Levels, what are they good for?

I’ve noticed a growing contingent of MMO bloggers that say levels are an out-dated concept and should be gotten rid of. “Everyone races to cap anyway,” they say, “so levels are just a way for developers to slow us down and suck more money out of us.” “The real game doesn’t begin until cap anyway,” others say, “so why not let us just start at cap?”

I thought it was time I stuck my oar in for the opposition. I play these games for the levels (and my ego isn’t big enough to believe I’m unique in any fashion, this point included). There is something primally satisfying about gaining levels; its a way of building a character, and I enjoy building things, both physical and virtual. I enjoy in-game crafting too, and I wonder how much correlation there is between people who enjoying “leveling up” and people who enjoy crafting.

I should pause to point out that this is a different argument from the one between class-based and skill-based systems. I’m fine with skill-based systems, where instead of gaining levels you gain skills… same difference for the sake of today’s argument: you’re still progressing a character from weak to mighty.

This weekend in EQ2 I gained 4 levels on one character, which really clarified some of the reasons I find leveling so much fun. We generally start using skills in distinct patterns as we play these games (hypothetical example: we use a skill that debuff’s the target’s fire resistance, then follow it up with skill that buffs our fire offensive rating, and then finally a fire attack on the target) to the point where some folks actually make macros to do the same sequence of skills over and over again. But what happens when you level? You gain new skills. And that means you need to re-evaluate your ‘combat patterns’ to see if there’s a more efficient way to use those skills. It mixes things up and keeps the game interesting.

Then there’s the aspirational issue. We see dragons and giants and we’re, yeah, killing ten rats. But to me, that’s a huge part of the satisfaction of these games. I can’t fight a dragon *now* but if I keep at it, I’ll become strong enough that I can finally get out there and fight the big dramatic creatures. If I could fight dragons the day I created a character well…that wouldn’t feel all that special.

The MMO[not-RPG] blogging community might be yelling for a revolutionary change to the DikuMUD leveling scheme in the games we play, but there are those of us who *like* things the way they are. I do believe there’re enough players to support both the evolutionary products and some hypothetical revolutionary ones, but I’m going to hazard a guess there are a lot of rank & file, non-blogging gamers that are delighted by the systems they’re enjoying today in LOTRO, EQ2, WOW, and a host of other level-based, aspirational-driven games.

Game devs, let us keep growing our characters! That’s where all the fun is!!

28 thoughts on “Levels, what are they good for?

  1. I concur! I am just in favor of providing the “skip to max level button” for those who want to do that. The other who want to grow their way should have that option too. This actually should put more pressure on developers to provide better ladder dungeons. A feat which only WoW has really succeeded at, though Lotro has three nice, difficult ones, they are almost too hard and not numerous enough. And WAR has a few but they are lacking that epic feel for the most part.

  2. @Thallian, I think a “skip to max level button” would be ok once a server has “aged” a bit. I wouldn’t want to see it on a brand new server, since the economy of the server would get skewed, I think.

    @Stargrace, I think its our nature as bloggers not to post about stuff we’re happy with; reading your blog has been a real inspiration to me to talk more about the stuff I enjoy. I love reading about your adventures!

  3. I think you’re conflating two completely separate concepts. A sense of progression is crucial for an RPG, so of course we need to provide carrots and avenues for growth. However, you can still provide a sense of progression and growth for characters without levels. In fact, most RPG games these days don’t use the D&D-style leveling mechanic.

    As for gaining new abilities, again, that doesn’t need to be tied to leveling. In Guild Wars, you reach the level cap really quickly, but at that point the game is actually just beginning: capturing or earning new skills and trying out new builds becomes a major part of the PVE game.

    What we don’t need is a two month long “tutorial” where you solo from level 1 to 80 just to get where the rest of the player base is (and, in a multiplayer game, where the fun is — assuming you actually play MMORPGs to play with other people instead of purely to watch numbers go up.) Anyone who argues that this is necessary so people can learn their characters is, quite frankly, an idiot and full of themselves: there are complex medical procedures that take far less time to earn certification, and anyone who thinks it took a lot of “skill” to level up their toons to 80 has an egregiously high opinion of themselves.

    When people complain about levels, they are usually complaining about the exponential growth in power that characters have. And the principle problem with that is over time, a lot of the older content (for low level players) becomes useless and obsolete. It makes it harder for newer players to join the game (since they have no one to play with). If you have a server with 2000 people spread evenly over 40 levels at any point there are only a few hundred you can play with. If, say, Warhammer Online had only Renown Ranks and ditched Battle Ranks (each Renown Rank allowing you to maybe have +1% or so to various resists or whatever), at any point in time, there would still be 2000 potential people to play with since while Renown Ranks would still provide improvements, it wouldn’t become such a vast gulf that people couldn’t play with one another.

    People wouldn’t really complain about levels if it was designed such that someone at the level cap could still play with a newbie and both benefit (without hacks like the mentoring system). In Eve Online, for instance, I can quickly train skills such that I’m useful to a PVP corp – though I won’t be as flexible as long time veterans. That is, new players have to specialize whereas veterans become generalists over time.

    You can provide progression through other avenues. For example, Vendetta Online lets you gain “levels,” but its not the kind of level people are complaining about. Gaining levels does not increase your in game abilities; combat in VO is twitch based. Gaining levels instead simply gates access to better space ships.

