Tobold's Blog
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.
Comments:
Level and gear based games work more or less fine in a PvE game. It's when you mix in PvP it goes wrong. In games like WoW it just doesn't work to reach the level cap and think that you can be competitive in PvP. To not be steamrolled by people with better gear you have to get better gear yourself. And since this is (if you do it the PvP way) done by grinding BGs and arenas, getting steamrolled by people with better gear all the time. In a gear based game with PvP you basically only have fun in PvP if you are among the top few percent that have access to the best gear, or close to it.

It's impossible as a casual player to log in, do a BG or three just for fun in green gear and then log off. When you do log off it's usually in frustration because you only meet people on the opposing team that can kill you in three hits without breaking a sweat.

My highest leveled character is at the moment L74. I like PvP in MMO games. I know however that when I get to 80 I will not have the slightest chance against most other players on the opposing team and will most likely just stop playing not too long after that.

In my opinion the best way in dealing with gear based games and still have some sort of progression is having the gear upgrades be very very slight. Let's say that a green item gives (in WoW) +1 on two/three stats, a blue gives +2 and a purple +3. It still rewards players for time spent online by giving a very slight edge but doesn't punish players that want to PvP but don't have that much time to progress. Of course many people will say that it will not work, but if the game is balanced around that it certainly will. In the end though I believe it's too late for WoW to make such a huge change.
 
Very insightful post Tobold. Your arguments about the limitations of games that require real player skill are particularly convincing. It is telling that many multi-player shooters are beginning to introduce rpg like character development in an effort to prolong player interest.

I think you are right that games need to have some form of character progression based on time invested in order to keep us hooked and playing for the long term. I don't think that mechanisms such as levels or gear that make your character more powerful are the only answer.

Taking recent multiplayer shooters like Team Fortress 2 and Call of Duty 4 as examples they have to try and keep the game balanced so the weapon upgrades unlocked by playing the game for long periods are no more powerful that the starting weapons, just different. A new machine gun might offer a fast rate of fire but be less accurate at long range for example. One point worth noting is tat CoD4 actually has levels (up to 50 if I remember) so you can keep track of your own and others character advancement its just that the levels don't really make you more powerful they just unlock more choices.

Perhaps the best example is Guild wars which has achieved considerable longevity using a system based on increasing a player's choice rather than increasing a players power. Within weeks a player can hit the level cap, get a set of max stats gear and be just as powerful as any other max level character. On the other hand many folks continue to play for years capturing all the skills, titles and armour sets available.

The great advantage of games that limit how powerful a player can get is that new players and experienced players casual players and hardcore players can all play together.

Could a subscription based mmorpg survive without the carrot of your character getting increasingly powerful? Perhaps it might have levels that record your progress but don't make you more powerful and a large variety of skills, titles and outfits to earn that gain give you something to strive for without actually making your character more powerful.
 
"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." Says who? Does it have to be?

How about Role-Playing in a persistent Multiplayer world with Massive amount of other people who are Online in the Game at the same time? Who says that it _has to_ involve leveling up and constantly getting better and better gear? At least that's not my definition of a role-playing game, far from it.
 
Without gear or levels, a game could do well to have a wide variety of achievements where a character could succeed in - and the main adventuring system might be set up as a series of "ladders" with detailed quests and scripted encounters that really offer players a challenge. How far up a player was on a given ladder would be the new bragging rights that gear formerly was. I think the rewards might be a wide variety of temporary power increasers that become invalid after say, a real life week. This would allow for variety without leaving the player with any permanent gear. Plus it would give the players some interesting options - say each temporary buff had three "settings." A player could use it to give a small boost to a stat or skill, that would last a week, or a moderate boost, that would last a day, or a very strong boost, that would last an hour. This would let people mix and match their rewards depending on how they like to play.

With no gear, you'd also want some different ways to move your character forward. I'm thinking of things like Vanguard's diplomacy sphere - a non-combat minigame that pits your character against NPCs for experience, game lore, and rewards. You'd also want players to be able to build things - having a strong system of player housing and a wide variety of looks, and having players be able to make furniture, jewelry, and outfits, would be essential.
 
