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Crushing the Dream of No Levels

Posted by Stradden Friday July 31 2009 at 8:07AM
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Last week, I presented the first of a number of cool features that many people want to see in a game, but that just aren’t likely to see the light of day in a new, AAA MMO any time soon. In my last blog entry, it was live content. This week, it’s all about a levelless game.

Now, before you angrily hit the reply button and tell me just how many games have done this in the past, or even what games are doing it now, at least take the time to skip on down to the last paragraph and read what I say there.

I read a lot about people looking for an MMO that doesn’t have levels, and I can understand why. Levels can be restrictive. They force players into small niches of other players of the same level, force players who bring new friends into a game to roll an alt in order to play with them, encourage linear game design where a leads to b leads to c ending with all of the “maxed out” players clustered at the “endgame.” Then there’s what might be the biggest complaint about levels, the fact that they create the feeling of “grind” for players and the feeling that anything below the level cap is simple hamster on a wheel to get to the “real game” at the end.

The problem is though that using levels is an easy and efficient tool that developers use to craft their games. Games, of course, need to be fun. They, and MMOs in particular, need to stimulate that part of our brains that makes us want to continue playing, and in the end paying for, the game. The easiest way to do that is to give us the feeling of achievement and a reward to go along with it. That’s what motivates us and keeps us doing pretty much anything. Why, for example, do you go to the office every day? Unless you’re very lucky it’s probably to get that paycheck every two weeks and maybe get a promotion (leading to higher reward).

Making the reward intermittent, as is done with levels, is even more effective. It’s the same principle that keeps gamblers gambling, looking for the payout. It doesn’t come every time, but it’s what they’re chasing. It’s the same principle used to train dogs. They do what we say, they get a treat, or attention or some other positive reward. We might not want to think about it that way, but that’s how it works. Don’t believe me? How many times have you, like I have, kept playing that hour or two extra just to “get to the next level?” That’s how they get ya.

Then, there’s the fact that levels make the overall game easier to balance, not just for PvP, but also in terms of the difficulty of monsters, quests or any other content within a given zone. Knowing that the player will have X amount of power when they enter Y area of the game means that you can tailor your content to them specifically so that they aren’t wading breezily through content or getting firmly and impossibly trounced at every turn. Add to that the fact that levels make it very easy for players to see and recognize their character growing in power, and the fact that it’s been successful in the past, and you have a system that’s difficult to argue against to the people making the decisions, and signing the checks.

Now, the current popular belief is that a skill based system is the answer to the woes of the level grind. The only problem with that is that a skill based system, where a character gets better at swinging his sword or casting a spell by doing so, is that it doesn’t hit the above mentioned pros. It is difficult to balance content (not to mention PvP), players don’t experience the “ding” reward, character power growth is gradual thus denying players the goal (and reward) of instantly achieving more power. This system does have appeal. It’s far more realistic in terms of a virtual world and does appeal to a certain demographic who look for more subtle rewards for their time and energy. It just doesn’t seem as though, in the mass market, that kind of player is in the majority.

I’m not saying that levels are the only way to go. I’m also not saying that skill based o other type advancement and reward systems can’t be successful. They can, and have. What I am saying is that it is a much more difficult and far riskier path to take, making them a less likely path for developers to choose, especially with an expensive, AAA title.

MarlonB writes:

I think PreCu SWG nailed it ... with a bit of perfectioning left and right.

Fri Jul 31 2009 8:15AM Report
John.A.Zoid writes:

Yeh SWG just needed bug fixing and content.

Fri Jul 31 2009 8:40AM Report
Paragus1 writes:

I think my favorite advancement system was in the original Asheron's Call.  Experience points were earned from PvE and then spent like currency on any skill on your character, while at the same time had levels that yielded skill points to unlock new skills.

Fri Jul 31 2009 8:50AM Report
Paragus1 writes:

I think my favorite advancement system was in the original Asheron's Call.  Experience points were earned from PvE and then spent like currency on any skill on your character, while at the same time had levels that yielded skill points to unlock new skills.

Fri Jul 31 2009 8:50AM Report
TheMaelstrom writes:

You must have really loved it to post twice about it, Paragus. :)

In reply to the article... I wish you'd have gone more in-depth with ideas of how to make skill-based or natural progression viable. It read more like you were trying to champion the cause of level-based progression. I see how it could be tough to write about this subject though. It's a tough sack to crack.

Fri Jul 31 2009 8:57AM Report
Nerblas writes:

He just said that level based progression is more viable and much easier to develop and to keep the masses happy, and he explained why so... And the industry is all about the masses, hence the greater risk of taking other (many times more imaginative) paths.

I have indeed tryed some skill based games (and loved), wich worked perfectly for their target player base, but they definately were not games for the masses...

