Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Leveling - Can We Get Rid of It?

I just got through listening to the “Shut Up. We’re Talking” podcast, hosted by Darren from the Common Sense Gamer. In the latest show, the podcasters bring up some interesting concepts about flawed game mechanics in MMOs.

Their discussion delved into pre level cap gameplay and post level cap gameplay, and how games change drastically after achieving player caps. Some players seem to live for grinding, questing and progressing in levels while others only begin to have fun after hitting their maximum level.

The problem a lot of players face during pre level cap gaming is that it can be very difficult to find PUGs (pick up groups) to play with. A difference of ten levels often means the complete lack in usefulness of the lower level character. Thus, if you cannot find a group of equally leveled players you may be stuck soloing your quests. Even if you're really good at the game, your talent is often considered secondary to your character level.

To make matters worse, games are so easy these days any idiot can progress to the higher levels. This allows a level forty player to utterly destroy a level thirty player during combat even if the level thirty is more talented. Levels, currently, only resemble the amount of time one has been playing a game and do not in any way guarantee player skill.

The only solution to this problem, that I can see, is to drastically reduce the bonuses of leveling up. Eve Online has come fairly close to accomplishing this. Skills in Eve do help to improve combat effectiveness, but it doesn’t mean that someone with eighty million skill points will always win against someone with six million skill points. Talent and strategy are still the biggest determining factors in when it comes to winning battles.

I now find myself asking the question “is it possible to design a fantasy MMORPG where a level one warrior can defeat a level sixty warrior, and still be a successful title?” The traditional level up system has become so engrained in our idea of what makes an MMORPG that I fear we may not be able to brush it off so easily. It also provides a great medium for addictive gameplay which developers are not going to toss out unless they have something else to replace it.

I think one way of solving this is, letting players level up in a way that opens up more styles of gameplay rather than just making them flatout tougher. I find that this feature appears in games like Call of Duty 4 and Planetside. In my very first multiplayer match of Call of Duty 4, I was able to place first with a level one character because of my skill with first person shooters. This was extremely rewarding, however, when I faced off against more skilled opponents I quickly became aware that some of the perks I could achieve through the leveling system would introduce valuable methods for outsmarting my opponents.

I think, if developers were to enable a similar leveling system in MMORPGs, they could still retain the addictiveness of a leveling system and at the same time allow low level characters to play a valuable role in all situations.


  1. CCP's Dust is a fine contender, if you want to see what an unusual approach can do to a now somewhat common gamemechanic. Double interesting is how it will tie into it's counterpart Eve.
    currently a lvl 1 should not be able to kill a lvl 20/30/80/xx. It's just out of reach. However considdering if you could in fact add a scaling balance that favours this somewhat more (less resistence/miss/recieved crits) a good underdog can become a victor. It's a philosofy that the desingers choose and stick with.
    Eve's designers chose a slightly different approach and they hold a fairly large playerbase that appreciate the systems. You can evolve into bigger ships and die because you flew something you were not ready for. You can specialize in one type and lay waste to pilots with allot more experience even if you are not that long in the game yet.

  2. The one advantage of a level system as opposed to the Eve system is that the truth of any system is simply that 50% of everyone is below average. This essentially means that system designed around player skill only or twitch will eliminate at least 1/2 if not more from experiencing a victory condition in your game of choice. Eve is a great game and so are many of the FPS shooters that produce very high levels of competition but a significant number of people willing to spend their cash simply won't achieve in those settings. Level systems have the advantage of providing players at different ability points the oppurtunity to either compete or cooperate in an enviroment where the differences in skill or natural ability are reduced.

  3. Definitely one of the strengths of Eve ... leveling is not necessarily better, but rather you are allowed to do MORE.

    Requires depth however.

    I imagine that's what they'll do with DUST 514 as well ... won't be as much making the RAMBO death warrior level, but rather, what your career military footsoldier will be able to accomplish over time.

    I agree that just becoming more powerful over time gets rather stale.