invent their own levels. Just like they do in real life. For example, I have a friend who's level OF-1 and one who's level OR-3 (which is lower than OF-1 by 8 levels) according to the NATO rank levels. They'll probably invent classes first though (everyone who has Hunting > 60, Wilderness Survival > 40, Animal Taming > 50 and Reaction > 40 is a hunter, for example).

    Comment by Akjosch — 14 February, 2009 @ 6:06 AM

  7. It is easy to reject achievement-based systems, but it is hard to come up with a reasonable alternative. In a PvP enviroment, levels are less important to the longevity of the game. In a RPG enviroment, it is important to set goals for the player. It sets players apart, not based necessarily on skill, but on the amount of time played and their involvement in the game. It also gives a player something to work towards.

    What do you rely on to retain customers, if you're not fostering an achievement-based system? Do you focus on the social aspects of massively multi-player games to try and form a community? Perhaps create a network of mini-games, linked through a central world. A world where you can log on and play chess or baseball with peers.

    I think it is possible to do away with levels, but they've been synonymous with role-playing games for decades. It has worked, and it helps retain customers. Which, is the ultimate goal of any subscription-based system. It'd be a tough sell.

    Does a player practice the in-game combat mechanics to hone their sword fighting to go on quests? Do you reward a player for completing a quest, or is it merely an adventure? If you do reward them, what do you reward them with? You need a system that contains players, retains players and gives them a reason to log on.

    Comment by Septa Scarabae — 14 February, 2009 @ 7:54 AM

  8. Grinding Levels

    [...] As I said earlier, all of this is stuff that those of us that have been playing these games awhile have heard thousands of times and Scott pretty much nailed the response that we’ve all hashed out over the years. However, yesterday a friend of mine, Pentane, linked this Scientific American article on the Expert Mind. I highly recommend it for all you armchair game designers – even you real world designers will find it interesting but I’m guessing quite a few of you have already read it or some of the books that have been written from those studies. Also yesterday, Psychochild, posted the first in a series of articles on How to Replace Levels. [...]

    Pingback by GnomeDepot.Net — 14 February, 2009 @ 8:45 AM

  9. How to replace levels, part 2

    [...] In my previous post, I discussed the history and design goals of levels. This time around, I'll take a look at the pros and cons of using levels in an online RPG. [...]

    Pingback by Psychochild’s Blog — 15 February, 2009 @ 4:00 AM

  10. * The "achievement" part got lost nowadays. Ask people what they think about levelling in WoW. I like getting new abilities each new level, even if it is only a better shadow bolt for instance. But the general mindset is that you level up to get to the "real game", the "endgame". A friend of mine employed a levelling service, because he did not like to level his warrior. Oh my... I was totally opposed to it, and he did not like his warrior after the levelling service reached 70 either, which I predicted. We are also all "max/80" whatever level sooner or later, I know no modern MMO where leveling takes a very long time. It is more likely to scare people away.

    * A positive aspect of levels is that people LEARN how to toy around with their new abilities one by one on the fly, just by playing the game. Start out at level 80 from scratch, with a ton of spells, and people will have a hard time.

    * Levels make the lower level areas and zones of the world obsolete. While WoW offers some variety, multiple choices of zones for characters of level 40-50 for example, we still have the phenomenon that old level 10-30 areas are next to useless to level 50 char, even more so to a level 80 char. Sometimes ore or herb harvesting makes them go back, but the area is just dull, they roll over the mobs like a god. This means, the more you expand your world, the more of it gets obsolete, which is such a pity!

    * I pretty much agree to Over00, levels are a VERY cheap way of providing content. But not freedom of exploration, they limit your movement to ONE zone, basically.

    * How to make it better... here it comes! :) Ultima Online, you should know it, had a flawed but still better system. There were abominations how to maximize skills of this or that category by doing odd things to gain skillpoints faster, but it was faster than levelling nowadays and had less artificial level/zone barriers.

    We need to get away from item hunt mmo gaming, and we must be careful with achievements. I have seen too many just plain silly achievement implementations that also rewarded the player for doing certain totally stupid things with a fancy title and often even more, not just bragging rights, but extra abilities.

    Achievement-based gameplay is probably the easiest to do. Create a list of things "to do" to keep players busy for months, expand it over and over. It is more likely to attract more people than it will burn out veterans over time.

