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The Free Zone: Conventional Thinking

Columns By Richard Aihoshi on March 22, 2010

Conventional Thinking

The MMOG space has many things people generally seem to take for granted. We're accustomed to them being the way they are, and we accept that as the natural way of the universe. We seldom if ever ask how or why they came to be, or whether it would be possible to find better alternatives. I do this myself much of the time, but every once in a while, I do wonder about various questions. As it happens, the past week or so was one of those periods. The two main topics both had to do with leveling.

Character levels

Why does it seem that so many games developed in this hemisphere launch with their level caps set at 50? Is it some kind of sacred number among designers? Unlike a lot of gamers and writers, I've never had the urge to be one, and am not privy to the special handshake, the workings of the decoder ring or any other any secrets of the trade. So, maybe the reason is revealed only to those who gain entry into their closed circle and swear a blood oath never to divulge it to mere players.


But why 50? Is it somehow better than 40 or 60? How about 25? Or 100? Or 200? or 71 for that matter? If the idea is that reaching the level cap should require putting in a certain amount of playing time, then how much does it really matter whether I'm level 50 or 200 at the end of those hours? Would that pose major challenges or present insurmountable obstacles?

I'm not suggesting it would be good to reach 4,000 or 22,974 instead. However, I can see some merit to having a number that's larger than 50 but still within reason in order to increase the frequency of occasions when players level up and can be rewarded. Wouldn't more reinforcements tend to increase the fun quotient?

Leveling curves

In a related vein to this thought, what's the benefit to having each level take more time to reach than the previous one did? I'm talking about for me as a player. Frankly, I don't see how this type of advancement curve can possibly be intended to enhance my enjoyment.

Consider when your newbie character receives a quest. Let's say it's to collect say six pelts from a particular type of creature. You might have to kill as few as six to get the desired drops. It may be more, but it probably won't be a lot more. The individual battles are usually over in a matter of a few seconds apiece. In addition, recovery and transit times tend to be brief. So how long does it take to complete the assignment? Five minutes? Perhaps a bit more? Then on to the next task. Cool.

Now contrast this to a similar quest for an advanced or even a mid-level character. Do you honestly expect to complete it in the same amount of time? Uh, no. Close? Maybe, but that's a best-case scenario. Realistically, the likelihood is that you'll have to complete more tasks in order to level up, and also that each one will take longer. Can you say grinding?

Were I to adopt a somewhat cynical point of view, I could even say that creating a curve is a matter of guessing how much pain players will put up with. In general, they're not as steep as they were back in the day, which is to say around 10 to 12 years ago. But less grinding is still grinding. I'd rather have one wisdom tooth extracted than four, but neither qualifies as fun.

Where am I headed with this? If you're thinking I'm going to propose some kind of answer, that's not it. I'm not a game designer, never have been and never even wanted to be. What I'm hoping for is to see more in the way of possible solutions from the talented, creative people who are members of the profession. My guess is that they get caught in the trap I noted at the beginning of this column. By default, they think conventionally, and thus put little or no time into brainstorming potential alternatives.

Or maybe they think it's better to be "safe" by doing things the same way as everyone else. Unfortunately, this mode of thinking hinders innovation. It also slows the rate at which the MMOG category adapts to become more appealing to a broader audience.

And no, this isn't specific to F2P. Call me unconventional this week for thinking outside that particular box.

The Free Zone The Free Zone Editorials
Richard Aihoshi has been writing about MMOGs since the mid-1990s, always with a global perspective. As a result, he has observed the emergence and growth of the free to play business model from its early days in both hemispheres.

He is the former Editor of RPG Vault and his column, focusing on free to play MMOs, appears on every Monday.
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