Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Realism in Games - Leveling

Level-based progression is often seen in RPG and MMORPG games. Role Playing Games, as a genre, are known for their interactions with NPCs, story-lines, and character progression. In these games, character progression often relies on a system where each level gives a character a boost to attributes and new skills. However, I do not believe that this is the best character progression system, especially for MMORPGs. Make sure to follow the hyperlinks throughout the post to familiarize yourself with the concepts I am referencing.

Frequent Problems with Level-based Progression


More often than not, MMORPGs force you to kill monsters or do quests to progress through levels. This process can take a while and can become very repetitive if the combat, the storyline, and the quests are not compelling.

Some MMORPGs alleviate the grind by increasing the rate at which you earn experience and levels. This makes players breeze through levels, and often most of the content the game has to offer, to quickly arrive at the level cap and the end game.

Level Cap

When players reach the level cap, the grind for levels is replaced by grind for gear, which is often much more severe than the grind for levels due to loot dropping randomly so you don't know how soon you will be able to get your shiny new equipment set. Until you get your full set, you will be doing the same instances and killing the same bosses over and over again.

In addition to the grind for loot, the story and role-play content seizes to be a part of the experience, making it an MMOGrind, rather than an MMORolePlayingGame.

End Game

What happens after you repeated the same content for hours and finally got all of your best equipment in the game? Some games do not have a meaningful way to keep the progression going after that which makes players lose interest in the game and become very disappointed and reflect on all the hours of now pointless grinding.

Generally, end game content is PvP based and involves things like territory control, sieges, and arena battles. But if you are looking for end game PvP content, wouldn't it be wiser to play a PvP-oriented MMO and skip all the hours of grind?

Wasted Content

Once players finish all of the quests in an area, they move onto the next one and usually have no reason to go back to previous areas because they can kill everything in one hit and there are no more quests. This is such a waste of hours of environmental and monster design, especially in an open world game.

Separation of Players

Traditional level-based progression creates a separation of players. Higher level players cannot play with or against lower level players because levels create a significant difference in the strength of a character. This is why you often see players creating new characters just to play with friends that just joined the game.

Some games scale the character in their overall power to be able to participate in PvP (Elder Scrolls Online) and PvE (Rift) content with other characters of any level without being too over or under powered. I feel that this just proves that levels separate players and are an inappropriate mechanic for MMOs in the way they are most often used.

Characters of the same level have to be on the same part of the quest line in order to have a meaningful party experience. Otherwise, they are forced to play the "catch-up game".

Because of these major issues of separation of players, many players prefer to play solo, which in turn defeats the purpose of playing an MMO.

Realistic Alternatives to Level-based Progression

Perks and Equipment

Having perks to unlock as you gain more experience in a certain category would remove the significant difference in power of more and less experienced players while keeping passive progression rewards. Perks may give benefits only (Call of Duty) or benefits and limitations (APB) to keep balance and encourage specialization. There may be a limited number of perk slots for the player to manage, but much more than 3 or 4 like most perk-based games have, or an unlimited number to make the progression add up. Perks and categories can be combat and non-combat, supporting different play-styles and interests.

In real life, when you become experienced in something you do not lose that skill if you learn something new, supporting the unlimited perk slots system. On the other hand, you may need to refresh your memory regarding a specific skill that you have not used in a while, supporting the limited perk slots system.

Having different tiers of equipment (Firefall), such as weapons and armor made from superior material, is both realistic and sensible. The tiers should be few and should not be significantly better than their predecessors, or have advantages and disadvantages, to keep things relatively balanced. To make sure there is still variety without significant attribute boosts, having many armor and weapon designs and types is a good idea.

Player Skill

Instead of relying on superior character level and equipment, MMORPGs could focus more on player skill. MOBAs (League of Legends) often have levels and ranks, but the progression rewards give them small advantages towards their preferred style of play. Therefore, the matches are still largely based on skill rather than level.

Changing MMORPG combat towards skilled play rather than letting the passive boosts do most of the work would make games a learning experience where practiced skill is more valued than hours spent grinding. Of course, not everyone would be great at skilled combat, that is why sandbox elements, and extensive crafting would be a great addition to this kind of an MMORPG so that players could pursue interests besides combat.

Adapting Strategy

Instead of improving gear or leveling up some more when faced with a challenge you can't quite handle, a change of strategy should be the correct approach. If the opponent has heavy armor that you cannot pierce with your sharp weapon, try a blunt one, find a weak spot, or use magic. Aside from the magic approach, these strategies make sense in the real world. I know it seems far fetched, but these kind of "more realistic" games may teach people skills that could be used outside of the virtual world for once. More "immunity and susceptibility" (The Witcher) oriented combat would be a fresh change in the MMORPG genre.

In conclusion, the sandbox elements should take care of the grind, the level cap, and the end game, as they will introduce an unlimited number of things to do and create. The wasted content and the separation of players would virtually disappear due to strategic and skilled combat, as well as the perks and equipment system. Is this the formula for success? We will just have to wait and see.

Take a look at the Reddit discussion of this topic if you are interested.

Respectful comments, discussions, suggestions, and constructive criticisms are always welcome.

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