I’ve been “living” in online worlds for over a decade now. In that time, I’ve level-capped what has to be several dozen characters. In each title where I’ve hit the maximum level I inevitably find myself bored of end-game content and turn to making an alt character. The amount of time I spend at the top level doing whatever content is available to me varies depending on the resources available to me (time, other players, determination). But the same thing invariably happens at the level cap for me: I get bored and I make an alt. Or worse: I get bored and I unsubscribe. Some might say that the simple fix would be to have a game that isn’t restricted by levels and doesn’t unceremoniously “end” at all. To that I must contend that such a feat is easier said than done. I feel safe in assuming that the leveling aspect of MMOs will be around for some time. I also feel that this argument need not be addressed in regards to sandbox MMOs for which there is no real “end-game”.
Essentially, I’m going to use this week’s column as a way to whine and moan about the gear treadmill most games seem content in using and why a better way must be out there somewhere… even if I have little clue as to what that might be.
I still remember the feeling of hitting the wall in World of Wacraft back when the game was just Vanilla. Before the PvP system was even implemented, before there was much of anything to do outside of leveling really. It wasn’t the first game I’d played, but it was the first I remember getting to the cap in and wanting to keep going. I “Ding!”-ed in Guild Chat, got my congrats, and that was that. Almost immediately, I felt the confusion of “what do I do now?” In a game where content is structured by level, and you spend so much time climbing the ladder, it’s not unnatural to feel that when you hit the top rung there’s nothing left to achieve. I’ve hit the cap in near ten games now, and in each one I find myself ultimately left waiting until an expansion comes to really generate interest once more.
The seeming standard end-game of modern MMOs seems amount to a whole lot of gear-chasing. If at the top level you want your character to advance, you find yourself coveting the best items. To progress any further beyond the maximum level, you need to get better weapons, armor, trinkets and so forth. Now World of Wacraft is actually pretty good these days about allowing players of all types to obtain items that improve their character, and indeed most games who rely on this system are. But it’s still not much more than a treadmill to keep you playing and paying. It’s easily seen through. For my own habits, I find myself either beginning an alt or unsubscribing until the next batch of content hits when I grow tired of running said treadmill.
The initial enamoring spell the game had on me has waned. I still enjoy playing it, but the realization that it can “end” when it’s supposed to be never-ending is heartbreaking. I’ll gladly play pretty much any MMO that makes it to release. I’ll do so in search of fun. For those that I find redeeming qualities in, I’ll spend money and subscribe. I’ll keep playing for as long as they are fun (are you seeing where this is going yet?). But when that fun ends, I take my money elsewhere and come back when the things I find are fun make a return, usually with expansions or content updates.
I guess I’m just not one for the gear treadmill. I want the pretty shiny things as much as the next guy, but if it’s not a fun exercise to obtain them I really don’t care. Dungeons and PvP matches are fun… until you’ve done the same ones several hundred times to earn badges or get a random drop. I don’t believe that the gear treadmill should be the standard way of handling a game’s upper echelon. Is there room for it? Absolutely, but it had better not be all a game relies on. The reason I enjoy MMOs is not just because I like to play virtual dress-up (though I do), but mainly because I like to create a character and progress him or her from nothing to something. New gear shouldn’t be the only way that happens at the cap.
When I look at the level-based games which do end-game progression right for my sensibilities, the list is a short: Everquest (1 & 2), Age of Conan, and now DCUO. All of these have a gear treadmill, just like the others. But all of them have an advancement system that allows you to flesh your character out beyond new weapons and armor. The Everquests have AA points, Age of Conan has its own brand of Alternate Advancement too, and DCUO has a less robust but equally valuable Feats system. I’m sure there are games that I’m missing, but these are the ones I’ve hit the cap in and felt like I could actually make my character stronger without just doing dungeons over and over. It’s honestly a feature I wish more games would think to include. For me, I’m more inclined to stay with a game if there’s more than one way to progress my character’s power, and yet so few games do more than just the gear chasing we’ve grown accustomed to.
That said, there’s really only one thing that can keep me hooked on any theme-park based game: new content. City of Heroes has this nailed with its user-generated content (though admittedly much of said content is bunk). EQ2 remains to be one of the best games in the industry when it comes to quickly and handily adding new content. LotRO and DDO also come to mind if those are your types of games (though the former took a bit of a break when converting to Freemium). DCUO is promising sizable monthly content updates (which will hopefully come with their own feats for skill advancement). I worry though that the simple fact that World of Wacraft continues to get by with a slow content release schedule and robust gear system will keep the other games’ ideas from spreading within the industry.
After all, why do more when you can do less and keep 13 million? Well, that is just one game. And maybe the little guys should try to do more to take a slice of that success, no?