Level and gear based games work more or less fine in a PvE game. It's when you mix in PvP it goes wrong. In games like WoW it just doesn't work to reach the level cap and think that you can be competitive in PvP. To not be steamrolled by people with better gear you have to get better gear yourself. And since this is (if you do it the PvP way) done by grinding BGs and arenas, getting steamrolled by people with better gear all the time. In a gear based game with PvP you basically only have fun in PvP if you are among the top few percent that have access to the best gear, or close to it.

I don't think this is an impossible problem to solve, WoW is just doing it badly. If you want competitive PvP, you need to set up a ladder system in which people only ever get to fight against those of a similar power level than they are. And power level includes not only character level, but also gear level, and skill level. The situation in WoW, where a casual player can enter a battleground with a pickup group full of other casual players, all with few PvP and PvP experience, and then get steamrolled by a PvP guild in full PvP epics using voice chat and playing together in a team several hours a day is an aberration.
 
How about Role-Playing in a persistent Multiplayer world with Massive amount of other people who are Online in the Game at the same time? Who says that it _has to_ involve leveling up and constantly getting better and better gear? At least that's not my definition of a role-playing game, far from it.

So is Second Life a role-playing game in your definition? Or A Tale in the Desert? What I'm saying is that the expectation of rewards comes with the gameplay activity of repetitively killing monsters. Why would you want to kill 10 foozles if there was no reward?

I think the rewards might be a wide variety of temporary power increasers that become invalid after say, a real life week. This would allow for variety without leaving the player with any permanent gear.

That's just a different form of rewards. People playing a lot would still end up stronger than people of the same player skill playing less, which is the same situation that we have now.
 
It's a very good question, Tobold. I'd have to say the only way you could save the MMO "experience" as it currently exists would be replacing the demand for gear with the demand for an interesting game experience. If you think about exploring a new dungeon in any game now - there is certainly the desire to have a new experience, see something new, and fight new challenges, but there's also a very strong desire for personal gain. Remove the gain, and it's hard to imagine how good the experience would have to be to keep the same overall interest. Even if every time you fought a monster it was like a fantastic movie with amazing special effects, eventually you'd get tired of going to the movies.
 
I don't think this is an impossible problem to solve, WoW is just doing it badly. If you want competitive PvP, you need to set up a ladder system in which people only ever get to fight against those of a similar power level than they are. And power level includes not only character level, but also gear level, and skill level. The situation in WoW, where a casual player can enter a battleground with a pickup group full of other casual players, all with few PvP and PvP experience, and then get steamrolled by a PvP guild in full PvP epics using voice chat and playing together in a team several hours a day is an aberration.

Yes it CAN be made to work with some sort of matching system but it has it limitations. WoW has it but it they just haven't dialed it up enough to make a noticeable difference.

The biggest problem with a matching system is that you need A LOT of players with different gear power levels for it to work. And since the people in the same level range have many different gear setups the population are spread out over those power levels which makes the population of a certain power level relatively low. WoW has the advantage there by being the MMO with the most players and by having connected the servers into battle groups which also increases the number of available players with a certain gear power level. I just don't think that thte population is large enough for them to dial it up much more without seriously affecting BG/arena queue times. Maybe if they connected all servers in the same region (EU/NA) it could work, but I suspect that there are hardware limitations to consider there also. I don't think a game with relatively low population would could support such a solution.
 
