The Yoke of Advancement and Content

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.

How to Make a Golem

In Jewish folklore, a golem (play/ˈɡləm/goh-ləmHebrew: גולם‎) is an animated anthropomorphic being, created entirely from inanimate matter.

The most famous golem narrative involves Judah Loew ben Bezalel, the late 16th century chief rabbi of Prague.

– Wikipedia, “Golem”

Those who know me well know that I am fascinated by esoterica, the strange bits and pieces of knowledge that lurk along the edges of respectable history and accepted convention.

Certainly there is an aesthetic appeal, but even more intriguing is the intellectual exercise that accompanies the search.  There is, for me, the same exact thrill at discovering a particularly fascinating passage in an obscure text as I get when I eclipse a hill and come upon an abandoned ruin buried deep in the woods where only a tiny fraction of people even know it exists.

In popular understanding a golem is a creature of clay or other materials of earth, a silent automaton, animated by the Name of God via Kabbalistic techniques.

The words above are technically true, but the popular mental translation is really not.

The Kabbalah is the central Hebrew tradition of mysticism; most religions have this in various places, Gnostic Christianity, the Sufi of Islam, Zen Buddhism, Mesoamerican Nahualli, Hindu Yoga, Hellenistic Mysteries and innumerable others found in every corner of the globe and throughout every part of history.

Central to the practice of Kabbalistic techniques is the use of linguistics.  In Kabbalistic tradition, the locus of power lies in the Word, specifically, the Word of God.  As God speaks, so it is thought, angels are literally born in an outflowing of divine expression.  Like the Navajos or the Nahualli, to the devotees of Kabbalism, words have power, names have power.

Meditation is focused upon the mastery of phonemes and syllables, the human voice rendering a mathematical exploration of every possible combination.  A golem is animated by the Name of God placed upon its brow.

That term – animation – is also misunderstood.  Yes, a golem is physically constructed out of clay, but the result is flesh and bone.  There are stories of animal golems brought into creation, butchered and feasted upon in sacred communion.  As humankind was born of dust in the Hebrew tradition but that dust was made flesh, so too is the making of a golem begun with clay but that clay is then made flesh.

In the Kabbalistic tradition, a golem cannot speak, because speaking is the central essence of divinity and the one bridge human-created animus cannot cross.

Here’s where it gets really interesting, though: Making a golem is a primarily mental, not physical exercise.

Certainly, there is considerable effort involved in the construction of a physical golem by Kabbalistic methods; it is, moreover, an exercise that should only be pursued with the full benediction of the divine.  More important by far than the physical construction, however, is the mental construction.

Think of it this way; the physical body of a golem is the hardware of a computer, the Name of God on its brow is the electrical current.  The mental body of a golem is the software of a computer.  The most harrowing part of the process is the construction of this mental body – this software.

How is this done?

The Kabbalistic tradition of meditative linguistics is no accident.  The construction of a golem is considered the most advanced technique of the tradition, and requires massive discipline and training.  Put in more mechanistic terms, the appropriate letter arrays must be chanted together with the letters of the Tetragrammaton, creating the mental framework of a living creature, piece by piece, limb by limb.  No interruption was permissible; no mistake could be tolerated.  Pronunciation must be precise.

Mathematically, used in an array of 221 letter pairs completing the entire sequence would take at least 35 hours to complete.  35 hours, note, of unbroken concentration and without a single error.  Once the mental body was generated as the astral component of the animus, it could then be placed within a physical boundary, specifically a physical golem.

Making a golem was the most advanced technique of the system, but there were many other signposts along the path to that ultimatality.  Mediation using this method was (is) believed to allow one to strengthen or cure specific portions of a physical body, and to possess other more subtle uses as well.