Fri Jul 31 2009 9:15AM Report
lukeborgman writes:

Besides bugs and imbalance, preCU SWG was my favorite.  I played because it was fun to play.  It was immersive.  It was so easy to group, or not, as I liked.  User content and develper content blended together.  If development had focused on bugs, balance and new content for all, I'd still be playing it.  Levels stunt ongoing development because new content only serves those at the levels for which it was developed.

Fri Jul 31 2009 9:17AM Report
shankin writes:

 The problem with eliminating levels is that, especially in PvE, it's very difficult to convey to others the chances of success or failure in taking on a given monster or area.  Levels simplify that - "Don't go into area X unless you're at least level Y".   It also makes it hard to determine what you need to do to succeed against any given challenge.  Should you work on your sword skill?  To what degree?  When are you good enough?

You can eliminate the levels, but if you don't replace it with something very similar, the player gets lost and frustrated.  The grind isn't eliminated, it just changes to a grind to raise stats or skills.


Fri Jul 31 2009 9:23AM Report
mrcalhou writes:

@ TheMaelstrom: The reason he didn't go into detail about the skill based system is because this type of paper, ahem article, isn't supposed to do that. I had to write two research papers for my summer semester Bible Lit. class and what he did was build an argument defining and defending the level-based system and then introduced the skill-bassed system as the "counter-argument" to disprove.

He will also save writing an article on how to build a decent skill-based system for a later time.

Fri Jul 31 2009 9:27AM Report
mrcalhou writes:

Ack! I meant to say "He might also save...."

Fri Jul 31 2009 9:28AM Report
t0nyd writes:

Ive been pondering a leveless system for a while. In some way, systems always seem to integrate leveling, even if it is obfuscated. I have always wanted a system based more on character choice than forced skill gain at specific defined points.


Fri Jul 31 2009 9:32AM Report
Trucidation writes:

shankin nails it. Basically, you have to dangle a carrot, or the vast majority of casual gamers won't feel the need to advance (and stick around playing your game). Removing levels and making it "skill based" merely moves the goalposts around. Instead of guides saying "you gotta be level X to survive area Y", they'll be saying "you gotta have skill X at Y% to survive area Z". Same thing eventually.

Also, it's easier to get it wrong when tackling skill-based systems. The temptation is always there for people to macro and do something like swing a sword endlessly at an unmoving target, and then tomorrow magically they'll have max sword skill. I'd say a skill based system has more pitfalls and needs way more careful attention to detail. And the way games are coming out half-baked, unbalanced, and just plain bug ridden I don't expect companies to get it right.

Fri Jul 31 2009 9:41AM Report
Lex_Taliones writes:

Yup ... Pre - New Game Enhancements SWG was my favorite.  With just a few balance issues, and the bugs fixed it would have been perfect.  i had a great "Jedi Killer" build goin on, and I loved to get totally lost in the Star Wars world.  You had literaly thousands of possible character combinations.  If they had never turned it into the joke it is today, I never would have left.

Fri Jul 31 2009 10:03AM Report
hogscraper writes:

 Skill based systems are the bane of the casual player. Playing Dark Age of Camelot you would always hear the new players complain that there was little guidance in how to spend points on what skills. There's very little chance a new player, who is not well versed in MMORPG gaming, would stick around very long if there were not definite, in game guidlines on how to proceed with a given class. Imagine a person who has never played an MMO being dropped into a huge, wide open world with 20-50 skills available and no idea what to do or where to do it. What happens when that players fights through the frustration for a month only to figure out he leveled up a collection of skills that results in his character no longer being able to survive simple situations?

As for AC, I loved that game. I spent all of my starting points on making it so people couldn't see what I had going. It was hilarious watching super powerful people leaving my naked character alone because they were uncertain if they would die if they bothered me.  

Fri Jul 31 2009 10:08AM Report
LexStriker writes:

When I play Call of Duty Multiplayer, I really like the ability to unlock new content. This was done by leveling, but leveling really did not mean anything other than unlocking stuff. 1st level characters could still kill 65th level characters. However, in a system where one increases in power while leveling, meaning a 65th Level character cannot even be hit by a 1st Level character, I find that kind of counterproductive in a way.  In DAoC in 2004, I watched a magic user wipe out 2 full groups (16+ characters) before someone finally put him down. That is the part I have trouble with. When lower level players end up being the play things of the higher level characters, that is where I think a game losses it.

A game I am looking for is where quests unlock additional skills and equipment. Is this a form of leveling?... perhaps. I guess I just HATE the XP grind I see now in most games, and how the higher characters can dominate the lower ones. So far, APB seems to be my next hope of that type of game... we will see.


