Tobold's Blog
Tuesday, November 06, 2007
Could a MMORPG work without levels?

While most people enjoy the character development part of a MMORPG, the level-based gameplay does tend to produce some problems. In PvE it is hard for players of different levels to play together, and in PvP big level differences make fighting each other pointless. One of the first big commercial MMORPGs, Ultima Online, didn't have levels. But it had a skill system, and in the end it doesn't really matter whether you are much better than another player because you have more levels or because you have more skill points. So I am wondering whether a MMORPG would be possible in which there are no levels or skill points at all, where your character would *not* become stronger with time.

Imagine a game where you spend the first hour creating a complete character, including all possible skills, talent builds, and everything. You step into the virtual world, and from now on there is no more numerical change of your stats. You don't earn experience points, don't gain levels, don't get additional skills, and don't gain stats by finding weapons or armor that adds stats. The only improvement to your character is by you learning how to use your skills most effectively. If you meet another player in the game who has chosen the same class and build as you, you will have exactly the same stats as he has, even if one of you spent hundreds of hours more than the other in game. Thus there is no barrier to you either working together or fighting each other in PvP.

If there are no xp and no stats on loot, how do you motivate people to go adventuring? With status symbols. For example the game would have epic armor looking all shiny and much better than the armor you started the game with. Only it would have exactly the same stats. And all gear would decay with use, so gaining gold and looted gear, or crafting gear, would not be useless. Borrowing elements from Lord of the Rings Online, there would be lots of titles you could earn, depending on your actions. And there would be an elaborate system of player housing, so the longer you play, the bigger a house you could afford, and it would be stuffed with lots of trophies from your adventures. If you killed the dragon, you could have the head of the dragon on display over your fireplace. There also could be reputation points to be gained, that would give you access to status items and tradeskill recipes. You could even have visual upgrades to your skills, like colored fireballs or other special effects, as long as that fireball still does the same damage as every other fireball.

Such a game could be the ultimate "world" MMORPG, with people having the impression of living in that world. There would be lots of goals and achievements, but no numerical differences. There would be no problems of "aging" server populations, newbies not able to play with or against veterans, or people complaining about the end-game, because all the game is the end-game. Would you play such a game?
Are you sure you aren't talking about Second Life Tobold?

On a more gaming related theme the closest thing I can think of is Guild Wars. Since launch they have added a tonne of PVE content most of which is directed at level 20 players and since you can get to level 20 in a few weeks levels are meaningless. Many many players spend hundred of hours getting titles, collecting skills and collecting armour sets even though they are not really any more powerful than the basic stuff they already have.

There's an idea for you gaming slump - Tobold. Go back and look at how GW has evolved. Its still not a full MMORPG so it won't amuse you for all that long but it has certainly become much more of a PVE game than it was. Just make sure you get into a good mature Guild because General chat is a disaster. Although I amn't playing any more I can recommend a good mature alliance if you are interested - over 800 players all over 30.
yes, sure. this is the game I dream about. no more retarded teen nerd owning me only cause he spent more time playing.
(btw nice blog, first time visiting)
You forgot to mention EVE Online, one of the best PVP MMOG without level system.
The difference between my game and Second Life is the way that items enter the virtual world. In Second Life players create items with some sort of editor. That results in endless possibilities (including the famous flying penises), but also in endless availability. If you want a sofa for your virtual house in Second Life, you always have the choice between buying one from a designer, or simply designing one yourself.

In my game all items would be created by the developers, just as they are in World of Warcraft. Thus you can't design yourself a dragon head to hang on your wall without slaying the dragon. The head becomes more than a decoration, it becomes a trophy, a status symbol, telling the story of your successes in the game.

You forgot to mention EVE Online, one of the best PVP MMOG without level system.

EVE Online has a skill system, which as I explained is equivalent to a level system, it's just called differently. If I started EVE today, I couldn't PvP somebody who has played EVE for a long time already, because he would have the bigger ship, better skills, and better stats than me.
p.s.: Guild Wars is heading to this direction: I read somewhere that the devs are planning a GW2 without level cap.
MMOs are about two things at their core: Playing with other people, and comparing your progression with other people. If a player can't say, I have completed activity A and now I am further along in the game than player B, I'm not sure it can be a MMORPG, or even a game, really.