At the center of the gameplaying experience in an RPG (mmo or single) should be the development of your game-character. You (and all level based games) seem to link this solely with increasing the 'power' of your character, resulting in a predictable, inflexible and race-like ride from 1 to cap. My point in Sundays thread was to question the necessity of this type of structure in MMO's. From a developers point of view one can see the benefits of this approach: creating a gameworld with clearly defined sections (parallel with levels) is most probably easier then an open world without these level based numerical restrictions: in a level bases game players will follow a predictable (time and thus money wise) path which you set out for them, with a clearly defined end status: cap. Aparently the level based game structure offers the best MMO business model at this moment in time. But strictly from a gamers point of view i would like to see a game with a UO like skill structure which could lead to a much more open and dynamic gaming world and more diversity, since the mission of your character would not be 'follow this railroad from start (1) to finish (cap)' and the end status would not be as inevitable and clearly defined as it is with level based games. Of course this would require a rich, diverse and effective in game skill set, a structure which would also offer the company a means of managing customer time (and money) spent (the individual skill- and overall skillcap).
 
> And by not having those rewards, these games don't even feel as if they were MMORPGs

The word you're looking for here is 'DikuMud' => "By not having these rewards, these games don't even feel as if they are *DikuMuds*". Which of course isn't surprising, since they aren't. Just because you only like one flavour of MMORPG doesn't make that the *only* flavour.
 
I'm no expert on the subject, I've only tried a trial of it but EVE is a good example of what you get by removing gear and levels. From what I can understand there is no grinding, your character gins skills on a timer. You can grind money in the game but that won't do you any good if your no good at any of the sub-games (Market, Politics, PVP, etc...). To me it revolves around how much effort you but into the supporting elements of you game and how much freedom you give your players to discover their own fun; in WoW's case it is a very structured and guided experience.
 
@Kirth: There is gear, but the stat variation is surprisingly small: say from 50% damage reduction for a vanilla tech 1 armor hardener, to ~60% (thin air->numbers) for a rare commander hardener that would be easier to fit on a ship, but may cost billions. And there's a 50/50 chance that any item might be destroyed if the ship fitted with it goes pop.

People grind missions for ISK, for corporate and faction standing (reduced refining fees, access to jump clones, POS anchoring rights), loyalty points to swap for faction gear/ships) and, shockingly, for fun.
 
"Why would you want to kill 10 foozles if there was no reward?"

I play games to enjoy my time in the game and to have fun, preferably with my friends. So I wouldn't want to kill 1 or 2 or 10 foozles if it wasn't fun. Getting levels/better gear for doing some boring and grindy does not suddenly turn the boring grind thing into fun and happy times. What added-value fun those levels and items bring to you? You can do more of the same boring grind, for more levels and better gear, and so on and so on and so on. If the actual game is not enjoyable and you don't enjoy killing those foozles just because the game makes killing those foozles fun, adding some here-you-go-have-a-bigger-number reward in there does not make it any more fun in the end.

And if you want to reply with ''Oh, but you need those levels and armor to do this and that content that you couldn't otherwise'' it would mean that you want to limit the game content for players who are willing to spend their time to grind for the gear that's needed in some encounters in the game - and I thought you were against that ("Being chided for bad gear or raid performance is a bit like getting bad grades at school.") And if you want to go ahead and limit or control who gets to do what content, there are other ways to handle that as well, you don't necessarily need leveling/itemgrind system for that.

As an example, there are about 5-6 million people who play or have played GTA IV, where you kill dozens and dozens of foozles pretty much every day you play the game, yet you never gain any levels and killing those foozles does not really reward you with better items. I wonder why those gamers thought that it was fun to kill those foozles anyways.
 
Yes, and how long did those 6 million people play GTA IV, compared to how long people play WoW? And why didn't you have to pay $15 per month for GTA IV, but you do for WoW? All I'm saying is that games without rewards and gear exists, but they aren't MMORPGs, and people don't play them as long, and pay as much for them as for games with rewards.
 
Maybe we need an article on WoW w/out PvP. That will be interesting.
 
I don't think this is an impossible problem to solve, WoW is just doing it badly. If you want competitive PvP, you need to set up a ladder system in which people only ever get to fight against those of a similar power level than they are. And power level includes not only character level, but also gear level, and skill level. The situation in WoW, where a casual player can enter a battleground with a pickup group full of other casual players, all with few PvP and PvP experience, and then get steamrolled by a PvP guild in full PvP epics using voice chat and playing together in a team several hours a day is an aberration.

