Monday, July 30, 2007

Alternatives to Leveling

On Voyages in Eternity, Damionov reposted an idea from the mud-dev forums which proposes an alternative to the XP mechanism for advancing levels. The idea involves moving characters along in levels by accomplishing "achievements." I think Dungeons and Dragons Online attempted to do something similar by rewarding XP based on completing quests as opposed to the mindless killing of monsters.

Its a nice idea, but I don't think it really fixes anything. In my humble opinion, the main problem with MMORPGs is that the leveling mechanism is broken. It makes great sense in a single player game since it gives you a sense of progression. In an MMO, however, it also segregates players as players of different levels can't play with each other.

The leveling mechanism in most MMOs also reduces the attractiveness of the game as it matures; most MMOs attract the majority of their players when they first come out. Mature MMOs end up being empty wilderness devoid of players except in the highest level zones after some time. In EverQuest II, they introduced many low-level zones with Echoes of Faydwer. They are mostly empty. I rolled an Arasai and took him through the new starter zone they recently introduced in GU35. Its pretty much dead. The game simply will never have the population it had at launch in the low-level zones. And as they add more low-level zones, like the upcoming Sarnak starting area, the already low numbers of low-level players will be further spread out.

Most people I know hesitate to join any MMO that is already established for this very reason; its just a very lonely experience to jump into a game where you don't know anyone, and there is no one to play with you since they are at the end game already. And its not as fun to explore when everyone else already has walkthroughs or has done the quests you are on already and wants to get through it in the most efficient manner possible.

Raph Koster recently went into detail about these and the many other reasons why levels suck on his site, and I would recommend reading that.

Recent MMOs have tried "hacks" to fix the broken leveling mechanic. City of Heroes and EverQuest 2 introduced mentoring systems so you can temporarily change levels. I rarely see it used in EQ2, except to "cheat" by mentoring down before zoning into scaling instances (so the monsters in the instance will be set to a lower level than usual.) I saw it used quite a bit in CoH, so I guess its a success there, but its still a duct tape patch on the problem.

Dungeons and Dragons Online has a flatter level range (a lot of advancement is done "within" a level) and rewarded XP for quests instead of grinding monsters. But the inevitable result was that players grind quests instead -- Kanthalos talks about some of the issues with quest-oriented advancement systems on his site. So that fixed nothing.

So what can we do? Can we just eliminate levels? To do that, we first have to understand the purpose they serve in terms of the game mechanics... Levels serve a very important purpose: advancing your character is what motivates players to keep playing. If you eliminate levels, people would require a substitute as a goal. In games like EverQuest, the primary motivator to keep playing is to increase one's level. At the level cap, the motivation is channeled into item acquisition, which is simply another form of leveling mechanism.

So the question is: is there a way to change or replace the leveling mechanism so that it doesn't segregate players, while still providing an incentive to keep playing? I think so. We've already seen this done, to some extent, in a few games:

Vendetta Online avoided some of the issues with leveling because its combat model was twitch based. Levels merely gated content so the "better" ships were out of reach until you "earned" them. However, a new player in the starter ship could take out a veteran in the "best" ship in the game if he played better. So, new players still can find roles to play on servers where the majority of players are at max level.

Guild Wars largely avoided the problem with levels. While they did have a leveling mechanism, you got to the level cap quickly - you could do it in a day. At that stage, the primary motivator in the PvE game was to accomplish missions, collect Heroes, and obtain skills. The skills did not necessarily make a player "better;" instead characters simply became more specialized, so a new level 20 could still play with a veteran level 20 and pull his own weight.

That's what I'd like to see more of. I'd like to see leveling replaced with mechanisms to allow a player to earn the ability to customizer their character, or specialize the character in ways that doesn't forcibly segregate them from the rest of the player population. But I'm no game designer, so what do I know. :)

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Doctor Who MMO Redux

I guess one flaw with my fantasy of a Doctor Who MMO universe is that MMOs are typically centered around combat. Doctor Who, on the other hand, was usually non-violent. It was rare to see the Doctor pick up a weapon.

I guess the obvious solution would be to militarize the game in some fashion. Since you obviously can't play the Doctor anyway, players could belong to a Time Agency or some other group alluded to in the series, who wage war across time against various time travelling enemies hell bent on conquering history. Captain Jack Harkness did carry a sonic blaster instead of a sonic screwdriver after all.

Star Trek was usually non-violent too, but Perpetual seems to have taken the obvious approach of making Star Trek Online more militaristic.

Are there alternate means of providing obstacles to players that can be explored in an MMO? We've seen diplomacy in Vanguard (kind of...). That was somewhat of an card game. Would an MMO that used puzzles or card games to simulate "defeating an obstacle" interest players?

Could a game be done in a way that doesn't use loot as a means of advancement? The Doctor was rarely seen collecting anything except celery sticks and jelly babies. But, on the other hand, I don't recall Luke Skywalker upgrading his armor after a battle with the Stormtroopers either, and the current post-NGE Star Wars MMO is pretty darn loot-centric.

Doctor Who would definitely work as a single player game, and it appears that I'll at least get that part of my wish. They are going to release a Doctor Who video game this Christmas!

I would still love to see Doctor Who as an MMO, but it would require some creative thinking to present it properly.

