Wednesday, May 11, 2011
Losing power through leveling
One of the defining characteristics of a role-playing game, as opposed to let’s say an adventure game, is that your character gets more powerful over time. Whether that is by some sort of skill system or a leveling system, there is always some sort of “character development” mechanic with some numbers going up in value. Games that aren’t RPGs, but still have some similar character development mechanic are said to “contain role-playing elements”, a phrase that makes the kind of people who think role-playing means “acting in character” cringe. So I was playing World of Tanks, which has such a level-gaining system, and would like to discuss the comparison with leveling in MMORPGs here.
In World of Tanks you start with a level 1 tank. You gain a form of experience points, called research points in this game, which you can spend to research better equipment for your tank, like a better gun, or a better engine. And once you researched the prerequisites, you can also research access to level 2 tanks. But unlike a MMORPG, the level 2 tank doesn’t replace the level 1 tank; you simply end up owning both of them, until you sell one to make room in your garage. Now there is really no reason to keep that level 1 tank, it is just plain bad, and every nation just has one sort of them. But at level 2 there are already different types: light tanks, medium tanks (heavies come higher up in level), SPGs (artillery), and tank destroyers. Thus keeping several different level 2 tanks while only developing one branch further to level 3 and beyond makes more sense.
That is what I did, and after switching back and forth between level 2 and level 3 tanks a lot for a while, I noticed something curious: The higher level tank was less successful than the lower level tank of the same type. This is due to World of Tanks’ pairing algorithm: A level 2 tank is most likely to end up in battle against level 1 and 2 tanks, while a level 3 tank is most likely to end up in battle against level 3 to 10 tanks. Which means my fully equipped level 2 tank is the best possible tank in the battle of the level 1 and 2 tanks, while my not fully researched level 3 tank is the worst possible tank in the higher level battle. I need to keep playing the level 3 tank to get up to the higher levels; but playing the lower level tanks is plain more fun, and as I’m still getting *some* reward (credits, free experience) from playing the lower levels, I’ll keep doing that too.
Losing power by leveling is less obvious in a MMORPG, as you don’t keep your lower level character around after leveling up. The higher level simply overwrites the lower level, so you have no opportunity to compare them. In principle your higher level character is more powerful, thus if you had problems with some particular mob at some level, you’ll have a better chance of killing that same mob after leveling up. Only that isn’t what is actually happening: While leveling up you usually also move to the next zone, and battle against different mobs, which are also more powerful. And most games work a bit like World of Tanks here: The power of your opponents goes up faster than your own. If you made a statistic of all the character deaths on a server on any given day, you would find that by far the most deaths are incurred at the level cap. Getting your level 1 character killed is nearly impossible in most modern games.
As I mentioned before, another game I am currently playing when it is up is Glitch, a MMORPG without combat, which uses a skill-system which resembles the one of EVE. Now as there is no combat, your character development isn’t measured in how hard a monster you can beat. But that doesn’t mean Glitch doesn’t have challenges. The fundamental challenge in Glitch is balancing your energy, “storing” energy by cooking food, and then using that energy for energy-draining activities like mining. And in Glitch increasing a skill really means life gets easier for you. If you increase your mining skill you consume less energy while mining, if you increase your cooking skill you can make better kinds of food, and if you increase the various harvesting skills you get more food ingredients for less energy. And I must say that actually getting more powerful through character development is more fun than losing power through leveling.
Of course in World of Tanks, once you get past level 3, you’re also getting more powerful through leveling. But MMORPGs seem to be stuck in a design where your character is unlikely to die while leveling up, leading to an endgame where you scrape his remains of the floor every half hour. Most endgame activities in modern MMORPGs would be not feasible in a game with permadeath. The highest level characters are the most likely to die, and somehow that doesn’t feel all that epic or heroic to me. Even the whole MMO blogosphere and game forums community is obsessed with a permanent discussion of failure. Most bickering about the state of the community, fail PuGs, and guild drama, is caused by this game design where your character loses power through leveling up, and him failing a dozen times before any success is considered normal. Makes you wonder why you bothered leveling that character up, only to turn him from a hero to a permanent failure.