    How about socialization and exploration, things that made my first MMOs wonderful experiences? In achievement based games there is no WE, no virtual world, there is a checklist for my e-peen size that I am working on a daily basis.

    Please, dear designers, create virtual worlds, let people have their achievements, but make sure it does not become the game itself...

    Comment by Longasc — 16 February, 2009 @ 3:57 AM

  11. I forgot to check the moderation queue last night before posting my own comment about obsolescence. Longasc nailed it here first.

    I think achievements are a generally less offensive form of levels. In Lord of the Rings Online, my current poison of choice, there are a lot of achievements (called "deeds") that give you little abilities that improve your character. In some ways I like that more than just rewarding abilities with levels because it allows me to pick and choose what I want. On the other hand, it's annoying to have to go grind 30 more low-level creatures because you didn't kill enough doing quests or exploring.

    As far as making people do silly things for a level, I don't mind that. I might get cranky if the game requires me to do something I don't want to do (like do PvP with a Druid looking like a gnome; no shapeshifting for me!), but ultimately I don't care about titles on my characters. I know what I've done and that's good enough for me. No need to prove that I've jumped through hoops (or convinced others to jump through them with/for me) with a title.

    Comment by Psychochild — 16 February, 2009 @ 5:49 PM

  12. I'm still wishing for a game world that strives to be an interesting place to wander around, rather than a glorified chat client with ego stroking item lotteries. People will always find ways to be preening morons, why encourage it?

    Comment by Tesh — 17 February, 2009 @ 2:20 PM

  13. As a level 80 on wow with a character over 6k achievement points (a lot), I have found few people are really interested in the achievements, mostly because they don't offer anything of real use. It is just that, Achievements points are measured in length. I like them because They are finite and permanent, but I also consider myself to be a perfectionist and a smart analyzer of game design. Psychochild here seems to be in the same boat (not to sound egotistical or start stereotyping). The issues is most people just don't give a damn. They aren't that interested in crafting a character that's done everything. They like the item hunting. For as much as they complain about the RNG, they sure don't give much weight to the achievements.

    It's the same reason people play 'korean' style MMO's or 'grindfests' (not limited to Korea, certainly) The game design is simple, stupid and provides simple mind-opiate pleasure to those that don't want to 'think' about their game, they just want to do it. Who am I to argue with my father about game design? The man is a mouse-clicker keyboard turner. Silk Road is perfect for him.

    It would be easy to assign real awards to the achievements, but what then? They you find yourself quickly running out of content for the hardcores and ultimately failing fallout the casuals. Implementation of arena showed that.

    WoW has a wonderful game design (commentary aside, comparatively to most MMOs). There are plenty of complaints, problems, design issues that refuse to be addressed (fix vanish, blink?) but as far as levels are concerned, most players are fairly grateful. Levels do filter out a large majority of useless newbs. Occasional we're thrown back to old content with alternative quests which is a nice that there is an entire world.

    The implementation of the death knight and skipping all those levels showed significant problems with class composition in endgame. While a truly stand-out player will always find a spot, the more free-flowing ones basically made an overpowered bank character. By removing the level gap, people had fairly free access to one of the most powerful, overly-well designed classes in the game. The game is swarming with them. I'm worried a bout the next super-well designed hero class to spawn. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if it never came out.

    Diligent, dependable players are willing to level. The implementation of the recruit-a-friend, the experience shoulders from Wintergrasp can also help with this. After playing EQ and getting stuck on a hell level, I'm rather grateful for the relatively quick, lore-involved, multitasking, soloable leveling system.

    While one can say removing levels would make all classes plentiful, it would simply mean that patch 2.8 (Zul Aman) would have been swarmed with paladins, patch 2.4 would have been crawling with warlocks and everything below resilience would have been rogue stunlock hell. Forcing people to invest time into a character to get it up to par discourages inconsequential class hopping. There are few players like myself that are willing to play one class all the time.

    A bad system, dare I say it and piss off all the apathetic FanGirls/DBZ lovers out there, would be something like FF7. The random encounter grind level prerequisite to fight bosses was just about the biggest turn off I can think of in a game.

    Comment by TM119 — 13 March, 2009 @ 2:33 AM

  14. TM119 wrote:
    As a level 80 on wow with a character over 6k achievement points (a lot), I have found few people are really interested in the achievements, mostly because they don't offer anything of real use.

