Up or Sideways

I’d been thinking about the problem of ever-increasing levels in MMORPGs recently. In almost every respect it’s a symptom of the source for those games, paper based RPGs and to some extent paper based wargames. Certainly traditional roleplaying games for the most part were built on the concept of skill or level progression where-in you became more powerful and hence were able to take on greater and greater challenges. That power improvement came from increased skills in skill-based progression games (like the original Call of Cthulu), or in lumps in level-based progression games (D&D being the most famous). On top of that you gained access to better equipment and tools which in turn augmented your ability to survive and overcome. MMORPGs have for the most part inhereted that feature set.

However, for anyone who ever ran a long running level based progression (and to some extent skill based progression) roleplaying game, or ever played in a long running campaign, you should immediately spot the flaw. At some point you are more powerful than anything you can meet – unless the stakes are raised. In a solid campaign with a good backstory and a lot of information, it may not be a problem being at the same power level without any way of improving it. Perhaps the increased power comes instead from increased knowledge or increased resources or contacts. But the base point remains, once you can’t progress in power, you can’t take on more powerful challenges and the whole feeling of progression and improvement that people seem to love is lost.

So for many of us, the results are familiar, the original D&D game moved through Basic, Expert, Companion and Master levels. But they couldn’t resist bringing out the Immortals boxed set so you could become a god. People wanted to stay with their favourite characters, the ones they had built up over time, and who they knew, so the first option was to pop the top off the limit and raise it higher. The other option was to retire your characters and start over, with a new campaign or more often than not an entirely new rulebase for a change.

MMORPG’s are suffering the same issue. Everquest will soon be increasing the level cap to 85 or 90, WoW has increased it and will do so again, Lord of the Rings Online is moving to a level cap of 60 with the latest expansion (Moria). Once most of your players have their favourite characters at the maximum level, and they’ve had time to sample most of the content, what is there for them to do? Fine tune their characters, fill in the gaps with whatever ‘alternative advancement’ options they have, finish off the quests they never did, explore the parts of the world they never saw. But then what?

Any new content has to offer people at the maximum level something new – and if what they crave is to grow in power and scope, then naturally the first choice is to raise the level cap and increase the power of the enemy. Eventually it becomes surreal, in Everquest the Planes of Power pitted the players against the very gods themselves, but then in the next expansion it turns out the gods aren’t all powerful because there’s some other guy in a temple who’s even more powerful and then of course he turns out not to be that bad when an even more powerful enemy is found.

Raising the level cap lets people progress, but the cost is mudflation, and polarising the player base. If you have to provide new content for the people at the top level, new content for those at the lower levels suffers. There are only so many resources. Of course the other issue is that over time, the distance (in power terms) new players have to travel to team up with their high level friends is immense, and so coping mechanisms have been added where-by high level players are encouraged to group with their lower level friends (mentoring, for example).

Eventually people come to realise that killing level 122 dragons when you’re level 121 is about as challenging as killing level 22 dragons when you’re level 21. That the improvements in power are shallow and repetative. Some games deal with this by adding functionality (Everquests’ AA mechanism) but that brings balancing complexity, further alienates low level characters and soon becomes simply a means to an end (earning alternate ability points to make earning more alternate ability points easier).

You may be wondering why the hell people play these games if it’s all so negative. Firstly, while this issue may not come as a surprise to many long playing roleplayers it does seem to be an issue the ‘industry’ is only just coming to recognise as a serious issue. Secondly, there is an addictive quality to progressing your character either through gear, levels or skills. Just making that last final improvement or getting that much needed upgrade can be a good driver for playing. Thirdly, MMORPGs are engaging because they are socially rich. People like working with other people, or against them. People like forming clans or guilds or kinships, people enjoy sharing time with their friends and making new friends to share time with.

While MMORPGs are games they’re also social environments, something roleplayers sitting around a table have claimed for many years. Problem solving is fun and challenging, doing it with 7 other people only increases the challenge and potential for reward. So we have a situation in which people like playing games, they like ‘getting better’ over time, they like developing a single character who they associate with and they like sharing that space with other people. But at the moment, the standard response to the problem of continuing to provide a challenge to long term players is to increase the level cap, throw bigger enemies in and hope people don’t mind.

There are other options, and while reading around (reading around being searching once, reading two blogs) I found this and this. These posts discuss the ideas of horizontal game design rather than vertical (what I’ve been describing above is mostly vertical game design).

I liked Tipa’s idea of multiple locations, all in the same small level range, but in which your gear or experience or whatever it might be from other locations counts for naught, levelling the playing field. I like this idea, but it does feel like it might end up in a ‘collect the set’ situation for gear. Everquest did something sort of similar in the early days, where you really needed a good set of resist gear for certain encounters instead of your normal every day gear. What differentiated your ability to survive against your peers was how much of this gear you collected, not what level you were. So this is horizontal design by collecting new gear or new skills that only really benefit you in certain locations.

