Design Deliberations Theoretical Thoughts

Grinding Levels

I think it all started a couple of weeks back with Tom Chick explaining why MMO’s are Broken which was basically a re-hash of every “Why this game suxors” post on every MMO forum out there. The next day Trembling Hand jumped on the bandwagon. Scott Jennings over on Broken Toys tried to explain to both of them that first, MMO <> WoW, and secondly, while most MMO’s are fantasy based, they’re not developed in Fantasy Land.

As I said earlier, all of this is stuff that those of us that have been playing these games awhile have heard thousands of times and Scott pretty much nailed the response that we’ve all hashed out over the years. However, yesterday a friend of mine, Pentane, linked this Scientific American article on the Expert Mind. I highly recommend it for all you armchair game designers – even you real world designers will find it interesting but I’m guessing quite a few of you have already read it or some of the books that have been written from those studies. Also yesterday, Psychochild, posted the first in a series of articles on How to Replace Levels.

These two articles combined got me thinking about the whole levels in MMO’s debate again but in a slightly different way and I came up with a kind of challenge – design a multiplayer that doesn’t have levels of some sort.

The trick here is to think of a “level” as a game mechanic that meets the criteria in Psychochild’s post. In other words anything that is used to mark Achievement, provide others Information or help with Pacing through your game world is considered a level. So far I’ve only come up with one way that it can be done and while I think the game might have some interest it would be a decidedly niche game and I wouldn’t want to propose it in today’s market.

First for all the EvE players that are already pounding out the response that EvE doesn’t have levels, go back and re-read the definition, this goes for all of you “skill-tree” fans. A skill-tree is just customized leveling. It might be a more entertaining system but it’s still a level based system.

Don’t think so? Take a person that’s been playing EvE for a month and their associated skill points (for the sake of argument lets assume they’re really good at understanding the system and spent those points optimally) and pit them against someone that’s been playing EvE for a year and their associated skill points. Odds are it would be no contest. I’m not an EvE player but I have to imagine that while it might be possible for a new player to make a beeline for 0.0 space, in reality there is a minimum skill set needed to have fun in 0.0 space.

Yes, there’s the factor of “player skill” that comes into that equation. Someone that’s been playing a year understands the tools at their disposal much better than the new player so even if you put them in the exact same ships with the exact same equipment the more experienced player should win. And this brings us to the Scientific American article.

Go back and re-read that, they’re talking about chess, the ultimate skill based game right? Even chess has levels, it’s right there on the first page of the article:

The results are ratings that predict the outcomes of games with remarkable reliability. If player A outrates player B by 200 points, then A will on average beat B 75 percent of the time. This prediction holds true whether the players are top-ranked or merely ordinary. Garry Kasparov, the Russian grandmaster who has a rating of 2812, will win 75 percent of his games against the 100th-ranked grandmaster, Jan Timman of the Netherlands, who has a rating of 2616. Similarly, a U.S. tournament player rated 1200 (about the median) will win 75 percent of the time against someone rated 1000 (about the 40th percentile). Ratings allow psychologists to assess expertise by performance rather than reputation and to track changes in a given player’s skill over the course of his or her career.

So Kasparov is a level 2812 chess player and Timman is level 2616. These rankings definitely meet Psychochilds criteria for a level, they’re used to mark Achievement and provide others Information about your abilities. In a way they also serve to provide Pacing for chess tournaments in that you should normally be matched against an appropriately skilled opponent at the outset. Competing in a tournament will mean that you’ll eventually end up matched against someone higher level than you which will provide you an opportunity to increase your level should you win.

There are other similarities between the world of Chess and MMO’s. For example the real way most players improve their skill is not by competing in tournaments but in the endless studying of other, better players, and their tournament games. Sounds a lot like grinding for levels to me. Of course, for someone like me, it’d be really cool if I could level my character just by watching a video of more experienced players defeating, or better yet being defeated by, a raid. I’m not sure how you’d code that but it’d be cool.

So if most skill based systems are out what about a “sandbox” game? Remember we’re talking about multiplayer here so give me a good example of a “sandbox” game. The only one I can come up with is Second Life and, let’s be honest here, there is no game in SL. Still I’m willing to give it to you, so why aren’t people like Tom Chick and Mr. Trembling Hand and all of the commenters saying “Levels Suck” flocking to SL? Oh yeah, no game.

I know, I just know, someone is going to throw the GTA series out there. First of all let me reiterate that we’re talking Massively Multiplayer games here. Taking mechanics from a single player experience and throwing them into this realm is going to create more problems than it solves but if you can explain, in detail, how you can create a fun MMO version of GTA I’m all ears, and so is EA and Rockstar and THQ and every other major publisher/developer out there. Also, I’m not 100% convinced that GTA doesn’t have some element of leveling in it but I really haven’t played it enough to say for sure.