It does sound like Second Life would be precisely what you're talking about -- a person new to the game has all the abilities, powers and whatnot as someone there from the beginning, but the older player will have cooler looking stuff.

@Helvetica -- no level cap is not exactly the same as a game without levels.
Don't forget the gimp factor. The main problem with skill based games it's the fact that people can gimp their character. And developers ever will try to evade this scenario.

Also skill based games tend to produce "cookie cutter builds" in a major scale than in lvl/class based games.
I don't think a game needs to have levels, but certainly improving your gear is a main reason why people continue to play.
Once you hit Lv 70 in WoW, there is no more levelling.
No reason why you couldn't start the game at Lv 70; illegal levelling services offer precisely that to people.

In WoW you tend to fight the same mobs over and over - boars, spiders, wolves, Gnolls etc. Why not have every quest in the game at the same level as as the current Lv 70 quests are? Hogger could be a Lv 73 elite.

People still want weapon upgrades, though. Raiding is all about getting something that is better than what you already have, as well as killing bosses.

Would I play WoW without levels? Definitely.
"EVE Online has a skill system, which as I explained is equivalent to a level system, it's just called differently. If I started EVE today, I couldn't PvP somebody who has played EVE for a long time already, because he would have the bigger ship, better skills, and better stats than me."

You can make yourself useful right from the beginning when you know what you're doing. You'll be able to kill stuff right from the beginning too. And Eve skill system enables you to be at 90% efficiency of a year old character within months for a lot of ships for example.

I wouldn't consider Eve skill system as "levels". It mostly just adds some variables to the game, so you have less predictability and more different characters. It also gives people that care about it some sense of progression, but other than that it isn't at all that important.
You can make yourself useful right from the beginning when you know what you're doing.

The problem with EVE is that statement right there. You are essentially telling people they have to go read character creation guides before playing the game or risk creating a character they'll have to eventually throw away because they built him wrong for what they wanted to do in game. Last time I played EVE, the creation descriptions had been improved, but still didn't give you any real foundation for "correctly" building a character.

On to Tobold's topic... yes, I'd play the game you described, but to retain interest it would need a) to be extremely fun to play and b) have excellent LFG and social communications tools within the game.

On the other hand, I don't think you have to toss levels out the window to gain the player mobility you desire. City of Heroes' sidekick and exemplar system works pretty well at bridging level gaps so players can play together, and their item loot is done such that player skill and knowledge often matters more than the loot itself.
Have you completely forgotten (old school) SWG? No levels, skills-based progression and advancement, and the game still had tons to do and even "end-game" content.

I can live with classes if I must, but levels have to go.
Well, something based on skill, social but not stuff.

If you take out one or two words from your description, it really looks like you're talking about an MMO-FPS.
Don't online capable FPS games basically have this same structure? I could see applying what you're saying to a different TYPE of game, but I think these games already exist and don't cost a monthly fee.
Taking character progression (of any sort) out of an RPG stops it being an RPG in my opinion.

Without it an MMORPG just becomes an open-ended adventure game - like Tomb Raider with no game-over screen.
The problem I see with your system is this. Why would anyone bother with the other content ? Let's take WoW for example, there are no levels, you as a new character can do everything that a character that has been there for years can do. So, why would you go to Deadmines ? or Mana Tombs, or any of the instances, other than the top raid instances ? Since the only thing you are getting out of this is vanity items, you wouldn't, you'd try to find a guild asap, and go kill Illidan asap for the must have chest item that everyone is walking around in. Then once that is done....well ? Next expansion, poof skip everything and go straight to the end. Even with titles, so let's say you can be Tobald, Brigand Slayer or by killing Illidan you can be Tobald, The Pwnerer, why would you bother with the brigands ?

