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.