So SWTOR’s first month is out the door and, predictably, the doom and gloom merchants have come out of the woodwork as server populations have dropped across the board. They have a point, of course: in the last few years, many games have launched with a bang only to
fizzle go free to play after a few months, and while a drop in numbers is to be expected after the free month runs out, there’s a difference between an expected drop and full-on freefall.
I have my own theories about this, and one of them has to do with general game pacing and what I like to call content locusts. One of the major differences between games in the early MMO generation (EQ, UO, AC, etc.) and those we have today boils down to something fairly simple but with far-reaching effects: leveling speed.
Way back when – you know, in the last millennium – reaching max level was the end of a long, arduous and sometimes grueling journey (though personally I rarely found it excessive), and it certainly wasn’t the thing most players thought about when their character first logged into the world. Sure, even then max level was the ultimate goal – but it was a dim, distant and hazy goal, not something you spoke of as though you’d be there tomorrow, as though everything in between being born and hitting the cap was utterly irrelevant. Because there wasn’t all that much to do when you got there; but that was okay, since getting there (at least by non-exploity means) was going to take a while.
Back then, the journey mattered – hell, the journey was the game. The dungeons you did at 10, 20 or 40 and the gear you were rewarded with after many tribulations and not a few corpse runs were major events, challenges in their own right, and not mere stepping-stones on an ever-shorter road to the fabled end-game. I actually remember getting my Atlan weapon and the Green Mire armor in AC – you don’t have to know the game, you just need to know they were major achievements and, since I’m writing about them now, they created some long-lasting and very fond memories.
Back then, the Yellow Brick Road wasn’t an express train to the Emerald City – and, to torture that metaphor a little more, we all know what happened when Dorothy and her group actually got there and looked behind the curtain. Right.
When it launched, what distinguished WoW from its predecessors was its structure (the famous Theme Park design) and its orderly progression of quests rather than its leveling speed, because even WoW wasn’t all that fast in terms of leveling in the early days. It was faster than its predecessors, but it wasn’t blink-and-you-miss-it fast the way games are now. Here’s something I’ve noticed: you know the leveling speed in a game is too rapid when you leave a zone after doing only a few quests, or when wanting to actually finish the quest lines for a zone means you’ll be way over level for the next.
This is what’s happening to me in SWTOR, and it’s a real shame because that game has some of the best story arcs and zone questlines I’ve seen in a long time. The standard “Kill 10 rats” quests have mostly been relegated to the status of bonus quests: you can do them if you like, and often they’ll do themselves while you’re pursuing the main quest objective, but you lose nothing if you ignore them. I tend to do them or not depending on my mood and depending on whether I want the rewards they offer (usually commendations that can be spent on gear or improvements) – the thing is, I’m leveling so fast even at my rather meandering and alt-distracted pace that most of the time there’s no point in doing them: by the time I have enough commendations to get the gear, I’ve out-leveled it anyway.
Faster leveling trivializes the content devs work so hard to bring us and leads to a bunch of disappointed max level folk who don’t have enough to do and who feel as though they got bait-and-switched. If it really is all about the end-game, why not just build an end-game game? Why not just do away with all those pesky levels, start people at max, and go from there? (Incidentally, that’s exactly what you can do in Guild Wars if you’re only interested in PvP, so it’s not exactly unheard-of.)
Why not? Because we enjoy leveling and because the unfolding story, the slow but steady gain in powers and the acquisition of fun new stuff is what made MMOs such addictive fun in the first place. So why are games now throwing the baby out with the bathwater, as one designer once so famously said?
Given that we do enjoy theme park games (even me, and I’m a sandbox player at heart) and given that they’re not about to die out as a design paradigm anytime soon, would it be too much to ask for a little happy medium? Would games today really fail if it took people, say, 6 months to reach max level instead of 6 days as it has in SWTOR? 10 years ago we had glacially slow leveling and very little in terms of directed questing and storylines so yes, the grind did become a little tedious at times. But now that we have things like voice-acting, object interaction and more complex storylines and quests, we move past them so damn fast we never get to actually enjoy them.
I like to blame the content locusts for this, at least to a large extent – that small percentage of players whose goal isn’t to experience content but to consume it as fast as possible as they race inexorably through a game. The people who, driven to hit max level as rapidly as they can, then sit there and whine loudly about how they have nothing to do and how they’re still hungry. There’s no satisfying that kind of player.
Then I blame the devs for actually listening to those people, for whatever reason, and for assuming the content locusts are representative of gamers as a whole. And finally, I blame WoW and other design teams for being so proud of their end-game content (justifiably or not, that’s not the point) that they pushed us into experiencing it as fast as possible – to the ultimate detriment of their own product and their own subscriber base. WoW’s subs numbers over the last couple of years and the increasing discontent of a player base turned into locusts by the nature of the game they play seems to bear me out on this one. At some point, mindless (and repetitive) consumption gets boring for even the most dedicated fan.
There’s really only a few ways to go from here for theme park games. We can make MMOs that are nothing but end-game, though frankly I see that as a niche option and I’m not sure it would be something I’d be interested in, but there might be players who would be. We can make games that have a slower leveling speed than we have now, where the devs will have to trust that they do have enough content (and SWTOR really does), ignore the content locusts, and see what happens. Or companies can keep going as they are and accept that they’ll be lucky to keep the majority of subscribers interested for two or three months tops. I guess as long as that last option is enough to pay the bills things won’t change, but given launches in the past couple of years, I’m not sure it even does that anymore. Time will tell.
In the meantime, I don’t know if I’ll still be in SWTOR in three months time, and not just because TSW and GW2 are on the horizon. I have a really high tolerance for replaying content, but I have no interest in building a stable of max-level characters who all leveled at the speed of light and whose main play options are dailies, dungeon-grinds and PvP. Replayability is all very well, but what happened to playability?
Devs, read my lips: leveling is FUN. Slow the damn train down a bit and let us enjoy the scenery.