Just my thoughts.
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Healbot said: Since the only thing you are getting out of this is vanity items, you wouldn't, you'd try to find a guild asap, and go kill Illidan asap for the must have chest item that everyone is walking around in.

The problem is that you're still thinking of the game in terms of modern day WoW, not in a new system with no level-based gear. You are assuming that the chestpiece of uber pwnage that could drop off of Illidan would be more beneficial somehow than say the chestpiece of uber pwnage that drops from Van Cleef. That would not be the case. You would visit these areas for the experience of the boss fights and to get the item(s) that a particular boss drops. Yes, someone could hop into a guild and immediate go and kill Illidan, unless the story didn't permit this type of action to take place. Progression could still be sequential and gold could still be obtained.

Pios said: Taking character progression (of any sort) out of an RPG stops it being an RPG in my opinion.

Just because there isn't level progression doesn't mean that there is no progression at all. Titles, mounts, engineering trinkets and non-combat pets, dresses, hats, shoulders, fishing holiday events...all of these items and activities exist currently in World of Warcraft with little to no incentive of character progression. Raiding and casual players alike participate just to experience a new aspect of the game. Or even repeat some activity from the previous year just because it was enjoyable.

Why would people play the type of game that Tobold describes? The same reason that casuals enjoy playing WoW right now with absolutely no chance in hell that they'll ever achieve tier 6 gear. The gameplay and experience is just outstanding. Blizzard's visual style is nothing short of amazing and is set inside a world filled with VERY rich lore. The classes vary gameplay to a distinct enough degree to remain interesting and environments are extremely rich while still feel connected to the same world. Their character animations are excellent and the armor, weapons, enchanting visuals are just icing on an already phenomenal cake.

With all of that said, I would love a game where I didn't feel the need to "compete" for better and better gear. The hamster-wheel style "grind" has practically killed any enjoyment I can get from WoW. Great social structure and the ability to go online and actually play with my friends/spouse, regardless of whether they're level 10 and I'm level 48 would be awesome. It'd be great if crafters didn't actually have to visit dungeons, etc. to create amazing armor via apprenticeships and what-not. Old blacksmiths in ancient and midieval civilizations could repair and create great armor for warriors without being great adventurers themselves, providing activity and a living for themselves and their families.

Whether I or anyone else would find this type of game play exciting is debatable I suppose but I have guildmates that log into WoW to do nothing more than fish. Apparently there is a desire to exist in the world without high adventure.

P.S. Sorry to be so WoW-centric - It was my first MMO and the one that I'm actively following. Although I've given a couple of other titles some attention, WoW is stil the focal point of my experience with the genre.

P.P.S. Sorry about the comment deletion...I'd love to just edit but I'm nto really up on if this ability exists within the Blogger system. -_-
No - I'm afraid it sounds really unappealing to me. I might dabble in it - but I like the sense of accomplishment I get from leveling, I enjoy the experience of opening up new abilities that I didn't have before. I'm a very goal-orientented person, even though usually my competition is myself.

Which isn't to say I don't like non-level goals as well. Just that I think I would quickly get bored of superficial rewards that don't significantly change my gameplay experience.
I blogged something about this back in June (, though I was considering a skill based system (I had Shadowrun in mind) but you are right - that's essentially a whole other type of 'level' system.

I think there wouldn't only be emphasis on status symbols, but you'd likely be inclined to pay more attention to lore and details.

I still think I might be hard pressed to play for a long length of time if there were a very limited number of abilities/skills or if you were able to select only a few.

Here's another thought... imagine a MMO where there were no levels and no set skills. You were limited by your own capabilities.

You want to play a warrior? Go for it. The role would be in how you play it and what you choose to use. You want to me a rogue? Well, you had better get good at avoiding being seen and the lock picking mini game (sort of thinking picking locks in Oblivion without the skill up and without the autoattempt). You want to be a priestly type? Well, you had better learn the passages of prayer and gestures.