I guess the real question is whether or not there is any way to meet those three design goals of levels and overcome what appears to be the main objection to levels – the inability of players to play with their friends whenever they want regardless of the differences created by the levels. Because to be honest without meeting those design goals do you really have a game? If there is nothing to mark your Achievement what’s the point? If I can buy the game, create a character and slay the dragon in the first evening (Pacing) then am I likely to come back tomorrow? Of the three I really think the only one you can afford to slack on is information. Yes it’s nice to be able to know what the abilities of my group mates are just by looking at the UI, but it’s not that big a deal for me to have to ask them how they play their character.

As I said earlier I think I’ve come up with exactly one system that can do that so far, it would definitely make for a niche game and I’m not 100% sure I can make it fun and “sticky” without adding some sort of leveling component in there.

So the challenge is out there. Come up with a system that doesn’t use some sort of “level” component AND would be fun to play in a multiplayer environment.

I’m going to work on refining my idea and maybe I’ll post it later this week to let everyone else rip apart.

3 replies on “Grinding Levels”

An interesting take on things.

I think you’re slightly off the mark here, though. The design goals I stated for levels: achievement, information, and pacing, aren’t unique to levels. I was pointing out the most common reasons for why game designers choose levels for their games. These are the reasons given by people who defend levels as being the best possible solution.

Looking at your EVE example: the 1 month player may not be able to go out to 0.0 space alone, but could that player contribute to a larger encounter? If you had two equal forces going to battle, would the scales be tipped if one side had 20% more players that had only played for 1 month at that point? Now, contrast this with WoW where you generally can’t even take a relatively low-level character into a higher level area in most cases. Even if you could take a level 20 and bring them to Dragonblight in Northrend, would they have any real effect at all? No, because the strict level mechanics restrict how effective they can be, despite any amount of player skill.

My own game,Meridian 59, doesn’t have overall levels like most other games. The benefit is that a relatively high level character and a relatively inexperienced character can still do some things together. As a character grows, it doesn’t necessarily gain more direct power, but they have more options to defeat challenges in their way.

Anyway, I’m writing up other posts. The next one will focus on the disadvantages of a strictly level-based system. Finally, I’m going to propose some alternate mechanics besides levels in a future post.

I realize that those goals aren’t unique to levels but what I was trying to say was that most games require some system to meet those goals. Sure, you could use improving equipment to meet those goals but then the equipment just becomes the levels and if you don’t have Armor Set X you can’t do dungeon Y.

Mainly though, this was aimed at those that say that a skills based system will cure all the ills imposed by levels. Skills based systems can help but they’re not a cure all.

You’re right the EvE analogy breaks down because EvE is so different from most MMO’s, the biggest being the fact that the players are the content for the most part. So yeah 2 alliances go to war, if one of them has a 20% larger army, even if that 20% is made of of relative newcomers, they have a better shot at winning. But then the question is how long will they maintain that numbers advantage. That 20% is basically cannon fodder and is being cannon fodder night after night fun? For some yes, especially if you can continue to grow while doing so and in this instance you’ll probably have a guild keeping you supplied so losing everything every night won’t be as painful. Not my idea of a good time but then nothing about EvE is my idea of a good time but I’m really happy it’s still there serving it’s audience.

The other thing that dawned on me was that even if the designers don’t implement a system that meets those goals, in a multiplayer environment at least, the players will evolve them. Again, look at chess. There are no rankings built into the core rules of chess, those came about as a result of more and more people playing the game.

Maybe we’re just wired to rank ourselves in comparison to others of the tribe whether that tribe is our our workplace, our community or our gameplace. Something to think about.

All of this is not to say that levels or skills or whatever system that meets those goals can’t be implemented in such a way as to overcome the primary objection most people seem to have to the current level based systems – I can’t play with my friends. It’s just that people saying scrap levels and put in a skills based system and all will be right with the world is off base. It’s not the system so much as the implementation of the system. If you go into the design with a goal of allowing your players to group with their friends no matter what then you’ll insure that whatever system you implement will allow that.

In short what needs to change isn’t the levels based system but the design philosophy.

Grinding levels in WoW doesn’t correlate well to improving *player* skill in Chess. It’s very possible to grind to the level cap in WoW while demonstrating only a very small increase in *player* skill, but getting to the rating cap in Chess takes a great deal of work and improvement. That difference, the dichotomy between player skill and avatar power, is one of the biggest problems with levels in MMO design. If success in an MMO were heavily or wholly predicated on player skill, then levels could be used to gauge relative player power and be reasonably useful. Notably, that’s how “levels” work in Puzzle Pirates.

When levels in DIKU lineage games like EQ or WoW are mostly built on time investment, they serve little purpose but to keep people grinding and paying a sub fee, and actually stand in the way of letting people play together. Put another way, using levels to define gameplay via level checks on avatar skills and content access is a bit of a “cart before the horse” situation, while letting levels show the *results* of gameplay (*player* skill acquisition) can lead to a better sense of achievement and tighter pacing/challenge design.

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