Tobold's Blog
Wednesday, October 30, 2013
Azuriel wants my opinion

Well, maybe he doesn't. But he *did* say "I’d be interested in what other veteran MMO players have to say about it". With it being a comment on Reddit saying:
The truth of the matter is, those of us that grew up on the hardcore MMOs, we’ve already done it. Most of us just don’t want to do it again. I don’t want to play a MMO that takes over a year to hit the level cap. I don’t want to play a MMO where I have to stand around for hours before I get to play. I don’t want to play a MMO where I can permanently lose everything I’ve done in the last few hours. I’ve already done that; I don’t want to do it again. The novelty of the MMO is gone. There are better ways to enjoy my time.
So what I have to say about this is that I understand the sentiment, and mostly think the same, but I believe there is a huge flaw in one part of it, namely "I don’t want to play a MMO that takes over a year to hit the level cap.". Because I would very much like to play a MMO that takes 10 years or more to hit the level cap.

Basically the flaw is not in the thinking of the Reddit commenter, but in the design of most MMORPGs since Everquest: There are two very distinctive phases, "Leveling up" and "End game". And quite often the end game has the more interesting content, e.g. being the only part of the MMO which is actually "MM", while the leveling phase is a badly disguised single-player game. But what if there was no end game? What if there was only leveling up, which took forever, but had all the interesting content in it?

Most people don't even understand the question, because they started playing with World of Warcraft or later games. I played Ultima Online and Everquest. And in 19 months of Everquest I never hit the level cap (because I played more than one character), but still loved the game. So for me a game where you don't hit the level cap appears very much possible, and possibly fun. But it *would* require major changes to the leveling up game.

I believe that MMORPGs have only tried the extremes of the options for the leveling game, either "forced grouping" or "soloing is optimal", and have failed up to now to explore the middle ground. I can imagine a leveling game where the xp bonus for grouping is balanced in a way that it makes up for the time lost to find a group, without being so high that soloing becomes impossible. Basically grouping should be advantageous, but soloing should be a viable option. And that would work best in a game where a player is *always* interested in experience points, because he never reaches the level cap.

To those who say that a game without a level cap is impossible, I would like to point out that nobody has ever hit the cap in EVE Online, and the game seems to work just fine. And for once that isn't linked to it being a game about treachery and PvP. Now I don't consider the EVE system a good model for a game without level cap, because advancement in EVE is in real time, even offline. I would very much prefer a game where the developers can gently nudge people towards content by playing with xp bonuses. For example Everquest had xp bonuses for under-utilized zones, which is a good idea. It is great to have the option between "high risk, high reward" and "slower, but safer" zones to play in.

So the game without a level cap would get around the "I don’t want to play a MMO that takes over a year to hit the level cap." issue, and if xp bonuses for grouping are balanced also around the "I don’t want to play a MMO where I have to stand around for hours before I get to play." issue. The "I don’t want to play a MMO where I can permanently lose everything I’ve done in the last few hours." issue is a bit more complicated. On the one side I would want a game to have an option for risk, and risk can't exist without loss. On the other side I wouldn't want original EQ-like "naked corpse runs", level loss, and the possibility of permanently losing all your gear. But again there are intermediate options, like death applying a penalty to future xp gains, with an option to have that penalty disappearing while offline.

Ultimately it comes down to "The novelty of the MMO is gone.". Because while it that is certainly true for the incremental minor improvements of today's MMORPGs, this isn't really an inherent feature of the genre. We *could* have a modern MMORPG with novelty, *and* having some of the advantages of the "old school" MMORPGs. It is just that nobody dares to make a game like that.

I heartily agree. Level-cap gaming has never really appealed for me - the fun's in the journey.
No one want novelty, everyone want that clone Wow.