More good stuff, Tobold.
I play in a guild where playing skill is short supply (almost no one on an arena team rated over 1500). The only way we advance is by slowly improving our gear (arena welfare epics included), letting our better players do the heavy lifting, and waiting for Blizzard's PvE nerfs. Hurray for the upcoming reduction in rep level needed for heroic keys!

We would suck at the type of game you describe, even worse than we suck at WoW. And I'm guessing there are lots of guilds like us.

Like the George Carlin quote: "Think about how stupid the average person is. Half the people are more stupid than that!"
That type of game seems very hollow and without distinct gains over time that you can properly measure apart from the size of your house or what it has in it.

I mean DAOC and SWG both had housing and 95% of the time I didn't go in anyones house and other 4% I didn't care what it had in it.

I think status symbols are just a very hollow victory really compared to leveling or a skill based system. If I'm going to spend hours doing something I want more than something to hang in my house. But I'm sure the SL crowd would love that ...

It's taking all the effort out of a game, make it more casual, god damn I hate that word ... even though I'm a casual gamer I hate the idea of casual mmo's just taking any sort of difficulty or obstacles in you way and disolving it because of little kids and housewives find it too difficult.
This kind of game actually sounds more like a theme park. You go to a theme park with your friends, and you walk out with a balloon and a mickey mouse hat and memories of some nice rides.

Multiplayer games imply competition and RPGs imply progression. If time spent playing does not in some way give you an advantage over someone who has never played, there's no way you could call this game an MMORPG.

Does anyone else hate how annoying it is to leave comments on blogspot blogs? A Captcha, have to leave info about myself... and even if I use my blogger account (which I use only for family stuff), I still have to do the captcha which hardly ever works first try.
Having levels / skills / gear progression gives the illusion that you're actually doing something more that just playing a video game.
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As most other comments point out: games must have a 'getting better' element (that's more than cosmetic). What you're describing is not a game, but a simulation (e.g. Second Life).

I'd LOVE to play a level-less MMORPG, preferably a twitch based, FPS-like type. But without at least some kind of character development it'll be nothing but candyfloss.

The solution, I believe, would be in the lines of how Battlefield 2142 does it: When your soldier 'progresses' it doesn't make him (significantly) better, stronger, deadlier. Progression only unlocks (gives acces to) new tactical possibilities (different types of weapons, military gadgets, and the like). Your character gets potentially more 'able', but not any stronger stats-wise.
No, I wouldn't play such a game. Not because it wouldn't be interesting, but because it would rapidly become old. Getting 'stronger' is the carrot that keeps people playing MMORGs. If you take that carrot away, only a small minority of players will stick around for the long haul. Most people don't care about titles or cosmetic changes enough to spend months earning them.

For these same reasons no company would ever make such a game. It wouldn't retain subscribers and thus would be a losing investment over time.

WoW is so successful because the carrot of improvement leads players on endlessly. It's almost impossible for most players to ever 'peak', as there's always something more they could do to improve.
The G in MMORPG stands for GAME. What you have just described is not a game. At best it's a playing field.

From Wikipedia: "Key components of games are goals, rules, challenge, and interactivity."

Your whole post is just confirmation of what I have known for a while. You are not a gamer Tobold. I have no idea why Brent keeps linking you, but I am going to try my best not to click on links to you any more.
The game would still have goals (for example titles and status symbols), rules (e.g. combat rules), challenge (killing monsters to achieve titles, reputation, trophies, etc.) and interactivity (pretty much the same interactivity as WoW).

We can discuss whether without levels this would be a ROLEPLAYING game, because one can argue that levels and character development are essential in the definition of a RPG. But argueing that it wouldn't be a GAME is just plain silly. By your definition the worlds bestselling videogame The Sims isn't a game at all, and I think EA would object to that.
Levels are simply an old PnP mechanism for expressing development, or advancement that bled over into videogames. SWG had wonderful character advancement (I heard Ryzom did as well?) without using old-school levels.

