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The Pub at MMORPG.COM  » Why all the levels?

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  Freezzo

Advanced Member

Joined: 3/28/12
Posts: 228

 
OP  11/26/12 4:18:36 PM#1

Whenever I want to switch MMOs, be it because I'm 'done' with the game or just want a change of scenery, I always run into the levels. I know why levels are there, but the whole idea of "Get through the leveling, the game starts at [insert max level here]." just turns me off. Lately I´ve been thinking on levels and possible alternatives, but haven´t really gotten that far. Nonetheless I´ll try to sum up my ideas anyway.

The definition of leveling: Gaining arbitrary experience to gain certain benefits, like unlocking content and skills, by doing either exploration, crafting, quests or killing monsters and players, with the ultimate goal of reaching a maximum level and do the hardest content the game has, the endgame (be it PvE or PvP).

First of all I asked myself (and others) why leveling was there. There were a lot of answers, all coming to basically the same conclusion: The endgame content is aimed at players who have learned to play well and have enough stat/skill points. Basically the game is gated in a way that you first have to put in an arbitrairy amount of time (the minimum time to level as implemented by developers) through mostly very easy content with badly designed quests often accompanied by a story that ranges from bad (general quests) to average/good (the overarching (zone) story quests).

Eventually I narrowed it down to a few questions I wanted answered, so here they are:

  • What is the reason for levels to be implemented?
  • What are the alternatives?
  • What are the downfalls of either having levels and having an alternative way of progression?

The reasons for implementing levels as far as I have figured out are quite apparent. Leveling is the most well-known way of character progression and as one levels one can venture further into the world, overcome harder challenges and know that your avatar has become stronger. It's also something that keeps the player in the game. Reaching level 30 can be your goal today, tomorrow it might be 32 or even 33, and so on. I believe this mindset leads to people wanting to reach the maximum level and once there starting to enjoy the game. I know there's a lot of people that also enjoy the leveling, but there's always the 'endgame' lurking around the corner of every new level gained.

So what alternatives can there be? Are there alternatives that lead to people being able to enter something like a raid zone and do something, but maybe not as good or efficient as someone who has been playing longer or is more skilled. Alternatives which I thought might be viable, either alone or in combination with other progression mdoels, are the following:

  • Gear level progression. Something recently seen in GW2 (play more with a weapon to unlock all its skills) and in the future to be seen in TESO (play more with a certain armour/weapon type to become better with those). At times this might feel grindy, but if it's this kind of system without the classic leveling there will at least be no gated content. Sure, you might be better or even be able to do something at all once you invested time to progress your character enough with a certain armour/weapon time, but there's nothing stopping you from trying and possibly even doing things the creators of the game deemed impossible. Also do note that I'm not talking about stats here, but about skill levels in using certain gear types.
  • Stat progression. Something often used in the endgame, mainly you get new items every time and they have the possibility of having better stats, often depending on where you find them and the difficulty of the place you found it in. Seen a lot in hack and slash games the likes of Diablo and Torchlight. A huge pro to this is your character feels more powerful with every stat increase.
  • Skill progression. Something that came to me when thinking of Guild Wars, the first one. Basically it means with more time played/time invested to complete certain challenges, people get new skills. Your character might not even become stronger by having those, but they will get something. Especially when a game has a lot of skills that can be mixed and matched at will for different purposes you will get a lot of theorycrafting. Imagine all skills in World of Warcraft, but no class restrictions and you can get them all by completing certain challenges. That'd give endless possibilities, especially when there's a limit to the amount you can use during a fight (a la TSW, 8 active and 8 passive if I recall correctly). Just keep in mind the limit might be higher/lower depending on design.
Those are all I could think of that can in any way be viable whilst playing long-term and with the possibility of adding content.

So what are the downfalls of each of those systems?

  • Classic leveling locks away a lot of content and always gives the idea of having to move forward, not really letting you enjoy the game and the content currently progressing through. Also it makes a lot of the content irrelevant once reaching a certain level. We're seeing some initiative to tackle the problem (GW2 downleveling, RIFT mentoring, I'm sure there are others), but it still makes a lot of the content useless.
  • Gear level progression gives a system that might be unforgiving for newer players when exploring the world, as there might not be clear indicators on which challenges are doable, which are easy and which are very hard. Also people with more time spent into the game have more options and for a new person to come in and wanting to be competitive they would probably have to focus on one set of gear and not on different sets. This of course doesn't matter if it's about casual players. Also character progression might not be as noticeable.
  • Stat progressions really adds another gear-grind and locks away content behind arbitrary barriers of needing certain stats. It basically has the same problems as leveling, but leaves it open for players to attempt content that might not be totally impossible because of a slider that's further to the right for certain monsters. It would probably also lead to huge stat differences between people, which is bad for PvP (imbalance/gear-based) and PvE (limiting potential grouping playerbase to those who have comparable gear)
  • Skill progression has as a downfall that it will be hard to balance a huge amount of skills as well as being highly sensitive to Flavour of the Month builds, where everyone competitive runs the same build until something better is found. Then again this might not even be the worst.
Those are my thoughts on the subject. What do you think? Any new insights? Is the classic leveling really dated or is it just me wanting to enjoy the full game immediately (and is that bad)? It turned out to be a lot longer than intended.
 
TL;DR: Is leveling as we know it a dated design? What are viable alternatives?

"We need men who can dream of things that never were." - John F. Kennedy
And for MMORPGs ever so true...

  Quizzical

Guide

Joined: 12/11/08
Posts: 12770

11/26/12 6:54:37 PM#2

Levels serve a variety of purposes.  In some games, they're used to make it take longer to play through content, so that you have to pay the monthly fee more times in order to do the same amount of stuff.  More recently, there's been a shift toward needing to buy stuff from the item mall to make it feel less grindy.

Another purpose is to try to ensure that players have some minimum level of competence by the time they get to the higher level content.  Allowing players to do something stupid a zillion times to grind levels partially short-circuits this, though.

