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Crushing the Dream of No Levels

Posted by Stradden_bak Friday July 31 2009 at 8:07AM
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Last week, I presented the first of a number of cool features that many people want to see in a game, but that just aren’t likely to see the light of day in a new, AAA MMO any time soon. In my last blog entry, it was live content. This week, it’s all about a levelless game.

Now, before you angrily hit the reply button and tell me just how many games have done this in the past, or even what games are doing it now, at least take the time to skip on down to the last paragraph and read what I say there.

I read a lot about people looking for an MMO that doesn’t have levels, and I can understand why. Levels can be restrictive. They force players into small niches of other players of the same level, force players who bring new friends into a game to roll an alt in order to play with them, encourage linear game design where a leads to b leads to c ending with all of the “maxed out” players clustered at the “endgame.” Then there’s what might be the biggest complaint about levels, the fact that they create the feeling of “grind” for players and the feeling that anything below the level cap is simple hamster on a wheel to get to the “real game” at the end.

The problem is though that using levels is an easy and efficient tool that developers use to craft their games. Games, of course, need to be fun. They, and MMOs in particular, need to stimulate that part of our brains that makes us want to continue playing, and in the end paying for, the game. The easiest way to do that is to give us the feeling of achievement and a reward to go along with it. That’s what motivates us and keeps us doing pretty much anything. Why, for example, do you go to the office every day? Unless you’re very lucky it’s probably to get that paycheck every two weeks and maybe get a promotion (leading to higher reward).

Making the reward intermittent, as is done with levels, is even more effective. It’s the same principle that keeps gamblers gambling, looking for the payout. It doesn’t come every time, but it’s what they’re chasing. It’s the same principle used to train dogs. They do what we say, they get a treat, or attention or some other positive reward. We might not want to think about it that way, but that’s how it works. Don’t believe me? How many times have you, like I have, kept playing that hour or two extra just to “get to the next level?” That’s how they get ya.

Then, there’s the fact that levels make the overall game easier to balance, not just for PvP, but also in terms of the difficulty of monsters, quests or any other content within a given zone. Knowing that the player will have X amount of power when they enter Y area of the game means that you can tailor your content to them specifically so that they aren’t wading breezily through content or getting firmly and impossibly trounced at every turn. Add to that the fact that levels make it very easy for players to see and recognize their character growing in power, and the fact that it’s been successful in the past, and you have a system that’s difficult to argue against to the people making the decisions, and signing the checks.

Now, the current popular belief is that a skill based system is the answer to the woes of the level grind. The only problem with that is that a skill based system, where a character gets better at swinging his sword or casting a spell by doing so, is that it doesn’t hit the above mentioned pros. It is difficult to balance content (not to mention PvP), players don’t experience the “ding” reward, character power growth is gradual thus denying players the goal (and reward) of instantly achieving more power. This system does have appeal. It’s far more realistic in terms of a virtual world and does appeal to a certain demographic who look for more subtle rewards for their time and energy. It just doesn’t seem as though, in the mass market, that kind of player is in the majority.

I’m not saying that levels are the only way to go. I’m also not saying that skill based o other type advancement and reward systems can’t be successful. They can, and have. What I am saying is that it is a much more difficult and far riskier path to take, making them a less likely path for developers to choose, especially with an expensive, AAA title.