    The now-defunct (but recently open sourced) Uru Live was an MMO with no levels. Progression was basically through advancement through the worlds and the story and game play involved puzzle solving in the various worlds.

    Players can also be motivated by collection mechanics, through story progression, and other faction. A game could, for instance, have an in game politics model where over time you try to move up in local diplomatic circles.

    At any rate, I don’t think any blogger is saying we should change EVERY game. We may be shouting that we are tired of levels but that’s only because there are few other options at the moment. What we want are more games that provide avenues to improve characters BESIDES the single number DikuMUD exponential power growth model (leveling.) Interestingly, that form of character advancement (which comes to CRPGs by way of D&D) isn’t very commonplace in pen and paper RPGs anymore. Get a few brave developers to come up with more novel gameplay mechanics and we can all be happy. You can pick your leveling game, and I can pick mine.

  4. Thanks, Lars, for providing a perfect example of the kind of post I was referring to!

    First, please note the paragraph:

    “I should pause to point out that this is a different argument from the one between class-based and skill-based systems. I’m fine with skill-based systems, where instead of gaining levels you gain skills… same difference for the sake of today’s argument: you’re still progressing a character from weak to mighty.

    Which covers games like Guild Wars and Ultima Online.

    “What we don’t need is a two month long “tutorial” where you solo from level 1 to 80 just to get where the rest of the player base is (and, in a multiplayer game, where the fun is — assuming you actually play MMORPGs to play with other people instead of purely to watch numbers go up.)”

    Exactly the kind of attitude I’m talking about. That journey full of quests and places to explore and people to meet and things to see gets disregarded as a “two month long tutorial.”

    Maybe it is for YOU, but it isn’t for ME; it’s the part I enjoy the most.

    Once you hit cap its doing the same old content over and over and over and over and over again. I don’t find an iota of fun in that. Once I hit cap, I re-roll or move to a new game.

  5. Journey > Destination, IMO.

    I’m a total quest junkie and I love exploring new areas and experiencing the game world through the NPCs’ eyes as I interact with them. It took me 3 years for my first character in EQ2 (my main, past, present, and future 🙂 ) to hit cap, which was 70 at the time.

    I still take her out adventuring to new areas often — even if they’re far below my level. I like being able to say that I’ve been there, that I’m familiar with the quests and NPCs, and in turn that I’m able to help those just discovering such areas.

    IME, stopping to smell the proverbial roses tends to give players a better sense of the game they’re playing and enables them to give back to the game community in a number of different ways (feedback to developers, assisting new players, writing guides, etc.).

  6. LOTR does have the deeds one can work on even if you do hit level cap but I am another that finds it some sort of rewarding to see a level reach which is a goal to set. I do not understand why some want the “give it all to me and give it now” but what ever floats your boat.

  7. Well, if you are defining “leveling” generically as “anything that provides motivation to progress”, then sure I guess I agree with you. But in that case, I think everyone agrees with you, since I don’t think anyone is saying we should abandon THAT. People aren’t saying level are an oudated concept because “they want it all, NOW”. What people are saying on the other blogs is an alternative forms of progression than the D&D style leveling game mechanic.

    I agree that the journey full of quests and places to explore and people to meet fun. But it is more fun when you can do it with other people. Most of us play MMORPGs because of the other people, and the game is the most fun wherever those people are. If the journey is > destination as you say (which I agree with), a game without a D&D style leveling mechanic would be better for you as it would still have the journey — a game without levels dispenses with the destination.

    Abandoning the leveling mechanic wouldn’t stop you from exploring the game world. Leveling mechanics are the principle obstacle in exploring MMORPGs because of the way they segregate the playerbase. I have about a dozen alts in EQ2 since I like exploring parts of the game world I never saw before, but there’s a lot of content I simply can’t do because they are designed to be done in a group and there is never enough people around with the needed classes in that level range on those same quests, etc.

    All I’m saying is that there are other ways to provide a sense of progression that don’t have to involve today’s leveling mechanic (both skill- and class-based), and don’t have the disadvantage of making it so players can’t play with one another and result in mudflation devaluing previous effort, among other problems.

  8. What I’ve read is stuff like “Warhammer would be better if characters were created at level 40.” Since Warhammer isn’t particularly gear-driven, it seems to me that these bloggers/commentors just want a game where all characters are equal (and I can see the appeal of that, from an RvR as team-sport point of view).

    Ironic that this idea is generating a groundswell at the same time that multiplayer FPS are *adding* levels to their games!

    While abandoning the leveling aspect does open up the whole world for exploration, it removes the aspirational factor. If you can do anything from day 1, it removes a lot of the long-term interest in the game. Part of the fun for me is working towards a goal.

    I also think you’re projecting your play style on to “most of us”: “Most of us play MMORPGs because of the other people, and the game is the most fun wherever those people are. ”

    People play MMORPGs for a wide variety of reasons, many of them having to do with the MMO part, but that doesn’t always mean being chained shoulder-to-shoulder with a bunch of strangers in a group/raid/whatever. People add a lot of dynamic energy to these games just by being in them. If you’re the type of player that likes to drop into a game and jump into a group with a bunch of random strangers, I can see where you’d want to always be in the biggest concentration of players and how levels could prevent you from doing that.