Sometimes levels are there to throw a bone to people who want to feel like they're progressing.  Such people are a lot less common than they think they are, however.  Game designers have figured this out, which is why games typically let you level a lot faster than they did a decade ago.

Sometimes levels are there to intentionally unbalance PVP.  Some people have lots of free time and little skill, and want to be able to invest that free time in getting high level so that they can gank low level newbies.  Or whine that the newbies who don't want to be ganked are carebears.

As for alternatives to having levels, how about not having levels?  Who says that a game has to be all about grinding to get stronger?

Also, people who tell you that the real game starts at max level are usually lying to you.  There are a handful of exceptions such as Guild Wars (1, not 2), but very few games have much interesting to do at max level that isn't also available at lower levels.

If you don't like the lower level stuff in a game, then quit and find another game.  That's much better than grinding through stupid stuff for a while only to inevitably learn that you don't like the max level stuff, either.  People who quit 5 minutes into a game are taking this too far, but if you've played a game for several hours, have a pretty good idea of what it has to offer, and don't like it, then it's not likely to get any better at max level.  There are a handful of exceptions for some very complex sandbox games where you'll still be fairly lost several hours into a game and not able to evaluate it well just yet.

  MMOman101

Hard Core Member

Joined: 2/05/08
Posts: 1191

11/26/12 7:00:43 PM#3

Levels are in almost all games.

kills have levels.

Gear or equipment have levels.

Some games just hide them better.  These games are based on math and the higher the number, multiplier, skill, stat, ect the higher the level.  It is

Does it matter if the content is gated by level, skill points, or gear? 

Most of this is just in the way that players look at things.  They are all the same. 

 

  Oracle_Fefe

Spotlight Poster

Joined: 9/04/10
Posts: 218

Feethree

11/27/12 12:05:14 AM#4

Leveling may start getting old but unfortunately it's currently the best options we have now. Any game that makes awesome content through max level will get flak from players if the endgame isn't as spectacular or different from the leveling experience or the person simply skips content to level ASAP (GW2, WoW after WotLK, you wouldnt see people do the SV troll raid so often.)

On the other hand, if you leave all the cool stuff at endgame people will become bored or not having any other option but quest grind.

 

Every game will have levels and stats, it's just how well the devs hide it. Levels may see a revamp in the far future but it's the best we got now. The best way to make games more unique is to change the way players see levels in a game.

 

I personally believe games like Mabinogi or Runescape are doing a different approach to leveling. In Mabinogi you actually have to train the skill you want to level and usually obtain a book. Leveling up a skill gives you extra stats (Even musician skills for magic stats for example!)

Runescape has a leveling system that is all out grind (Not what I focus on at this moment.), but the quests they create are probably, in my opinion, some of the best in the MMO genre if you don't care about your Avatar having their own personality (YMMV even then). Doing these quests may unlock special items or skills.

  VengeSunsoar

Elite Member

Joined: 3/10/04
Posts: 4329

Be Brief, Be Bright... Be Gone.

11/27/12 1:19:09 AM#5

From your 3rd (or 4th) paragraph it sounds like you feel most people think levels are simply there to facilitate an end game.

Levels are there for progression thats it, no other reason.

We like to get stronger in games, so there are levels.  Doesn't matter whether it is gear, skills, classic levels or whatever else you can think of.

If there is progression in a game there will be a level of some kind.  Yes even in horizontal progression:  one person having three skills is more powerfull (at something and in some way) than someone having one skill. 

Thats really the only reason - we like progression.

Quit worrying about other players in a game and just play.

  Shaike

Advanced Member

Joined: 4/23/12
Posts: 278

At first there were games, then MMOs, then MMORPGs then I understood I had no life :-)

11/27/12 1:42:37 AM#6

OK so i do not agree with any of you!!!

I LOVE lvls and lvling - call me weird - but some ppl are like me. Maybe not most but we still exist.

And if you take this from us then you leave us with nothing.

Take GW1 for example (yes i said it) - i didn't like it just because the game was the end game - u started at lvl cap of 20 and i tried, really tried playing it but the way it was made just annoyed the crap out of me.

It the wonder of going through a lvl progression where each lvl (or a few) you leanr something new and "unlock" more content - either skill/better gear etc.

I am sorry - any game i saw that didn't have that didn't intrest me at all (and excluding GW1 eventually failed)

True - most MMOs nowadays already failed regardless but that is off-topic....

Just my 2 cents...

  delete5230

Elite Member

Joined: 8/15/07
Posts: 2325

11/27/12 1:55:10 AM#7

Leveling is good in my opinion, HOWEVER as of the last few years developers screwed leveling up :

Leveling has to be slow in mmo's or you out level the people you play with.  Making it not an mmo. That player you played with yesterday at level 10 is now level 45 all because you had to go to work !....Remember Vanilla WoW, EQ1 and EQ2 and so on ? Years ago you would stay in Westfall for several days making friends along the way.

Quest hubs - This is another thing that is screwing up mmos.  Do two quest, then move on to the next hub. Your friends are three quest hubs above or below you.  Good Example of quest hubs are Rift and Guild Wars 2 and AION.

 

Leveling is still good, Developers are bad. Nothing wrong with leveling.  It's never been a problem in the past.  No one would have even thought about it until as of late, but the problem has become apparent because of the above....How do they say it ? carrot-on-a-stick !

- Blizzard now levels you fast to get you to pay for expansions. Players are not asking for easy, thats a crock made up by Blizzard.

- Other mmos don't have the content to give you, so they have you move on quickly

  bestiacorpus

Apprentice Member

Joined: 8/05/03
Posts: 117

11/27/12 2:05:14 AM#8

Old and new players play for rewards and they see leveling up as a form of reward.

That's as simple as it can get.

It's also a kind of "training" for newer players not familiar with some basic RPG elements.

Some games tried to change the leveling system but ended up going back to the more traditional form because it's just too much code to try and do the more detailed approach to character role progression.  It ended up going the hardcore niche route which we all know doesn't earn as much fans (and $$$).

