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Column #4: Character Advancement

Nathan Knaack Posted:
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Nathan explores character advancement

Everyone would probably agree that one of the main attractions to the MMORPG genre is the idea of advancing a character through varying degrees of rank, skill, equipment, and accomplishments. People enjoy the fact that most of the tasks they undertake, successful or not, will add at least a minor enhancement to their character’s abilities, something lasting that they’ll be able to use for the next challenge and/or the next time they log in. On the flip side, the most complained about aspect of MMORPGs is the “grind,” or the lengthy, tedious, often repetitive processes most games put their players through in order to achieve those goals. So then the topic of this week’s Outside the Box discussion is: How can an MMORPG allow players to advance in various areas, yet somehow not make them feel like they’re grinding?

In a previous article, I outlined the four primary methods of advancement used in today’s MMORPGs: Class/level, which EverQuest first adopted from Dungeons and Dragons and has been duplicated by numerous titles since then, skill-based, which made its major debut in Ultima Online and continues in games like Eve Online, and player-based, where the abilities of the character are only as strong as the intellect and reflexes of the player at the keyboard, most FPS games falling into this category, and non-advancement, where characters don’t statistically progress in classical RPG systems, such as with attributes and skills. Let’s break down the pros and cons of each.

Class/level advancement: In this system, players choose a class and must usually remain that class for their entire career. While this makes the game easy for new players to learn, it tends to hinder long-time players because of its restrictions. Inevitably, anyone playing a game for over a year is going to have been just about everywhere and seen just about everything, but when they attempt certain tasks, they hit the brick wall of wizards not being allowed to wield swords and warriors not allowed to learn even the most basic of incantations. Another positive (or negative, depending on your playing style) is that classes provide easy roles for players in groups to fill. Everyone knows what a priest, rogue, warrior, and wizard (the classic D&D “basic four”) are supposed to be doing in combat, so there is significantly less confusion and effective groups can be formed on the fly without a lot of explanation of who can and who should fill each role.

Another throwback to the old days of Dungeons and Dragons is the concept of the character level. What was originally designed as a handy tool to reduce the time-consuming mathematics involved in tabletop gaming and provide a readily available blueprint for what a character had the potential to accomplish has migrated into the MMORPG world. Most MMORPG gamers are not and have never been tabletop gamers, so their first experience with RPGs was probably Ultima Online, EverQuest, or World of Warcraft. As such, they accept the level paradigm because, as far as they’re concerned, that’s the way it is and has always been. There are positives to a level-based system, but they’re mostly on the design side of the curtain, not the player side. Designers in a level-based system can easily scale monsters, areas, or quests to fit certain levels, assuming the classes are balanced with each other. Unfortunately, levels are also mostly responsible for the grind in MMORPGs, so it would seem as though the drawbacks far outweigh the benefits. All you have to do is browse the public forums on any game’s website or MMO community to see post after post of people lamenting the grind. As a side note, and as it’s been discussed in previous Outside the Box threads, character levels are also the main reason why PvP is so broken in most current MMORPGs.

Even as Dungeons and Dragons was popularizing the class/level system, other pencil and paper games eventually came along to challenge that structure with the attribute/skill method. Not the first, but probably the most famous, is White Wolf’s Storyteller system, the mechanics behind such games as Vampire: The Masquerade. By improving individual skills, characters could become more powerful without the completely arbitrary advancement imposed by a level system. In D&D (and most MMORPGs), if you want to get better at crafting helmets, you usually have to kill things. You kill things for experience points, experience points give you levels, levels give you different points to distribute, and if you put those points in crafting, you get better at it. This was a necessary evil, even in the Storyteller system (where experience points go directly to whatever skill you want), simply because mathematically improving each skill every time you use it would involve so many calculations that the game would cease to be fast and fun. If only the MMORPG world had access to some technological device that could perform hundreds of calculations a second… While some games have implemented a “use to improve” system, it’s usually still on the back-burner to a much more important class/level grind. Some might claim that a skill system is just a different kind of grind, and to that I would counter that, even though it requires work to improve skills, you’re free to choose where to focus your improvement instead of following the same static path everyone else did. As such, you can more easily reach a degree of competitiveness due to specialization. Is it a grind? Technically yes, but it usually doesn’t feel like as much of a grind as a typical class/level system.