    I prefer playing with friends, and although you call mentoring a “hack” I think it’s a pretty nice dynamic that lets me play with anyone I want to. If not friends, I’ll solo, but I still enjoy the presence and energy of having people influencing the game. And even without other players, I enjoy the constant additions a “live team” adds to an MMO.

    This all comes down to opinion, obviously, and the original point of my post was to declare that I (and others like me) still want levels in my MMORPGs.

  9. @Lars I’m going to try to carve out some time to check out Guild Wars. That’s the one argument you’ve made for no-levels that I’m struggling to refute, so I’d like to see it in action. 🙂 I have all 3 campaigns — any advice as to where I should begin?

  10. First I have to ask this of everyone in favor of what I call “hard levels” which is the current paradigm in MMORPGs: have you ever tried one without levels, or are you assuming we “want it all right now” and just want to be able to start at “level cap” so we can raid?

    I’m not asking for that, and I’m certainly not asking for an insta-level cap *if I’m asking for NO LEVELS* to begin with.

    Unfortunately, I’m not even sure I can recommend jumping in on the few level-less MMOs out there other than EVE maybe so you can have some experience with it before making uneducated assumptions of what “the other side” is talking about. But some of the MMOs slated for ’09 or ’10 releases are eschewing levels, such as Champions Online, Star Trek Online, Earthrise, Darkfall (mmm…whatever… /rolleyes @ Darkfall) and others.

    As Lars has been trying to point out, one of the many flaws with hard levels is they immediately separate players. This is supposed to be a *massively multiplayer* genre, yet the first thing we do is begin segregating players at the design level. If you and your friends want to adventure together then you have to level together and if anyone takes a day off due to Real Life obligations, now they’re behind and often left on their own to catch up. That isn’t fun. A couple games — EQ2, CoX — had a “mentoring” system but all that does is make a compromise so now you can play together with your friends who were left behind but you also lose the sense of power you’ve earned. WAR did a similar thing by attempting to average hit points per tier in RvR (well, Scenarios anyway).

    Levels trivialize content. Typically in PvE we’re adventuring to be (more or less) heroes for whichever “side” we’re on. Save the girl. Save the town. Save the world. But by the time we’ve “saved your home” we’ve out-leveled all the “home” content. There’s no reason to ever go there again because everything is grey. But in stories, you save your home because you live there. The villagers celebrate, maybe you adventure more, maybe not, but home is home. With levels there is no home because we consume everything and move on.
    Here’s an analogy I use to make the comparison: behind my condo is a wildlife refuge. I know of at least one alligator in there. For the sake of argument, let’s say there are two. Now, I decide to be a Hunter of exotic wildlife. I’m home so this would be my Starter Zone and I’m a Level 1 Hunter. I manage to kill the gator, and *DING!* I’m now a Level 2 Hunter! Woot! This is great, so I go to the Everglades and “level up” some more. Wanting even more, I take a safari to Africa, learn more skills and kill more animals. Now, when I come home there is still another alligator in the wildlife refuge. If I walked in there with all my new skills and “levels” of ability, will that alligator recognize that I’m “red” and not even acknowledge my existence? Is he “grey” to me and can bite me all day while I AFK talking on my cell phone until finally I get bored and one-shot him with my left sneaker? NO! He’s still just as dangerous as he was when I first started; the only difference is I have more experience in these situations and more knowledge of what to do (ie. I have more “abilities” or “skills” to use now than I did before) but I can’t just stroll up and flick him in the eye to one-shot him — he will still present a challenge.

    Levels also artificially restrict content. Oooooh the mobs here are all red and 20 levels higher than me. So what? I made it this far, if I choose to explore and risk certain death let me. Ooooooh this door is restricted to “level cap only” because behind it is the Big Bad Raid Boss. So what? I made it this far, if I choose to open the door and die, let me. It’s my play time, it’s my repair bill. Oooooooh the next tier of crafting is restricted to Level X. Why? I made it this far already, let me continue!

    It’s still possible to “advance” or “grow” your characters. That is vital to RPGs in particular, we need some sense of progression for our characters, but there are other leveling mechanics which are not as ultimately damaging as “levels” have become. It’s still possible to have some bright flashy noisy “DING” we all love because in particular that moment 1) gives us a sense of accomplishment and 2) gets us a few seconds of recognition and congratulations from other players. A lack of levels means all content can present some type of challenge, fun, interest, gain, advancement, whatever. And *most importantly* a lack of levels means all players are free to group with all players without having level segregating them.

    Example of that? Back in the original Star Wars Galaxies (which did not have levels at the time) I could make a character, run through the tutorial section quick to get basic weapons and gear, then group with my guild and fly to Dathomir to hunt Rancors, which was one of the “end-game” activities. My skills were low obviously, so I couldn’t contribute *as much* to dps, healing, whatever as the more experienced characters but the point is: I *could* contribute. But with levels, the mobs would be red and I wouldn’t be able to touch one at all; zero contribution. Not to mention the level-aggro would be incredible and I’d be one-shotted and draw half the monsters in the zone. But I was able to immediately group with my friends, have FUN (that’s ultimately the point of these games after all, right?) and start working on some of my character’s skills with them.

  11. Ironic that this idea is generating a groundswell at the same time that multiplayer FPS are *adding* levels to their games!