  Po_gg

Elite Member

Joined: 5/12/10
Posts: 1754

11/27/12 2:08:12 AM#9

The good-ol' debate which comes up regulary among us as well, since mostly all of my friends are from the "life starts at level cap" / "only game is endgame" group :)

Indeed, if you are one of them, levelling seems only a gating mechanism, with the sole purpose to hinder you from endgame (a.k.a. endless grind :) ). So ripping through them nasty levels, using powerlevel guides, xp boosters, etc. is a necessity to reach the "real game".

For me on the other hand, levelling is the main game beside rp'ing. More precisely the content, not the levels which are only numbers. TSW for example working fine without any character level numbering, let's forget QL levels for a minute :). Of course there are numbers too, like the % of the unlocked skillwheel. There's no problem with numbers. I guess it's a good measure to monitor the progress, and that's why levels are part of mostly all rpg's since D&D.

I think your problem is not with the actual levels, but the implementation in present games. Since there are these numbers, it's easy for devs to use them, gating areas, directing the story, helping with a defined learning curve, etc. I admit, if devs overuse levels, the game will have an on-the-rails feeling and that's bad. But you can't skip levels entirely, even sandboxes has some kind of levels, and your examples have it as well (when the stat increase, or you unlock a new skill, it's like a soft level up, since it's opening new options / new possibilities)

 

"Is the classic leveling really dated or is it just me wanting to enjoy the full game immediately (and is that bad)?" It depends on the player's attitude. For me, it's not dated, I like to live my character in a well-written lore, and progress in time. For my buddies, and apparently for you, it's an unnecessary thing to waste the time instead of jumping right to the endgame (which is the main thing) That's not bad either, everyone's different :)

  Rydeson

Hard Core Member

Joined: 3/05/07
Posts: 3114

11/27/12 2:22:27 AM#10

     I actually like the use of levels..  As long as they are done right.. A prime example of this is WoW's newest expansion of how NOT to do levels.. I remember when I quit WoW, a 80th lvl tank with 30-45K health tank was damn good..  Then Cat was released and within 5 levels tanks were up to 150-200K? and now most 90lvl toons are walking around with 350K+ health.. Seriouslly?  I hate when level disparity is so extreme that older players become GODZ in just a short time... EQ1 started having that same problem with PoP, and allowing players to defeat the Gods..  I just find that crazy..

     Anyways, I like to see levels to be minor steps, very minor steps.. To the point that a max level character MIGHT end up being twice as strong as a 1st level newbie, but nothing more..  The reason why I like this is because it brings everyone closer to be social and able to group up, without some artifical means..  Imagine playing WoW and you have open world PvP, a max level toon will have an advantage against a newbie..... BUT..  It won't be a cake walk, in fact if there are a few newbies around that max level toon will end up taking a dirt nap..  This also gives lower level toons to join up and explore more of the game world without being 1 shotted by a high level mob.. Levels should be more about perks, then Godmode combat..

  Po_gg

Elite Member

Joined: 5/12/10
Posts: 1754

11/27/12 2:23:45 AM#11
Originally posted by Shaike

I LOVE lvls and lvling - call me weird - but some ppl are like me. Maybe not most but we still exist.

Take GW1 for example (yes i said it) - i didn't like it just because the game was the end game - u started at lvl cap of 20 and i tried, really tried playing it but the way it was made just annoyed the crap out of me.

+1, we're exist :)

And second that, that was my problem with gw1 too. I tried it, and later gave a second chance to it after Factions, but the game just simply not 'worked' for me...

Or take AoC for example. It has a great content, I levelled up, dunno, maybe 5-6 alts and loved it. And then Funcom gave the lvl50 option to cater the powerlevel types, and then introduced offline levels... I don't mind it, since giving option is always a good thing, it just kinda sad that there's a demand, there are people who needs it for skipping the whole game.

  Cod_Eye

Apprentice Member

Joined: 9/04/09
Posts: 996

11/27/12 2:46:55 AM#12
Levels were part of the old pen and paper rpg's like Dungeon and Dragons, and believe the system was adopted from these type of games.  As you levelled you also got a few points in attribute which you could custimise your character to how you would like that character to grow, this in turn gave you some bonding with that character.  If you met anyone that had a character that was pass lvl 40 then you knew that person had developed their character for a while.  Hardcore players used to carry encyclopedias of character development , beasteries, and game scenarios, and in their pocket would be their lead model of a dwarf.


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  syntax42

Elite Member

Joined: 3/30/07
Posts: 981

11/27/12 2:57:05 AM#13

I liked Star Wars Galaxies (pre-CU) and their system of content and levels.  It didn't feel as limiting as today's MMOs feel with their class systems.  In addition, SWG's end-game wasn't based on some gear grind.  It was more about what you could accomplish with friends.

 

I think if a re-make of SWG would be successful, it would need to offer rewards for accomplishing things.  SWG felt pointless beyond the social aspect of end-game.  I wouldn't want to see gear as a reward, but maybe superior or exotic crafting materials would add to the entire game's crafting-based economy.

  Rydeson

Hard Core Member

Joined: 3/05/07
Posts: 3114

11/27/12 3:19:32 AM#14
Originally posted by syntax42

I liked Star Wars Galaxies (pre-CU) and their system of content and levels.  It didn't feel as limiting as today's MMOs feel with their class systems.  In addition, SWG's end-game wasn't based on some gear grind.  It was more about what you could accomplish with friends.

 

I think if a re-make of SWG would be successful, it would need to offer rewards for accomplishing things.  SWG felt pointless beyond the social aspect of end-game.  I wouldn't want to see gear as a reward, but maybe superior or exotic crafting materials would add to the entire game's crafting-based economy.

     Agreed..  I'm not a fan of these gear grind MMO's they are pushing today..  As you stated about SWG, I would be ok if raid drops were about mats that can be sold and crafted by anyone..  If a smuggler gets ahold of a super rare crystal, he sells it if he wants, and that might lead someone crafting an epic lightsaber...  I really loathe games that force characters into something they don't enjoy doing, for the sake of character progression..  I wonder how many raiders would bitch if the BEST gear only came from PvP arena rewards..

