MMORPGs are fascinating. They combine dazzling innovation with an almost religious reluctance to change. The later is understandable: they cost so much to develop, any deviation from the once-discovered formula (grind-grind-grind-loot-level up-etc) is a huge financial risk. Fortunately, ramblings in a blog are cheap, so I’ll try and dissect some of the mainstays of the genre, and come up with alternative solutions.
I’m sure all this has been discussed to death. But the world simply needs to know my unique perspective. So there. Oh, one last thing before we begin. While I’ve been playing MMORPGs for several years now, I’ve somehow managed to dodge WoW, as well as many other undoubtedly worthy titles. It could very well be that whatever I come up with, has already been implemented and proven to not be fun. In that case, I’d be grateful if you pointed me in the direction of these games.
And now, without further ado… levels! They are everywhere nowadays. Up to and including a flash fish-watching aquarium “game”. Casual games got them from MMORPGs, who got them from CRPGs, who got them from RPGs. Levels are good for many things. Here’s a handy dot-list of what they provide in a game:
- A clear short-term goal to strive for. Very important for a game that wants players to stay hooked for as long as possible.
- A long-term goal to reach the highest level possible. Again, a great way to get players hooked.
- A measure of how powerful a given character is, and what he or she should be capable of. Average stat values, damage output, hitpoints, etc. Helps with balancing content. Or does it? More on this (and other points) later.
- A fantasy of character growth and development – you started out fighting goblins with a rusty sword, and you end up fighting dragons with a legendary +20 to all stats shiny sword of awesomeness. However, note that this fantasy does not universally apply to every genre. In fact, it only really applies to the “fantasy originating from D&D” genre!
- A way to hand out new powers that doesn’t overwhelm the player. By the end of character’s career path, they’ll have about 20-30 abilities they can use (though most of the time they’ll be using a much smaller sub-set). Getting them one at a time helps the player learn to use them to their fullest. Though, this does have its pitfalls.
- A structure, pre-defined path for all characters: this content is for levels 1-5, this – for level 55-60. This is actually more of a problem than a boon.
The first two points are strong, though there are alternatives to them. But let’s first discuss the later ones.
Character level is a lie!
4th edition of D&D brought this into the light for me. In it, instead of old tables of attack bonus and saves progression, individual for each class (though following a few standard patterns), characters simply add half their level to pretty much everything. An elegant solution… But it makes you realise monsters do exactly the same thing! Well, actually, they more or less add their total level to everything, which is offset by characters gaining equipment, stat boosts and other stuff. Unimportant. What is important, is that character and monster levels can be removed from the game with minimal effort. In fact, there are house rules out there that do just that.
Coming back to MMORPGs, we (well, I) can see it’s the same. A level 1 character can safely take on a couple of 1st level mobs. A level 40 character can safely take on a couple of 40th level mobs (usually a few more, as characters tend to be a bit ahead of the curve). All the numbers might have increased by a factor of 10, but the end result is the same: it takes a certain, meticulously calculated effort to get rid of a given mob. The math behind it can get really involved, but all it does is make sure that things don’t change, even as they increase.
And then there are champion/tough/heroic/legendary/whatever mobs. While they are of a certain level, they’re much tougher than their comrades, taking several players to bring down. In theory, that’s great – a big bad monster should require a lot of effort to defeat. Dragons should not be farmed like goblins. But in practice, this tag gets applied to standard mobs as well. Why are these goblins “tough”? Because it’s a group dungeon. That’s logic, that is. Having two distinct systems of measuring NPC power level muddles the concept, as being “tough” is not the same as having a higher level.
Not every hero starts out with a shirt full of holes and a heart full of hopes
And even if they do, we as players might not care. The standard character progression is so ingrained in the game genre, we take it for granted. But consider, did Hercules gain levels between his labours? Did Bond *ding* after each movie? Even Spider-man, whose start in the superhero career had been well documented, has stopped getting new powers a long time ago (to those in the know: the events of The Other storyline weren’t so much a level up, as plot dumping new abilities on him).
In Champions Online, the new superheroic MMORPG, you save a city during the tutorial. By the time you fight side by side with the biggest hero in the world, you’re level 5. And he needs your help! As you level up and play the game, you fight, amongst other varied opponents, level 5 soldiers, level 10 soldiers, level 15 soldiers, and, I’m pretty sure, eventually, level 40 soldiers. Other than stats, I’m not sure how they differ. They’re probably better equipped. This might even show on their models! Levels are meaningless in the game world of CO. They’re not appropriate to the stories it tries to tell.