    In my experiences, the people most interested in achievements are those that have done everything else. In my raiding guild in WoW, a lot of people are working on achievements now that they are geared up for raids. Our guild only raids a few nights per week, so the people on most often want something to do. They'll organize raids for older content to get the achievements, etc. In that way, the achievement seem to be working; they give people who would get bored otherwise something to do.

    Diligent, dependable players are willing to level.

    I think you'll always have people finding some bar to measure themselves (or other people) against. "Being able to get to max level" is one element that qualifies you for raiding. I imagine that a game without levels (or a less strict implementation of levels) would have some other measurement for people to measure commitment enough to go on large, organized "raids". I think that reputation would also help in the "flavor of the month" class selection; if you're known as a good healer, you'll probably be chosen before someone who rolled a healing character "just for fun". You will also likely have the gear and other advantages earned through gameplay to be above others.

    My thoughts,

    Comment by Psychochild — 13 March, 2009 @ 2:33 PM

  15. This was cross-posted on my Gamasutra expert blog: http://www.gamasutra.com/blogs/BrianPsychochildGreen/20090306/565/How_to_replace_levels_in_MMOs.php

    Comment by Psychochild — 28 April, 2009 @ 1:35 PM

  16. Article: Rethinking the Trinity of MMO Design

    [...] Gamasutra: Rethinking the Trinity of MMO Design. It is intended to be an article in the vein of my How to replace levels posts. This time around I'm looking at the "holy trinity" of tank, healer, DPS as the core design [...]

    Pingback by Psychochild’s Blog — 17 December, 2009 @ 7:31 AM

  17. I'm sorry Psychochild, I don't know you well enough, and I do respect some of ideas and thoughts. But getting rid of levels I would foresee as a bad thing to do, in roleplaying environment. I'm sure it can be done, but I think the idea would be to have other things to do in the game not related to levels, or PvP. We are talking about online communities. Not everyone in a community is going to go out and fight against a monster, others will do things to help keep the infrastructure for their town going, and to help provide support to those who would go out and fight.

    Comment by mad_cat — 17 December, 2009 @ 7:26 PM

  18. [ Found this from "Rethinking the trininty" (http://www.psychochild.org/?p=870) ]

    Levels are an interesting issue.

    First, you need some sort of character growth/improvement. Partially this is because it's what the customer expects. Partially because, well, if you can do everything from day one, why do you stay around? Players want a goal -- that's what differentiates a game from a sandbox/toy.

    Second, once you have a system of growth and improvement, what kind is it?

    1 - Skill based, where you can toss points into various skills. Maybe you wind up with a useless combination.

    2 - Class based, where you choose one of a few specific pre-set collections of skills. You cannot wind up with a useless combination, because if a class is useless, the game design staff can fix it and adjust everyone of that class.

    Note that I didn't say level based. You have either free-form, where a few builds will be found by the best players as the domination builds, or class based, where every class has strengths and weaknesses. Regardless, you start out with little, and end up with lots.

    Look at WoW -- Class based. Eventually you reach the point of skill-based specializations -- and the "Completely redo your skill set if you messed yourself up" option.

    Look at EvE -- Skill based. People who are planing to play for more than 4 months take the learning skills first; anyone who didn't has already hurt themselves before they know it. Beyond that, you decide what role you want to play, look up a recommended skillset build for that role, and then build that. Want to become something weird and different? Then you're probably not sufficiently skilled at anything -- the "Jack of all trades" type that can solo a lot of stuff but is useless in a group.

    And that's the key observation, and it actually gets back to the "trinity" / class design: Someone who is skilled at one specific area might want to pick up the basics of the other areas so they can solo. Someone might not want to be social on-line -- using it as a giant solo RPG, for example -- and want to be able to do a little of everything.

    For those people, the "Jack of all" build isn't a bad thing. For the people who want to be the best of a specific role for the "end-game" quests, they need something at the best skill level the game has.

    Why? Because the game design team balanced that encounter that way.

    Because the game design team balanced that encounter that way

    Why do you have levels, and fixed patterns of growth? Why do you have an "end-game", or "max level"? Because that is how the encounters that pay the most value are balanced.

    If you really want to eliminate "levels", and the concept of an "L60 druid" in a WoW type game, then you need to look at (1) The strength of the toons that have been playing for months versus the just started toons, and (2) the nastiness of the deadliest things out there.

