Is It Time To Make Levelling Hard Again?

Once upon a time it was standard procedure for a MMORPG developer to make it tough to level.

The games not only didn’t give players much experience for a kill, or for completing a quest, they put obstacles in the form of tough death penalties in the gamers way as well. Everquest, the original, deducted experience upon death that could even drop a players level if he died enough times. EQ also had huge wait times for mana and health regeneration which added to the time it took to level. Asheron’s Call added a penalty called Vitae that weaked a player and had to be worked off before tackling the tough mobs again.

These penalties meant that it took a lot of time to reach the level cap in those games. I’m not sure how long it took from go to whoa in EQ, but it took over two years for the first player to reach the level cap in Asheron’s Call. And that was when the cap was 80, it’s now something like 270.

Contrast that to todays games.

Today, on the STO forums I read that there are some players in Star Trek Online who have already reached the level cap of that game. That’s getting to the cap in about a week of play.

The question I have to ask… is that too fast?

Some folks will answer in the affirmative, and will claim the best way to enjoy a new game (especially one without much end game content) is to take it slowly. And, there is a lot to be said for that viewpoint. I tend to be one of those kind of players. I can level quickly if I want to, but I tend to take my time and look around or do silly and pointless things like swim around the continents in WoW looking for ways to get into high level areas from the back. (Unfortunately, there are none I’ve ever been able to find!)

But that viewpoint isn’t the only valid viewpoint.

The thing is that there will always be players who really enjoy quickly racing to the top. The person who does this might have a competitive nature, or simply just be in a hurry. It doesn’t matter what a developer does, or how much lower level content is in the game, there is a percentage of players (possibly significant) who will not stop to smell the flowers, and will just race through.

And if a player enjoys playing the game that way, there’s nothing wrong with that. To say otherwise is the same as having hardcore players complain about casual players, or adventurers complain about crafters. One persons grind is anothers fun.

So. Is it time for MMORPG developers to make levelling hard once again?

Perhaps a better way to phrase that question is should MMORPGs be implemented in ways that it takes months to reach the cap, not days?

I’m not suggesting that we go back to the bad old days of huge level killing death penalties, or hours of play sessions spent sitting around medding or waiting for boats, it’s a good thing those ideas have fallen by the wayside.  What I am suggesting is that developers find a way to slow the levelling process while still allowing players to be active in the game.

Currently though the only real way to do this is by grinding, either kills or quests, and that’s not all that acceptable these days either.

Or maybe, the solution is to look somewhere other than the classic class/level system for player progression. Eve Online relies on a real time based approach. So long as a player keeps skills in training, it doesn’t matter how much time they actually spend in the game, and it will always take years to reach the skill cap. A player is then encouraged to enjoy the game rather than racing through.

Something that I’d like to see is to give a game more horizontal progression. EQ2 has tradeskilling, player housing, and collections to keep players busy. It’s entirely valid to spend entire sessions combing low level areas for harvests or shinies needed to complete collections. Expanding on this could be as simple as providing new systems. Allowing players to have more say in the game’s economy, or perhaps introducing a system for player and guild politics (ATITD with it’s voting systems, and Eve with its alliances) would give players more options, and would have the added benefit of more interaction and player dependency.

In any case, I believe that MMORPGs are going entirely in the wrong direction when it comes to the speed of levelling by making the level cap achievable in the first few days of play. By doing so they’re just ensuring that subscriptions are cancelled when the player runs out of things to do. If a player exhausts the content in the free month, is there any reason to subscribe?

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  1. Longasc

    I am not sure if making levelling take 30%, 50% or twice the time would make the situation better, especially if I think about STO.

    For most MMOs you could add “Levels 1-10, 11-20” etc. in brackets under the name of the zone. And guess what, once you progresse through that zone, it is WASTED.

    Just like 99% of Azeroth are ruined for those at max level, and Outland has become a nuisance on the way to Northrend.

    We then experience the “game starts at max level” paradox. WoW has fully embraced that, make levelling, the whole outside world, faster and faster and faster.

    The question is, why do they include levelling at all then? Progression is the key word, a strong spice to keep people interested. But if this goes faster and faster, people reach the “endgame” also faster.

    So why not make the whole game an endgame.
    Just for the sake to keep vertical progression that renders content completely obsolete quickly?

    Is horizontal progression the answer? Guild Wars, which “started” at max level and people were max level quite quickly, had this. You still had to collect skills and could fight mobs for rare skin drops and so on.

    It was not that all areas of the world were of equal interest, but some areas had this or that rare drop, so people went there. The incentive to do do the jungles of the island Istan again on hard mode for example was to get the “Colossal Scimitar” dropping from the corsairs there.

    In case of Cryptic and STO, it seems to be their hallmark to have barely enough content for a month. Yet asking for lifetime subs and subscriptions. I think their games would benefit from a F2P approach where people pay for NEW CONTENT once it is there.

