Garrett Fuller: The Price of Power
The toughest balance for developers to strike: power. How do they make sure players feel involved and strong from the get-go, without giving them too much, too soon?
When you play a game, what appeals to your inner gamer? What drives you through the game world to greater depths of development? This week, I focus on how games make people feel powerful. There are several methods game companies use to give a player the feeling of power, some work some do not, but regardless these methods keep you playing or at least, make you look good.
A fine example is the Death Knight class in Blizzard’s World of Warcraft. The player starts at level 55. No newbie quests for Death Knights, it saves those players hours. Next, your starting gear looks cool, sure the character display screen with the wind and snow and glowing eyes look great, but you truly get a different feel from every other race’s display screen in WoW. You’re a Death Knight… everyone should back up. In these first ten seconds after a player creates a Death Knight, the visuals and starting level already create a sense strength, evil, and domination. Blizzard took extra time to create this mood with their opening screen.
Another way MMOs do this is with the initial game story. There are two good examples here of how a game can make you feel important and powerful. The opening 20 levels of Age of Conan is the best example out there. Say what you want about the game as a whole, those first twenty levels are a marvel the first time you experience them. Secret missions, sorcerers, priests, and even prostitutes immerse the player in Conan’s world. Yet, you are the one crushing your way through Hyboria. The story line gives a player twenty levels of solo content and immerses them into their character. It makes them feel stronger, part of the story, like they are making a difference.
The Death Knight also provides a good example of an introductory storyline. From levels 55 to about 60, you are the story. Each Death Knight works for the Lich King to terrorize the Scarlet Crusade. NPCs scream and huddle away as they approach; they ride a dragon and burn buildings, it is intense right from the start. Warcraft has come a long way from killing ten boars at level one.
The first 10 levels in an MMO are hugely important and every company needs to focus on them to hook new players in. Lord of the Rings Online was successfully added major characters from the books right into the introduction. I don’t think my dwarf was even level three and Gandalf had already put me to work. With story as a tool, the game made me feel like I mattered.
Gear is the best tool in the developer chest to make people feel special. Back in the paper and pencil RPG days, we were always looking for that first chest of loot to see what magic items were waiting for us. In online style games, ever since Diablo, gear has become the driving force, especially in MMOs. And there, no one does gear better than Blizzard. They learned their lessons from Diablo.
In Warcraft by level 10, each player has a character that is fully equipped with green gear. They can cast spells that swirl around the character with magical effect. Even as a Warrior, screams of rage thunder the ground and air around them. Blizzard has an entire team devoted to spell effects and they go to great lengths to ensure every player believes they are mighty. Where other games have trouble is that they sometimes go too far with realism in these circumstances. Is this one of the core reasons why Warcraft remains on top of the MMO pyramid? But it is a big difference between Blizzard titles and other games.
Don’t get me wrong Blizzard has plenty of items in Warcraft that are sold to a vendor before they are even tried on. All game developers look at the first 10 levels of an MMO closely, do they look at it from the player’s point of view in terms of power? The danger for designers is that if they give players too much, too soon, then by level 50, they’ll be glowing beacons of radiant power. Another fear is that if the first few levels are that epic, it’s a pace they cannot keep. More than a few games have made that mistake.
There is a price of the power they give players. Developers want them hooked into the game, but they also want them to play through to the end. If developers tell you it is all about the players, then this is a balance they must strike.