    Do you have a "nastiest build"? Sure you do. Do you have some content that is a challenge for that person, and impossible for anything else? Then you have a highest-level character. Got more than one build that can take it out? Then you've got multiple highest levels, one per class. Do you go out of your way to design weaknesses into the nastiest enemy so that different "nasty builds" can take it out?

    If players find that nothing gives them a challenge, they leave.

    To give them a challenge, you have to know what they can not do. You have to know their weaknesses.

    To give them a doable challenge, you have to know what they can do.

    For the combination, you need to restrict their do's and don'ts. That means classes.

    In Eve? While a character might be able to come in any sort of build, you don't give the characters a challenge. You give their ships a challenge. Ships come in much smaller variations. Got the skill for ship type X? You can go to area Y. What do the nasties there do? Enough to wipe out ships A, challenge ships X, and not affect Z at all. But then, Z is so expensive to maintain, and takes so much time to develop the skill for, that the nasties in area Y just don't pay that pilot enough to be worth it.

    There is no getting away from class and level. Even if you let the players do any skill build, you need to have the encounters based on equipment, which is based on skills chosen. Then you have some narrow things to design battles around.

    To sum up:
    If you are going to base your game around conflict,
    If you are going to base your game around "the player improves and gets better with time",
    If you are going to base your game around "There's always something to give you a doable challenge"

    Then you need to restrict the player based on interacting with a known set of "player potential" -- ships, class/level, etc. You can't let the players be free-form when they interact with the world, or they might be too weak for anything, or have found the "there can be only one" build.

    ===

    We are talking about online communities. Not everyone in a community is going to go out and fight against a monster, others will do things to help keep the infrastructure for their town going, and to help provide support to those who would go out and fight.

    Now that's an interesting point. Part of the assumptions up until now was a game based around combat. What if it was a game based around developing a community?

    There is one such game that I know of: Catan online world.

    People have commented that in D&D, your typical townsperson will be level 1; your typical craftsperson will be level 1 or 2. Level 4 is the rare, "You've heard of them" type, and level 5 is the "once a generation" type. That's for the ordinary people in the world around you.

    (Never mind that you then toss a party of 5 people at level 5 or better into the mix at once, and still have things out there to challenge them with. Hey, it must be a game played by the gods, with people as pawns, right?)

    What you are describing sounds like a game where the difference between a beginning character and a developed character is small. Yes, you've been out and about, but your hitpoints aren't much higher than when you started. You don't have gazillions of gold pieces. Etc.

    Maybe your defensive skill is better, so you get hit less in combat.
    Maybe your ability to hit their weak spots are better, so your can go through armor or KO them faster.

    But fundamentally, you aren't much tougher than a trained beginner, just smarter and better. More skills, not more toughness.

    That's a very different approach to game balance. It implies that a group of 5 L3's won't do that much more damage, or take that much more damage, than a group of 5 L20's. The 20's may be better at avoiding the damage. They're not going to have 200 HP spells. They won't be nastier than the beginners.

    How do you design content for such a game? Yes, for people who want to stay at the town and build it up, fine; for the rest?

    "Vanguard" sounded like this was what it was trying to do -- you could have craftsmen PC's who didn't have to go out killing things in order to do stuff. But for the highest level stuff, you had to have both adventurers and craftspeople work together -- adventurers to protect them and get them to the magical forges, and then keep them safe while they used those forges to make the ultimate weapon sort of quest.

    Sadly, that model of Vanguard died -- last I heard, it had become another "everyone does everything", with mixed crafting/adventuring as the norm.

    Does a market for such a game exist? Yes.
    Is it large enough for an MMO game? Probably not. It works well in face-to-face / pencil-and-paper games.

    Comment by Keybounce — 24 December, 2009 @ 1:14 PM

  19. Keybounce wrote:
    First, you need some sort of character growth/improvement.

    No, you need advancement or development for the persistent aspect of the game. Character growth/improvement is one of the easiest ways to provide advancement, but it is not necessary. Building a community, as you point out, would also work. So would increasing the player's skill or knowledge.

    ...in a WoW type game...

    I think the worst possible design solution would be to try to take WoW's design and paste in or clusily cut out a part like levels or classes. Part of the goals of these articles (replacing levels and rethinking the trinity) is to get designers (and players) to consider different types of games.

    What if it was a game based around developing a community?

    It's called Second Life. (Or perhaps Metaplace, which was recently announced to be shutting down, unfortunately.) I'll leave it up to you to figure out if this is a good thing or not.