    Mmmm… kinda and kinda not. For the past few years FPS (and racing) games have been adding “RPG elements” such as you work your way up the ranks (think of them as levels) and maybe get titles, or some new weapons, whatever. However, a max rank FPS player can still be taken down by a brand-new player. The new equipment doesn’t mean “auto-win” where in a levels MMORPG (which are nearly always gear-based as well) it would. They simply give you new or different options to play the game without making you more “powerful” compared to everyone lower than your rank. Same with racing games. As you “level up” maybe you get better equipment to tweak your car with, or more and faster cars, but your own driving skill also has to “level up” or that new car will cause you to lose if you can’t drive it.

    FPS and Racing are also primarily PvP when we’re talking about the multiplayer aspect, and that’s where the bloggers saying “WAR should have started at 40” come in. You can’t really have “player vs. player” if levels give people more (or less) power to everyone else. If I’m level 10 and you’re level 18, guess who wins, no matter what I do? The only time we’re on an even playing field to start out is at level cap. Or… simply having no levels at all and putting the entire world open to everyone so that war actually *could have been* everywhere and letting us work up the Renown Ranks to get new stuff and titles, etc. (but again, limiting the power of the “stuff” or else we’re back to the same problems we started with).

    You mention Guild Wars, and yeah we do tend to use it as an example but it also confuses players coming in, especially coming from the typical MMORPG background and expecting the same. You won’t get it in GW. It does *have* levels but the game isn’t based on levels at all, they’re only used as a base comparator to the PvE mobs you’re fighting. Since you own all three campaigns, I would recommend starting with Nightfall. It gets the point across better that 1-20 is the tutorial/learning phase and the other 95% of the game is all “level cap” content with lateral advancement. (The first one, Prophecies, takes you through some of the story as you’re leveling, which only served to further confuse the levels-minded players.) During the 1-20 part you’ll play through the back-story to the “real game” you’ll play later. I treat it more like a CCG (Magic: the Gathering, etc.) where the *point* is to collect more and more skills (cards) so I have more of an arsenal to build my “deck” with, since unlike an MMORPG where I have 20 hotbars cluttering my screen, I can only bring 8 skills with me at a time, ever. Even after reaching 20, you continue to “ding” to gain a new skill point to acquire a new skill. It’s just like a ding in an levels-RPG only the 20 never increases. Armor and weapon types also have a maximum value, which is never the case in a levels/gear MMORPG. But various weapon mods (gained from drops, salvages or trading from other players) allow you to further tweak your build, though if you change your build (and we often do) that mod may be a weakness to the next build. Nightfall also introduced Heroes to the game, which are AI companions you acquire through various means, and you level (if they’re not already 20) and equip them too, including their skills, which adds a whole new dimension. Also the mobs use the same classes as players, so learning what type of mobs are which classes and which skills they use can help you plan what skills (and classes for your group) to bring along in a certain area.

  12. If you did that in SWG, you’d be a mooching off the other players. Your contribution wasn’t in any way significant. What’s the difference between that and being ‘sidekicked’ in CoX so that you can make a meaningful contribution to the group? Well, the fact that you’re actually a meaningful part of the group in CoX.

    SWG was just as level based as EQ is, it just called Levels “Skills” instead. Same with UO, which is why I specifically made that point in my original post.

    And Eve? Eve is totally skill-based, with skills based on real time. How are you ever going to ‘catch up’ in Eve given that it takes real-world time to aggregate levels?

    I played SWG at launch. I played EVE. I remain unconvinced.

    No one is preventing you from taking on “red con” mobs and dying. No one is preventing you from trying to solo a Rancor in SWG on day 1. In either case you’re going to die… both games are level based.

    As for the alligator analogy. Well, these are games. If you want to live by your alligator analogy (aka, make it like real life) you have to add in perma-death, being out of commission for weeks after every battle (if you don’t die of infection) and so on.

    In your level-less games (which no one has yet really explained to me) how are you measuring progress? On day 1 you kill an orc who is a deadly foe. On day 1000 that foe, like the alligator, is still deadly. So what’s your sense of progress here?

    I’m amused at how my writing a post saying “I like levels and here is why” has brought out passionate responses trying to show me the error of my ways. The only argument that has intrigued me is Lars’ comments on his blog about Guild Wars.

    And oddly, I’m not having this terrible time of finding people to play these games with…

    Has anyone considered the alternative to segregating players via levels? Within weeks of launch, the min/maxxers will have determined the most efficient area/dungeon to fight in, and everyone will be clustered there, and no one will be anywhere else. Sort of like scenarios in Warhammer.

    So in your level-less games, how do you *distribute* players, which for technical reasons is essential (unless crashing servers is your idea of fun)?

  13. Cross-posted, but thanks for the Guild Wars/Nightfall suggestion, Scott.

    But what’s this about skill points? If I have 10 and you have 1000 skill points, are we on an equal footing, or are there levels hidden in there? 🙂

    Seriously, thanks for the great discussion.

  14. Equal footing? Are we PvEing or PvPing? That’s the “catch” with “playing catch-up” people are so afraid of (like you and EVE) which doesn’t always exist.

    And you’re still using the “skills = levels” argument, while missing the point of the rest. They are both “leveling mechanics” which is required for an RPG. I’m not necessarily saying the *old way* (UO/SWG/etc.) of skills-systems are the best either.

