We play MMOs to play with other people, even if that’s not the only reason we play them. Before the outcry begins, I’m not advocating forced grouping, far from it; I’ve never been one of those players who thinks “Multi-player” stands for “You have to group with me because I want you to and if you don’t, you’re an antisocial basement-dweller with no life skills, and it’s your dev-given duty to be at my beck and call if I need you to do something with me.”
Ahem, where was I?
Oh right. Yes. Even I play games to play with my friends, by which I mean spend time with them online and, if we feel like it, even do some content together. I’m mostly a loner, so that last part isn’t essential for me to have a good play experience but still… there’s a different feel to a game when there are a bunch of people you know who are more or less the same level as you than when you’re level 30, say, and they’re all 50, 60, 85 – whatever. Or when you’re much higher level than everyone else because you went game-crazy for a few weeks.
The answer most current level-based games give to this conundrum is: level faster, bi-atch. Okay, I’m paraphrasing, but for the most part games imply that what really matters is getting to max level and then you’ll be able to play with your friends. In the meantime, group up with strangers or don’t group up at all, whatever, but quit whining about your friends when you weren’t fast enough to keep up with them in the first place. (And no, there’s nothing wrong with grouping up with strangers, that’s also part of the fun of MMOs and it’s how you make new friends – but it’s not the same as playing with established friends who might have bought the game partly because, you know, you’d all get a chance to do stuff together. But I digress.)
It’s an issue that’s become more important over the years, partly because leveling curves have flattened out dramatically, partly because generally we’re much better at leveling than we used to be (a decade of experience does help), and partly because some games have been around a long time. If you’ve been playing WoW since 2004 as I have, albeit in play-chunks here and there, then chances are you have a full stable of max-level characters (I actually don’t, but I could name a dozen guildies who do). If a friend shows up new to the game, are you seriously going to either delete one of your 85s or start over on a new server just to be with them, abandoning other friends in the process? Not likely.
But if you don’t, you can’t really play with said friend because they can’t tackle your content and you can’t help with theirs without trivializing the content at their level. Content trivialization is a mechanic I approve of for a number of reasons, but it doesn’t help when people want to play together.
There is a solution, and it’s one some games (like City of Heroes/Villains) adopted years ago: introduce a mechanic that temporarily adds or removes character levels. In CoX you sidekick up to within a couple of levels of the higher character, while in EQ2 you mentor down to a lower level, but the basic mechanic is the same. Either way, characters whose levels are too disparate to allow them to meaningfully enjoy content together – so content is neither impossible nor trivial – can close the gap and do stuff as a group.
For some reason I’m more comfortable with mentoring than with side-kicking, probably because I don’t mind redoing content and because in some ways I’m anal and don’t want to see content before my character should. That said though, the zone divisions are so arbitrary these days that it doesn’t really matter. Take SW:TOR: whether I disable a doomsday device on Taris at level 17 or on Nar Shaadaa at level 27, it’s still the same story – which is why WoW was able to revamp a whole bunch of zones and alter the levels at which you do them. (Granted, WoW also changed those zones’ storylines quite considerably, but even so.) Maybe I’m just more accustomed to mentoring because I played EQ2 a great deal more than I played CoX.
Either way, it works, though the mechanic aren’t perfect in the implementations I’ve seen – the side-kicked tend to be a little under-powered while the mentors tend to be a little over-powered. I remember EQ2 tweaking its mentoring system pretty heavily over the years, both to make it more user-friendly and to make the mentors a little less overwhelmingly powerful, but it still worked. These days it works all the more considering the design of the games we play: predictable gear increments and core skills that change in power but not in nature. It’s just a matter of tweaking the numbers.
SW:TOR would have done well to launch with such a system, in my absolutely not-humble opinion, and I’m mystified that WoW hasn’t implemented one yet, considering the game is going on 8 years old and has an overwhelming population of max-level chars while still welcoming the occasional new or returning player. That said, given the blink-and-you-miss-it pace of WoW leveling these days, I suspect Blizzard is more likely to just start people at 55 (can you say “Death Knight”?) than they are to design some kind of mentoring system.
Which is a shame. Despite the limitations of quest-based, level-based games, we clearly enjoy them or we wouldn’t play them. And don’t cry me the no-choice river: if you’re playing, it’s to have fun; if all you’re doing is whining about how you want some other type of game to play, cancel your sub. We all have choices. I don’t recall bitching about killing goblins in D&D, the grand-daddy of quest-based, level-based games. (Actually, that’s not true, I remember exactly the day when I did start bitching about killing goblins: it was in AD&D when they brought out Dragon Mountain, but that’s beside the point and that water is so far under the bridge it’s hit the sea and recycled into rain by now. I digress again.)
Part of the point of playing any game is to have fun with people we know, and for ageing MMOs with diverse level populations, allowing people to close the level gap without trivializing content seems a no-brainer. I’d prefer both mentoring and sidekicking in the same game, but if I had to pick only one it would be mentoring: let me temporarily level myself down so I can play with lower-level friends; let me go back in time so that I can experience content I missed on the way up, or that’s been added since. EQ2 is a great example of this, because it has more zones than you possibly can do at level (unless you lock your XP, which by the by is another great mechanic), and some of them are really fun. There’s nothing like going back down a bunch of levels and playing content you never got to see before.
We all level at different paces. Static groups are not the answer, and not all of us are alt-o-holics who don’t mind rolling an alt for a friend; hell, in some of the older games, some of us would have to delete a character to do that and that’s asking a lot. A temporary level alteration seems an obvious solution. Devs, I promise mentoring/sidekicking won’t kill your game. However, it might in fact give it a somewhat more lasting appeal.