Saturday, July 23, 2011

The Man is Keeping Me From Making Friends - Part 2

My fellow gamers and bloggers, levels are the chains that are keeping us down. Too long have we lived under an arbitrary number that determines how we can and cannot contribute to the experience of others. It is time to free ourselves from these bonds and make our own way in these virtual worlds!

Mock rallying cries aside, levels are in fact a very inelegant way of progression within a game. Just to help explore the concept, let's say I have a friend. His name is Hypothetical Fred. Hypothetical Fred is a level 70 orc warrior who wants me to start playing with him, but I am a lowly level 10 Paladin. Also a blood elf, which is doubly unfortunate for unrelated reasons.

As a level 10, there is nothing I can do to assist my friend in any way. I cannot make enough gold to help him out, because he makes more in a single daily. I cannot help him raid, or go into dungeons, or even quest without being a hilariously large burden. Nothing I can craft can help him either, unless he is a Roleplayer and enjoys having his veteran orc wearing copper armor. The only thing I can do is level up as quickly as I can in an attempt to catch up, at which point he'd probably already be in a raiding group and higher geared than me.

This is a relatively common system, and generally accepted as the standard in theme park MMO's. To be frank, it is a very unfriendly system. I have to put in hours and hours of work to be able to play with my friends at their level, or have them steamroll content for me which, though very helpful in leveling me up, is not the most exciting activity for either party. It is an intense barrier of entry: If I have friends who are already playing, then they have to wait for me to catch up or I have to play an eternal game of catching up to them. until we reach level cap.

Now, there are some systems that allow for leeway. City of Heros and Final Fantasy XI are two examples that allow a sort of temporary leveling system that brings you up or down, making the content you choose to tackle interesting and challenging for everyone. A very useful system, and I enjoy the no-hassle style of grouping it can bring, but it is simply a band-aid for the much larger problems levels bring.

I wish I had more than an examination of the flaws of this system, but unfortunately I don't. Levels work because they are the most established system for measuring player power. Skill based systems offer a different method to handle this, but even that relies on levels: just levels in a certain skill. Levels are nice: I like easily knowing what challenge various creatures will present at a single glance. But when it comes to playing with my friends, the situation becomes more difficult than it ever should be for a Multiplayer game.

EDIT - Massively just reported on a change coming to Everquest 2. Mercenaries to fill out a group. There may be plenty of players online, but I can't play with them so I have to hire an NPC to help me instead. A change that is good in spirit but illuminates the anti-social qualities that levels create.


  1. It's certainly worth looking into alternatives to the level model; personally, I have never been a big fan of levels as they are such an ineffective way to measure player progress. the funny thing is that in games where levels still exist like a dividing factor, leveling up has become insignificant - see WoW. the entire focus of WoW is endgame, levels have no meaning really and the leveling-up procedure has continuously been made swifter and easier.

    it's a paradox and just show us one thing: levels aren't helpful. you might as well dump them and find a better way of defining character experience/age/strength. I always found skills are the way to go, a bit like the approach in UO.

  2. Skill sets would fill in some gaps, but I'd like to extend it to a game design that allows the lower skilled players to still make useful contributions and play with their friends who may have been playing for longer periods of time. EVE Online's tackling in pirate corps is a good example of this. Low cost of entry, and gives you a valuable role in the group. An MMORPG focusing on ground combat could have a viable alternative as well. Hand him a wand that can root fleeing players, or let them set of traps set up ALA Return of the Jedi. Arbitrary numbers should not always trump ingenuity from the player.

    Unless that ingenuity breaks the game, of course.

  3. Don't dismiss levels too quickly. They are a powerful reward. The problem is that the power curve is such that levels spread players out pretty quickly. Back in the original D&D, levels were much harder to come by and power growth was relatively low.

    The problem with any advancement scheme is that, depending on how they are tuned, either they create too much of a disparity between players or they are too ineffective to act as a reward.

    RE WoW: I hate to disagree with Syl (actually, I really don't), but I don't subscribe to the pernicious theory that WoW is focused on the endgame. Endgame certainly occupies a lot of resources, but Blizzard has a leveling game for a reason. And they dedicated an entire expansion to rebuilding the 1-60 leveling game for a reason. If anything, it is the players who focus too much on the endgame, to the detriment of the game.

  4. As a reward system, I am not dismissing levels. They are a fantastic little boost of "Hey, I'm accomplishing something!" every once in a while when you are playing a game. I will agree with you that the problem is the power curve. In my opinion, in a WoW-like game where the design goal is to keep increasing levels, there is no possible way to make the power curve that won't spread out players. Even if you make the bonus from being a certain level small, like some Korean MMO's where they have 200 some-odd levels, you still end up with a disparity.

    As for the WoW endgame argument, I'm really going to have to disagree with you there. The 1-60 revamp made leveling a new alt very easy, which was a good way to keep players in the game because once they got to the point where they were bored with endgame, it was fun to roll a new alt. That being said, the majority of ways to contribute to other players' experiences and experience meaningful content is at the end-game. The leveling content people only use to, well, level. Unless you find a niche guild that specializes in 60 or 70 content.

  5. This is a problem I've come across in several games. I often play in leveling groups but they tend to grind to a halt as someone is away for a few weeks or someone hasn't got time to play for a while. Progress becomes slower and slower or you simply all spread out across the levels making content trivial or impossible.

    From what little of it I've so far experienced EQ2 does have a few neat tricks to combat this. You can use the AA slider to stop leveling for a while so you can continue to play and gain something useful without outleveling anyone who can't play. Also you have the 'chronomancy' temporary deleveling system to scale down higher level characters for dungeons or quests. You mention the mercs yourself though that's more of a catchup tool.

    I doubt we'll see the end of level based MMOs any time soon so any systems that devs can introduce to minimise the impact of the great level divide is a bonus for sure!

  6. "I doubt we'll see the end of level based MMOs any time soon so any systems that devs can introduce to minimise the impact of the great level divide is a bonus for sure! "

    Agreed. For as much as I used this article to point out its flaws, it is a familiar and easy to use system that allows developers to spend time working on other parts of the game, instead of wracking their brains for alternate means of progression. Sometimes the best solution is the easiest one. Still, more systems like the sidekick or the chronomancy system would go a long way in bringing players together.