    As for player distribution… well how do games distribute players about the world now? Through content, not levels. Let’s pretend I’m one of those players who believe if I don’t get in on Day One then I shouldn’t get in at all. So, I play every day with all the exact same people who got in on Day One and we’re directed to all the exact same places at the exact same time. Yes, we’re “leveling” as well, but the same people are there, hence the same lag, etc. But there’s never (or at best, rarely) to revisit “old” zones once we’ve consumed them. [Mind you, I’m talking in a “legit” sense as opposed to going back to old zones with grey mobs to gather crafting resources while the mobs won’t see you, or grinding “old” rep because grey mobs don’t hurt much and die fast.]

    Anyway, back to GW — assuming you’re 20 and out of Elona then, like I said, the only thing that 20 over your head means to me is that you have max armor and enough skills to put together enough of a build “deck” to be useful. Each new skill you gain costs 1 skill point. You gain skills through quests (I think Nightfall abandoned that method though), from skill trainers (you buy them for gold + 1 point) and from capturing elite skills from bosses (you have to buy a capture signet from a skill trainer and equip it as one of your 8 skills). As you continue to “ding” you get 1 skill point per ding, so that’s one more skill you can acquire. You can dual-class (and switch to every other class as secondary too) so eventually you can gain every possible skill in the game although you only have the ones available at any given time that apply to your primary/secondary classes. So you having 10 and me having 1000 points just means I haven’t been buying skills. Either way, you and I can each only bring 8 out of the possible hundreds (or thousands whatever) total available to us.

    But there’s no such thing as “equal footing” unless we’re in PvP because we’re both already 20 with max armor (new “better” armor only looks better not better stats) and max weapons (all weapons of a given type have a max damage, period, new just looks different/better or different mods to go with certain skills/builds) so, similar to the “WAR should being at 40” thing, we’re already on “equal footing.”

    Eve is totally skill-based, with skills based on real time. How are you ever going to ‘catch up’ in Eve given that it takes real-world time to aggregate levels?

    So, you’re saying it would be a complete waste of my time (or anyone else’s) to start playing EVE now because we can never “catch up?” Funny, that’s not what every single EVE player I’ve asked that question to tells me…

    On day 1 you kill an orc who is a deadly foe. On day 1000 that foe, like the alligator, is still deadly. So what’s your sense of progress here?

    First day of boot camp, an enemy soldier is dangerous. On day 1000 of the war, that enemy soldier is still dangerous but wouldn’t I have “progressed” through experience? So would he, for that matter.

    You’ll be the third person I’ve asked this of and have yet to get an answer that satisfies me: as an EVE player (granted, you said you “played” which could have been for 5 minutes) do you *not* feel any sense of progress whatsoever in that game? I am totally not understanding why EVE players would continue to pay for and play the game if it’s “supposed” to be an RPG and yet feel no sense of progress. And if they are seeing progress, why are EVE players seemingly incapable of transferring that progress to say, a fantasy RPG? Is it the lack of a character (avatar, whatever) in EVE? What if I play [insert Diku-MMO here] fully scrolled in to first-person view — now I don’t have an avatar either but I’ll still feel a sense of progress won’t I? And avatars are coming to EVE soon anyway.

  15. “And you’re still using the “skills = levels” argument, while missing the point of the rest. ”

    You didn’t read my original post:

    “I’m fine with skill-based systems, where instead of gaining levels you gain skills… same difference for the sake of today’s argument: you’re still progressing a character from weak to mighty.”

    Call them levels, skills, or boomerangs, the point is that by playing and completing quests and succeeding in combat, you’re gaining some ‘currency’ that you expend to progress, making your character stronger over time.

    The entire point of the post and the discussion is me disagreeing with the contingent that says we shouldn’t have any kind of levels/skills/stat-based progression of any kind. Everyone character should be created “capped” (though granted “capped” is meaningless without levels/skills/boomerangs).

    “So, you’re saying it would be a complete waste of my time (or anyone else’s) to start playing EVE now because we can never “catch up?” Funny, that’s not what every single EVE player I’ve asked that question to tells me…”

    No, I’m saying EVE is skill/level based, just like EQ or SWG or UO or WOW. In EVE its even “more so” because there’s no way to “catch up” to your friend who has been playing for 2 years because you’ll never be able to catch up to his skill level, barring having a time machine. According to your argument, having disparate levels means players can’t play together. I’m saying if that is true then a newbie EVE player will never be able to catch up and play beside someone who has years invested in their character, even if that person has been playing 1 day/month for those years.

    It would only be a ‘waste of time’ according to your arguments, not mine.

    “First day of boot camp, an enemy soldier is dangerous. On day 1000 of the war, that enemy soldier is still dangerous but wouldn’t I have “progressed” through experience? So would he, for that matter.”

    In a game, how would you feel that progression? You killed the orc on day 1, you’re still killing it on day 1000. It can kill you on day 1, it can still kill you on day 1000. What’s changed for the player, aside from maybe he uses 1 skill instead of 4 to kill the orc?

    “as an EVE player (granted, you said you “played” which could have been for 5 minutes) do you *not* feel any sense of progress whatsoever in that game?”

    Of course I felt a sense of progress as my character skilled up. What made you think I didn’t? But its still a skill/level progression-based game, unless its changed a lot since I played it (always possible). I played two accounts for a couple of months, just to fill you in on my experience. Mostly with 1 other friend, so we duo’d a lot.

    But the people I’m arguing with would say that every EVE character should be created with every skill maxed out. If that happened, then I guess I might feel a sense of economic progression, but not of character progression.