    Right now, Cryptic wants us to subscribe AND pay for new content plus buy stuff in the item shop. I am not sure about it, but I heard they want money for the new zone they add to CO. I wonder how long it takes for their business model to make people avoid Cryptic MMOs like a plague.

  2. Longasc

    Oh, I just read the new “Vibora Bay” content got renamed to “Revelation” and comes for FREE.

    Now I really want to know if they planned to charge some minor money for it initially or if they decided they would get too much flak if they did later on. 😛

  3. Harmen

    What about an MMO without levels, but based on actual skill? The critters in the starter area are dumb, but they get more hard to beat the futher you go. Not hard in hitpower, but hard in intelligence. Ohwell, maybe I should return to singel player games 🙂

  4. Stropp (Post author)

    @Longasc — if you’re referring to the recent news that Cryptic announced a paid expansion (either for STO or CO, I can’t quite remember which) and then backed down, then yeah they did plan to charge for the expansion but caught flak and backed down. (Mythic similarly backed down after the reaction to their plans to remove 75% of the PvP scenarios.)

    I’m getting more and more convinced that horizontal progression is the answer. To use your examples, it makes no sense to me that I’d do 5 quest in Stormwind and then leave the area forever except for banks and the AH. I’d expect that to be the centre of activity all the way to 60.

    I’d like to see a MMORPG using a highly customisable virtual world like Second Life, but with the extra features you’d expect in a game… combat, guilds, puzzles, exploration, that sort of thing. I mentioned A Tale In The Desert which has so much going for it, but doesn’t do the combat. That’s kind of what I’d like to see.

    @Harmen — those sorts of games do exist. Asheron’s Call is a good example of a skill based game. Anarchy Online too. And Darkfall also falls into that category, except it’s really just PvP with no real PvE.

    For some reason, EQ I think, the early MMORPGs that were successful were based on the class/levels scheme so that’s what everyone emulates now. Give it time and I suspect some variation will come back into play. (BTW, for single player games give Mass Effect 2 a shot, it’s really quite excellent.)

  5. Blue Kae

    I agree with adding additional but separate progression tracks. Vanguard and EQ2 both do this to some degree with their diplomacy and crafting systems. It would be interesting, for instance, to see a diplomacy system added to Star Trek Online at some point with a whole different set of missions and skills.

  6. xXJayeDuBXx

    I think that developers are in a no win situation with leveling progression; if it’s too fast then players will get to max level and complain about the lack of content, if it’s too slow then players will complain about the grind. I have not played STO since launch so I can’t comment on how fast it is or isn’t, but I think it’s the players that have changed more than the games themselves.

    For some reason players have developed this mentality that the game begins at max level and do not take the time to enjoy the journey to the top. I use the term players loosely because not all who play MMO’s think that way, just used for a lack of something better descriptive.

  7. Raquinvil

    The way you described things one game has come to mind: Aion. It is a nice game till arround lvl 30 then things starting to get painfully slow.

    Once you get past lvl 30 due to how much exp you need for next level you start noticing content gaps alot more and grinding easily becomes the only option that I can’t even imagine when you reach 45ish barrier. As if that wasn’t enough, no matter where you go around those levels from time to time you get interrupted by roaming pvp parties and bots clearing entire areas of the game.

    If a game would be slow to level it needs activities to do otherwise people will just bot the way to the top or leave the game, but thats my opinion.

  8. Stropp (Post author)

    @Raquinvil — I think you’ve hit the nail on the head. It’s really about offering a large variety of things to do throughout the game at all levels. If those activities add experience then levelling becomes a lot less painfully grindy even if it takes a lot of extra time.

    @xXJayeDuBXx — The primary reason players have developed this mentality is because some developers have decided that there should be an “end game” where players get the best rewards and gear. The problem a new or alting player then faces is that they need to get to the cap fast just to join in with everyone else. They then get bored with that content and want more, so the devs add ten levels and a bunch of new raids and rewards. The cycle continues.

    Perhaps the answer is just to move away from the whole level style mmorpg and the reliance on content being gated to a certain set of statistics.

    The interesting thing is that this seems to be the path that single player RPGs are heading. Mass Effect 2 (see my review) has taken a few steps down this path.

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  10. Longasc

    I think not only singleplayer games should be like this, I think the whole vertical level progression sooner or later ends in power creep and does not add anything new to entertain the player besides an eternal vertical progression hamster wheel.

    GW allowed everyone to become level 20 early on – I wished they would totally remove the level number from the player in GW2. But nooo, it seems they plan a huge number of levels, maybe even infinite levels (because people love high levels, gives them the illusion there is more to do than in the 20 levels of GW *facepalm*) – but have a power curve that becomes so flat in the end that a tiny bit more damage or stats will require an extreme investment, so that things stay “balance” and those who want eternal progression can pseudo-progress forever.

    At least this is was the latest news I got – and I did not like the mindset and idea behind that. I still have high hopes for Guild Wars 2.

  11. Magson

    *misses SWG’s original skillpoint system*

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