Monday, February 8, 2010

In which I throw Leveling and Skill systems under the bus...

All RPGs, by nature, are character driven stories – where YOU are the central character (or team of characters). As the story unfolds, your character evolves. At a minimum, this is the addition of new equipment and inventory to aid you in your adventure. And typically, it also includes some other type character advancement – usually in the form of new levels, skills or attributes like health.

MMORPG are no different in this respect. The character is the defining trait of a Role Playing Game. The core of a game lies not in it’s virtual world, but in the character each player controls.

Levels and Skills
The underlying mechanics between Levels and Skills is similar in that they both advance vertically with progression, but skills are very specific while Levels are broad and affect a large number of things. Skills are effectively mini-levels for a specific character trait.

As such, they both share some common disadvantages:
  • There is a vertical limit or ‘max cap’ on how far you can advance with this type of progression
  • Players can view gaining skills or levels as an obstacle (not fun)
  • Separate from, but often prerequisite to, the end-game
  • Fairness issues related to lowering or raising the cap
  • The further you progress, the more obsolete and irrelevant the early content becomes
Now consider that any MMO that uses this system introduces it to new players as the very first task for them to accomplish. And then the game proceeds to limit just about every possible thing they can do from a character progression standpoint with this system. You want to do what? You need to gain X level or skill before you can do it.

With game design like that, it’s really no wonder that people a) try to grind through it quickly and b) don’t know what the hell do to when they reach the cap. Ultimately, it’s about expectations and from a very early start, these games teach players that THE most important thing is acquiring these levels or skills.

Toss them out
At a fundamental level, what do you want your MMO to be about? Do you want it to be about power-leveling your character attributes? Or do you want it to be about the gameplay? Because whatever the end-game is intended to be in your game, the leveling and skills system is simply an obstacle to getting to that part of the game.

But what if the leveling part is the part you enjoy most? I would argue that it's not 'levels' that you play for, but the linear progression provided by those levels. It’s a very clear mark of progression. Which is to say, it’s not much different than reaching a checkpoint or savepoint in Halo or some other FPS.

It’s a marker of achievement and an obvious step forward. That’s the part you are playing for and I’m not trying to take that away from you.

What I’m suggesting is that we replace that linear progression with other things. Things you can still work towards achieving, but things that are more consistent with the end-game design of your game. The progression should complement or be part of that progression, not separate.

The importance of ‘Heroic Deeds’ and ‘Epic Moments’
Personally, I would rather my character-based progression be based on the deeds or things that happened to that character than on some numeric blip that increased every time I attacked a monster. When I think of my favorite moments in Warcraft, I don’t think about that time I dinged 80 but specific raid encounters and specific quest lines.

I’m talking about my achievements and the ‘story’ as I experienced it. Even when I think about PvP, I’m thinking of those ‘Epic Moments’ when crazy stuff happened or I solo killed multiple players.

Quest arcs, Impact PvP, Raid Encounters, and yes, even Achievement based milestones, are a better measure of progress than simply leveling.

Consider that one of the drawbacks to skills and levels is that specific content needs to be designed for players at various stages. This means that in WoW, for example, all the content developed for level 10-15 characters is obsolete even by level 20. From a resource management standpoint, that’s a lot of unused content for a stage that lasts 15 hours of play time in a game which even casual players log a thousand hours.

What if that development time had instead been used to develop better quality content for Heroic Deeds and Epic Moments? Content that was actually useful to players even after that 1000th hour?

The importance of ‘Things’
For me, the most powerful and interesting part of character progression is in the acquisition of things. In Lord of the Rings, what made Frodo unique and interesting? The one ring. A ‘Thing’ that he possessed.

Don’t underestimate how powerful both acquiring and losing ‘Things’ is to players. The whole reason that Impact PvP is viewed so negatively is because of the consequences that come from losing your ‘Things’. And what about when that ‘Thing’ drops off that boss?

There are countless progression opportunities related to ‘Things’. You can get stuff, lose stuff, replace stuff, make stuff, trade stuff, steal stuff, have your stuff break, need some stuff in order to use other stuff, have really powerful stuff and even (gasp!) lose stuff when you die.

It’s also possible to have linear progression with ‘Things’ as well. For example, perhaps you need ‘Thing X’ in order to do Z and gain ‘Thing Y’. But ‘Thing X’ isn’t easy to get and requires the completion of a Heroic Deed. Nor can you give ‘Thing X’ to another player and circumvent the need to do the Heroic Deed.

In fact, if ‘Thing X’ were important enough, then it could become the bottleneck that requires all players to progress through that Heroic Deed. Not to mention all the progression that could be related to player housing, keeps and territory control.

All of this can be done with a skill or level system as well, but the point here is that the player’s attention is directed to this style of progression from the start rather than viewing these things as an obstacle to power-leveling.

It’s a form of progression that works in harmony with your end-game and is very scalable (just add more ‘Things’ and Heroic Deeds).

Yes, it’s just a more complicated way of handling player progression. Added complexity isn’t always bad — it can add significant depth to a game. Depth that is really helpful in holding a player’s attention for YEARS.

Also, none of this is to say that specializations (talent trees) don’t exist. Or even classes for that matter. I’m just talking about removing the stat based leveling system as a method of progression.


SolidState said...

I'm sorry, but there is something I don't understand. You're against a level-based progression system mainly because it causes previously passed content to be obsolete, right?

But... doesn't your suggested "gear-based" progression suffer from the same issue? Once I get better gear, doesn't content which require lower gear become obsolete?

In any case I've never bought the "WoW lower levels are dead content" argument. This is true for raids (mostly) but I can tell you you cannot level an alt these days without running into tens of alts or new players (mostly alts of course) running around the same zone and LFD wait times are about the same for lower level as they are for level 80.

sid67 said...

But why do people level alts?

In many cases, that's because they don't know what to do at max level and they are returning to the linear progression that the game teaches them: leveling.

Or alternately, they want to try a new flavor of character. In which case, the leveling is simply a barrier overcome quickly.

As for your other point, levels make things obsolete VERY quickly. Content becoming obsolete is going to happen, but the rate at which it becomes obsolete is very fast in a leveling-based game.

And if it's not fast, then it seems like a horrible grind to endure.

That said, obsolete isn't the 'main' reason I'm against levels. The big reason is what I mentioned above, that leveling is often viewed as an obstacle to overcome and it sets improper expectations.

Also, a 'gear-based' system doesn't make old gear obsolete if gear is treated more fluidly. Meaning that it's gained more easily and LOST more easily.

In a game like Warcraft, gear doesn't permanently break or become lost. Simply get a slightly better upgrade makes that next piece obsolete. If it COULD break, then all sorts of items (crafted greens, dungeon blues) would become more important. And it would infuse the whole economy with more purpose than just serving the consumables market.

However, Warcraft is also a bad example because it's also relatively difficult to get the item. So a 'breakage' system would need to be mitigated by making items easier to get.