  16. OK Let me make my point one last time via a simple analogy.

    The local RC Club wants to hold an air race using RC planes. The other bloggers want us all to buy stanard, pre-made RC Planes to use. I’m arguing that there’s a lot of fun in us each building our own planes and then racing them.

    They’re method isn’t *wrong* but I’m arguing that there are still those of us out here who like to *build* and fly RC planes, not just fly them. Even if it means the new guy in the club can’t make this Sunday’s race because he hasn’t built his plane yet.

  17. @Pete — I hope you weren’t thinking my response was an attempt to “show you the error of your ways.” I’m simply trying to point out reasons why some MMO players are frustrated with current implementations of leveling mechanics. I think there’s some very interesting discussion here.

    I actually think we agree with each other more than we disagree. But we do seem to be splitting hairs over the definition of level. Naturally, there has to be some form of measurable progression.

    Raph Koster’s “Do Levels Suck” articles (Part 1, Part 2) sum up my perspective on leveling mechanics better than I can.

  18. Ok, I think I at least see what you’re arguing against: that we should enter a game from Day One with everything already available to us? (Or nearly so?) That’s all fine and good for non-RPGs but I’ll side with you on that one. If I’m playing an RPG, be it levels-based, skills-based or something else, I’m not playing as “me,” I’m having my play experience through the adventures of the character I’m advancing/progressing/whatever. Am I on the same page regarding that particular topic?

    Having it “all” is fine for PvP where it’s player skill vs. player skill, but even then I gave the example above for modern FPS/racing where they still have RPG elements to gain further badges/titles/equipment to prolong the game’s viability. So I’m back to thinking the bloggers you’re talking about just want a PvP game (WAR) on an even keel and work from there — and I’m with them on that point because levels and PvP don’t mix — but it’s an RPG so there still needs to be some sense of progression — rather than dropping *all* pretenses of being an RPG whatsoever and just saying “gimme gimme gimme! now now now!”

    The reason I ask about EVE is you’re the third person in the past week or two who plays EVE yet cannot imagine “progress” without levels, when… EVE doesn’t have levels. Also, feel free to correct me, but I recently asked a veteran EVE player (and blogger) about the whole “catching up” thing and he said bullcrap, that I can start today and within a few weeks I’ll have enough ISK and skills to fly the same ships as the 5-year veteran guys. The only difference is that if mine is destroyed I’ll have to keep working where the vet will have enough cash to immediately buy another uber ship and get right back out there. But as far as “catching up” it should only take a few weeks to get my skills up there, and skills level is what determines what ships I can fly.

    That’s why I’ve never understood the whole “catching up” mentality some people have and their aversion to starting an older MMO because they can’t “catch up.” I always wonder exactly who they think they have to catch up to? And why? And in modern (2004+) levels-based MMOs, it’s sooooo easy to hit level cap even playing casually, how much “catching up” does anyone need to do? I don’t get it.

  19. @Lars Yes, we could be splitting hairs on what a level is. I was being lazy by using the word rather than finding something more generic to represent increasing character “might” based on stats (as opposed to player skill).

    @Scott: “I’m having my play experience through the adventures of the character I’m advancing/progressing/whatever. Am I on the same page regarding that particular topic?”

    Yes, absolutely!

    You actually bring up a good point…maybe Warhammer Online should never have been a MMORPG? Because I lied earlier (unintentionally, it just never occurred to me when I was posting) when I said I don’t have problems finding people around my level to play these games. I DID have trouble finding those people in Warhammer. But in EQ2 or LOTRO I feel like I can find a group at pretty much any level these days. So maybe the RVR slant to Warhammer really drives people to ‘cap’ asap? And maybe that game really should have just done away with levels so the RvR would be balanced.

    Maybe give everyone a level 40 character (and at this point that “40” becomes meaningless) and a full bag of Renown Skill Points (or whatever they were called… the equivalent of WoW Talents and EQ2 Achievments) so that each player can ‘specialize’ his character accordingly, then let ’em at it?

    I’ll defer to you on EVE, as my experience is quite ancient. But the way I remember it, you’d need x Pilot Skill to pilot Ship A, and X*5 Pilot Skill to pilot ship B, and so on. So if you’ve been playing and you have X*5 Pilot skill, and I have zero Pilot skill, by the time I get to X, you’re at X*6. By the time I’m at X*5 and can pilot ship B, you’re at X*10 and can pilot ship C, and so I’m never going to catch up.

    Except a) maybe that isn’t the way it works..I could be mis-remembering or the game could have changed and b) I suppose at some point the ships just don’t get any better and so additional pilot skill isn’t that significant any more. I just don’t remember there being any skill caps in EVE, but again, we’re talking about launch when I played, so I could just be mis-remembering.

    FWIW I don’t have any aversion to starting any older MMO except EVE, because (as far as I know) EVE is the only MMO that uses real-time to advance skills, and even then it wouldn’t bother me if PvP death in EVE wasn’t so painful (again, maybe it isn’t as bad now, but back when I played it was a pretty dangerous world for someone who wasn’t part of a large Corp to act as backup).

  20. Another problem with Warhammer was that as you leveled up you actually became WEAKER, which is contrary to the entire point of leveling. You would be strong for your tier at level 19, 29, etc., but as soon as you moved to the next tier you’d become a weakling again (as all things are relative).

  21. What an interesting discussion on a very interesting subject. Thanks Lars for linking Raph Koster’s entries, that was an insight, too!