It is harder to solve than you think because every game that has tried to blend PvE gear/level based progression with PvP has had exactly the same problem. Its not an aberration, its the norm. The aberration would be finding a game where you have PvE gear/level based progression that doesn't dominate the PvP aspects of the game as well.

A lot of this argument is Journey vs Destination. WoW is a Destination game... level dings and loot drops, all of which are results of actions, not actions themselves. As you say, if you remove all the Destinations from WoW, its Journeys (the actions you take to reach the Destinations) are fairly boring, most are completely mind numbing (99% of the quests) while others would be fun only the first couple of times (99% of the raids). WoW has decided that people will suffer boring Journeys if the Destinations are worthwhile. I quit WoW because the Destinations don't interest me if I am bored to tears on the Journey to them, couple this with their frequent speeding up of the Journeys to get to the Destinations faster (faster leveling, mudflation of items with new expansions) and they've taken away just about every reason for me to keep playing. Clearly, though, I am in the minority. 12 million people love their Destinations.
 
Interesting - I've been one of the commenters who has been asking about alternatives to leveling type games, and I've played most of the non-leveling games that have been mentioned here. And while they're fun, I have to admit that I get bored after 30-50 hours of playing them. And regarding EVE, if you're not grinding for gear/levels, you're still grinding skill points, faction standing, and ISK.

I guess it comes down to these games being a treadmill, and w/o the carrot of improvement whether that be from gear or levels or in-game $$, it's hard (for me) to remain interested in a game without the carrot. The closest alternative appears to be the shooters/FPS games, but even then, I'll get bored after finishing the storyline and getting overly familiar with the maps.

And regarding PvP in WoW - yes, I think we've all run into those BGs where your PUG gets stomped by a fully organized guild, but in PUG vs PUG, it's reasonably balanced, IME. My green geared alts did fine against other green geared alts.

Final comment - response to anonymous:
"How about Role-Playing in a persistent Multiplayer world with Massive amount of other people who are Online in the Game at the same time? Who says that it _has to_ involve leveling up and constantly getting better and better gear? At least that's not my definition of a role-playing game, far from it."
Great! Let's hear your ideas. I would love to hear about alternatives that would keep one's interest alive.
 
Several people have already made the points I would have made about killing bears getting boring, exploration, grouping, etc. being the fun parts of the game apart from progression, etc.


However, I don't get why the focus has to constantly keep people's interest over a long time. I don't tend ot play games intensely over long periods of time, I tend to play intensely for a bit, not play for a bit, come back for a bit, etc. Playing really intensely over long periods of time tend to be less fun, and more boring, than playing on and off. (This includes both single and multiplayer, by the way.) MMO's have advantages in the social grouping, new content being added, etc. that can draw people back in and keep them interested after their month break that single player games often lack.

Also, while "World of Warcraft" without levels and gear might be boring for a lot of people, they would have to be designed out of the game, while new games designed without some of these features would, from the beginning, have systems in place ot keep them going.
 
I don't mind levels and until recently couldn't imagine an typical MMO RPG without them. That was until I spent some time in Wizard 101 where I'm finding that even though there are levels, I rarely know what level I am. The marker that I keep reaching for are more spells which goes along with what MBP said about GW - it's more options that I'm chasing instead of the levels. And while you are chasing gear, the differences in the upgrades aren't all that big but it's the nuances and customizations the gear brings to my combat options, that I find myself coveting. I think the longevity of GW with only 20 levels and EVE with no levels proves that people will continue to play MMOs even without chasing levels but we do require carrot rewards of some sort. We could do with more options than pure gear upgraded to spice things up.
 
The trouble with both skill and gear based progression is that ultimately they're both levels in disguise. A piece of gear that improves your DPS by 1% is no different from an improvement in your fireball skill by 1% or an increase in level from 100 to 101. Whilst it's fine to have any (or all) of these in a game to add flavour, let's not kid ourselves. A progression-game is a progression-game.
 
@Sven, good points.