  Helleri

Spotlight Poster

Joined: 5/26/08
Posts: 649

“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”- Henry Ford

11/27/12 8:21:37 AM#15

@OP....

Firstly I like you basic definition of level'ing. It is clear and concise as to not only the process but the reason for it....well, put.

 

Secondly, I could throw down my soap box  (I actually have a soap box...3d model I made and took a pic of and did some COB'ing on) and talk about how Runescape already has a lot of what your looking for but I won't this time. Instead I want to try to express why I think levels exist and are nescessary.

 

When you are talking about these possible alternate forms of progression, the thing that stands out to me is that we would still need levels appended to those methods to keep track. Humans are actually really bad on average at keeping track of multiple things.

 

There is an experiment you can do with a friend that makes it really clear why we need to keep count and assign these denotions to things to begin with:

 

Get about 20 pennies (or beans or what ever else will work for this). Get a cup. sit down at a table with your friend and have them pick out a number of pennies with outn you knowing how much. to start... have them pick between 3-5 pennies. They put them in the cup 9again with out you seeing). and turn the cup over on the table (a little like with the game yahtzee). They then pick up the cup quickly and set it back down. The penies should be visible for about a half second to a second. Then you tell them how many were there. Next Slowly have your friend use higher and higher sets of numbers (4-6, 6-8, 8-12).

 

You will find that once you start getting into the 10-12-15 range (it varies from person to person). You will not only have trouble being able to say how many pennies were shown. You wil have trouble giving an answer at all, that isn't just a total guess or anywhere close to the real number present.

 

Now if you have your friend arrange penies in matching, clearly distinguishable groups (perhaps with one of the groups being different with the other, while using  a sheet of paper or book to block your view, then lifting it briefly and setting it back down. You will find your able to keep track of up to 20-or even 30 penies accurately. This is because while we are bad at keeping track of more then (on average) 8 objects at any one time. We are good with groupings, We know what 5 things together looks like as a whole, and when we see 3 groups of 5 things, because we already recognize a grouping of 5 easily, our mind only have to keep track of how many groups, and if any are different. Then we (we do this naturally, associating names with it rather then just having a sense of it is the part that we are taught) add them up.

 

Here is my point really. We need levels in games to appease our brains. To keep track. Our minds love to keep track of number groupings. But I think we get frustrated with some MMO's (okay, maybe most) because, they tend to use a simplified/steamlined system, wherein one overall level is meant to keep track of multiple facets of game play. This makes it easy on us in one respect that it gives our minds some instant gratification. But humans are also over analytical and when we see something that works in general but has a lot of holes in what it covers it bothers us the more we think about it. We naturally want better justification and explination. I think we constantly try to re-invent the wheel in an effort to find a blance betwen what works on the surface and what makes sense on deeper levels of analysis.

"Quality is not an act, it is a habit."
- Aristotle.

  Apraxis

Hard Core Member

Joined: 9/28/05
Posts: 1242

11/27/12 8:54:13 AM#16

As someone said a lot about this topic, i will share it with you. I will quote:

Originally posted by Raph Koster, http://www.raphkoster.com/2005/12/16/do-levels-suck/

Do levels suck?

I’ve said in the past that levels suck.

A few things that have been written about lately, however, prompt me to dig a little bit more at that long-held tenet of mine, because while constant self-doubt is debilitating (trust me), it also often opens up surprising new doors.

My objection to levels in the past has been based around the following:

  • The way in which they pull people apart
  • The psychological impact of constantly pushing a lever for another pellet
  • The huge content multiplier they impose
  • The mudflation arms race they create

On the other hand, it cannot be doubted that levels provide a powerful incentive. Why do we have them? What good are they? And do they indeed suck?

A brief history of levels

Levels were pretty much ripped wholesale from Dungeons and Dragons. Richard Bartle has commented that he put them into MUD1 because they provided clear regular feedback on advancement. And that they do.

It’s worth looking at some of the things that changed as they came into MUDs, though. I don’t know how many levels there were in MUD1, but in D&D there weren’t very many. The very notion of having 70 levels (and in the case of many text muds, “remorting,” and in the case of EQ, “Alternate Advancement”) is silly when looked at through a D&D-circa-late-70s lens. Now, I got to D&D late, with the Dungeons and Dragons Basic Set in the red box, and with the stack of AD&D books I still have, a mix of yellow spined and original editions of the 1st edition of the game rules. But a level 20 was nothing to sneeze at in those games. It was extraordinary, in fact.

D&D was notable in its advancement model for a couple of reasons:

  • You got experience for anything the Dungeon Master thought deserved recognition
  • You never, ever played with a widely disparate group of characters

These two elements were fundamental to how the game worked. In the translation to computers, however, the first was lost; going from analog to digital, from human to mechanical, XP became nothing more than a weighted count of creatures killed. This was a dramatic change in the nature of what we call “roleplaying games,” and the computer gaming industry has been fighting it ever since. A D&D game which was purely focused on advancement was derisively termed a “Monty Haul” game, and its players “rollplayers” (a pun which has surely been reinvented thousands of times by bored geeks).

I wish I could say unambiguously that the center of the pen and paper roleplay session was its narrative, not its numbers. But that Gamist/Narrativist tension (not to mention Simulationist, which has affected the design of a lot of pen and paper games) led to some classic D&D adventures on both sides of the fence: tournament play which was clearly Gamist in nature, pushing to beat a specific challenge (the referenced module actually ran on a time limit, and if you didn’t get your party out in time, they died from poisoned air); versus heavily Narrativist stuff like Ravenloft, which was such a popular story that it led to the creation of an entire setting. Either way, however, one thing is clear: even in the Gamist settings, you were not rewarded solely for killing.