Fri Jul 31 2009 10:28AM Report
saker writes:

It's laziness and the fear of going "outside the box". I'm not buying that skill based can't be just as rewarding. If you "con" monsters as a certain "level" it can mean in a skill based system that you need a certain skill range to fight it effectively a basic war-magic skill of 10 or above (and you can give people -Dings- when they reach that skill level) for instance. I thought AC's system was pretty decent also as a number of people pointed out. Wish they would have simply re-done graphics and kept the original systems when they made the sequel, it would have been a better direction to go (amongst other things they should have done). I believe with a good system tutorial you can eliminate alot of the fears that people have about not knowing what to skill-up or focus on. But this is all academic speculation, these companies are all so fixated on Wow that creating anything new/interesting is just not in the picture. I doubt we'll see anything but slight variations on the current models for some time to come.

Fri Jul 31 2009 10:36AM Report
tanek writes:

hogscraper wrote: "There's very little chance a new player, who is not well versed in MMORPG gaming, would stick around very long if there were not definite, in game guidlines on how to proceed with a given class."

I think this is true to a point, but what I would rather see in place of a definite "how-to" for skilling up a new character is a way for new players to try out building a character without having to worry about big penalties for doing something wrong as they are learning the ropes.

The risk with definite guidelines would be the rise of cookie-cutter builds that you might be stuck with and just as unhappy about as a build that was not effective and considered to be "broken".

Encourage experimentation with builds, reduce or remove the feeling of wasted time.  Maybe start every character with a couple of mulligans so people don't have to re-roll every time they make a mistake.

And, on a side-note.  All this talk of pre-NGE SWG makes me wish I'd been gaming around then to see what it used to be.  (Or maybe I don't.  I never really know if "'tis better to have loved and lost" is true for me.)

Fri Jul 31 2009 10:37AM Report
n2sooners writes:

SWG had levels. They just had skill levels instead of character levels. You still needed higher levels of certain skills to survive fighting higher levels of creatures. They just had more of an open class system.

I do miss the old SWG, it is the one paid game I would return to right now if it existed. Not that it was my overall favorite MMO, but it did have the best atmosphere and I miss creating and then using my own creatures, riding around the planets just seeing the sites, and hanging out in cantinas listening to Star Wars music.

Fri Jul 31 2009 10:41AM Report
Inktomi writes:

 I like the ideal of no actual levels, there are quite a few games that are moving aways from the tradional progression system. However, players are entertained with the old pavlov's dog mechanic: ding, reward, salivate. 

Many new titles are taking the risk now, and are getting rewarded by the feedback. Ryzom, EVE, JR Ewing and eventually new titles such as The Secret World will set the norm of level-less progression.

Besides a reward based retention customer retention system, levels also act as a content guide for players and devs. Level 1-10 newbie area, as an extension of the tutorial. 11-20 middle level area with some challenge that leads to XX level: endgame;hardest content ingame. Without this, what sort of knowledge would players have to lead them through the game? It has both pros and cons to it, but it also take away players "easy" button.

Now we have to guess, trial, error and actually work through a game to find our progression path.

work? mmo? :::shudders::: 


Fri Jul 31 2009 11:03AM Report
ZoeMcCloskey writes:

Oh how I miss old SWG :(((

Fri Jul 31 2009 11:04AM Report
Inktomi writes:

 Edit: Besides a reward based customer retention system,*

I know, proofread and proofread more.


Fri Jul 31 2009 11:05AM Report
Venger writes:

You are for the most part correct. 

From a designers point of view skill based systems are more difficutl to build then class based systems.  Much harder to balance pvp, much harder to scale content, ect.

But from a player point of view I think a skill based system could offer just as much reward as a level based game.  For instances if you took UO's skill system but at certain skill intervals unlocked a special move (which could possible be skilled up too) it would give players of rewards.  Plus when you first started out a skill in UO gaming skill was fairly easy.  Skill progression didn't really slow down until 70-80ish.

As far as players being confused about what mobs they could attack or should run from and the ability to find each other for a parties a persons attack / defensive power, spell / resist power or healing power could easying be shown just like a level.  Instead of Mobs having a set level they would have difficulty numbers.  For example instead of hovering over a mob to see it's level you could see it attack/defensive power or spell/resist power or even healing power.  This way any person could look at a mob and decide to fight or flee.  This would also work for players to identify themselves.  Instead of looking for tank for X dungeon it would be looking for player with defensive skill of Y.  Or instead of looking for healer for X dungeon it would looking for character with healing of Y.

I think so much more could be done with a skill system if people woudl just think outside the box a bit more.

Fri Jul 31 2009 11:15AM Report
LexStriker writes:

Another thing I have problems with is when a crafter has to kill something in order to be able to craft certain items. It really makes no sense to me. Why can we not have a game where a character can be proficient at something that does not require them to kill 45mil+ critters? A good mechanic can produce the best running car out there and not be able to drive it out of the parking lot without having an accident. So perhaps it also bugs me that 'general' leveling is geared to so many other things. I will admit that EVE Online's skill system is really to my liking. No general level... just individual skill levels and how much an NPC Corp like the character.