The clever thing EVE's IP does is give CCP a way of making both level caps (the limits of a particular ship class, and the completion of all skills that can apply to it) and sideways progression (many ship types) possible and credible. It's a clever bit of game-design trickey that provides both balance and a sense of progression.

In some other games sideways progression is performed using alts. ;)
 
Associating the dikuMUD/WoW flavor of levels and gear-based progression together, and saying we can't move away from this model ever, is a very narrow-minded look at all the possibilities available.

Yes, I do agree with you that some form of progression is necessary to keep the majority of players interested. Many, if not most, gamers are achievement-focused in some way, requiring some version of a high score and a skill/powers increase over time, and perhaps some tantalizing rewards to strive toward.

(Of course, there are other sorts of gamers out there who play for community, or for exploring content, and a wise game would build in systems to keep them hooked too. But for now, let's talk achievement/progression-seekers.)

An honest look at Progress Quest will show ourselves that those of us tuned into achievement are quite excited by the dikuMUD style structure, even though there's no actual game to speak of besides running the program and watching it go. Lots of MMOs capitalize on this as an addictive draw to keep you paying their subscription fee.

But it's certainly not necessary to only associate gaining levels with a power-gain in gear reward and think that's the only definition of an MMO. That's a 'played WoW too long' mindset right there.

One thing that levels serve is to provide clear goals as what the player is supposed to do next. Increment a number. Feel better.

Now a sister system to levels that many games have been using with success is Achievements. Lateral horizontal advancement, not just vertical numerical. All Achievements are is a simple list of stated goals - do this, do that, and if you manage to pull a bunny out of a hat, whee, have a bragging rights reward. Achievements work. That's why every MMO and FPS this side of town are building one of those in.

Gaining levels also tend to unlock more game possibilities. Open up more skills, more powers, more opportunities to see parts of the game not seen before.

It's absolutely doable to unhook those unlocks to levels gained via killing mobs or questing for xp. Guild Wars does that. Eve does that. Just in different ways.

In fact, the example of ATITD not having levels is no longer valid. I've been dabbling with the Fourth Telling (aka the 4th reset and rework of the game) and apparently since the Third, a level system was introduced. There's still no dikuMUD killing and gaining experience, one gains levels via completing Tests (a list of specific goals to achieve), and gaining levels unlocks other skills which you can then learn.

As you can expect, people who loathe a level system, period, have been howling their hearts out over this change, but apparently there's been an increase in subscription retention. Is it just the incrementing level number making people stay? Or is it just that this system provides a clear map of goals to achieve, and expands the time necessary for getting there, hence retaining more over time?

It's still a far cry away from being WoW levels though. There's plenty of room for games to experiment with the concept of levels and progression. Just staying open-minded to the possibilities will do.
 
Honestly, RPG's really aren't about "playing together". Most people play RPG's solo, yes, especially WoW.

However, even if they were about playing together, having to grind to get gear stops people from playing together, as people are broken up into the "haves" and the "have nots". I'd much prefer that a game promoted team work and didn't require grind. Take Left 4 Dead - yes, I know you will knee jerk and say "My old man reflexes can't handle FPS games", but the core game mechanics aren't reliant on twitch reflexes. It's all about moving in formation, finding choke points, watching out for each other, saving limited resources for when they're needed, etc. All tactics based stuff that promotes team work and does not require item grind. Incidentally does not also require working knowledge of 500-odd skills like in an RPG.

Where was I? Ah yes. You don't need an item grind to have team work in a game. In fact, it detracts from it.

Therefore item-based combat systems are terribad.
 
The core of the problem is that people love getting better items and skills but loathe the grind to level up or get them at the same time.

Tobold is right, even Ultima Online was not free of skill grind. Taming a "ridgeback" every day to be finally able to have the minimum skill level to tame a firesteed e.g... I did that...^^

I still think a mix of Ultima Online, Guild Wars and a dedicated Event team plus random generated dynamic events would be very good. Modern MMOs should also focus on keeping all parts of the world alive, not as dead as Azeroth and Outland are, once all the DK's levelled through.
 
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