Another option, though one that most hardcore RPG players loathe, is the player skill based game. Most gamers today think that FPS and RPG are opposite ends of the gaming spectrum, but that couldn’t be farther from the truth. FPS is a camera angle; RPG is a genre. Can they be combined? Some would say that Neocron 2, Face of Mankind, Planetside, and World War 2 Online have achieved just that. RPG style character advancement and FPS style controls. Then again, others would contend that in Planetside and WW2O, you only advance in rank, not attributes or skills (only equipment), so it isn’t technically a classic RPG system. Some people think that the heart of “role-playing” is incarnating as a character that might have skills far above (or below) what they have in real life. A player without the best hand-eye coordination might enjoy playing a sniper. That’s next to impossible in a shooter, but happens all the time in RPGs, where math is mightier than dexterity.

Non-advancement games have a tremendous following, with titles like There and Second Life leading the pack. Though often referred to as “graphical chat rooms,” these games provide some of the industry’s only truly player-created environments. Without any real character advancement, it’s easy to see why the RPG crowd opts for games in which their progress has significant impact on their ability to tackle future challenges. After all, character advancement is the carrot that keeps subscriptions coming into games that haven’t even bothered to add any new content in years.

Well, that’s the situation at hand, so now I’d like to get into ways that MMORPGs can keep the core function of character advancement while significantly reducing the grind involved. Something that would work wonders for forging a lasting online community and welcoming new players into the game would be better “out of the gate” performance from new characters. By this I mean not starting newbies out as 1st level peons and slowly grinding them up to be level 100 demigods. Visually, that’s a flat 45 degree angle line on the power over age graph.

An “out of the gate” power curve still sets up a world in which hard work pays off; a veteran is still much more powerful than a newbie, just three or four times as much, not hundreds. Will veterans still win most duels simply based on how powerful their character is? Yes. Will they be able to wade across the battlefield and kill a dozen newbies with every swing? No. We still have a world where veterans are on top, but newbies are effective right from day one.

In addition to flattening the curve between newbies and veterans, setting up games with non-linear and non-combat goals would spread out the available areas of expertise so that new players could fill in unsaturated areas. In most MMORPGs, combat is the focus, if not the only activity possible. Even in games that include crafting, player-owned territory, and seemingly non-combat roles, the end result of their efforts is almost always augmenting, sustaining, or recovering from combat. Before its latest disaster, Star Wars Galaxies was renowned for its diversity of professions, where players could be anything from a Jedi to an exotic dancer, but most of those professions (outside of the purely aesthetic ones, such as altering clothing styles) inevitably led back to combat in some way. They boosted abilities before battle, enhanced them during, or restored them after. In World of Warcraft, all professions lead right back to creating something to be used before, during, or after combat. That’s not to say that WoW, and other similar games, were poorly-designed, rather that by consciously putting 90-100% of their emphasis on hack-n-slash combat, they’ve painted themselves into corners because now they’re several years old in many cases and a sizeable portion of the player base is itching for something else to do. Whatever happened to player-run economics (where there are no NPCs involved at all), politics, recreation, and cooperative, constructive goals? If there was more to do than just fight, new players would be able to acclimate easier, filling in where the community needed them instead of having to start out at the bottom of the game’s single focus and working their way up with few other gameplay options.

I’m once again straying way over the allotted word count MMORPG.com has graciously provided to me, so I’ll wrap this up with my challenge to the community. Can we come up with a character creation/advancement system that gives new players several choices of where to focus their efforts, rewards them for intelligent and diligent playing, starts them with some “out of the gate” aptitudes to be immediately competitive, and sets up a world in which newbies aren’t just insects to be slaughtered or exploited, but valuable new commodities that veterans seek to recruit, protect, and improve? We’ve seen what the MMORPG industry has to offer, now let’s start thinking outside the box.

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Nathan Knaack