I think this solution would certainly fit some game designs better than others, imagine a game based around Stargate, where each new world discovered has a broad range of attributes which can be wildly different to other realms. Such wide differences lend themselves to limiting your success with your existing gear or skills. In a low-fantasy setting or modern world setting it may be harder to justify why your sword isn’t as effective in the newly discovered continent as it used to be in your home land. I guess you could build an entire world system on it, perhaps creatures on particular land masses are vulnerable to particular minerals only found on those same land masses, and virtually immune to everything else. But that feels like a stretch, I think the ‘new world’ approach would work a lot better.

I guess if I could reel off a few dozen ‘better’ horizontal design options I’d be a games designer and not a sysadmin.

It’s just struck me that faction / reputation is an attempt at horizontal design. Your political stance or reputation provides access to more quests, more locations and more challenging encounters but isn’t based on your level or skill-based power. Perhaps that element could be expanded to enable progression and increased challenge, although Everquest players certainly complain about the amount of necessary faction work involved (emphasis mine to prove the point). Maybe it can be more integral to the game, less explicit and more naturally obtained. A complex political system of factions and alliances may allow you access to quests or adventuring areas which are challenging and new but you can still bring your friends with you as long as you vouche for them, and if they do anything out of order you may find your own reputation suffering.

What I do know is that Second Life has no power progression, no game in that sense but still attracts a huge following. Sure, you can make money and it has sex, but that can’t be all of it? It has people, it has people interacting and working together to build places and do stuff. If you get a game that fits around that and provides fun and challenge then bingo.

Anyway as usual I’m rambling by this stage, set off with a good idea, murder it by the second paragraph and then waffle my way to a slippery conclusion. Here’s what I see as the basic truth, MMORPG creators are going to need to answer this issue and soon, or they’ll find everyone retires their characters or gets bored when they turn into gods. Tabletop roleplayers have known about it for years – time to catch on.

One thought on “Up or Sideways”

  1. I like this subject as it’s one that I’ve also puzzled over quite a bit. I started thinking on the subject after watching three friends get bored of playing City of Heroes (CoH) and leave to play Lord of The Rings Online (LoTRO). They left, because, in the course of eighteen months, they had taken three or four characters from bottom to top and had seen and done all the content. They are all now on their second characters in LoTRO and I’m waiting to see what they’ll do with that game. They have urged the rest of us to move across to play with them, but we see little point as they’ll just move on again, and, heck, we’re still happy playing CoH.

    (It’s also interesting to note that nearly the entire games industry (computer and console) is based on striving to get to the end of a game, and then never playing it again, just waiting for the next new game to come out so one can buy that. Wash. Rinse. Repeat.)

    I’ve often wondered what a game can do for these types of people, who are, let’s face it, just after more experience, a higher level, or a bigger pot of gold than others in their peer group. While I do like the idea of more horizontal progression I think it ultimately leads to another dead end – it just takes players longer to get there.

    Social stickiness, as you mention here and in another blog, is probably the real answer – making teaming easier. Make group goals fun and easy and available to everyone from the hardcore gamer to the casual gamer (I am, as are a lot of my friends, those people who only spend an hour or so a week playing a game so a four hour raid is out of the question). Most definitely (and this is where MMOGs seem to miss out on the reason people play them) they need to make chatting and socialising very easy. A couple of years ago CoH introduced Super Group (guilds by another name) bases. It was a great idea as nearly every super group in a comic has one. The problem is that they are dull and lifeless (although they are useful). It becomes much more fun to stand around in the city or the auction house (as that’s where everyone else is) than it is to stand around in your own base (because there’s nothing happening there, even in the big guilds).

    Bases, guilds, housing estates and night clubs (Second Life) aside, I think the answer is just a very good chat system. This will help players make friends quickly, give them topics to talk about, help other players point them to content they haven’t done and keep them coming back. It doesn’t have to be a complicated system. I’m sure, Tony, you remember our time in IRC all those years ago. We didn’t have any NPCs to fight or any loot to collect, we just had a group of people that enjoyed chatting with each other (and fighting over the channel name 😉 ).

    How good would it be to have a chat system that shows all the channels available, makes it easy to set up your own and invite people, and gives a wealth of topics to talk about? It works for the forums most games have. I haven’t played a lot of MMOGs to know if there is one out there that does this, but Star Wars Galaxies, CoH and LoTRO didn’t have anything that was easy to use. They all had or have systems that required commands to be known and while MMOGs have opened up the world of online gaming to more than just geeks, the average user isn’t going to be interested in learning these commands. I can’t even remember any of those games having an in game tutorial about the chat system. Maybe that would be a start.

    As an aside (as if I haven’t rambled for long enough) I have also wondered if Collectable Card Games (Magic The Gathering et al) have the answer. With these there are new expansions that come out all the time (i.e. new content), but that isn’t the only reason people play the game. They also play it as they only have a limited selection of the bits of the game they own available to play with, and they like making combinations from that stock to discover if they can beat the combinations a friend has created. There is also the fact that the new content is released in a more random way. One buys a pack of cards for the current expansion and if there are duplicates in that pack it’s easy to trade them (kind of like trading loot, but more accessible). Could an MMOG mimic this kind of set-up and keep players interested for longer?

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