As of last post we got rid of levels. Terrific. Now what? Now comes the hard part. Players need to be entertained. They like to think they’re achieving something, working towards some long- and short-term goals. And, as was pointed out in the comments to the previous post (in Russian), there already exists an alternative system widely used for that: achievements/badges/perks. The idea is terrific, as it ties the reward to some concrete in-game accomplishment, not abstract XP. The problem is, it is latched on on top of everything else as at best secondary means of character advancement. Let us see what we can do with it, how can we expand it further and build our hypothetical MMORPG around it.
I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together
We (meaning I) have already decided that characters should be of same power level. Which doesn’t mean they should be the same, and doesn’t prevent some builds from being more powerful than others. But that’s fine. So how can we allow characters to develop without becoming (much) more powerful? What can Achievements (capitalized from now on) give? Quite a lot, actually. The trick is to shift the focus from gaining personal power to gaining more options, greater variety. Growth not upwards, but sideways. And you thought the title of the previous post was random. In order to allow this growth, initial options must be limited. Just how limited, is an interesting question. As the rest of the post shows, pretty much every element of the game can be expanded upon with Achievements, from looks to playable races. So the initial selection should be flexible enough to spark interest, yet not large enough so that more is desired (and given).
The most obvious application is costume options. Just as in a regular WoW-model MMORPG, you start in a relatively simple garb appropriate to your profession. But as there are no levels, there can’t be a progression of ever more powerful loot. Thus the clothing characters wear becomes cosmetic – and that’s a good thing. The choice between a great looking item and an item that gives bigger bonuses sucks. With that in mind… Want shinier armour? Get a dwarven smith to make it for you – in exchange for services. Take a scary two-handed sword from a vanquished boss. Earn a beautifully made cape after saving the king’s tailor. Do a favour for a bouncer to gain access to an exclusive hairdresser saloon. Even a lipstick smear on the cheek from a city beauty can be a reward! These items (as well as other rewards discussed later) can even provide a small bonus – not enough for it to matter, just a distraction for people who need it.
Knight of the rose
Another common usage of Achievements is titles. They are, undoubtedly, the cheapest method in terms of development: display a word or two above character’s head, and you’re done. And as such, many games have hundreds of them, to the point when they become largely meaningless. We won’t make this mistake, because we’re smart. Ha! No, earning a title should take effort, so that it can be displayed with pride. Better yet, let some titles be proper titles, granted by the king (or local equivalent). And let them affect the way NPCs react to you. Once you’ve been knighted, local soldiers will salute you. And if you’re a student at the Royal Magical College, you’re given a pint of beer in any tavern – on the crown! This, of course, is closely linked to some system of social standing – reputation points amongst various factions being the universally accepted one, and good enough for purposes of this post.
Trained by the master
Customization can even extend to powers characters have. This ranges from cosmetic effects, to minor mechanical changes. Get the Prince of Thieves to show you some of his dirty tricks, perhaps by tracking him down and beating him up, to add bleeding damage to your dagger attack. Serve a dragon’s spirit for a while to make your fireball look like dragon’s breath. Bring best wine from seven kingdoms to Master Po so that he’ll teach you his famous Drunken Monkey style, improving your dodge stat, as well as changing your stance animation. And so on.
Gone with the wind
Let’s take it further. Gain utility powers by accomplishing particularly daunting tasks. Climb the tallest mountain in the world to pray at the altar of winds on top and gain the ability to fly for an hour (activation time). Enough for it to matter, not enough for it to last forever. Walk all the roads in the world to gain a permanent boost to speed. Befriend a forest spirit to gain the ability to turn into an animal – useless in combat, but faster to travel. And pretty, obviously.
A world of possibilities
And then there are pets. And mounts. And trophies to hang on the walls of your castle. And earning the right to build said castle. And rare crafting components, used for pretty much same things. Every story arc should contain a unique reward at the end. Exploring the world should bring rewards. Simply fighting monsters should bring rewards. The dynamics of the game, its hook stays the same: playing it advances the character. But this way, these advances are meaningful, rather than generic XP and an item you most likely weren’t going to use anyway. It’s no longer a race to the top, which inevitably ends with the player looking around with a slightly puzzled look on their face, wondering what to do next. It’s actual interaction with the world, and the way the character looks and plays reflects their path.
One of many
That’s all great, you undoubtedly say, but just how many cloaks, titles and pets does a single character need? Not that many, true. So why stop at a single character? The reason there are ‘mains’ and ‘alts’ is because advancing a character to the highest level and gearing them out in the best possible equipment usually takes a stupendous amount of time and effort, and not many people are prepared to repeat it all over again and again. But we’ve already gotten rid of that! So let’s go further still, and encourage playing several characters.
Allow some Achievements to be tracked across account. The ones like “kill all 20 orc bosses”, “defeat 10000 goblins” and “visit every corner of every map”. And share the reward for them across the account as well. So you can have your warrior kill orc warchief for his cleaver, your mage kill orc grand shaman for his totem, and have them both count towards the Achievement. Have your cake and eat it too. And of course no one prevents having individual Achievement for doing everything with a single character as well.
Furthermore, Achievements can even unlock new playable professions and races. Visit a different continent to be able to make a character of a race native to it. Complete a long story-arc about a necromancer gone bad (professional hazard) to unlock necromancers as a playable profession. In addition, let some story arcs take a different direction depending which character is doing them. Perhaps not even in the actual task (branching content is expensive to develop, after all), but in the narrative.
But what do I do?
A pet peeve of mine is the need for a wiki for each game. And this typically goes double for Achievements: players are forced to resort to accumulated popular knowledge to find out how to get the ones they want, and even find out which ones they want in the first place. Why? Because the information present in the game itself is all too often cryptic, or even nonexistent. This can not be allowed in our hypothetical Achivement-based game. Players need to be aware of each step they have to take, because if they’re not, they simply wouldn’t know what to do with themselves.
If this post seems like a list of features and examples, it’s because it is. If the ideas contained in this post don’t seem to be new, it’s because they’re largely not, though they’ve never been combined in such a way, I hope. I’m filling the void left by levels, exploring the design space. As it were. And obviously it doesn’t have to be a fantasy game about goblins, dragons and kings.
Can this system sustain player interest? It’s virtually impossible to predict the answer to this question without actually making such a game. It already does, at least for a certain type of player, a completist. And I’ve tried my best to make it attractive to others. So what do you think, gentle reader. Would you play this game?