In the early CRPGs, you often controlled a party, rather than a single character, and your party was tightly coupled in level as you progressed through the story. This commonality between pen and paper and CRPGs, however, was lost with the transition to muds and then massively multiplayer games: pen and paper games were geared towards narrow level ranges. You generally did not have an adventure with a level 1 and a level 10 character running around in the same world at the same time. You might have campaigns that were set up that way, but not individual sessions. Modules that were sold or designed by players were set up for tight narrow ranges of content drawn from a larger pool of available content described in the reference books.

Higher level did not imply higher difficulty either. There was a real effort to have the nature of game change as you advanced; the rulesets added stuff like followers, baronetcies, and so on at the higher levels of the game. But you could have a murderously difficult adventure with newbie characters, and a cakewalk one with high-level characters. Even though the amount of experience points needed for a level advanced as you played, the experience grants were scaled by storyline and play session, not by arbitrary number of kills.

In addition, the gap in damage-dealing power between a low-level character and a high-level one was not all that dramatic; a mage got 1d4 extra hit points per level, and even a fighter only got 1d8. I call this the power differential between a newbie and a maxed out character, as it scales the content that is required in the game.

Much of this changed with muds, and the changes have carried through to the MMORPGs we play today.

The common characteristics of muds’ use of levels are these:

  • Levels are earned with experience
  • The world holds characters of all available levels simultaneously
  • More levels were added
  • The power differential grew dramatically even between the lower levels
  • Each level is harder to get than the previous one

The wrinkles here are many. For example, the ways to get experience have changed over the years. A focus on killing things developed, even though there had been in earlier games a collecting game (in early AberMUDs, for example, you had to gather stuff and drop it in the well to advance). In the early 90s, there was much emphasis on the notion of “exploration XP” — giving XP for entering particular rooms on the MUD, or tracking how many rooms a player had been to. This sort of mechanic never fully supplemented the XP for killing, but is sadly lacking in modern MMORPGs. “Quest XP” is also a very common mechanic that has been minimally used overall, although World of Warcraft makes heavy use of linearly directed quests and you can advance quite well through questing.

Because of the codebases used in many of the most popular muds, quests were difficult to implement, and having them was actually a major selling point in the first few years of the 90s. But puzzles and quests have a long tradition in the mud world, and they’re sometimes far more intricate than the stuff in the MMORPGs today, generally thanks to the immense flexibility that text can bring to the table. (If Legend wouldn’t freak out, I’d post the walkthrough of the Beowulf quest just to illustrate the point).

Despite the presence of quests, however, killing things became the primary mode of interacting with a virtual world despite the wide variety of possible interactions. The “XP run” was born… lacking the play-session scale of pen and paper gaming, levels were defined instead by using a baseline of “number of creatures to kill to get the next level.” Typically, like in D&D, the levels were given a larger and larger required experience point cost, but without the saving grace that rewards were scaled by the necessities of storytelling. Instead, what was rewarded was repetition: “I need 20 rats to level up.”

The second fascinating wrinkle is the way in which this had distorting effects on the reward scale. Increasingly, games came to treat level as implying a level of difficulty — or at least, tedium. While the first few levels of a mud were notorious for being difficult, the general design trend was towards offering bigger and bigger rewards as you rose through the levels, and thus requiring bigger and bigger enemies, often requiring bigger and bigger groups. While this trend did not receive its apotheosis until the days of “raids” in EverQuest, the seeds were clearly sown earlier: you leveled because it got you better stuff so you could fight bigger things that gave you better stuff that…

The result of this cycle is that more levels needed to be added to the typical D&D style progression, because that retained players more, offered more regular rewards (if you think about it, the reward feedback given by a pen and paper game was actually pretty sparse), and provided a direct point of comparison between games. Because the power differential was being increased, more levels needed to be added.

The long-term result is mudflation. Players reach the top of your level ladder, but you need to keep them occupied, so you add more levels, and with them, more powerful items to serve as rewards. But then you have these powerful items trickling around the game economy, so everything in the game gets a little bit easier. This makes people level faster to the top, which then results in your adding more levels…

Even aside from the classic mudflation effect, you also have what I call database deflation, which is the devaluation and redundancy of your statically created data, occurring simply by the fact that you added more levels, regardless of whether there are players present or not. Any given monster or obstacle can literally be evaluated as a % of the path needed to reach the maximum level; by adding levels, you are adjusting the percentage the monster is worth.

The upshot of all of this was three-fold:

  • a common practice of engaging in regular character wipes or equipment wipes. (!)
  • the invention of numerous systems to push players through the same content repeatedly without increasing levels. The best known of these was probably “remorting,” which allowed players to take a maxxed out character and start it over as a different class, but with the same identity and gear. I’ve constantly been surprised that this hasn’t been applied to the graphical games.
  • the invention of a whole host of systems to prevent players of disparate power from playing together.

The latter is important, because it gives rise to twinking, to level limits on gear, to soulbinding items, to sidekicking and mentoring, to PK level limits, to PK zones and safe areas, to group level restrictions, and to the concept of level-limited geography.

That’s quite a host of side effects. Power differentials between levels are at the root of countless systems in modern MMORPGs. Twinking exists because godlike characters can help mouselike characters. Same for grouping level limits. Level limits on gear exist so that swords from Valhalla don’t fall into mouselike hands. Soulbinding exists for the same reason. And PK zones and level-limited geography exist so that godlike characters do not crush mouselike ones.

Lastly, sidekicking and mentoring, which I believe were first seen in City of Heroes — wow, what a brilliant hack! We’ll allow people to temporarily change level to get past all the barriers we just put up because we included power differentiating levels in the first place! It seriously is a genius solution (I mean that quite honestly) but it also points out exactly how many undesirable side effects have come about from levels over the years.

The upshot is that whereas in D&D levels were used to bring people together, in MMOs today they are used to keep people apart. In a pen and paper campaign, it was considered mere politeness to allow a newcomer to skip to the level of the current adventure; this is inconceivable in today’s distortion of the system.