Fri Jul 31 2009 11:23AM Report
MarlonB writes:

While true that skill-based is often harder to learn as classbased mmo's for the new players, i did notice though that the community is also much more understanding and helpfull.

SWG was my first MMO ever and my god was i lost when i logged in. Logged off again 10 minutes later thinking i would never understand a game like that. Anyways, i tried again and only 2 minutes after logging in, some guy offered me help and spend the whole night (6 hours straight) going hunting with me and explaining everything about the game and i loved it, what a wonderfull game!!

Now, 6 years later, i still chat to that dude weekly at least.

I also found the same strong and helpfull community in Ryzom.



I hope one day a company rises that is brave enough to give you actual choices in developping your character. I want to have the option to be a Bio-engineer with sharpshooting skills :)

Fri Jul 31 2009 11:35AM Report
tanek writes:

Venget wrote: "Instead of looking for tank for X dungeon it would be looking for player with defensive skill of Y. Or instead of looking for healer for X dungeon it would looking for character with healing of Y."

So, how is this fundamentally different from a level system?  It sounds like you are just taking out the level *numbers* and letting the skill numbers replace it.  You still have the large gap between new player and high-"level" character.

Fri Jul 31 2009 11:36AM Report
Hluill writes:

@tanek and Venget:  The whole: tank, healer and DPS model is as flawed (or more so) than the level-based empowerment.  The idea that one member of a team volunteers to take all the damage is silly.  So is the idea that someone is healing that member WHILE THEY ARE FIGHTING is pretty silly too.

Sure, I have been a member of teams where we all had are specialties, but when the bullets are flying, we're all shooters.  The assignments during the fight: Security, Support and Assault or just alternating between Bounding and Overwatch.  MMOs have taken these positions to such an extreme that they don't resemble reality anymore.

Fri Jul 31 2009 12:47PM Report
EricDanie writes:

 You are probably right, the chances of it happening on an AAA title are slim.

Our best chances to see this kind of thing entering AAA titles is for an indy-developed game like Darkfall, Mortal Online or any other that takes this levelless approach and become huge, even bigger than EVE.

They don't need to be great, they just need to be stable and done right to show everyone the potential of this kind of advancement and full-looting isn't really a good way of promoting the popularity of a no-level game.

Fri Jul 31 2009 1:05PM Report
Rhygar writes:

In the long run levels are dead.  Levels are what makes games like WoW unfun after the initially bit of exploring.  The reason why non-level games haven't caught on yet is because they need to find an alternative to give people their cheap fix - as you say.  That will come I am sure.  

Levels I would almost say is what we are stuck with until the internet technology matures more and developers are able to give us more.  Then we might see new features appearing that will give players that "ding" feeling with the level grind and sense of restriction.

Fri Jul 31 2009 2:22PM Report
Venger writes:

@ tanek

Well fundamentally there isn’t really much difference between a class system and a level system. The only real difference is ones ability to choose your own path, create your own ideal character. Also with the ability to customize your character, you could try to fill voids in areas without having to completely re-roll a whole new character.

@ Hluill

I started my mmo life in UO so no one thinks the unholy trinity is more stupid them me. But most people understand it, are comfortable with it, it is how they describe themselves and is why skill based games are far and few between. The core idea of the holy trinity isn’t really bad and it does have a certain amount a realism. The problem is the way it has been hard coded in games and the extreme they have taken it makes it ridiculous.

If we could find ways to define skill sets to symbolizes what role we can fill I feel it would go a long way to having a main stream skill based mmo again. Plus it would give flexibility in character creation that mmo desperately need. So a tank wouldn’t have to be a plate and shield wearing warrior a rogue like character with enough dodge, parry and evade could fill the role successfully. A healer wouldn’t always be forced to the back because you could build a cleric like character. The combinations would staggering, but it would take a great deal of thinking out side the box.

Fri Jul 31 2009 3:13PM Report
Toothman writes:

You know how you tell if a mob is too hard?  You attack it.  If you win it wasn't too hard.  Simple, and eventually after you have played long enough you'll know what you can take on and what you can't.

Fri Jul 31 2009 3:16PM Report
Snapjaw writes:

The fact is, now there are games out there with both level systems, skill based systems and those in between.  In some cases, it has been single player games that have showed some innovation, like Oblivion or Freelancer, but even then they still fall a bit short.  Then there are the MMO's like EVE or UO or AoC or whoever that fill different needs but also fall short for some in the long run.  But, for the most part, I think that what so many people are getting tired of is the same game over and over.  How many times do we hear, oh this new game is a WoW clone, or this game is just like SWG.  After playing many of the MMO's out there I can honestly say that I have just about had it with the whole genre.  All that time in WoW to get to level 80 and the endgame, just to be completely bored with all engame material, especially waiting around for a group of 5 to get together just to get through a dungeon.  Also, I got tired of world PvP where I can get ganked while talking to a vendor in a city is just ridiculous, like in AoC or Vanguard.

