So we’ve talked about sandboxes and theme parks, housing and death penalties, cabbages and kings. Now I want to explore something that’s come up in all of those discussions, at least the ones relating to MMOs and not to Alice, and it’s probably one of the most important aspects of most current MMOs. Today, we’re going to talk about game pacing, primarily but not exclusively with respect to leveling.
On the one hand you have those players who believe nothing interesting starts in a game until you hit the level cap, and who are thus quite happy to get to said cap as quickly as possible. On the other, you have the players who believe that games were more enjoyable when we weren’t rushing everywhere and questing like robots, and when getting a level actually meant something other than yet another person yelling “Ding! Level 3!” in guild chat. And in the middle you have the vast majority of players, who log in to have a good time and don’t really ask themselves whether they’re leveling too fast or too slow, or whether travel times are too short, too long, or just right for the perfect game experience.
But just because one doesn’t stop to think about the pace of a game doesn’t mean one isn’t affected by it. I rarely think about atmospheric pressure (okay, more than I used to now that I live at 7000 feet), but it still affects me and everything around me. I do think a lot about game pacing, not because I rail against it in the games I play but because I like to be aware of my gaming experience. Not everyone does, I’ll grant you, but I find it fascinating. There’s a growing amount of science and a huge amount of art (or craft, if you prefer) in designing an MMO; I like to look at what makes them tick and I like to look at what keeps them ticking for 3, 5 or even 10+ years.
One thing I’ve noticed is that every single MMO game I’ve played has flattened the experience curve over time; in other words, as the game gets older, the devs make it easier to level. I’m not counting back-to-basics experiments like the recent EQ Progression Server launches – note that those are entirely new servers, essentially entirely new (or in this case, old) rulesets rather than changes to existing servers. But all the older games I’ve played like AC, SWG, WoW, and a number of others have all made it easier (read: faster) to level as the game aged. And a number of the newer games that have launched in the last few years have had pretty rapid leveling curves, at least up to a point, the most recent example thereof being RIFT.
To my old-timer eyes, RIFT has a ridiculously rapid leveling pace. Some players had hit max level within a few days of release, and although those players are generally not to be considered “average” players by any stretch of the imagination, the very fact that it’s been done will tend to change the overall tenor of a game as soon as the milestone is achieved. Even if it takes most everyone else weeks or months to get there, everyone knows someone has already done it – and so, that with enough time and Mountain Dew on one’s hands, that anyone could do it. Or, technically, with a veritable mountain of Mountain Dew and no kids to feed, bills to pay or laundry to fold, that everyone could have done it.
At which point I need to head off the “Just play the game for yourself!” arguments. I do play the game for myself. But what I don’t do is play the game in a hermetic bubble, and I actively try to remain aware of meta-game happenings and considerations. I’m not an either/or person and I’m not an either/or player; just because I can enjoy what I’m doing at my own pace doesn’t mean I am or have to be entirely oblivious to what’s going on in the wider game community. It’s facile to argue otherwise. It’s equally facile to believe that the hard-coded leveling pace of a game (x kills for y level at an average of z kills per hour, quest hubs spaced just so from each other and quest objectives placed a precise distance from the quest givers) doesn’t influence one’s game experience. Sure, we can step off the design rails, but they’re still there and they still influence us.
Then there’s the other extreme: another game that launched within the last year, FFXIV, actually launched with restrictions on how much experience one could gain in a certain amount of time. Unsurprisingly, that was an insanely controversial decision. I’ve never yet tried FFXIV, though I’ve heard some interesting and very polarized things about it, but my gut reaction at the time was “Who the hell are you to tell me when and how fast I can get xp?!” Which is silly on several levels: first, because I occasionally like to level slowly or not at all, going off for days into the wilderness to explore, harvest, or just see how many times I can get killed in the space of a couple of hours. Why, then, should a leveling restriction bother me?
And second, because the pace of my leveling is dictated by the design of every game I play in any case. It’s hard-coded, more or less, even though there’s usually quite a bit of wiggle-room; basically, with the same amount of playtime and similar activities, two different players will nonetheless tend to level at approximately the same pace. It doesn’t bother me when it’s inherent to the design, but somehow it does bother me when developers tell me that after a certain amount of playtime, my earned xp is going to get drastically lower. It’s no more artificial than any other design pace, and yet it feels artificial; and worse, it feels imposed. We gamers, we don’t like to have things overtly imposed on us, though we deal quite happily with inherent game restrictions (for the most part, anyway).
Ultimately, I think it’s all about wiggle-room. Some games claim to offer a lot of that, but the general tenor of the game is to level and to level fast – like WoW, for instance. A few other games offer a somewhat more genuine wiggle-room: in EQ2, for instance, you can turn your xp off entirely, or funnel it wholly or partly into something else – which is still technically leveling, but at least it’s a choice. Even so, there’s still a trend toward making the pace in games quicker, be it leveling or traveling, and I think we players are largely to blame for that. We asked for it, and we got it.
Maybe sometimes we should be careful what we ask for. I’m like everyone else: I don’t have nearly as much time to play as I once did, and I really don’t want to spend 30 minutes hoofing it across the map just so I can get together with my friends, so that we can hoof it another 30 minutes across the map to the dungeon we want to explore – because by the time I’ve done that, my hour is over and I’ve got to get back to real life. That’s worse than no fun, that’s actively frustrating.
And yet, if a game were to launch that promised me in all its hyped-up glory that the pace of the game was actively designed to be a little slower, without penalizing my play experience (and no, that’s really not beyond the means of developers and designers these days) – I would leap at said game like a duck on a June-bug. Like every other MMO player out there I have strong opinions, and I often want entirely contradictory things – and I want them yesterday, kthx. Like Goldilocks, I want a play experience that isn’t too fast or two slow, but just right, and that varies according to what I want to do on any given day.
That’s not actually too much to ask. If enough of us start asking for it, we’ll start seeing it in games. Not everything has to be a high-speed thrill-ride, but we also don’t have to slow things down so much people feel like they’re wading in treacle. Options in all things. If I have one MMO motto (other than “Die well and leave a stylish corpse”) it would be, “You can’t have too many options in a game.” Giving us the tools to level somewhat at our own pace while still feeling like we’re achieving something fun and meaningful – that would possibly make me feel like I did when I first started playing MMOs, when everything was shiny and new and the pace was just right, partly because I knew no better.
You can’t go back in time, but I do think it’s possible to emulate the experience. That, for me, would be well worth the subscription price.