If anything, this little history just illustrates the ways in which levels have changed over the years. It’s important to realize that most of these side effects didn’t exist in the original D&D model because it proceeded from different assumptions. Rather, they are all adaptations caused by the use of the model in a very different situation.

typical level distributionIn the end, one thing tends to remain constant: a graph of population of characters at each level in your game database will generally show something that looks a lot like what you see when you hold up your left hand and try to make a V. If you have an uneven rate of advancement from level to level, you will get a slightly jaggier graph as players accumulate at the “hell levels,” but broadly speaking this graph always holds true. The start of the graph is your influx of newbies, the downslope in the lower levels is because of abandoned characters, and the spike at the end is where everyone ends up. The middle levels tend to have a far far lower population.

Seeing this graph, it’s clear why adding content at the top and causing mudflation is the typical path: it’s what would satisfy your customers. But it has huge implications on content creation costs and on the notion of user segmentation into “cozy worlds”.

 

And there is even more.

Originally posted by Raph Koster, http://www.raphkoster.com/2005/12/22/do-levels-suck-part-ii/

Do levels suck? Part II

In the first post, I outlined my reasons for having disliked levels for about ten years now, and then marched through a discussion of how levels were distorted as they were adapted from pen and paper games into CRPGs and then MUDs. It seemed like a fairly damning case against levels, but it wasn’t the whole picture even of the bad parts. It was also far from a picture of the good parts, which present a compelling case for having levels anyway.

*

Levels and feedback

The usual case for having levels is made on the basis of feedback. Now, the very first thing we need to get out of the way here is to clarify that we are discussing here what the MUD-Dev mailing list terms “goal-oriented play.” This is what Bettelheim classifed as “games” rather than “play,” and it’s effectively the dominant mode for most games designed today. It’s not, however, the only mode. Games such as Animal Crossing and online games such as There demonstrate that free-form or low-pressure environments can succeed and attract an audience.

But since it’s the dominant mode, let’s consider what it means. One of the main things it means is that levels push towards cooperative rather than competitive play. The reasons really require another essay, but suffice it to say that disparate power levels are incompatible with fun competitive play. In just about every competitive game throughout history, players are given equal footing. The very few asymmetric games are ones where the metrics are not standard defeat, such as Fox and Geese, where the geese win by entrapping the fox, but the fox wins by attrition of geese.

In the world of software-based games, of course, asymmetric games are not only common, but are by far the most typical sort of game. Just about every videogame you play is likely asymmetric in its core mechanics. The player has different capabilities and different statistical traits than the challenges they seek to overcome.

Asymmetry is what really opened the door to levels. In symmetric games, it’s simply not a likely design to choose. But in a cooperative game (or a parallel game of competition, rather than one of direct competition) where one wants to track relative progress of multiple participants, it makes perfect sense, and hence the origin of levels in pen and paper games.

The notion of levels as feedback is important here. Many have claimed that contemporary MMO designers are consciously creating Skinner Boxes: that in effect designers are making conscious use of operant conditioning, most specifically with random reinforcement schedules. Frankly, I haven’t even been in a design meeting where that was discussed as a tactic to use, though I have frequently had conversations after the fact where designers have evaluated their designs and concluded that what they were doing had that effect.

Whether it’s intentional or not, there’s a host of powerful psychology effects that levels as currently implemented give, and it’s not all about Skinner Boxes:

  • The aforementioned random reinforcement: you don’t know exactly when you’ll skill up, so you keep doing whatever gave you a little bit of reward
  • What Robert Cialdini might call “the commitment fallacy” — once you have a few, you figure you’re in for the ride and may as well finish off the ladder. People don’t tend to like leaving things half-done.
  • Another powerful tool of influence: social validation. Levels are publicly displayed, and serve as a significant social marker of status. And humans are hardwired to seek status and validation.
  • The “gated community” effect. It’s been observed many many times that people want what they haven’t got. Just as clubs will intentionally create lines outside a door to drive traffic, and just as it’s a time-honored technique of retail and carnies to hire a claque of folks to make the business seem popular, exclusivity in online games is a powerful motivator. Levels effectively put content behind a velvet rope, which just makes us want to get inside.
  • Finally, one of the most compelling aspects of levels is the lure of power. Levels promise increments to a player’s health, their damage per second, and so on. People like feeling more powerful — it’s not social validation, it’s the game system itself giving them validation.

Ironically, it’s this last one that causes all the other systemic problems in the game. You could have random reinforcement without upping hit points. You could have exclusive clubs, gated content, publicly displayed status, and a treadmill of ranks to climb, without changing the power differential between levels.

The worst thing is that in many cases, it’s a lie. Until the fairly recent advent of flat level curves, the common practice was for each level to require a bit more kills than the last. A typical way of balancing level systems is to say, “Level 2 will involve killing 20 even matches, Level 3 will involve killing 21 even matches,” and so on. The XP value is then set for each level based on formula that provides more XP for higher level mobs, but keeps to this boundary. When done correctly, it then provides a fixed and straightforward scalar factor you can use to reduce the amount of XP granted for kills of creatures of lower level. The result is no “hell levels,” a very gradual increase in “grind” with fairly rapid feedback at low levels, and (ironically) a net reduction in actual player power against even matches. In terms of the levelling game, an even match is worth less — to keep at the same pace of advancement, a player is put at an increasing disadvantage.

Another common way in which players get weaker as they go up in level is the difficulty of what is considered an even match. It is not uncommon for the targets intended as an even match to be groups of enemies (which means a force multiplier), to require groups to tackle; to have absurdly out of scale hit points; to have special attacks beyond the norm of the equivalent level player; and so on. Of such things are raids born, forced grouping bred, and guilds spawned.

The “grindier” games are ones where this level curve and accompanying power differential is more extreme; rather than a linear increase in number of kills required, they may actually involve an exponential rise. Even where the level curve is fairly flat, as in World of Warcraft, the use of increasing difficulty remains.

The reason, of course, is not feedback — it’s content.

*

Levels and content

Flatly, levels are a content multiplier.