So why not make a game that has something a bit different?  One thing I would love to see is a PvP mini-game like in WoW that doesn't wait around for all the player slots to be filled, but instead fills the slots needed with computer players.  I have wasted so many hours waiting for a round to start only to have it cancelled.

Another thing is wouldn't it be awesome to actually have some Tactical real time stategy like play while in PvP?  Imagine being the "leader" of the PvP group attacking a castle or guild hall, as in AoC or Darkfall, and you send commands to the units of soldiers on the battlefield to gain a tactical advantage instead of complete anarchy or people running around bashing things.  You could earn special rewards for successfully commanding an assault.  Or, maybe you were a unit commander over the archers or cavalry and you got a medal for correctly following orders and helping your side win.  Or, finally you were a specific soldier in the footman group that took out the archers from their flank side.  Basically, some people would be in first person fighting hand to hand combat and such, while another would be in charge of the tactical movement.

Anyways, these are just some suggestions of having some more interactive content in these games.  As far a level based or skill based, I still think that skill based has more future potential, but they need to have more roles to play, like being a soldier in my example above if you like PvP, or being a blacksmith who makes one of a kind weapons that players want from you if you like being a crafter.  You need to give all types of players some type of reward for playing whether it is virtual wealth, fame, military glory, or political standing.

Fri Jul 31 2009 3:48PM Report
erictlewis writes:

give me pre-cu swg any day. gosh i miss master swordsmand with my stun baton.

Fri Jul 31 2009 5:00PM Report
Njal writes:

Damn you article, and damn you comments! You're making me miss SWG as it was before that retarded combat upgrade :( 

Fri Jul 31 2009 5:18PM Report
Karnagon writes:

I'm glad someone finally mentioned Oblivion which I presume works pretty much like Morrowwind - where level advancement is a function of collective skill advancement within a specified subset of all the available skills dependent on your class. That helps you focus within a given class/profession archetype for measuring your main advancement, without limiting you to just those skills or pre-determining your success at individual tasks.  It's even more free-form by letting you create a new "custom" class at the start, by defining which of the many various skills will be the key skills to track for determining when you advance in level. Level then becomes a general measure of how talented you are in a group of skills related to what you've chosed for a primary role, but it's not an absolute that prevents or guarantees success with any one of those or any other skills, or determines the level of foe for a fight you can win.

Being able to "con" a monster to see if you can take it, based only on a level to level measure, could instead be replaced by a black-box calculation of your primary weapon skill, dps generation, and damage avoidancemitigation values, indexed against a similar calculation for the mob. Even the concept of Considering (conning) mobs is based on the premise that "victory" means engage them in a combat to kill them. This in itself is an outcome of grind mentality, kill=xp=loot rewards. Several games have experimented with quest designs where "victory" doesn't have to mean combat kills - success can be achieved in different ways by characters with different skillsets. (The classic example being, the fighter wades through all the mobs killing everything to reach the objective while the rogue sneaks past them instead.)

The author's article makes a good point - levels create an awfully easy and familiar reward mechanism and a convenient content scaling mechanism. But many games have proven that with good creativity and good game design, you can remove or at least decrease the importance of levels, and still have a great, rewarding, compelling game experience.

Fri Jul 31 2009 5:21PM Report
z80paranoia writes:

So there is no demand for an mmo that bases success solely on player skill? There are  plenty of level-less single and "un-massively multiplayer" games. Where is the logical connection between the number of simultaneous players and levels being a must-have feature? Is it a proven fact that people that play (level-less) low player games would not want to play the same type of game but together with hundreds of other people?

Fri Jul 31 2009 7:36PM Report
valaria writes:

I still think pre-CU SWG had the best system ever, because you could always give up skills and then 're-earn' and 're-spend' the points. This meant that your character did not have to be static, you could change the role your charcter played.

Fri Jul 31 2009 8:43PM Report
rgdelta writes:

 Level Based was created because it was eaiser for pen and paper but with computers is is the lazy route to creating games.  SWG pre-cu was good but it still was not as good as UO (Ultima Online) which has always been skill based 7xGM ftw.  The reason devs do level based in MMO (and single player) is because it is the lazy way to code and most players (not all but most) are just not smart enough for skill based.  Eve Online, UO are 2 of the best skill based MMO's SWG Pre-CU was good but still was xp based.  UO is based on sucess/fail of ACTUALLY using the skill and EVE is just train the skill over time.

Sat Aug 01 2009 1:54AM Report
rgdelta writes:

 to valaria UO was better as you could Lower a skill to let it decay while you raise another skill so that meant YOU ACTUALLY had to work the skill to get it up not just get xp.  UO is the ultimate in skill based not a skill/level hybrid that pre-cu SWG was

Sat Aug 01 2009 1:56AM Report
rgdelta writes:

 Conning was invented by a level based MMO called EQ UO did not have conning and you could easily tell if you could take something if you can't you die it is that simple.  Also with a true skill based (like UO) you can have a 7xGM go to a high end dungeon with a low skill person because there is no powerleveling why because your success/failure determine if you get a skill increase.

