There’s no reason progression in an MMORPG can’t be never-ending. It’s not madness to claim so, and I don’t think this is a far-off futuristic idea. In a world of also-ran themepark MMOs, the same hairy problem faces developers: the endgame in a content-based design results in a brick wall that few players ever care to climb over. I’ve already espoused the virtues of a systems-based design that puts more content controls in the hands of the community, but I am not about to shirk developer-made content. A healthy mix of both is needed for a game to have true longevity. Additionally, I think the retention method of carrot-on-a-stick mechanics has just about reached the point of “we’re not falling for that”. It’s an archaic method to hook someone to a product, and quite frankly… it’s absurd that no one can think of a better way to prolong a game’s lifespan for the average player.
I’ll warn you that this is all going to be an exercise in theory-crafting, armchair design, and wishful thinking, but it could be a fun romp so I hope you’ll tag along regardless.
One could argue that having levels at all is the real issue at hand, but levels and the RPG are part and parcel. That number which gives you some measure of growth in a persistent world isn’t going anywhere. Even games that have tried to eschew levels do so by creating some new form of levels altogether (The Secret World comes to mind). Even in games where there are no set levels, some sort of advancement occurs. Ultima Online has its skills, for example. But you’re still leveling them. You have a cap there, too.
For my own personal viewpoint, I will say that one of the most enticing reasons to play an MMORPG is to progress my character. I would not categorize myself as an achiever by nature, but I love the feeling of making progress in anything I do. That’s the real problem of most MMOs’ endgame. The progress comes to a halt, and in its place are a few mechanics that (usually) involve some form of grind or repetitive actions to simulate the lost feeling of “leveling up.”
This is a column, a personal opinion as it were, and I won’t claim to have the answer to every game’s issues. But real and honest character progression? That’s what butters my biscuit when I’m adventuring in these worlds. My character growing, getting stronger, making progress that isn’t directly tied to what he wears… that’s the one of the core reasons I get attached to each of them. I do not think that progression by items is a replacement for the same sense of accomplishment that is felt when you reach a new level or obtain a new skill.
There are a lot of reasons to become invested in a game, and I believe that most MMOs only offer as much as you’re willing to put into them. But, in so many games, when and if I make it to the cap? I get discouraged, dejected, and lose interest when I hit that wall. It’s one of the core issues I have in themepark MMOs. I don’t mind working for things. I wouldn’t mind if the level cap was hard to reach. That sort of summit I can get behind.
But instead, in this age of scaling content, why can’t we have a game where the levels never end?
More than one game has the sort of content that can scale with the player, so why can’t we have a game where there is no arbitrary level cap preventing further growth? Even in the case of PVP or open world warfare, you could “cap” the level of a player to keep things competitive for all (look at Guild Wars 2). But what’s preventing a game with clever design, from allowing players to continuously level their character until their heart’s content? If the zones, dungeons, and so forth have certain level ranges, use scaling to keep things appropriate for all players in them.
The question becomes “where do these endlessly leveled players go to exercise their strength?” I have an answer for that, too: zones crafted precisely for them to run free and be as big and bad as they want to be. A special PVP zone could be crafted for players who want to duke it out with their respective uber-characters. A special PVE zone could be crafted for players to continue to test their mettle too, perhaps it could even be a dungeon that scales endlessly based on the same sort of metric that Fractals of the Mists in Guild Wars 2 uses to determine the level of that dungeon’s content. They’d be playgrounds where you could truly toy around with your characters and the work you’ve put into them… but they’d also not spoil the more level-catered content that’s designed.
Maybe I’m way off base with my theoretical design, but I think it could work given enough time to take shape. You may ask: what’s the point? To that I’d say, “what’s the point of getting new tiers of gear?” If you’re the type of player who loves to raid, run dungeons, and strive for new sets of items, more power to you. But we both want the same thing: we don’t want the growth of our characters to end.
No one likes it when their journey in an MMO ends. My question to all developers out there is simple: with scaling content becoming more prevalent, why does it have to?