One of the puzzling inconsistencies in modern Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Game (MMORPG) design lies in the way that character advancement and content overwhelmingly tend to be yoked together.
Take the most common example: you create a character in, say World of Warcraft or City of Heroes, and as your character advances in their capabilities – in these cases, as is most frequently the case, measured in the character’s level – the character also consumes precisely calibrated content that is matrixed to the character’s level. From level 1-10, the character is in Zone X, from level 11-20 Zone Y, and so on.
Perhaps the character can go a couple of levels outside of this range and still be okay, or perhaps there are mechanics such as City of Heroes’ side kicking to give a little more social flexibility. Regardless, the character’s advancement is carefully yoked to specific pieces of content.
Why is this so? How much of this is tradition? How much necessity? How much a function of the way the business tends to be structured?
As a caveat to the rest of this piece, note that this is aimed primarily at multiplayer persistent games that are anticipating regular content updates. If the title is a single player experience or a game that it is expected a player will play start to finish, or for a game with an explicit, played-once storyline, then it is perfectly reasonable to yoke advancement and content.
The conventional answer to this question of yoking character advancement to content is that it makes the character feel more powerful, that as they are growing more powerful they are also encountering new challenges. This design does in fact allow the game to carefully meter out in measured doses the content for the expected duration of a player’s time with the game.
But does it really make the character feel more powerful? Sure, a player might go back to a previously visited area and knock off some rats with ease, but is that really gameplay or boredom? True, a player is combating more dangerous foes, but if that was all it was, one might expect to see the content metered one way, and in fact some newer games such as Skyrim and Guild War 2 do exactly this; enemies are automatically raised – but not lowered – to a character’s degree of advancement.
One of the puzzling aspects of this design convention is that it is fundamentally based on a fear of players advancing (i.e., leveling) “too fast”. This is puzzling because arguably the single biggest challenge in MMORPG design today is that no design studio – not even Blizzard – can develop content faster than even the average player can devour it, let alone faster than what the die-hards of any game will be capable of.
In games that maintain this yoke, this results in the completely perverse concept of “the elder game”, meaning that there is essentially one type of expected gameplay and set of content for the trudge up to maximum level, and then a completely new type of expected gameplay and set of content for those who have reached those august heights.
Not only does this split social groups of players – sheer lunacy for any social game, but this also forces developers to essentially create two different games. Yes, there are a number of mechanics to alleviate this such as sidekicking or other forms of autoleveling, but the fact is these mechanics are bandaids covering up what is in fact a core design flaw. Moreover, it means that a development team must always try to maintain equivalent sized (or more accurately, paced) systems and content teams even when it may not make logical sense for those areas of a game to expand at that time or in that way.
Don’t get me wrong – a game does need discrete advancement, and it certainly needs expansive content. Some of that content should naturally be gated, but saying it should be gated does not mean it needs to be gated to character advancement. The previous example of Skyrim is an exemplar of this; the main storyline can be completed at level 10 or level 50, with certain areas becoming available only to characters who have arrived at the right step along that story progression line, regardless of the character’s current level.
(Skyrim’s expansion Dawnguard went even further, and created completely parallel but optional character progression paths. The solution Skyrim’s developer Bethesda decided upon to balance this was to make the exercise of these paths mutually exclusive; while this works, it is pretty unsatisfying, but I think this is the right general direction, if still very larval.)
Yoking character advancement to content is thus expensive, inefficient, impractical, divisive of the player base, and fundamentally restricts the options a development team has to expand a game post-launch.
Make meaningful advancement. Sure, place a few sequential gates with the content there – but only a few. Make some great content. But then, let the player experience it on as much of their own terms and pace as can be afforded. Yes, this means giving up some direct control, but games are not movies, and it is a doomed errand to make a game a movie.
Worried about new players feeling overwhelmed by the options? Make a distinct path that always points the player to something new, but don’t hobble your own options by hobbling the players’ options.
Understandably, large studios are backed by insane amounts of money, and this kind of environment understandably discourages drastic innovation, but at some point – and I think that point is rapidly coming upon the gaming industry – the staleness of retreads of existing approaches will eat so deeply into gamers’ enthusiasm that new opportunities will open that may even rival Blizzard’s own monumental perfect storm success with World of Warcraft.