Sat Aug 01 2009 1:58AM Report
klinika writes:

I'd really like to see a RuneQuest mmo. It was the first skillbased pen and paper rpg from 1978, that's only four years after D&D was first released. Loved it!

Sat Aug 01 2009 2:44AM Report
daltanious writes:

I just do not understand how can people think about levels being evil thing for game. Of course there is always some "level" restriction, even if not called level in classical way. So what? You are only lv. 9 and can not go wherever you want? And have no skills will let you go anywhere you want? Of course not. I there is no level requirement, then there is some other kind of "level", like "skill". The only difference I see is that with skills there are no "mages", "assassins", .... etc in classical sense .... one can pick something from any of this and become another kind of Jack of all trades.

Sat Aug 01 2009 3:59AM Report
jusomdude writes:

I've seen a number of comments about SWG here, while it was an alright game, one of my biggest problems with it is that is was never balanced from the very beginning.

One shotting swordsman, two shotting BHs, Pistol Whip spam, all come to mind when thinking about the imbalances of early SWG. While it was still kinda fun at times, there was no fun at all being on the wrong end of pistol whip spam. The game was moderately fun, but it had far from a well balanced skill based system.

Sat Aug 01 2009 9:08AM Report
jusomdude writes:

Also, I think a decent way of handling the level gap is with mentoring/side-kick systems, where players can bring a friend up to around their level, or they can go down to their friends' level.

Sat Aug 01 2009 9:11AM Report
sunshadow21 writes:

Interesting article and comments. Just to point out something no one else has, EVE has actually managed to answer a lot of the difficulties of skill based systems with its licenses. They give new players definite goals and guidelines of how to reach those goals without permanently limiting the players to a specific role or set of skills. Also, since most of the game content is ultimately created by and driven by the players, the challenge of creating specific zones for specific levels is greatly alleviated.

Sat Aug 01 2009 9:58AM Report
craynlon writes:

 whenever i imagine a level less game i mean a game with less impact from levels. i mean was robin hood 20 times better at shooting a bow then the regular bowmen ? can king arthur kill 30 normal knights alone ?

the power that robin hood or king arthur wield doesnt come from their level beeing lvl 20 while other ppl beeing lvl 1. their power come from social status and their fighting power would be max 2-3 times of the regular guy with a bow/sword. so in contrast to linear leveling as seen in most games today i propose 2 things:

1. skill leveling but without inflation. a grand master of a given skill should be max. 5 times more powerfull then a novice. combine this with a complex skill system and a variety of challenges that prefers a player to have the right skill for a situation rather then having just 1 skill insanely high.

2. social status leveling. you can see early tests with that in games like fable where the npc react differently towards you based on your social status. if you are a reknown heroe (or villain) you might get special missions (on wich you should be able to bring friends/helpers of any status) or other benefits (only for you) 

Sat Aug 01 2009 10:28AM Report
CleverLegion writes:

I have to disagree with this post.  I don't hate level based games, but I would like to see a completely skills based MMO.  I am not alone in this and someone will see the demand and spend the extra effort to make it.  Just because most developers are too lazy to deal with the balance and PVP concerns does not mean they will all always be that lazy.  Stop being such a pessimist. 

Sat Aug 01 2009 1:58PM Report
cwRiis writes:

Like others have said, EVE is about as close to the no-level ideal I've ever seen.

There are no limitations on skill trees other than time.  You can have a pilot that learns all the skills (if you want to spend 20-years of real time).  A small gang of new pilots in Frigates can take down an experienced high-skill point pilot in a Battleship if they handle it right.

A crafter with the skills can buy everythign they need on the market to craft anything they want. 

Sat Aug 01 2009 2:07PM Report
Njal writes:

CleverLegion: Would be nice but I think it will take a long while until we see a completely skillbased MMO.

I guess Huxley among others are trying to do this. Problem is Huxley seems to be more of a traditional multiplayer FPS but with cities where you can meet other players and do instances with small group of friends, like Guild Wars but games like that doesn't give me that MMO feeling since it's not an open world. Which is important to me. Correct me if I'm wrong about Huxley but that's my impression of it so far.

Sat Aug 01 2009 2:16PM Report
Njal writes:

Sorry CleverLegion, I think i misunderstood the "skills based" in your comment. I read it as the player's skills, not character skills.

Sat Aug 01 2009 2:19PM Report
GundamAce writes:

The only reason a game would need levels to keep people adicted is if the game wasn't fun.  Forget levels and foreget skills.  I played Quake for years and I never once "leveled up".  Why?  Because it was fun to play.  I don't want levels, I want fun.  Give me my fun back please.