    In the former Pen and Paper world, my passion was the level-less system of Chaosium. Namely the Call of Cthulhu, in which the characters started as professionals. Call it starting from level cap, or not. Content wise they were newbies, and this is what makes the difference: currently players are playing MMORPGs as games, trying to win the content, instead of playing the game for the play, that is, to build their characters in their respective stories.

    There are no such games available, yet.

    What is clever in Call of Cthulhu (and Chaosium’s Basic Roleplaying system) is the fact that the veteran is not necessarily stronger nor has more hp’s than the starter character. Instead the skills and knowledge make the difference. However, the characters are specialists in their respective skills, so they really need each other to tackle the onslaught.

    It has also covered the progression part nicely. You try and get hurt, so you know you have to bring better knowledge and bigger guns.

    There is one aspect that has been left out of this discussion, which could make a huge difference in the MMO’s as we know them. The effect of the actions of the characters. I have heard that this is used in Fable2 and Witcher, and it’s coming to the SWTOR: what you do and what choices you make during your gameplay has an effect on the later game as whole.

    If this was in the games, we would really see a change in the way the games are played. Like I said, most of the people play the game as themselves, not as the characters they steer through the virtual worlds. Which was the general idea behind the pnp games I ran as a gm years back.


  22. @Pete: I just asked another EVE guy and he says that while you can keep putting points into skills, say Piloting, there are only so many types of ships and it doesn’t take long to get your skill high enough to fly the “best” or “biggest” one like the vets do. Anything points higher than that are just fluff, it seems. So it’s entirely possible to “catch up” in terms of being able to do/fly all the stuff the vets do. For that matter, the skills do have a cap, it just takes years to reach it. Keep your account active long enough and you’ll get there by default. 🙂

    @Copra: Yeah, I remember CoC and others used a non-“hard-levels” system that worked really well. As for making decisions and story matter (as well as “making” players “roleplay”) good luck. It works well in single-player RPGs such as KOTOR, Mass Effect, Witcher and the Fable games. Multiplayer? Look at some of the comments over the Death Knight area with its “phasing” tech. You have people in the same group saying stuff like “oh talk to the NPC in the barn over here” and the other guy says “what barn?” because he’s further along already and made a decision where the barn burned down. How do you coordinate stuff like that — not to mention the pressure in groups to keep going, not stand around *reading* the quest text and dialogue — so that everyone’s on the same page while still being able to make their own decisions? Will TOR have more meaningful decisions than “An old lady’s kitten is in a tree, do you a) Save the kitten or b) Burn the tree and the kitten and laugh in the old lady’s face?” which is how polarized (and often obvious) KOTORs decision trees were. I’m finding Mass Effect to be similar. I know that if I answer whichever phrase is “up” that will give me Paragon points (good) or if I choose the “down” phrase I’ll get Renegade points. However, certain quests open only for Paragons or only for Renegades so *if* Mass Effect were multiplayer that goes right back to blocking content so it’s entirely possible a friend and I would be unable to play together. Fable2 is a single-player game but you can see little orbs in the world where your friends are adventuring in their own game. If you join their game to play co-op though, it’s still a single-player game and there can only be one of any certain person in the world so you’ll play the part of one of their companions instead. That’s a whole different ballgame from each of you having your own characters and always able to play that character.

  23. @Lars: Good catch on Raph’s articles, by the way, I’d forgotten about those. He did a good job illustrating what levels did originally vs. what they do now. The act of “leveling” is a powerful motivation, and I’m with him in his contention that it’s possible to have all the positives (and retention) of leveling without having “levels” (meaning their current MMORPG implementation) and all their negative effects.

    Even back in high school (before the internet!) playing AD&D (and other PnP RPG’s) I would “level the world” along with my group. I suppose I inherently think in terms of story-telling and so didn’t use the D&D version of a “level” the same way our MMORPGs use “levels.”

    Despite being a LOTRO player, my Tolkien-Fu is actually pretty weak, but I’ll use this simple example. At the beginning of the books, Frodo has never adventured, so he would be low level. Aragorn on the other hand, is a hero of great renown. Yet even a single orc or goblin in the “lowbie zones” of the first part of their trek presented a challenge for Aragorn. He had to be on his toes, had to use his abilities. The orc wasn’t “grey” to him simply because it was in a lowbie zone, and Aragorn didn’t walk up, call the orc a noob and one-shot it.

    In my D&D, etc. campaigns that had levels, I used a similar philosophy. That gave the players a constant challenge and the constant potential for growth or advancement should they choose to partake of it. The orcs or whatever near their home town at level 1 would still be challenging when they returned because I would “level up” the orcs as well to keep them on a somewhat even keel. Arguably this is what you could consider in our MMORPGs when you go to the next zone and you have higher level mobs, maybe reskinned, of the same type as the last zone. The difference is how “levels” have been applied to the current MMORPG (and DikiMUD) paradigm vs. how I handled “levels” and even how other modern RPGs like Mass Effect handle the concept of “levels.”