Levels are easy to understand, levels make content easy to design. Levels also make content irrelevant. Levels also break up groups when one friend outlevels the other, or you want to bring a noob friend along. Don't even mention "sidekicks" or whatever, nice try but it's just not the same.
The game would still have goals (for example titles and status symbols), ... challenge (killing monsters to achieve titles, reputation, trophies, etc.) ...

The problem is: in your definition titles, status, symbols reputation and trophies sound like purely cosmetic elements. They're just that, symbols.
To be a game (in a strict sense) these elements MUST be related to the game mechanics. In other words, they have to represent some kind of ingame, usable 'resources'.
No, it doesn't have to be levels or stats (or any other playerbase-separating advancement system). But it has to be something more than just symbols of social value. It needs to have some value specified by the game mechanics.
Only for a roleplaying game, not for a game. List a couple of games of all types in your head, like Monopoly, Tetris, Pong, whatever.

Tetris has goals (stay alive as long as possible), rules (how pieces stack), challenge (pieces fall faster and faster) and interactivity (you control how the pieces fall). But the only thing you gain is a purely cosmetic high score, which has absolutely no effect on the next round of the game.
Tetris ... the only thing you gain is a purely cosmetic high score...

Yes, but no, because you're missing something :o)

There's clear advancement in the gameplay specified by levels (of increasing difficulty). Turn Tetris into a MMOG and you wouldn't be able to play with other players, which are not in your current level of the game.
Stacking pieces is the game mechanic defining 'resource' that advances you to the next level. When you do something 'right' (according to the rules), you're rewarded with progression.
to add to my last comment:

Game mechanic defining progression is what motivates the player... motivates him to play the game. In a sim the player just play.
As far as I can see a MMORPG bridges (or merges) the game and the sim phenomena. So you can't leave out any of those two factors.

As much as I love your idea, I think it's utopia.
For example, the big problem with online FPS games IMO are the lack of persistent resources. There are no game mechanical motivation factors. As soon as you master the gameplay, there's nothing more (besides fun factor and/or competitive factors) to keep you coming back.
In current pnp rpg scene the independent games are strongly breaking the rule of rpg's having levels and level based systems: why not the MMOs?

The levelles system would pose the challenge and advancement in terms of conquering the next uber-boss (not unlike current level-based games), but more by skill and planning than gear and power. The trophies would mean something to the players ingame, and if the game was really global mmo, the first killer group of the major uber boss would be revered around the world.

The challenge and advancement would be in the knowledge and playing of the game rather than having the tier 6 which I will only have wet dreams for. The challenges would be available to all equally, and thus the social and knowledge based aspects would mean more.

FOr example: big-bad-boss is encountered for the first time. The weapons don't affect it, except for the ones made of bling-bling. One player knows where to excavate bling-bling, but another minor boss keeps harassing the miners. Then the bling-bling has to be crafted to weapons - woopsie, you have to find that weaponsmith.

And so on. It would pose different kind of challenge alltogether and quite surprisingly the player-crafters would be needed to fill the spot, too.

Granted, this would bring the GAME closer to the more social ROLEPLAYING, an aspect that has been forgotten in the game design almost completely.

Tobold, the entire time I was reading this entry, I was thinking to myself "sounds like an FPS" - people gradually get better and better after spending time in the game, (e.g. accuracy increases, guns used more effectively). The rocket launcher is always the rocket launcher; it always does the same amount of damage. Mechanics in Quake 3/4 ring a bell too - humiliation, excellent, impressive, etc.

There isn't really a thesis in this, I'm stating what I thought. God bless Web 2.0...
Yes an MMO can work without levels, it's called Ultima Online.
I strongly believe too, a MMORPG could work (and be successful) without levels - providing there are some alternative game mechanical reward built in ;)

It's sad, but it seems like the present MMO gaming industry is incapable of leaving the playerbase-separating 'level/stats/gear' system.

So, according to Tobold's MMORPG Blog Terms of Service, paragraph 3, I'd like to propose for you to elaborate on this subject in a future blog post. What reward systems have been done in past MMOs, what haven't been done? Which work, which don't? And why?
Assuming games of equal quality, all that removing a level/skill system adds to play is allowing all avatars to play in the same location in an environment, which is already trivial for the advanced player, who can either power-level the newbie or create and twink out an alt to use.