Sat Aug 01 2009 9:57PM Report
Wizardry writes:

I hit the reply because the answer is so obvious it is not funny.Players that don't like levels need to realize there is NO alternative.Skill based is still the same thing ,FFXI is a game that actually utilizes BOTH.No game on this planet is going to allow you through your own stat placement,allow their game to be in easy mode,so you are only fooling yourself,if you think stat/skill placement is the answer.What skill based games actually accomplish is to let players screw up their character,there really is ONLY one way to make the class/player work,by manipulating the stats,you risk messing it up,better to let the game developer do it ,since they know their game better than the player does.

Levels are just the easy way to let players know when and what they are striving for,just because you remove levels,the game will still use something to determine when you advance,so who cares what it is ,really does it matter,since the outcome is the same result?

Sun Aug 02 2009 1:05AM Report
Wizardry writes:

As far as Quake goes,they are not the same games,Quake is an instant PVP action game,where as MMORPG's are meant to play out sort of like real life,or role played as a real life Cleric or Guardian,whatever you decide to play.A real life Fantasy game [role playing]would not have players battling one on one or in groups 24/7,witch is the case in QUAKE,you are battling PVP NON-STOP.

BTW UT has always owned Quake for overall thinking and skill :p

Sun Aug 02 2009 1:10AM Report
sigamon writes:

i never played pr-cu swg but from all the lamenting it sounds like it was the first coming of christ

Sun Aug 02 2009 6:45AM Report
Trucidation writes:

@CleverLegion: I'd like companies to provide both PvE and PvP servers, that isn't so hard as making a totally new skill system. Yet outside of companies that have done this from the start, others have never done so.

Gaming companies have rarely delivered. This is 2009, dude. It's not like MMOs are new. They've had YEARS to adjust / redesign / whatever. The way things are, pessimissm is totally justified.

Sun Aug 02 2009 9:26AM Report
Nightbringe1 writes:

I enjoyed the mix of skill-based / level based progression in the PnP game Rolemaster.

Skills determined who and what your charater was. Class defined how it was to learn specific skills, but nothing was impossible for anyone to learn. Level defined how many skill points you had available to spend.

If you did not spend skill points on new hit points, your hit points did not increase. Same will spell progression, weapon skills, and everything else.

Sun Aug 02 2009 2:04PM Report
Brenelael writes:

Why can't we have both? The Elder Scrolls has already done this in the Single Player market so it's high time someone adapted it to the MMO genre. In TES you have a fully blown skill based system that also has levels to give you that "ding!" feeling of accomplishment.

I look at this just like I look at the old "Themepark vs. Sandbox" debate. It's only a black and white issue if you choose to view it in that manner. Just like you can have several Themeparks within a Sandbox framework you can also have Levels within a Skill Based system.

Looking at these issues as black and white ignores a whole lot of gray in the middle.

Sun Aug 02 2009 9:12PM Report
veritas_X writes:

Making the reward intermittent, as is done with levels, is even more effective. It’s the same principle that keeps gamblers gambling, looking for the payout. It doesn’t come every time, but it’s what they’re chasing. It’s the same principle used to train dogs. They do what we say, they get a treat, or attention or some other positive reward. We might not want to think about it that way, but that’s how it works. Don’t believe me? How many times have you, like I have, kept playing that hour or two extra just to “get to the next level?” That’s how they get ya.

That says it all for me.  This genre is really nothing more than a computerized pacifier.  Give the baby his ding and he'll settle down and be content.

Good article, but ugh, it sucks to actually read my feelings summarized so succinctly, and to know that I've finally given up on MMORPGs being anything of substance or import, let alone true virtual worlds.



Sun Aug 02 2009 10:33PM Report
BlackWatch writes:

I agree with Veritas_X 100%.  Pretty sad to know that this really is where we are with games.  The truth does indeed hurt.

Mon Aug 03 2009 12:32AM Report
Death1942 writes:

longest comments section on a blog ever.


anyway...I thought it was pretty obvious why we do not have more non level based games (and you outlined it in the blog).  It makes perfect sense on the business and creation side of the games but it falls over on the longterm survival of the game (something i would think most MMO's would try to perfect). 

It's kind of like my robotics class at school.  Sure we could programme the robot to follow the course using our measurements and specific commands but its much more rewarding and easier (down the track) to teach the robot to go around the course by itself. 

Point is it's ok for short term goals to have a level based system but the amount of effort spent keeping it fresh and appealing is much higher than a sandbox/leveless system style of game.

Mon Aug 03 2009 1:11AM Report
talismen351 writes:

I am a long time fan of the UO skill system. It was simple and it worked. Swing your sword, get better at it. Cast spells, get better spells and more damage. The reward in this game wasn't a 'ding'. The reward was as you got your skills better, you could take on larger monsters, wich often weilded better loot. Sure there was a problem with balancing...but when it came to PvE, I don't feel that matters as much as with PvP.

