Feature Rust I: Leveling

The thing that we know as the massively-multiplayer-online-game is in a rather aggravating state. The primary reason for this is the mortal sin committed by nearly every MMOG developer: adherence to MMOG staples. In the following posts, I will outline a number of MMOG “staples” that future games in the genre ought to attempt to dismantle.

The most common form of the MMOG is the MMORPG. One feature usually associated with the MMORPG as well as the RPG is that of experience levels. It is seen in EverQuest, World of Warcraft, Warhammer Online, and almost every other mainstream MMOG. Now, it appears to me that this feature is being included in recent MMOGs simply for the sake of the thing. When some one questions experience levels, there is always some other one to proclaim how it is outlined in the “Rules of MMOGs” (a tome I have found to be mostly fictitious) that experience levels are a necessity. And perhaps experience levels meant something else in the age of EverQuest and its kin. But the environment has changed from one focus to another.

With the prevalence of the MMOG endgame, experience levels has become an obstacle as well as a trap. This can be most easily seen in Mythic Entertainment’s Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning (I am guilty of mentioning this horrible thing too many times). A sizable amount of players see no purpose in dilly-dallying and would rather jump to the endgame where their actions mean something more tangible and where the game-play is at its most interesting. As a result, you see these two effects: a large portion of content rushed through and wasted as it is viewed as work in order to reach the “real” part of the game, and slower players without many contemporaries to interact with.

Please allow me to explain those two points further. In an MMOG with experience levels, many man-hours and the like are poured into creating those locales where players will go from first level to last level. But what happens when players race through these assets in order to reach the “beginning” of the game? The leveling content goes unappreciated and, for the most part, unused (that is, as soon as a sizable majority have reached endgame). Now, one may use the “alt” as an argument against my own argument, but look to that Warhammer Online where leveling consists of consuming every shred of leveling content available: if you’ve done everything once while fighting towards the endgame, what purpose is there in creating an alt? The only purpose I can see is if the leveling experience is an extremely joyous one, but that seldom is the case.

The lack of alts leads to the fleshing out of my second point and that is that of the loneliness of slower players. Imagine, if you will, a chap that discovers an MMOG two years after said MMOG’s launch. That chap would enter the game with expectations of interacting with hundreds upon hundreds of other players, but lo, to his dismay, he has to trudge through to the “real” part of the game in order to interact with a sizable amount of players. For MMOGs with a supposed emphasis on socialization (or, at the very least, content that requires multiple people), this can be a death knell. Again, look to Warhammer Online: when a majority of players have achieved that rank 40 (as so many are currently in the process of working towards), who will be there to RvR with the newbies? Who will be there to participate in Public Quests (a feature that, if I may say, is probably one of the worst ideas for PvE “innovation” I have ever seen) with the newbies? The prevalence of newbies thins out as time wears on, so if veterans are not going through the leveling process again, the newbies that do join at later times will raise that question: “how is this “massively-multiplayer?””

If the majority of players are so fixated on the endgame (I must confess that I am guilty of that mentality, as well), then the only logical path one can take is that of making the endgame not the end part of the game, but rather the entire part of the game. Present the players with locales and content that they will be revisiting and participating in for their entire lives within that MMOG. Now, keeping those locales and content fresh and exciting is another thing that I will discuss in a future post. I do predict, however, one possible attack against my proposition.

One argument that I have heard in favor of experience levels is that of the game-play tutorial; that is, the leveling experience oftentimes serves as a tutorial to the MMOG and its nuanced features. Without a leveling experience, one may argue that newbies are forced to jump in at the deep end, to use a swimming analogy. A tutorial, or at least a period where game-play features are gradually introduced to the player, is verily some thing necessary to hook many players as long-term ones. As such, I propose this: a short (10 to 20 hour) story that gets newbies involved in locales and content that veterans are continuously engaging in.

Imagine, if you will, that same chap from earlier who picked up an MMOG expecting to interact with many, many people. Imagine him starting the game, creating his avatar and the like, and then jumping into his race’s starting area. He is immediately presented with a story element made up of cinematic qualities (such as voice acting). The story element guides him to a basin of some sorts to accomplish some task. As the player arrives at that basin, he discovers that the basin holds valuable resources that veteran players are combating over. He accomplishes his story task and has his own fun interacting with a great many different type of player. And the story would continue for some duration, gradually introducing the chap to mechanics, features, locations, and content of the MMOG in question. Over the course of the story, the chap has been riding the same path as the cyclists but instead of being on a bicycle, he has been on a tricycle. When the story is over, however, the player has already graduated from the tricycle to the bicycle and has even removed his training wheels. He’s ridden alongside the warriors since his birth, but now he rides among the warriors.

Some things that would add to the story component would be the following (in order of importance): strong storytelling; high-quality presentation; multiple stories for different races/factions; branching story paths. Imagine grabbing that single-player demographic with a story mode to rival Half-Life, but then getting them enveloped in a truly massively-multiplayer experience.

This is the first step to breaking out of that MMOG cookie-cutter mold: the concept of leveling needs to be revolutionized. Additionally, the concept of character progression needs to be revolutionized, but that idea, like the freshness of content, will be one that I touch on in a future post. I am excited to see Red 5 Studios’ approach to the thing that has plagued and will continue (that is, if not averted) to plague the MMOG, the thing that veterans fear most when entering a new MMOG: the level grind.

– The Author

PS: Red 5 Studios has opened a position for an Executive Assistant.


~ by reset3 on October 7, 2008.

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