Try create a novelty, like a MMO with no holly trinity (EQNext) and we see a flood of criticism, because WoW have the holly trinity and every MMO need have it too...
If I'm not totally mistaken, I think Granado Espada didn't have a level cap, either....but then it's a special game in many ways. ;)

I'm on the same boat - I would very much like to see an MMO with a very high /no level cap again. my first MMO was FFXI and I never reached max level there. it was great and I was never in the same linear rush as I was in later games.
I don't think it's actually true that "once we've done it, we don't want it anymore" - I would advocate that while we may not want it immediately, we'll want it again later on because we keep aching for the same stuff in regular intervals (waves back and forth). stuff gets back in fashion that got out of fashion, it's the way of things.
I find myself lacking any real nostalgia for leveling. The simple reward of a 'ding' and 3-5 stat points just seems terribly boring to me.

For me a lot of the fun in a game is progressing through the content, going for '100% completion'-type goals. All the leveling stuff just seems like an artificial barrier to consuming content. At best it might be seen as a way to channel you through content in a particular order.

An ideal game for me would put you right at the cap and just open up the world to you. Go do stuff! The fun should be in playing the game, not in some sort of artificial 'ding, yay level 274!'. If you're not having fun doing the content anyway, throwing a level-up reward at you periodically feels more like a scam, a way to hook you into doing boring things you wouldn't otherwise want to do.

The games I most enjoy generally don't have leveling (like my much-loved URU Live), have lots of scaling so it doesn't matter as much what level you are (like GW2), or use leveling most for horizontal progression rather than as a content barrier (like TSW).

About grouping issues. Didn't we already solve all that? There have been open grouping and public grouping even in large scale implementations in games like Rift and Warhammer and such. Even WoW auto-forms groups for you for group-required content. I'd set the gold standard for open world grouping as GW2's implementation, where encountering another player in the game is in almost every case a net positive for both of you.

I dunno, just seems like awkwardness in trying to get a group so you can do content is something that feels like an almost antiquated idea. A game with this problem doesn't seem to me as nostalgic or retro, it just seems poorly implemented and not worth playing.
I used to play Darklands a long time ago. (Yes, that dates me.) Although a single person game, it was strictly skill based: no levels at all. If you wanted to get good at something, you worked at it and your skill in that area went up. It could go to a maximum of 99 --shades of MERP/Rolemaster and it's percentile dice-- but that was it. If you were like me, you spent a lot of time after dark in a town, beating up on bandits and cutthroats, until your party got good at whatever skill they were working on.

No levels, yet a huge amount of play time available. Why can't a game company try that for a change?

I actually think WoW eventually found a good balance between the viability of soloing and grouping. Mostly this was accomplished through healthy rewards and the dungeon finder instantly teleporting you to the dungeon and back.

It is interesting that the balance needs to reward grouping slightly more even after you have fixed the organizational logistics, meaning the total reward per hour needs to be higher for grouping. With all else equal, most players would rather solo, leading to a shortage in players to group with, leading to long queue times for those that would rather group, leading to fewer players willing to wait, etc.

While the WoW leveling time is clearly far too short, I don't know that I want it to be endless. I know it isn't what a developer wants to here when he's looking at his profit margin, but I don't really want to play a game longer than 6 months. It surprises me to hear you say you would, I had thought you had grown to feel the same way.
I think a large issue was as you identified that the games get split into two phases: leveling and endgame, which appeal to two different people. Plenty of people see Leveling as an artificial barrier and they hate having to do it. Others see leveling and similar things (rep grinds, dailies) as the real game and would prefer that devs focus on that.

I am not sure whether it's the MMO mentality or developers but issues like scaling seem to keep mid-game content out. Level 90 WoW characters can easily solo any non-raid content below their level, so the response to challenge "at level" is to just level/gear past it then come back.
What do you think about XP loss when level loss isn't possible?