Tue Aug 04 2009 8:13AM Report
veritas_X writes:

Well hey maybe there's hope after all.  FF14 will apparently have  no levels and no experience.  My hat's off to Squaresoft for at least trying to do something original and I now have at least one mmo to look forward to.

Tue Aug 04 2009 4:15PM Report
Grayn writes:

You are correct.  Devs use levels because they are tested and easy.  There is no thought or creativity.  We (as consumers) must continually challenge the developers to go beyond. We can not let them think we will allow copy after copy of the same game.   We are the ones in control.  Do not be satisfied, ever.

Tue Aug 04 2009 7:43PM Report
wootin writes:

You are very correct as to the reasons that developers like levels. I've commented on a couple of them before, especially the balance one - it's a lot easier to "prove you've done a good job" if you have all the level increases in a nice spreadsheet.

However, there's one reason you didn't mention, and there's one incredibly telling point left out.

The last reason developers like levels is (drum roll.....)

Because when the suits are predicting the revenue to be gained from a single subscription, the devs need to give them a prediction as to how long a player will stay in the game. With levels, you can draw on statistics such as (made up here) "30% of new subscriptions will play to max level". Then the devs can simply say "ok, according to our spreadsheet, it will take on average 7.28451 months for a player to reach max level".

So multiply the subscription fee by the number of subscriptions, multiply it by .3 to reflect the 30% and voila, you have a number to put in your revenue projection for the next 7.28451 months (rolling). Suits like this, and because suits pay the developers' paychecks, developers perforce like this too.


Now, as to the incredibly telling, hiding-right-in-plain-sight point you didn't mention:

As a player, I couldn't care less about their dumb spreadsheets and reasons for having them. That's their job, not mine, and I resent their bringing a "work" mentality into my game time. This makes the whole use of levels a "tail wagging the dog" situation.

For my part, I am much happier playing a levelless game (I tried it in Oblivion with a mod and was very much happier with it than working for my next level).

The key differences I notice were that with levels - your eye is on playing the game for the gain, not playing the game for the fun of it. You can't help but change your behavior to go for the levelage, and this makes the play experience 9to me) less enjoyable. How many people have stayed after they were done playing for the night just to "get that last bit to make a level"? What does that have to do with having fun?

But in a levelless game, you play for the objective - "I'm going to complete this quest to clear out the vampire cave". That's it. Go accomplish something. And that's all the objective I need or want in a game.

Allow me to leave you with this paraquote from Yakov Smirnoff - "In level-based MMOs, the GAME plays YOU!".

Fri Aug 07 2009 3:03PM Report
thepatriot writes:

Let's dispel a myth about Pre-CU SWG. 

1.  Pre-CU SWG was leveless:  False

It had levels, they were just hidden as admitted by the devs when they worked on the CU.  You could not take any skill but had to choose skill trees and progress thru them in order.  This is where the hidden levels where.  Each level of a skill tree was a level and when you added all your skill tree levels together the Devs knew what your true level was.  The problem was that some levels where non combat and therefore it became hard to balance content especially since a group could have anywhere from 2 players to 20.  The CU was an attempt to fix the level system by clearly defining the combat levels.

2. Pre-CU SWG was not class based:  False

It was class based but had a robust multi-class system.  To prove this point just look at the progression level of the skills.  You had to get the skill abilities in order and each tree was assosicated with a "class".  They just let you combine classes together with a maximum amount of skills possible thru the cap.


That all being said, IMO Pre-CU SWG was the best attempt at simulating a classless leveless system but the system needed 6 months to year more of development before it was released and should never have been attached to the SW IP.

Sun Aug 16 2009 3:00PM Report
shabazzster writes:

Pointless article, pointless discussion, and also a movement toward self sabotage... okay, now,.. lets talk about something interesting. How bout that ONLive .com?

Fri Oct 02 2009 9:03PM Report
Nivek85 writes: for everyone who misses no lvls game swg.its free and its PRE CU emulator.its not finished yet.but will be soon!

Fri Oct 30 2009 1:26PM Report
DreamQueen writes:

Oh, that emulator sounds cool...

Level-less would be interesting, and would be even better if they didn't have tradeskills combined with the combat skills like SWG did... It is outright impossible to balance a mob correctly, when some people have minimum combat skills and full tradeskills, and others have all the combat skills with 0 tradeskills... Do you make it easy so that the combat player complains? Or make it harder so the tradeskill player complains? Balance it out, so that they both complain? 

It was interesting, but it was painful to give up my combat in order to be a Dancer in SWG...

Ahh, I really miss that game still though!! 



Mon Nov 09 2009 2:23PM Report
ericbelser writes:

A big part of the "problem" is that most of the supposed "skill based systems" out there are just levels in another form. Any system where you get a skill point for doing a quest or gaining XX exp is just a micro-level system.

Wed Nov 25 2009 12:51AM Report writes:
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