Friday, June 06, 2014

Freedom Someday


Playing a new game from scratch is proving very useful, quite apart from the actual entertainment value derived. I'm still stuck at the arrow in Wildstar, and I'm making absolutely no effort to push forwards for the next zone, level 50 or indeed anything else. What my Granok Engineer has made me realise, in the time I have been playing, is that exploration for me is FAR more important as a tool for learning how to play than pushing myself headlong through levels. We have become so obsessed with End Game that it has become the be all and end all of many MMO player's existences, because that means Raiding and only through the playing of games in groups will we finally become at one with the Virtual Universe. Except, really, it doesn't have to be like that. Blizzard, believe it or not, have proven that levelling is now pretty much unnecessary to entice people to play. In fact, some would argue that not levelling netted them a million presales of Warlords. Of course, what this does now mean is that to ensure there's money to make the NEXT expansion, the Devs will need to provide something to keep players occupied from 90 to 100 so they can all end up at End Game again.

When you think about it: is there any point to having a levelling model at all in MMO's if all most people want to do is skip to the end?

Time to rethink the principle

Levelling serves as the ultimate gating mechanic. You can't just walk into a game and be at max level because that negates all the hard work and effort you need to grasp the mechanics of the character you've created to begin with, and experience shows that this remains by far and away the best way to 'learn to play.' That is why Blizzard will be introducing a levelling 'experience' for players who arrive at 90 in Warlords with a freshly boosted toon for the first time and haven't previously tackled the interface. You won't be able to leave the 'phased' starting experience of the Iron Horde until you've proven you're up to the task of playing your class and not looking like a chump. This conveniently skips the other 89 levels of content that have been  forgotten in all of this, where you didn't just learn about your combat abilities, there was all of the lore and exploration too. I realise my love of mapping the land puts me in a minority, but I don't care, because to me the levelling numbers are largely a means for other people to understand why you're playing the game. It's just like your iLevel or the number of alts you have. Max Level equals Endgame. Giving people a number to aim for at a cost therefore makes perfect sense, even if some of us may still be disapproving of Blizzard's choice to allow people to 'buy' that number and skip a large portion of game 'history.'

However, there is no faulting that many just don't care about the back story or the immersive nature of the environment or secret places or jumping puzzles. They just crave max level. Maybe it is time designers grasped this and stopped worrying about keeping people grounded, or forcing them into situations where they think they should be entertained to take in a storyline, when all they want is to biff things and win prizes. After all, for some, this is what MMO Gaming is all about. Perhaps it is time to stop catering to the notion that the only way players can effectively be forced to digest content at a rate that designers can make it is by making it take X minutes to gain a level. Could it really is time to open the doors, let everyone at everything, and let players finally decide what matters most? The problem is, of course, that levelling creates structure and pathways, and without them there could undoubtedly be confusion and chaos. I don't think it has to be that way at all. I'm also beginning to realise that I'm not the only person thinking this way either.

Pay attention, 007!

Blizzard are already attempting to redefine levelling to be more engaging. The Garrisons feature, having now had a chance to begin to digest it 'live', is being deliberately tailored to present a unique and individual 'home' for players whilst they level, that adapts and expands as the player explores, becoming more immersive as the player opens up content and explores the new world around them. If I had my design hat on I'd say this might well be with an eye to future expansions, where a similar 'modular' system would allow Blizzard to reuse the technology in different places, and in other situations. It's the same design ethos that birthed the Scenario: if you look closely you'll grasp the fundamental mechanics are just the same, just as those 'new' creature models are simply re-skinned every time an expansion comes around. This saves vital design hours that can then be spent on innovation. Inevitably, this means that the fundamental levelling 'concept' for Warcraft has already begun to change.

Adding the 'instant' L90's to the mix is in a way not unlike the Death Knight 'experiment' back in Wrath, where you got a 57 level head start rather than having to plough through all the other gubbins. I suspect Pandaria will be the last time we see a starting zone at Level 1 too, that the days of new playable classes as linear progression being quietly consigned to history. Part of me can see any new race in the future simply beginning their life at 100, with their 'starting zone' lasting maybe a level at most, if the insistence on refusing to update old content persists. This is inevitably part of the process of making make levelling to End Game far more attractive, which could have consequences far beyond the bounds of Azeroth. Part of me though thinks that if designers simply took the levelling numbers away and allowed players to dictate what they wanted to do first (end game, exploration, PvP) a lot of the problems could simply go away. However, for many that might be roughly akin to being thrown onto a completely alien planet with absolutely no idea why they're there.


With a game that's shiny and new like Wildstar, levelling is vital to keep people from outplaying content, getting bored and wandering off, because the idea isn't about just keeping you engaged for a month, it is for you to pay your subs for much, much longer. It is also rather important to make people feel comfortable and reassured, which is probably why when you play most MMO's (including being on Nexus) they'll remind you at least in part of Warcraft. There's a damn good reason other people's design borrows so heavily from Blizzard. It has almost become the 'universal language' for design in these situations. However, there's nothing stopping designers from rewarding five or ten levels to players for completing a certain set of criteria in a zone. It could be killing X mobs, or exploring a certain number of areas, picking up some items and never touching a mob. However, people are afraid of change. Fortunately for us, that isn't the case with Warcraft.

In fact, it could be that the Timeless Isle 'model' that Blizzard has been playing, plus what the Garrison may now begin to represent in the long term, that may be very significant indeed. However, both changes to the model still rely on the basic gathering of  XP and the understanding that the only way players can be restricted from consuming content too fast is at least some kind of physical gate. The only method of giving a sense of increasing power and progression is by having stuff you can't wear until you hit a certain level. That basic outlook will need to be readdressed. In fact, the same company are already experimenting with possible alternatives in other places. The concept of Paragon levels in Diablo 3 is one that many players have suggested would be a viable alternative to the 'traditional' model.