    Comment by Psychochild — 25 December, 2009 @ 4:46 PM

  20. Disclaimer: My opinion even though the tone might seem very "absolute". I'm talking in regards to games such as WoW, SWG and AOC.

    Leveling is rarely done well in MMORPGs. Instead of being a fun addition to the gameplay experience, such as in non-MMO RPGs like Fallout, they measure the distance from start to endgame. In a game like World of Warcraft, it requires you to complete about 1300 quests to reach max level, a ridiculous amount which makes every quest insignificant and uninteresting (how are you going to bother caring for any of the quests if you have 1299 to go?). The gameplay in these MMORPGs cannot sustain the length, it is doomed to become a mindless chore if you have any dedication or wish to reach max level. This might be more criticism of the introductionary gameplay of MMORPGs in general, but it definitely relies and uses leveling as basis.

    Worse, it divides players.

    I hate leveling, and it's too obviously designed from a pure business perspective of draining as much time as possible (subscription period). I have yet to encounter a game that has an interesting aspect of leveling. It's like a hidden misconception that has plagued game design of MMORPGs since start. I think EvE is the closest to a good solution. I'd like to see more games where the player's experience and not the account experience makes the difference.

    Comment by Mr. Zurkon — 26 December, 2009 @ 10:18 PM

  21. Zurkon, and what, then, if not leveling? Raiding? That's even more of a repetitive time sink treadmill. Sure, it's not chasing character levels, but that is neatly replaced by chasing incremental gear upgrades or Achievements.

    Leveling can be a mean, nasty treadmill (though I'd say rep grinds are even worse), but at least it kind of goes places, rather than playing Groundhog Day in a raid dungeon, praying to the loot lottery gods.

    Of course, there is also the "open world play" of a malleable, living world. Make character development more about changing the world, not the avatar, not the community.

    Comment by Tesh — 29 December, 2009 @ 1:01 PM

  22. I don't think that's the question you should ask, a boring feature cannot be justified by being superior to a slightly less boring feature. Regardless, I do agree with you that raiding is sort of a time sink. I find MMORPG to be one of the worst genres in gaming, but I also find it to be the one with most potential of all. The genre has untapped potential which we haven't even been near, it can be used for more than just a time vampire sucking the money out of your wallet.

    It is true that leveling has a sense of progression, while raiding is the carrot on the stick that keeps moving away just when you thought you had it. However, raiding does play on more interesting strings than the unsatisfiable lust for achievement. There's a social aspect to it, it requires coordination, planning, strategy and actions that shape the experience. I'm not saying leveling is bad in general, I'm saying it's been done terribly in MMORPGs. In non-MMORPG games that have leveling, it's more of a subsidiary element that enriches the gameplay which is already strong. Not sure if this is phrased right, but what I'm trying to say is that; leveling can't just be about leveling.

    Comment by Mr. Zurkon — 29 December, 2009 @ 5:01 PM

  23. Aye, that's a good way of putting it. I'm not really disagreeing, either, just noting that of any of the current MMO major activities, the leveling content might be the closest to making the world relevant and interesting. I agree, the genre has vast potential that to date just hasn't been approached. I'm not sure if it's a hardware or wetware deficiency.

    Comment by Tesh — 29 December, 2009 @ 6:57 PM

  24. Mr. Zurkon wrote:
    Not sure if this is phrased right, but what I'm trying to say is that; leveling can't just be about leveling.

    I agree. I think you might enjoy another of my posts: What is missing in our games? I think the focus on levels for the sake of levels is wrong; it doesn't give us the sense of adventure we're craving.

    Tesh wrote:
    I'm not sure if it's a hardware or wetware deficiency.

    Meridian 59 servers originally ran on Pentium Pro 200 MHz machines with 256 MHz of RAM. It could support a max of 150 or so players at a time if they weren't all grouped together in one zone.

    I'm firmly in the camp that the problem isn't hardware related.

    Comment by Psychochild — 29 December, 2009 @ 11:31 PM

  25. OMG, why do MMOs suck so bad?

    [...] that MMOs have become stagnant and the design has become rote (and I'm in good company there), I've offered instructions on how to slaughter sacred cows, and I've chosen the life of an independent game developer mostly because the industry proper [...]

    Pingback by Psychochild's Blog — 8 November, 2010 @ 1:43 PM

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