The dark side of levels
Don’t get me wrong. Levels work. They are an universally accepted game mechanic. That said, screw them sideways. They’ve been done, let’s see something new. And I know there are other games out there that don’t use levels as such. However, while I use the word “level” throughout this post, skill-based systems share most of their faults.
Levels are limiting. They significantly limit character concepts that players can choose from. You can’t start the game as a proper high elf warrior with centuries of military experience and a mighty magic sword you’ve forged yourself. The best you can do is play till the top level, and then pretend you were always this way.
Levels are artificial. I can see why having level 40 goblins makes sense from the game design point of view. Designers wanted to do some quests with goblins in a location designated for level 40 characters, and voila. And as long as you experience this location separately from every other location, it’s all good. Don’t ask pesky questions like “why don’t they go to a starting zone, where they’ll be much more successful”. You should also forget meeting level 1 goblins, and a scary level 10 demon before – that was for another level range and in another zone, silly you!
Levels are limiting (again). They prevent players from freely exploring the world on their own terms, instead putting them on a railroad. Going to a zone above your level is suicidal, so you’re stuck grinding all the quests in zone A, before going to zone B and repeating the process, like a good little well-trained monkey. On tracks. Shut up, it’s not a perfect metaphor. And if you want to play with your friend, who’s already in zone C – well, that’s just too bad. Get him to make an alt(ernativ character) to play with you, or just suck it up and grind-grind-grind. Interestingly enough, game designers come up with ways to circumvent this. In aforementioned CO, a team member can be designated as “champion”, and everyone else can artificially set their level to be equal to champion’s. They won’t get new powers or any other things that come with levels (or lose them, for that matter), but their baseline stats will be more or less appropriate. Again – levels are a lie.
Levels need to be filled. Each level, a character should get something shiny. Furthermore, most games allow players to make choices, meaning there should be several shinies. Perhaps not every level, but every so often. But there’s only so much shiny a game system can manage, and game designers can come up with. So what happens when there’s X levels to fill, yet designers could only make Y (<X) shiny abilities? The rest of them end up being crap. Not only is it annoying for players, it also takes up developers resources that could have been better spent elsewhere – they still need testing, animation, etc.
Levels are limiting (still). There’s also a reverse to not being of high enough level to play with some content. It’s being of too high level. There comes a time, when you want to do and see more in this location, this part of content, but XP keeps ticking, and level-up that will make it unavailable to you (for whatever reason) grows closer. This was most visibly apparent in Warhammer Online, in which all content was separated into 4 tiers, 10 levels per tier. There were good reasons for that – they wanted there to be war throughout the level range, with characters of roughly equal levels fighting each other, and epic conflicts in the highest tier. The problem was, lots of people happened to enjoy lower tiers better. There also was some tactical advantage to being able to wage war in lower tiers, but that’s beside the point. The point is, players were forced to fight the game system, so as not to gain levels. XP actually became their enemy.
As you might have gathered from this rather long ramble, I’m not a big fan of levels, at least in MMORPGs. So what’s my solution? Simple. No levels. Throw away the ever-growing numbers. If you started out with a sword that does 3-4 damage, and end up with a sword that does 300-400 damage, nothing has changed. Instead of coming up with complex reasons and ways to avoid the problems raised by differences in levels, get rid of them with one swift blow.
Here’s what I suggest to do with mobs: assign to each one a rank. Minions (goblins) pose little threat to characters, their strength is in numbers. Warriors (orcs) are a competent enemy, taking on more than a couple at a time is ill-advised. Champions (orc chieftain) will test the mettle of any character, and might take a couple to defeat safely. And so on to Legendary (dragon), which requires a small army to take down. Rank names and examples are, of course, just that – examples. This allows for players to still face varying challenges, and to estimate the difficulty of a given fight. And yes, this is very much the system I’ve mentioned earlier, with very slight elaboration. It seems to me it would work much better without levels there to confuse matters.
This, of course, isn’t the only problem removing levels raises. Chief one being character development, the thing that keeps us hooked, the all-mighty progress bars. However, I’m going to cheat, cry that this post is already nearing 2000 words in length, and promise to offer my thoughts in the next installment. Which won’t be a month away this time. Probably.