There's no formula for perfect equality in a competitive environment; if time served doesn't modify your in-game abilities directly, it equates to in-game experience and reflex training. If the genre is action, some people will know how and when to use the best moves. If it's strategy, the old-timer will have a play-book with breadth and depth to utterly stump the rookie. Piloting and racing games have established map rotations and esoteric sets of vehicle knowledge to learn; fighting games have combos to memorize; and puzzle games may lend themselves more to mind-numbingly repetitive grind sessions than any other play format. Heck, even if the ever-6-months-away Spore turns out to be everything the esteemed Mr. Wright hopes, there will undoubtedly be "power builds" -- critters and civilizations with an exact balance of speed, wits, and combat power to fight and procreate much, much better than the average gamer's creations.

Now, that said, we're talking about RPG-style games here -- specifically, about chopping down on the "grind" factor. Substituting skill points for experience points a la EVE Online doesn't solve the problem entirely, since world knowledge, play skill, and social connections seemed to me to be the most valuable assets a player could have in the game, three things that Lin Newbie probably doesn't have. Allotting all skill points at creation either fosters "super-builds" that can dominate the playing field wholesale or puts people into a perpetual "rock-paper-scissors" contest. Not that I didn't enjoy my time in EVE Online, but I don't really see its system as the silver bullet for grind removal.

I think what I'm about to suggest has been poked at a bit, but I haven't quite seen a good implementation yet, at least in semi-recent history -- I'd love it if someone could point me to one.

1. Character Creation. Think: semi-persistent world. New characters choose a server to join; each server has three relevant descriptive tags: rule set (think PVP, PVE, RP, whatever), population, and the important one, "session age and duration." The last one would be two numbers describing how long that "session" has been operating and how long each session was slated to last -- weeks or months, probably. More on that in point 2. You could join an already-running session and bottom-feed, learning the ropes of the game, and also sign onto a waiting list for a future session you would join at a later time. When a session starts, everyone who got through the waiting list would start at level 1, skill 0, neophyte robe and crooked laser pistol, or whatever the progression dictated. At the end of a session, gamers would gain a "resurrection" score from combined relative and absolute measures (so, for killing G'nash the Hungry Dragon, you gain 55 rez points (RP); for being 14th in the server for Quatloo collection, you gain an additional 180 RP. RP would either give you advantages in the waiting lists (a la DKP) or allow you to purchase access to more "elite" servers that might have additional content. In this case, guilds might gain a discount in joining a new server together. OR, if you weren't absolute in trying to equalize all players, they might give you a slight advantage on the character creation screen as well (5 extra stat points, a bit of gear pulled from the old session, but probably NOT something like a shiny metal frisbee to hang over your e-fireplace.
NOW, we haven't cleared the grinding hurdle yet, I know. So...

2. World Content. Each session's world would be randomly generated. It would be quite large, hopefully large enough that few, if any, would clear it in any given session. Each world would contain random critters, gear, and quests from a database about ten times larger than what was prepared in the database, which would grow after launch, as well. Monster types could be mixed; in one scenario, kobolds might be exclusively melee fighters; in another, they might have a large number of casters. Quests would have hidden variables rating their difficulty and their type (thus, they wouldn't ALL be "kill [level*2.5] short-toothed undead kraits" -- you'd still have a mix, such as complex travel-and-raid quests leading to interesting loot and "quickies" for paltry loot). Crafting could be recipe-based, and recipes could be randomly-generated as well -- or include a smattering of established "rares." But I digress. We are a lot closer to declawing the default advantage of elites, but we're not there yet.