    Pete since you’re a LOTRO player as well, you and I have it fairly easy finding groups at most level brackets. It wasn’t always the case, and there used to be a content gap. Many vets were so burned out on Lone Lands, for example, that even today getting groups there is rough compared to other places. But they added more content eventually, right? The catch is: the new mid-level content only applied to new characters. If we’d already out-leveled that zone, why would we go back for the new content when, because of the DikuMUD version of “levels”, it’s already trivialized? We won’t, we’ll have to make an alt to play it. That’s always the rub against adding new mid-level content because it applies to fewer and fewer players, whereas eventually everyone will be at level cap so we need more high-end content, more new areas are dead, new players (or alts) have little choice but to solo, “why bother, I’ll never catch up,” and other problems. In the “level-less” (which really only means an alternate leveling mechanic or simply that “levels” have a different effect or meaning than they currently do) world, devs could freely add new content anywhere they wanted (in addition to brand-new areas, of course) and everyone can participate rather than “oh, great, guess I have to make yet another alt to see the new stuff.”

    The catch is what type of carrots will keep players motivated? Tabletop RPGs were largely a social environment, that was the motivation in and of itself. In D&D it was a rare day indeed that a character would happen upon a magical item or weapon. In an MMO, if we don’t get something “now now now” or at the very least “real soon now!” we quit. If we ditch the current levels paradigm does the current gear paradigm also have to go? Are they intrinsically linked?

  24. Couple things. First, on the “gray” mobs. The original point of something going gray was to simulate a critter knowing when to flee and when to fight. If things don’t “go gray” then you’re going to aggro them constantly, which means whenever you leave home you have to fight your way out of town. Which maybe sounds great to some; to me, I think it would get dull having to fight the same bunch of mobs every single time I left Bree, say. Those bears and boars would be attacking at level 50 the same as when they attacked at 10.

    I’d argue that what comparing your intimate, customized table top D&D campaigns with a massive-online game is kind of apples and oranges. What did you do with the orcs outside your town if two parties were there, 1 brand new wet-behind-the-ears adventurers carrying simple clubs and wearing rags, and the other a highly experienced group wearing pristine armor and carrying razor-sharpe weapons? Your orc should behave that same to both parties? That doesn’t make sense. So the orc has to have some kind of programmed AI to determine threat level of a party in order to determine who to fight and who to run from. And every mob in the world has to do that in real time as players come and go, and keep things lag free. I just think that’s asking a lot, without the ‘crutch’ of levels.

    (Though, tangent, I’d really like to see ‘gray’ mobs actively run-away from stronger opponents rather than just ignore them.)

    I guess one basic difference between you and I, Scott, is that you see making alts as a burden, while I delight in them. When EQ2 launched a new expansion with a new starter area and a new race, I couldn’t wait to get in there and try it out. When Moria launched, I was excited to try out the new classes.

    But if you’re a one-character/game player, then I can see how additional “mid-level” areas just seems like a chore to you.

    I really need to check out Guild Wars because that’s still the only example you guys have given as an example of a game without some stat-increase-based-advancement (see how I avoided the term level there? 🙂 ). The idea that once you hit 20 (and setting that aside) then its all to do with which skills you choose to use rather than how “mighty” you are sounds interesting to me, though I’m not 100% sure I’d like it.

    Frankly I get a kick out of getting stronger than the content I left behind. Going into an area and aggroing a dozen of the mobs that used to kick my behind and unleashing AOE skills and spells and sending them flying is pretty entertaining to me (once in a while…not as a staple of play).

    In a way, Oblivion (granted, a single player game) did what you’re suggesting. Yeah, the player leveled, but the mobs leveled to keep parity. My understanding is that the system wasn’t all that popular with players, but that WAS a single player game.

  25. Yeah I asked Syncaine about the Oblivion way, which nearly everyone hated, and I would guess Oblivion used a very DikuMUD version of levels, in which case, yeah it would suck having the world level up with you in *that* way.

    I don’t think alts are a “chore” because they give me the opportunity to see the game through a different class or set of abilities that were unavailable to me in another character. (Segue to your new post!) In SWG we only had one character slot per server (not the case anymore) so we had to get a new account to have multiple characters on the same server to play with our same friends. In WoW I was a major altaholic, I lost count how many I had even on various servers, Horde, Alliance, blahblah. Three of my characters were raiding characters, sometimes doing two raids per night. I find myself these days less inclined to do alts, though. In LOTRO my main is a lore-master, then I have a minstrel who is still 50. I speed-leveled the minstrel just so I’d have an end-game alt (pre-Moria) for dungeons and raids. I have a captain who’s still 40 and who knows when he’ll get higher. I’m interested in the new Warden class but no interest in actually creating an alt right now, much less playing it.

    Perhaps that’s the greatest weakness of the genre right now — the games themselves pretty much suck on their own. If WoW or LOTRO or EQ2 was a single-player game but played the exact same way, would that actually be fun? Not for me. The act of “leveling” I guess is tied to exploration and discovery of what’s new in that game or the game world. The second time through the exploration is gone, you’ve done it already, though you might find a nugget or few you missed the first time. The fifth time through… do you still enjoy that same journey all over again? Or is it rote now and you’re just min/maxing the entire journey? And doesn’t that make the journey less meaningful? And certainly less fun?

  26. Eve, I played for two-three years and I tell you having the most ISK does help and to get it you need to play a lot. You can buy the same ship as Mr. Uber but to train the skills (ala levels) to use weapons mixes, different shields, warp scramblers, disrutptors, engines, hull harders take a long long time.
    These uber players who tell you that are like the millionaires that tell us “money ain’t everthing”. Its pretty easy to say that when you got it.

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