MMO Design Class: How to Do a Level-less MMO

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:


Choose Your Adventure


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.


7 thoughts on “MMO Design Class: How to Do a Level-less MMO

  1. Took me a while to get to this, but it is a great idea. I wish/hope someone with more talent for that sort of thing than I will pick up on this and run with it.

  2. Tesh

    Leveling isn’t just to reward time spent… it’s to encourage spending more time. It’s about keeping players involved past the point where intrinsic rewards and the play experience have become boring and rote.

    …if that sounds vaguely skeevy and nefarious, that’s because it all too often is, especially with subscription games.

    I’m with you on making the “play the thing” that really keeps players having fun. I wish more devs leaned in that direction, too.

    1. Tesh, I agree that’s how it might have been to begin with, and how it might be now on paper, but I don’t think its reality any longer. How long did it take people to hit cap in TOR, which arguably has slower leveling than other recent MMO’s? Most people capped within a month or two. Some people were there within a week. It was so commonplace that the free time that TOR offered up just assumed you were already at cap, 5 months in. So, whatever it was, leveling is no longer the encouragement to sub up “one more month” and can’t really be considered a strategy for an MMO’s long term success.

      Where I think what you say still holds true – and what is the real hurdle here – is that stretching leveling just long enough that it takes “the herd” more than a month to get there can get you over the hump of the free month in a standard subscription model. Once you commit to subbing, even for a month, its easier to do it the second month, and the third, and so on.

      1. Tesh

        True, the pace does seem to have accelerated. Market pressures, perhaps. I think you’re right, though, it’s still setting the hook, as it were.

  3. oflow

    I have been saying this for a while as well. I think the leveling design is a flawed system and actually exists just because it still carries on from the early days on mmos where they didnt have the pc power they have now and were trying to emulate pnp rpgs.

    The problem with most mmos nowadays is that they are themepark based designs and on rails where the players dont really have an effect on the world. so to ‘advance’ players are given the artificial reward system of level and gear acquisition.

    the way mmos should really be done is that the players shouldnt be trying to acquire levels they should be working to acquire skills. the best analogy i can use is in revenge of the sith where darth sidius basically tells anakin that they can work together to discover the skill to bring back padme from death.

    a leveless system would be more like the system in Arkham City where you work to gain powers or learn new skills to create stronger items, not just out level other players. A system like this would also make it possible for very powerful characters to actually be killed by low characters sort of like the Witch King getting stabbed by Merry.

    I would like to see MMOs actually drop the ‘massively’ part and actually create smaller servers where players actually have the ability to interact and change the world around them. Instead of having a server with thousands of players running around in a static world, to me it would be better if you had a server with say 100 dedicated players that can craft the world they live in sort of minecraft style and find and utilize finite resources abilities hidden in the world.

    This would allow developers to actually implement a story system where the game world isnt a themepark with players waiting for them to add new content, the players themeselves could make politics and actions in the world the content while the developers could do things like play actual player controlled NPCs/big monsters, heck the players themselves could even become the ‘bosses’. The developers could then actually implement a time line or campaign where the story itself has a start and an ending with players working towards an ultimate goal at the end of the story. This would also allow the implementation of permadeath since death would have meaning.

    Instead of a quest giver npc, you could have players that are dedicated crafters sending other players on quest to kill the dragon to get the scales needed to make the powerful armor instead of a boss just dropping it.

    Think of it this way: what if every server wasnt a clone but a different part of the world with different races/factions. where a big part of the game was actually discovering technology/abilties and teaching them to others on your faction, working together to actually build cities/towns/keeps, feed the people, create a government/economic system. where you actually had to travel to other parts of the world which would be other servers/races/factions where you actually had to learn that facations language as a skill to even communicate with them. Give each area unique resources and force the players to interact/trade etc.

    1. oflow, you are playing my tune buddy. Everything you argue for here are the kind of things that I have been arguing for for years now. Though I don’t mind the servers being clones. Hopefully Storybricks will be able to put together some of the story telling elements.

      Personally I think the perfect server size is about 2k concurrent logins. That’s large enough that you will never know everyone, but small enough that reputations can form and stories can acquire meaning within the community.

      FYI – with posts this long and thought out – you need to be blogging yourself….

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