Was listening to a podcast today, and the subject came up regarding “catching up” to other players in an MMO, and questioning whether it was worth playing the game since everyone else had gone on to the higher levels. I believe the quote was something like “the game had passed them by” and so they would probably not give the game a try. I remember this same feeling as a latecomer to World of Warcraft; the game had been out for years – two expansions were already out, and I was just figuring out the game at first level. Thankfully, my brother, a longtime gamer took pity on me and rolled up a low-level character to show me the ropes. Over the following days, I realized how much patience he had to have to come to those early stages of the game; I was learning everything – how to play my toon, to the trinity, to how dungeons worked, grinding. It was fun at first, but over time, I could see he wanted to get back to his primary toon, and eventually, I ended up leveling my character on my own.
At the same time, I must admit I am not very crazy about being “walked through” content by a higher level player. In fact, I hate it. I’m not crazy about hand-me-down donated gear either; I want to earn my keep. I feel that as I progress through a game, that the content should be challenging, and yes even difficult. So when I do actually overcome whatever the obstacle may be, there is a sense of accomplishment, and the reward should come with that success. I’d hope that a more experienced player grouping up with me would actually have fun with the lower-level challenge as well, but I do understand why someone who has already experienced that content may not want it to be difficult the 3rd or 5th or 20th time through the game.
MMOs are strange beasts: players who roll “alts” (new characters) are looking for a new experience with that character. Some of that new experience is taken care of with new abilities and races – playing a warrior is much different than playing a healer, and starting as a dwarf is different questing path than starting a human, since you being the game in a different part of the world. In a game like Warcraft, which has many different races and starting zones, allows a different starting experience at least if you start in a different place on the map. Eventually, as you progress, all the different quest paths start to flow into a single route as you reach the mid-levels, and everyone finds themselves doing the same quests.
Fast forward to 2012, and Guild Wars 2 introduces a sidekicking system, which allows higher level characters to bump down to lower levels so that they can play with starting characters and still be rewarded experience. This is a great feature, especially in a genre where friends don’t always start in the game at the same time, and where there are so many MMOs that it’s not necessarily easy for everyone to be in a game at the same level at the same time. That said, it’s a bit strange when you have been taking on demons or dragons or high difficulty baddies for awhile, and suddenly you find yourself being challenged by wild boars.
The “level-free” The Secret World handles this a little differently in that your character’s base health never really changes, but equipping better gear increases health and a host of other stats. This way, there’s no need to roll a new character at all; to pair up with friends just starting out is just a matter of swapping out and equipping a lower quality gear set. Since rewards are in standard skill points and ability points that can be used on a common pool at any stage of the game, veteran players are not penalized by playing in a starter zone.
These systems, however, still don’t address the source of the problem, though; there’s still little incentive to return to a starter zone other than to “help out” a new player or friend. You’ve already done the quests, so even though you’ll be getting suitable rewards for doing them, you are still repeating content. The new player may or may not feel like a burden to the veteran player, and will still feel pressure to “catch up” with the rest of the gang, possibly speeding through content he or she might actually enjoy, especially if they are new to the game. Or worse, foregoing the game altogether, since everyone has “passed them by.” Since MMORPGs are supposed to be group experiences, the game has failed to promote grouping, actually building in disincentives to pair newbies with veterans, and perhaps even play the game.
So what’s to be done?
My thought is that we need stop designating zones as starter, middle tier, and high level, and instead thought of in multiple stacked layers. So within a single zone, there are multiple layers of difficulty, and multiple layers of content. Instead of a starter zone having a single quest chain, there are multiple quest chains available depending on your level or where you are in the game. You might even be able to select starting level quests that differ on the 2nd or 3rd time through, or even allow players to select which chain to go through. So a player joining his friend could agree to follow go through a different chain so that both the veteran and the newbie get new content together. This kind of design would also allow veteran players to return to zones and experience high difficulty content. I love the idea of the nostalgia of returning to zones you loved in the early days of the game, but having new challenges that only veteran players can take on. The Secret World is doing a bit of this as well, by including high difficulty farming and lair content in all the zones (new players occasionally wander in and get squished, wondering what the heck happened).
This design also allows games to be built for longevity; while it’s always great to have new zones and explorable areas added to a game, preventing older zones from becoming obsolete to veteran players is a huge win. Added to that, the ability for more people to group and form community might make the difference between a game being passed by and living on for years.
Other thoughts? What other ways are there to overcome the catch up mentality?