Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Eliminating levels and gear

On the open Sunday thread there was a discussion on whether it would be a good idea to eliminate leveling, to go back to a system like Ultima Online, where your had a character skill build instead. And recently in every thread where I mention epics one of my readers, who is more adept at inventing new words than explaining what he means, calls gear-based advancement "terribad". So why not eliminate levels and gear progression from MMORPGs? Because probably there wouldn't be much of a game left.

There are lots of computer games, starting with Pong, in which you don't have a level or stats or gear. The only way to advance in this kind of game is by getting better at it, by improving player skill. The downside of that is that sooner or later you arrive at a point where you aren't getting much better any more, or only at an infinitesimal slow pace. Which is probably why we aren't playing Pong any more. The other problem is that different people end up having different degrees of skill in any given game. People who play a lot of video games together usually soon find out that some games one of them "always" wins, and other games are mostly won by the other person. As player skills only develop slowly after an initial learning phase, that discourages playing together.

Roleplaying games deliberately eliminate much of the need for player skill for the pleasure to play together. Especially in a pen & paper game the playing shifts away from having to do anything with performance, and becomes more about interaction and doing things together. The performance of your character is determined mostly by his level, stats, and character abilities. This not only allows people to play together regardless of player skill. It also allows everybody to continually progress. The level and stats are numerical, and can be endlessly increased. Although you might already have learned everything there is to learn about how to play your character, you can still have character development in the form of experience points, levels, and better gear. This constant stream of rewards is fun for most people, and enables the game to go on for years and years.

Computer roleplaying games, and most MMORPGs, inherited those principles. Whether you can kill a monster in single combat is mostly determined by your level, stats, gear, and character abilities. Player skill only plays a minor role. Let's face it, killing a single mob of your level is trivially easy. MMORPG combat doesn't require very fast reaction time, nor great tactical thinking. You could level a mage in WoW from 1 to 80 using nothing but the frostbolt spell, one single button to hit over and over. There are classes that are less complicated and classes that are more complicated, but even the most complicated classes end up having some sort of basic spell rotation that maximizes damage. Only rarely does the type of monster you are playing or your surroundings make much of a difference in solo combat. In spite of being trivially easy, we play these games for hundreds or thousands of hours (a friend on mine has over 6000 hours of /played time on his main). And the reason we can do that without getting bored is character development, the fact that our characters always get stronger.

Levels are the most obvious ways to increase the power of your character, so making new expansions that raise the level cap is easy for the game companies. There is nothing which would prevent Blizzard to raise the level cap by 10 in the next dozen expansions, except for the fact that at the current speed that would take them a quarter of a century. But getting to the level cap (over and over again with each expansion) is just the start. Increasing your stats by gear isn't very different from increasing your stats by leveling up. So once you can't level up any more, you can continue reaping rewards and making your character stronger by getting better and better gear. And when you are bored by solo gameplay, you can go to dungeons in groups or raids, and start playing encounters which actually require some coordination and tactics.

Remove the levels, stats and the gear from World of Warcraft, and what remains is a rather boring game. Even Ultima Online had "fake" levels, by letting you start with 0 skill points, and allowing you to gain skills by doing activities, but capped at a total of 700. Each skill could get up to 100, and the higher you got, the harder it became. So having 14 skills at 50 was easy, having 7 skills at 100 would take considerable time. But once you got there, there was no way to develop your character further, except by unlearning those skills you worked so hard to acquire. So making a game based around character skill would end up with something that plays exactly like a leveling game until you reach the skill cap, and then stops rewarding you for whatever you do. In UO the most cherished rewards ended up being fluff, like having a big castle as your house, and decorating it with rare, but totally useless, items, like some sandals that spawned only once per server restart. There are certainly people who would play such a game, but it is hard to imagine it getting millions of subscribers.

Players in games like WoW are very much driven by rewards that increase the power of their characters. That is what a MMORPG is about. If you remove the levels, the stats, the gear, all rewards that influence the power of characters, you get a completely different type of game. Even if you keep character classes, skills, and talents, people will quickly tend towards a few character build templates, and then stagnate. How many people would raid if there weren't any epics or similar rewards to gain? Why would you want to clear the same raid dungeon more than once or twice? Without rewards, people would play the same game a lot less long, and they probably wouldn't be willing to pay $15 per month for it.

But if you absolutely want to play a game without levels and gear, I can recommend games like A Tale in the Desert, or Puzzle Pirates. They offer more variations of gameplay, often depending on the skill of the player, with little or no influence of the character's skills, and no levels or experience points at all. But you'll probably find that they won't hold your interest quite as long as a game that keeps up a constant stream of rewards which make your characters stronger. And by not having those rewards, these games don't even feel as if they were MMORPGs.

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