Say, for example, every level starts at 0 XP, with whatever amount needed to reach the next level. And XP loss from death could never reduce you below 0 (and result in going down a level). Or maybe instead XP could go below 0, but then you'd end up be being 'level 35 with -628 XP', instead of dropping to level 34.
Redbeard said... "No levels, yet a huge amount of play time available. Why can't a game company try that for a change?"

Wurm Online does that. There are no levels. Every skill you increase by using that skill.

Unfortunately the purely sandbox nature vs. the more popular theme park type games may keep games like that permanently niche market only.
Sadly nowdays a MMORPG with a really long levelling gamee will get botted to hell and back.

It might not have been as easy to do so when EQ and Lineage 2 were kings, but the option has become a lot more accessible today. And when you factor in things like PvP where a higher level means a bigger advantage, an arms race of sorts will be introduced into the game that makes it highly unfavorable for casual players, even if they do (did) enjoy the slower pace.
I don't think it makes a difference whether playing leads to xp which leads to higher levels which leads to access to more difficult content, or whether playing leads to skill points which lead to access to more difficult content. Levels are just helpful for knowing whether you are strong enough for a zone, and for comparison.

If you wanted a game where you immediately have access to all content, you would need a system in which your character isn't getting stronger at all with playing. I'm not sure that would be all that popular.
Another lesson from EVE would be to make sure that players of every level would be useful in group content.

1. Get rid of level dependent resists which mean that a level 10 player cannot even hit a level 60 mob

2. Get rid of aggro radius depending on level.

3. Get rid of any other "brick wall" limitations that prevent low level players from participating in high end content

4. Remove group size limitations so every extra player is a bonus. I know this enables the zerg but even the zerg is group content.

5. Adjust loot tables and experience rewards if necessary so that each player can get rewards appropriate to their level. Could be done with tokens. Could be done with level restrictions on pick up. Could be done with scalable loot - the loot scales to whatever level you are when you first pick it up. Lots of other ways.

In the EVE model, it's still possible to "hit the cap" - it takes 20+ years though.
And there is of course the catch: latecomers are at permament disadvantage against people who started before them.
"And there is of course the catch: latecomers are at permament disadvantage against people who started before them."

This is not true in Eve, a 1 year player and a 10 year player can both be perfectly skilled in the role they choose. Of course the 10 year player will have more roles to choose from.

This 'role' system actually meshes well with the average Eve player. The usually start with high sec play, mining/missioning, so they train for battleships and mining barges. After months/years of mastering these activities maybe they want to try faction warfare so they focus more on frigate skills. After a few years they have billions of isk stored up so they buy a carrier and try out null sec play and join an alliance. Their battleship/mining skills are still very useful out in null so none of that training time was really wasted.

Any player of Eve can participate in any area in Eve with only a few days of training and can become proficient within a couple weeks (80/20 rule). By training skills to 4 you get 80% of the benefit in only 20% of the time as it would take to go to level 5. Only those who choose to master a role need to train relevant skills to 5.

Even week old players can make a immediate difference in the area they choose, the only advantage an older player holds is having more activities available which makes since for a sandbox game where a large point of play is to create your own content.
Anyone have a link to the reddit thread?
Damn, I swear I had all the links in the post when I wrote it, and now I realize the links weren't posted for some reason. Fixed.
This is not true in Eve, a 1 year player and a 10 year player can both be perfectly skilled in the role they choose. Of course the 10 year player will have more roles to choose from.

Theoretically yes, but usually this is hardly the case since the players themselves set the standards on what acceptable skilling is.

A few years ago the requirements to join most pleyr corps were around the 5 mil. SP mark. That quickly became 8-10 mil and about a year ago when I was applying to corps they needed 10-12 mil. SP invested in specific skills.

AKA, have fun soling in frigs and cruisers for the rest of the first year you are playing as a new player.
Still prefer Ultima Online's skill system over the modern day generic levels. Mabinogi is another one where there's no real level cap. Indeed, in that game you're always looking forward to "rebirthing" to level 1!
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