Friday, July 20, 2007

My Dream MMORPG Setting: Doctor Who / Torchwood

Voyages in Eternity just completed a five-part series of articles detailing his dream settings for an MMORPG. Its a great read. His dream settings included some of my favorite RPGs: Star Frontiers, Gamma World, and Call of Cthulhu. There is a lot of potential for gaming in those settings; hopefully now that the MMO industry has grown it will start to move beyond the rut of Tolkien-esque fantasy clones.

Now, if I had been asked what my dream setting for an MMO (or just a single player RPG or adventure game) would be, it would definitely be one based on the Doctor Who (and Torchwood) universe. It would be fun to play a Time Agent (like Captain Jack Harkness) and battle iconic Doctor Who villains like the Daleks and Cybermen, and occasionally meeting the Doctor and his Companions in your travels. The beauty of this setting is that it spans all of space and time, so you can tell any kind of story: a macabre horror in Victorian gaslight London, a sci fi space opera, a historical romance, a whodunnit mystery, exploring the unknown on an alien planet, avoiding dinosaurs in the ancient past -- or the modern streets of London!, anything.

I guess the closest thing to that type of openness would be Stargate, because each planet is different from one to another in terms of population, level of technology, and culture. So while I never really got into Stargate as much, I do hope they manage to do that element of the series justice when (and if) the MMO Stargate Worlds comes out.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Quests in MMOs

Recently there have been a few good posts about MMO quests on some of the blogs I read, such as MMOre Insight (Make Quests More Fun), MMOCritic (Quest System Design), and maybe a few other MMO blogs with MMO in the name as well. I similarly think there is a lot of room for improvement in the way quests are implemented.

I think one of the main drawbacks to quest systems in current MMOs is that they limit the number of people you can adventure with. When I played Final Fantasy XI, where quests were largely a waste of time, and level progression was pretty much just based on the traditional model of camping and grinding the standard zone track of Valkurm->Qufim->Khazam, the only limiting factor for grouping was the viable level range for grouping and classes needed.

But in EQ2 or WoW, you also have to worry about whether potential group members working are on the same quests, and what step they are on. So the net effect is that the community, already fragmented by level range, is fragmented further by quests. Compound this with the fact that most modern MMOs make it easier to solo, and you end up with a lot of people playing the same game separately because its often too much trouble to find people to work on the same quests you want to while inside the game (of course, we can rely on our guilds for that, but then we're still only interacting with a subset of the community...)

EQ2 recently revamped its LFG tool and increased the number of quests that could be shared (sparing you the monotony of having to wait for people to run to the quest giver so they can party with you.) These are obviously attempts to encourage grouping and make it easier for people to go on quests together.

But I wonder if fixing the LFG system isn't the right way. Maybe instead of collecting billions of random (mostly fetch/kill) quests in our quest journals, most quests should be more transient: something you grab when you go out on the adventure itself instead of carrying around with you hoping to find someone else who wants to work on it too. I think City of Heroes had some things right in this area: people would generally find contacts who would assign quests linked together by a storyline. If you chose to bring along help, the quest would scale and be shared accordingly. This makes the grouping system the best I'd ever seen. Generally, within moments of logging on, I could find something to do.

This idea could easily be incorporated into a fantasy game: adventurers could gather at inns where they could learn about quests by overhearing rumors, or randomly an NPC might come into the inn and ask for adventurer assistance. Guards and wanted notices might dispense kill quests that players could share. The point is, for most "quests", we should simply be able to grab it, recruit some allies, and go.

My ideal MMO would also turn some game mechanics into quests of sorts. For example, in EQ2, there is a fence that sells goods from cities of the opposing alignment. I think it would be neat if the items in that auction didn't appear unless some player(s) somewhere took a quest that made them go into the opposing city to pick up a "package" which they then have to bring back home (perhaps limiting the ability to teleport with some game-related excuse), with bandits spawning along the way. When they get back to their home town, they would have to smuggle it past the guards. Each time someone did the quest, more items would become available for sale. You might even have players pick the type of good they want to smuggle. Food is perishable and would therefore have a time limit or the mission is a failure. Arms and armor are harder to transport so while they might get paid extra, a penalty might be applied to their movement rate, or guards would be more likely to detect them. And so on...

Similarly, the game could create repeatable escort quests where you follow a caravan on its way to an outpost (perhaps the quality of the goods that appear on the NPC merchants is determined by the number of players who participate.) The enemies you face on the way would scale according to the level of the player or players that go on the "quest."

Ideas like this could make it easier to find groups. Or at the very least, it would reduce the clutter in our quest journals (quest journals should only ever contain truly important story arc quests that would probably continue to operate the way they do today.) So "real" quests would be more special, and the standard delivery/fetch/kill quests we do to break from the grind would at least feel more important since (by tying some of them to the game mechanics) they would have a visible impact on the world.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Returning to EQ2

Its been a while since I've played EQ2, but I decided to restart my adventures in Norrath. I've been playing with the Explorers of Legend, a family- and casual- friendly guild on the Najena server.

On this blog, I'll post my thoughts about MMO- and EQ2- related matters from the perspective of a soon-to-be-married thirty-something with a full-time job and not a lot of time on his hands.

Here's a little video a guildmate made about our guild: