Levels are Great, Skills are Swell
I've been thinking a lot recently about the nature of progression. Not gear progression, mind you, but rather the way we represent character growth in an MMORPG. The idea of using levels to determine character progression is the standard upon which most MMORPGs are built, but there's also something to be said about more freeform modes of determining character growth, such as using a skill-based system.
Today's Devil's Advocate will try not to side with either levels for freeform progression, but rather, it will attempt to discuss the inherent positives and negatives behind having one or the other, and then looks at what could happen when you implement some of the good things of both aspects into a sufficiently advanced-enough MMORPG.
The Nature of Levels
As a staple of the MMORPG world, the adventuring level is something that is easy to use and relatively less hassle-filled to implement at first glance. Essentially, levels are made up of an extremely large numerical cap on experience points. This large number is then divided into differing amounts, with the sum of all the experience points of every level in a game equal to the total numerical experience cap.
The nice thing about a progression system based on levels is that progression is clearly defined, and there is a certain sense of accomplishment in reaching new levels of potency. Assuming two characters of the same class are wearing the same gear with the same stats and are using the same attack against each other at the same time, the level 20 character will clearly overpower the level 10 character. In the current cycle of gaming, where the level numbers of other combatants are visible, you automatically know what (or more specifically who) to avoid if you're trying to survive.
On the other hand, while the basic premise of levels allows a certain ease in determining your effectiveness against an opponent, there is a drawback when you look at the complex nature of games. The use of levels in a game tends to mess with the scalability of the game you're playing. This can sometimes force designers to alter the speed or efficiency of leveling or the nature of certain game mechanics. Moreover, it can also make for weird fights.
For instance, in our world, rats are rats. In MMORPGs (like LOTRO), rats and other seemingly innocuous beasts become repeated hazards that always seem to be as strong as you when you move into a different zone. As such, a low-leveled player entering a high level zone will be killed by a high-leveled rat that can look exactly like a level one rat.
The Nature of Freeform Progression
Freeform progression, as an alternative to the adventuring level, tends to focus on skill points and on time invested in using a skill. In freeform progression, the usual premise (which I'll adapt from EVE Online and some Elder Scrolls games) is that you have a large pool of skills to choose from, and investing time or effort into increasing the number of skillpoints in a skill affects your character's overall capabilities in some aspects of a game at the cost of not being able to enhance other things due to one's inability to practice all skills at once.
What's great about freeform progression as described above is the feasibility of a character is mostly defined by specialization in skills that complement each other. Freefom progression allows people with less time to spend playing to be as competitive as people with more time or effort spent in increasing skills by being picky about what they master. This also means that, between two people with the same gear and the same skills, whoever is better at fighting in-game will be more capable of attaining victory. Lastly, you can also add new skills that do new things into a game, thus making scalability less of an issue.
To contrast that, however, there is a mechanism in human psychology that may make certain people want to take an easy way out when it comes to spending time honing their skills because time, as always, is important. This is why Darkfall Online had “blood walls,” where players lined up to get beaten to near-death to enhance armor skills and other people beat them to enhance their fighting skills.
One of the other major issues with freeform progression is a sort of debilitating freedom, where the complexity of freeform progression is a scary path to enjoying a game, especially if people enter a world without knowing what to expect or how to do much of anything. Simply put, freeform progression can be scary because you don't know if you're optimizing your time, which is something that we tend to do when we engage in various activities.
Best of Both Worlds?
Is it possible, then, to get the best aspects of levels and freeform progression in a game? I think so. Perhaps not immediately, but we're getting there.
The trick is to combine the ability of level-based games to have clearly definable linear goals that appeal to people who just want to feel more powerful, while encouraging people to experiment to find good skill combinations that will allow them to be as feasible in battle against enemies as more dedicated players who want to work at min-maxing or optimization.
For instance, Glitch uses an adaptation of the skill-based systems, where skills and items are made by spending time to have the skills honed or the item made. The level mechanic is therefore crreated by virtue of time being your experience cap to a new level, with combinations of skills in varying levels unlocking more complex skills later on.
Despite the seeming revulsion back in the original announcement of The Elder Scrolls Online, TESO takes another approach that can potentially give the best of both worlds, as outlined in our character progression preview. Basically, it starts of much like a level-based MMO where class levels determine your capabilities and the unlocking of certain powers, but investing stat points to Health, Magic, or Stamina allow you to access more abilities depending on how you allocate your statistics. One can then further level up those new abilities and learned skills to alter their characteristics and potency. Thus, one can potentially have a plate-wearing priest or a spell-slinging swordsman, and both are as viable as the dedicated tank who will not die.
Again, the future of progression in MMOs, while not separate from the entire game itself, will color the way people view MMORPGs. We don't necessarily have to stick to purely level-based or purely-freeform type progression, in much the same way that some think sandboxes and themeparks are so antithetical to one another. It's also not a question of whether things will evolve into a “best of both worlds” scenario, but rather when it will happen.
Hopefully, as technologically creates new ways of adapting game mechanics into something more organic, we will eventually find ourselves with an MMORPG that embraces the idea that levels are great and skills are swell and takes them both to create something better than the sum of its parts.