3. Gameplay.
a) Base camp. When I mentioned that the world was persistent earlier, I also include avatars in that theory. When players are not playing, their avatars revert to NPC-style automated behavior. If they park in a town, that's fine; they can run their tradeskills, do auto-training, or assist with the guard for benefits. However, the world I'm seeing is large -- large enough that travel takes time. Therefore, players also gain the ability to set up camps of various qualities in more distant areas, varying in duration (overnight or long-term?) and differing in quality depending on how many people join the camp (tent/lean-to or pavillion/long cabin?). Players who aren't actively playing act as NPCs who do maintenance and help in fights for a significantly reduced, but still present, chance at loot as well as experience, either through getting a minimal roll on dropped loot or through some sort of daily base auction. Active players could organize the defense, or continue questing, perhaps even recruiting inactive players as "mercenaries" who would again get a small chance at loot (or charge a fixed price). Guilds could of course set up looting any way they pleased.

4. The Content hurdle.
One big ugly here is generating the content that algorithm simply can't create -- aesthetically pleasing cities and dungeons, for example. Optimally, you'd take the best parts from some known editable rpgs (TES, NWN, and so forth), add some free-form creation tools a la Second Life and Spore, and allow players to submit content. Players who see the content in-game would then be able to rate what they see, increasing the likelihood that highly-rated content would appear. You could do some basic analysis on this as well; content rated down by newbies and up by veterans or high-level players could be pushed towards the endgame, while newbie-friendly stuff could spawn closer to the starting towns. Hopefully, the novelty of "phallo-bats" and "bungholeburgs" would wear off quickly...
Great article! Though game atmosphere is greatly affected by players choice. Maybe some experimental combined system could make some fun.
Interesting how everyone makes the comparison back to pen & paper RPG's and indicates that the key there is the leveling requirement. Take away levels and what does a traditional PnP game leave you with?

Plenty - as long as the actions you as characters take can fundamentally change the environment. Clear out the village of orcs and you have an abandoned orc village. Over time lizardmen move in and threaten the town again. Or the neighboring country invades the town and who cares about lizardmen because there's a different conflict to solve. This is the most basic premise of a pen & paper game, be it d20 or WoD, you aren't playing the same module/quest/adventure/challenge over and over again, because when you solve it once you solve it for that iteration of conflict.

That's the key part missing from this discussion, not whether there are levels or not. Give players meaningful ways to change their environment in an effort to resolve conflict, for their actions to have consequences, and for new challenges to come up and you'll find you don't need levels at all. I think that's where the Second Life analogy works well - you can change the environment and it has meaning. But that's a programming-paradigm. Put in a game paradigm to Second Life and a game-based approach to changing the environment (rather than programming) and you have a level-less game with meaning.
@ timcl

There's a lot of dreamers out there, that call for the ability to change the gameworld.
In theory, it's a very compelling idea. But think about it: it's immensely more complex to program, manage and balance... the playerbase vs. environment, and playerbase vs. playerbase balancing issues would be a constant threat to the 'health' of the MMOG. Should players be allowed to (in a sense) control access to content of other players (by wiping it out)?

Does any developer really dare to let the players take control of their world and its resources? PotBS seems to somewhat allow it, but only for a limited period, whereafter the world resets.

So most current MMOGs take the opposite and much more simple approach - instead of progress in form of persistent world changes, they give you persistent avatar-based changes. It's not the best solution, but it's manageable.

In come progression through levels, gear and other vertically player-base separating mechanics, because that's the non-innovative, tried ol' path.
And then we're back to the subject of Tobold's post... :)

So what is the magically 'third route' where everyone can meaningfully play together like one happy family?
Anyone remember Trials of Ascension? The one with permadeath, no levels, a light skill-based progression, and playable dragons? No, it couldn't get a budget, and it fizzed out.

Remember playing Sean Howard's Zombie MUD? No, it hasn't been created, and right now it is a bunch of ideas that sound really great and all but is just that.