Look at the dilemma faced by the level-based games which try to minimize the grind by providing a flat advancement curve. A player must engage in 20 kills of an even match to advance a level. The next level, they must engage in 20 kills of an even match. The next level, they must engage in 20 kills of an even match.

What the designer needs to change to make this fun is the definition of an even match. Because games are about learning, the player must be given an increasingly complex situation to handle. In a level-based situation, the increased variables are generally the following:

  • The abilities the player can bring to bear on the problem: skills, spells, weapons, etc.
  • The tactical situation surrounding the problem: other enemies who might assist, the landscape, coordinating friends in your party, etc.
  • The abilities that the enemy brings to the challenge: special attacks, increased damage per second, etc.
  • The amount of correct choices the player must make to win the challenge (which is expressed by increasing the enemy’s hit points by a factor larger than the increase in player’s damage per second). You can think of this as directly analogous to making you have to remember more and more colors when playing Simon.

Compare to Tetris, where only one variable increases: speed. Or compare to typical symmetric competitive games, where the sole variable is the skill of the opponent in using the abilities they have, and where tactical situations are emergent. This is almost an embarrassment of changes to make. The fact that so many variables are required speaks to the poverty of the basic combat model to serve as an entertaining game in its own right.

If you think I am saying that typical RPG combat sucks as a game, you’re right.

So now the designer is obliged to create scenario after scenario with all these variables. This is the process of creating content. What exacerbates it, however, is those pesky power differentials that levels generally imply.

In order to prevent players from doing the sensible thing and maximizing their return on time invested by minimizing deaths and maximizing predictable advancement (also known as “bottomfeeding”), developers of level-based systems must create their content in bands. It’s typical to see that for a given player level, the available dataset of challenges is +/- a few levels from the level they are on. A level 10 character may be able to fight a level 6 for minimal XP gain, and may be able to tackle as high as a level 15 and get lucky. Everything else is out of reach either from a reward or a feasibility standpoint.

This would be the point at which I suggest you read another old thing I wrote. Go on, this will still be here when you get back.

OK, now, what you just read contained a number of points about how these games are played:

  • Players will be playing content in parallel. You’ve got multiple users, so you need to provide available content for each of them.
  • You as a given player will have competition for content resources only within your rough level range.
  • You will need to provide content bands proportional to the amount of power differential between your highest and your lowest player.
  • Each content band must contain sufficient content to keep the player entertained, or they will term that level “boring.”
  • Since a level band cannot offer significant statistical variation (by definition, since otherwise the content would be in another band), this means that the content variaitons within a band will likely have to be in the form of narrative, tactical situations, or something else — something that is not merely power differential.
  • Lots of games fail at providing this, which is why each content band consists of killing 5000 orcs or crafting 7000 blaster barrels.

Now, the amount of content required is driven, in the end, by your player population and distribution across levels. Time to pull out that graph again…

typical level distribution across levelsWhat we see here is that in order to alleviate competition, you’ll need to provide a huge amount of content at the highest level band in your game. The effort you went to in order to provide a lack of competition to account for the initial surge of players moving through the middle levels will become obsolete, as the simultaneous population in the midlevels will drop over time. The single largest wave of mid-level players you will ever have, most likely, is in the first few months after launch. After that, you’ll have something like 50 times the “bandwidth” for mid-level players as you will actually need.

This is a massive overspend. You can think of it this way: When the initial population of players came into the game, it was a little higher than the level of the red box. There was some attrition and some slow levelers and some reaslly fast ones, but these distribute along a bell curve. Then the bell curve moves through the levels just like a wave. The red box is the “high water mark” of this wave of players moving through the levels. In order to provide a lack of competition for resources throughout the leveling process, the developer will have had to provide content that fills the volume shown in the red box, so that the peak population of a level band was always accomodated. But the mature playerbase’s need is only the area under the curve. Compare the area of the two spaces.

This is why there are vast echoingly empty adventuring spaces in most mature MMOs. It’s also why the pressure to add solely at the top is so overwhelming: to reduce contention, you have to keep adding variations. Pretty soon, the only way to do that is to add more levels, because you’ve exhausted all the other ways to provide ongoing learning and therefore ongoing fun. Hello, mudflation.

Now you see why I call it “database deflation”. Not only do you end up rendering the expended time players have invested thus far worth less as a proportion of their total advancement, you are also letting the air out of your accumulated content. You are pushing players through a learning process which renders each level band less challenging for them. You are likely introducing new ranges to the power differential in the game, often attached to items which trickle down and effectively shrink the lower content bands, often to nothing.

You also see why remorting into a different class, and “altoholism,” are so common. They allow re-use of this content in a manner that presents different puzzles by giving different abilities to the player, thus rendering every problem somewhat fresh (not totally, mind you). The more diverse the tactics available to classes, the better this will work.

There is one very nice side effect of this, though. Player segmentation.

*

Levels and cozy worlds

One of the things that works the best in level-based games is the sense of camaraderie with players who are levelling at the same rate as you are and started at around the same time. World of Warcraft makes excellent use of this, as did EverQuest in the early days. In a nutshell, the segmentation in player power caused by levels also meant that a given zone was a cozy world: a welcoming, reasonably sized community where most everyone knew each other. By isolating players both geographically as well as with power differentials, a “movable feast” community was created.

At the higher levels, this breaks down, of course, as the population at max exceeds the capacity of any one place. But if you’re not in a guild at that point, you’re unable to enjoy the content anyway, and the guilds become the cozy worlds instead.

So it is that the greatest weakness of levels — the fact that they prevent people from playing with one another — can also be their greatest strength; arguably more powerful than any of the Skinner Box sort of bits of psychology. Group identity is routinely cited by players as the most powerful retention factor in online games.

