So I’ve been holding this for awhile (like a lot of my posts sadly) and I’m sure I won’t do it the justice it deserves. But…here it goes. Want to do an MMO or and RPG without levels? One where you don’t have to worry about capping? Where friends can always play together regardless of how long they have been playing or how many hundreds of hours they have invested? Where new players can step in after 3, 4, 5 years of uptime on your game and not feel so far behind the curve that its not worth trying to catch up?
Developers always hem and haw about how difficult this would be. They assume the only solution is a skill based system, and “those are impossible to balance” and bla, bla, bla. Look, the answer is easy. Do everything the same, but don’t start at the beginning – start in the middle. Only, make the middle the end. By which I mean – do this:
Only, instead of miles and altitude changes, its about adventure and mob difficulty. When you (and your friends) set off at night to adventure together, instead of going to the one or two zones for players level x to y – instead you can choose any area to go to. And you make that choice based on how much of a challenge you want that evening. Do you need a night of casual ass-kicking to blow off some stress from work that day? Choose one of the easy zones, where mobs are plentiful but die easily under the power of your skills. Got your team together and you are ready for a challenge? Ramp it up into one of the strenuous zones. Need a full on night for your whole guild? Time to get severe! And guess what – while the landscape in those zones will stay the same – the mobs you face will not.
You see, its all a matter of what pieces of the game are static and which are progressive. Developers spend the most time and resources from there budget keeping the dynamic bits dynamic, and only spent as little time as needed to update the static. But what if we change which bits are where? The standard MMO assumes that skills, gear, and adventuring locations are all dynamic. Meanwhile, the adventures themselves, the monsters, the rewards – these are the things that are static. So lets make a game where the skills, gear, and locations are static – but the adventures, the monsters, and the rewards are dynamic.
Lets take an easy zone above – maybe its a desert one. It starts out as a casual “raid the tombs” area facing off against grave robbers and wildlife. But through a centralized game calender, it changes – and now in the same tombs you are facing skeletons and mummies – with different AI – but in the same tombs, and with the same difficulty level. Raiding the tombs and killing off mobs earns you a reward, lets call them “ancient coins” – that allow you to buy gear or housing items or mounts that are desert themed. And on the nights where you face grave robbers? How about you also gather “broken daggers” – that allow you to buy gear or housing items or mounts that are robber themed. But on the night with undead, you collect the ancient coins, but instead of broken daggers, you have “mystic bones.”
Now you are doing this all with the same set of abilities for your character. So what the developers spent time doing (instead of balancing – yawn) is putting together new gear, new shinies, new mobs. Its like the holiday themed events we all love so much in the MMO’s we have – but you get new ones one a much, much more regular basis.
The question of course is with expectation. Hard core raiders and PVPers expect that they will receive the best of the best for the level of investment and difficulty they face. But isn’t that just extrinisic rewards? Do the hard core people who invest all those hours in EVE do it for better ships? Or do they already have the best ships and they do it because it is fun? By the same token, do people level so that they can get the best gear, or so that they can face the most challenging raids and PvPers? The reward is in the gameplay. That’s not to say that the rewards in the strenuous and sever areas are no different than those in the easy areas – just that they provide no intrinsic power boost to the character. Maybe there is a Shadow Chain Mail armor set in both the easy and the sever zone – but they have different art styles to them. There is still an instant visual recognition of “what my character does” – but there is not “ramping up” process through static zones that then never get revisited and lie barren and dormant.
The tl;dr version of this is that MMO’s can use difficulty settings to replace the leveling treadmill. Games have been doing it for years, why not draw on that fully functional mechanic? Mario doesn’t become stronger over time does he? The basic idea of leveling was nothing more than a way of rewarding time invested in the game – but there are far more (and better) options available to rewarding investment than a not-too-subtle power creep that ends up sucking away developer hours into new abilities that then have to be balanced against old abilities, instead of generating genuinely new content.
The crux of course, is generating a game that is fun to play. But – isn’t every developer working on that from the very beginning? And isn’t that process more than the sum of its parts?
Anyway, just some thoughts. Feel free to jump in and bash me or ask questions below.