Most commercial MMORPG's have levels, and so most commercial MMORPG's will continue to have levels until some revolutionary game comes along. Sure, you see the occasional indie MMORPG come and go, but they don't exactly sell very well. And that's very discouraging. Companies would rather walk the beaten path, because they at least know it's safe.
I've seen a few comments about needing levels to offer a change in experience, but grinding is still grinding at level 10 or level 60, it's still the same. I think for a good solid motivation to replace the desire for leveling, you would need player action to have real effects on the game world ie: realm vs realm combat that actually slowly changes the look (flora, fauna, building style,NPCs)of a conquered area to the aesthetic of of the conquering nation. The only RvR game I've played, Pirates of the Burning Sea, is crippled by the power difference between beginners and the max levels. One Max level ship can deny dozens of even mid-level ships from contributing to their nation's cause. RvR will be a reward system that replaces leveling, but it demands a fairly level playing field to work.
EVE SUCKS FOR PVP.. not to mention i kinda find it boring.... If you want an amazing PVP game, try FURY... it's a 1-time fee of like 20$ if you want the full version, and there's even a trial.... Fury has NO PVE (player vs. enemy)... it's ALL PVP.... WITH NO LEVELS TO BOOT!!!!
I don't really like that so many people are saying that RPG means progression cause it is being taken out of context. "RPG" is Role Playing Game. Progression doesn't mean you have to progress through levels, in fact that is the most basic idea of progression. Progression can be progression of skills, character, story, relationships ect. My favorite MMO was SWG before the combat upgrade, I'm aware that it was skill oriented, but you could easily drop skills and pick up other skills without having to start a new toon. The only thing I would have like to see in it were more defining skills like in DnD Online. Plus there is nothing wrong with searching for rare weapons/armor or even bragging trophies, but they should give you something. Perhaps not better, but different. Maybe some shoes that make you run faster, but lower defence. An armor that is resistant to bashing, but weak to piercing. I think pretty much the best game would be DnD Online mixed with SWG(pre combat upgrade) minus the lvling system in DnD. Plus there must be meaningful crafting and item creation. One of the best things about SWG before the combat upgrade was searching for materials for crafting then having to take those to a competant crafter to get something made. Plus there must be decay on items or it looses the prestige.
*cough* ok... sorry for bringing to life something very old...
levelling... well, we all know that levelling is a way to describe a characters progression in skill and or physical attributes, it comes from the old dnd system. I'm from sweden and i grew up on swedish rpgs, which didnt have levels, instead you either got experience points that you just invested in skills and abilities immediatly or that the skill increased when you used it. one notable thing about the swedish rpgs was that you seldom played any epic heroes...

There are two kinds of skills. Player skills, and character skills, there are ussually both in a game, but in an mmorpg the player skill cannot outweigh the character skill, a lvl 1 wow troll, can never ever beat a lvl 70 gnome, even though the troll player might be a god at wow...

So what if we gave more room for player skill and less room for character skill?

If you look at fps games, lets say counterstrike. The character does have progression, they get better weapons, but they are still very much killable by a good player with a basic pistol. Also when playing you have average players that end up using about the sam equipment every round, and better players using slightly better equipment, you'll soon learn the names of the good players and learn to fear them. they are the heroes of that game.

Another interesting system, americas army, there you had to complete training to be able to use specific weapons or gear. for example, qualifying for sniper rifes was a bitch, you had to hit 36 out of 40 shots during basic rifle training.

So how about this, an open world, its all about player skills, you have to get "certificates" for stuff to be able to use them, all highpower stuff (if it was a modern game, say a tank, in a fantasy game, say a horse) needs the efforts of a guild to create and maintain.
The character it self doesnt really get any abilities(except for gear and weapons) at all. its the player who gets better and better.
While a player in a tank might always kill a grunt with a rifle, give that grunt an rpg, hide him somewhere and put a round up that tanks ass and its gone..

I would also like to see bots taking a bigger place in games, more player controlled units followers pets etc...

A basic system of combat, give good players an edge and a visual que to mark them as heroes. make guilds a power in the world (ala eve). let players take certificates to use gear.

as a side note, in the late middle ages, if you lived in germany you could become a dopplesoldner and get double the wage, a really good armor and a big sword if you had a certificate for twohanded swords from a renown fencing school. bad thing though was that dobblesoldners stood in the first rank :P

have a nice day all.
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