You may cap out at 70 in Diablo 3 but that won't stop you gaining Paragon 'levels' which count across most of your characters (Hardcore characters are considered separately) and add extra bonuses to specific attributes. However, it is still a means of tying effort to time to extend the lifespan of the game... except end game content does this for Warcraft. Each successive Patch that introduces a raid tier does exactly this task for players, it adds attributes and ability to their characters without the need to do anything else except take part in content. The biggest single problem, and this is undoubtedly historical, is that a L1 character is quite clearly less powerful than a L90 one, and that people assume that big is best, and that you need the bigger numbers. We've seen the love of huge things as justification before by Blizzard for not introducing the item squish in Cataclysm. So how do you deal with the issue if people crave the comfort of numbers to understand where they are in the linear progression of your MMO?


That's a question I suspect many designers don't even want to even consider tackling, because it messes with such a basic tenet of MMO gaming it would be like suggesting people put chocolate sprinkles on broccoli to make it more attractive for people to eat. There is room for change, but it needs to be a brave company who'd stick their head on the block to be the first. I sense levelling has had its day, and I think numbers need to be removed from the equation, but I'm a realist and understand exactly why they remain in the first place. The bigger issue is the re-education process that I think designers believe would have to happen to allow this to come to pass, which at this stage is simply too insurmountable. As a result, no one is prepared to even try.

That's just rubbish.

That's like saying you don't have any female developers on your design teams because women don't want to make computer games. That's utter rubbish too. I'd make computer games in a heartbeat, but as that's not likely to happen the people who do actually design MMO's need to be prepared to take a few risks, perhaps considering content that could rock the boat... oh yeah. Look at all those franchise titles. Look at what the marketing people tell you gamers want to buy. It's safe recycling old ideas because you know people will keep playing. That's why there's only seven kinds of plot in modern storytelling. The problem isn't how those are spun, its the motivation for using them to begin with. That's why you need a company who is comfortable enough in it's own market position to take a risk or two. Then you have to hope they'd be smart enough to think outside the design box and try something really rather innovative to begin with. Revolution like that is a pretty big step in the dark unless you have a sizable reputation to march behind you.

Easy now Comrades.

There is hope on the horizon. Titles such as Landmark at least give the impression of being about personal progression without numbers mattering, where art and individual satisfaction are of greater significance than the level of gear you're wearing and how many bosses you've killed in Hard Mode. The problem with those however is that they too require a very specific skillset to be widely accepted by the playing public. There are hints in many places that design companies are beginning to grasp that the same stories can be told, but it is the control systems that are the issue. This isn't about being smart or clever, or even innovative in many cases. It all boils down to being simple. Just look at Tetris' massive popularity as an example: one control system, one aim. That's what MMO design should ascribe to, and I think it can be possible if designers understand that your journey is NEVER linear, it just boils down to what you want at any given moment. There are a million ways from A-B, and the more ways a game can offer to get there but with the minimum of thought, the more chance there is of people finding their own path and declaring your product a success.

Ironically, I think the Garrison feature for Warlords would work brilliantly if you totally removed XP gain from the equation. Now all I need to do is convince everyone else that levelling has had its day and it's time to just let everyone loose on new content...


dobablo said...

I've always thought that levels is as good a method as any for providing a gating system however my preference would be that completion of old stuff isn't required for new. I'd love a basic 1-10 then after that you can go to A11-A20. B11 to B20 or C11 to C20.

There does need to be some sort of gating, whether it be railroading everyone through a main quest chain, obtaining specific skills (ie flight) or completion of specific tasks. One advantage that XP leveling has is that the content can be unlocked by performing any XP granting activity so players aren't forced to go through the a set progression path.

Paul Smith said...

Doing away with XP doesn't really work for me. XP is just one way to measure progress, just like any other number. In WoW you simply switch from using your character level to merasure progress, to using your item level. If these were taken away, how would you improve your character? Where would any sense of progression come from? Harking back to more traditional games, advancement came through physical progress through levels, or progress through a storyline. The former doesn't work in an open world and the latter, while an admirable goal, would never be extensive enough to keep players interested as enough story could not be written fast enough to keep people around, and there would be little replay value even with branching storylines. Also, in a traditional game, when the story is over, you stop playing - clearly not something Blizz would want (hence their desperate efforts to make up for the lack of any new story/progression by making other numbers more attainable - i.e. valor -> item level).

For fans of RPGs, numbers are vital to the experience. Without numbers you have a mechanically shallow (or at best obfuscated) game in which it's difficult to set specific goals beyond "finish this questline". If your gear/character is improving, then you are levelling, whether you see the numbers involved or not. I believe the transparency and feedback these mechanics provide is important to keep players engaged (and addicted!). Without the sense of improvement you're relying on the control system, graphics etc to provide a gaming experience, which in traditional games may keep people playing for months, but in most MMOs' case will bore them to tears within a matter of hours because they aren't action games.

Alternative ways to do 'advancement' without visible XP could be:

- Base level purely on item level - this would probably require gear to only be acquirable through questing, i.e. no trading at all

- Use a system where you work on learning skills rather than acquiring levels, either by using other skills repeatedly (urgh) or by nominating a skill to learn and effectively earning hidden XP towards that skill until you eventually learn it (still XP though, just obfuscated)

- Learning skills/getting character upgrades directly as quest rewards

The latter two options open all sorts of doors to hybrid classes - (e.g. want to learn to use a gun? simply do X quest chain, followed by X dungeon to have a chance to learn Scatter Shot) but inevitably lead to a single optimised build that would probably destroy class identity entirely. But that's another discussion altogether :)

Sorry for the meandering brain dump post - also much of this is me being devil's advocate :)