The question is whether one needs levels to accomplish this. Let’s consider the factors that seem to go into creating a success. Leaving aside the basic question of whether you have fun gameplay at a core systems level, the things that have been listed throughout this article are:

  • feedback for achievements
  • public status based on achievements
  • gated communities that require special status to enter
  • the lure of power based on significant achievements
  • regular changes or variation in the challenges undertaken within a given playstyle
  • cozy worlds created with players segmented based on when they entered the game and the rate at which they leveled; or self-selected by players

Bottom line: none of these need hit points to go up. None of these need the traditional notion of levels as we know it, actually. Nor do they need any of the other sorts of “levels-in-disguise” things like skill trees, actually. Power can be satisfied with a number of things, including collection mechanics, customization, and yes, even actually increasing player power relative to challenges on a separate axis from their comparison to other players. (A game where as you rose through level, you levelled faster? Horrors.)

How cozier can our worlds get if we remove the artificial barriers that the legacy of levels from a 30 year old game system has given us? Can we satisfy those players who want the ding? I suspect the answer is yes, but I’ll leave the actual systems design to you. Most systems people tend to propose leave out hitting the full set of bullet items above.

So, my answer in the end? Levels don’t suck in every way. There’s plenty of good stuff they bring to the table. But if we’re smart, I think we can have all that stuff without levels themselves.

 

Have a nice read.

  Prenho

Apprentice Member

Joined: 5/29/12
Posts: 306

11/27/12 8:57:12 AM#17
It would be better if all the "I want it now" players went to play call of duty, battlefield instead of MMOs. Because CoD can offer what they want: a cool linear campaign, and arenas for multiplayer.
  User Deleted
11/27/12 10:03:09 AM#18
Originally posted by Helleri

@OP....

Firstly I like you basic definition of level'ing. It is clear and concise as to not only the process but the reason for it....well, put.

 

Secondly, I could throw down my soap box  (I actually have a soap box...3d model I made and took a pic of and did some COB'ing on) and talk about how Runescape already has a lot of what your looking for but I won't this time. Instead I want to try to express why I think levels exist and are nescessary.

 

When you are talking about these possible alternate forms of progression, the thing that stands out to me is that we would still need levels appended to those methods to keep track. Humans are actually really bad on average at keeping track of multiple things.

 

There is an experiment you can do with a friend that makes it really clear why we need to keep count and assign these denotions to things to begin with:

 

Get about 20 pennies (or beans or what ever else will work for this). Get a cup. sit down at a table with your friend and have them pick out a number of pennies with outn you knowing how much. to start... have them pick between 3-5 pennies. They put them in the cup 9again with out you seeing). and turn the cup over on the table (a little like with the game yahtzee). They then pick up the cup quickly and set it back down. The penies should be visible for about a half second to a second. Then you tell them how many were there. Next Slowly have your friend use higher and higher sets of numbers (4-6, 6-8, 8-12).

 

You will find that once you start getting into the 10-12-15 range (it varies from person to person). You will not only have trouble being able to say how many pennies were shown. You wil have trouble giving an answer at all, that isn't just a total guess or anywhere close to the real number present.

 

Now if you have your friend arrange penies in matching, clearly distinguishable groups (perhaps with one of the groups being different with the other, while using  a sheet of paper or book to block your view, then lifting it briefly and setting it back down. You will find your able to keep track of up to 20-or even 30 penies accurately. This is because while we are bad at keeping track of more then (on average) 8 objects at any one time. We are good with groupings, We know what 5 things together looks like as a whole, and when we see 3 groups of 5 things, because we already recognize a grouping of 5 easily, our mind only have to keep track of how many groups, and if any are different. Then we (we do this naturally, associating names with it rather then just having a sense of it is the part that we are taught) add them up.

 

Here is my point really. We need levels in games to appease our brains. To keep track. Our minds love to keep track of number groupings. But I think we get frustrated with some MMO's (okay, maybe most) because, they tend to use a simplified/steamlined system, wherein one overall level is meant to keep track of multiple facets of game play. This makes it easy on us in one respect that it gives our minds some instant gratification. But humans are also over analytical and when we see something that works in general but has a lot of holes in what it covers it bothers us the more we think about it. We naturally want better justification and explination. I think we constantly try to re-invent the wheel in an effort to find a blance betwen what works on the surface and what makes sense on deeper levels of analysis.

The levels are like a barrier that we encounter everytime we want to do something in a game, we partially define other players just by looking at these numbers, we assign them to many things... you can kick 3 times harder or you can kick me 3 times more or you can make your kicks hurt for an additional 10 seconds, but your shoes still are 6 sizes smaller than mine.

These are the kind of things we need to keep track of and it feels like an impositive burden.

Why? Because they make me think of all the things that I really don't want to care about, they remind me that my favorite weapon will be useless after some time and that I will have to get a new one to replace it but this time with all this other new and increased stats, and when I get it... I won't really care about them because they are really, really boring.

There should instead be incomparable characteristics that help describe more meaningfull aspects about ourselves and about everything else. I would LOVE to keep track of those, wait... 

What if I can't do it because they are too many or too complex? More complex than all those numbers or more life-like?  

What if I don't feel that I am progressing? Do you really want games in wich progress only means: kicking harder each time?

I think I had enough of them, so I try to clear my view of all these counters whenever the game allows me to forget about them and you know... do my best to enjoy whatever else the games have to offer, until they figure out a better way.

  Helleri

Spotlight Poster

Joined: 5/26/08
Posts: 649

“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”- Henry Ford

11/27/12 11:06:48 AM#19

Sounds like you want more meaning in life and your putting the effort to get that in the wrong place.

 

It's not an imposative burden... and it is a huge part of what makes an MMO a Game. You goto be able to win a game, or at least have the ability to clearly show your superiority. to wear it on your sleeves so to speak. And, games are about competativeness so thats ok.

 

You want to be liked for being you, completely independant of what you can do and unconditionaly?... get a dog.

"Quality is not an act, it is a habit."
- Aristotle.

  User Deleted
11/27/12 11:11:55 AM#20
Originally posted by Helleri

Sounds like you want more meaning in life and your putting the effort to get that in the wrong place.

I am proud of it, I consider myself an artist and I want games to be ART. Am I looking in all the wrong places? time will tell.

Edit: btw I already had one dog and I had to kill it (yes, it was suffering).

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