Playing The Long Game: Revisiting and Revising Traditional MMO Progression
Twenty years ago, Wizards of the Coast had a problem. Magic: The Gathering was spectacularly successful, raising the company from a mostly unknown manufacturer of RPG supplements to the #1 gaming company in the world. But even in its early days, Magic was clearly becoming unwieldy. Incredibly powerful cards – the kinds that won tournaments – were already becoming nigh impossible to get without incredible luck or huge cash expenditures (or both), and the problem would only get worse as the game aged. New players would have zero chance of competing with veterans who had been there since day one, and as those veterans left the game, there would be no one to replace them.
Wizards' solution was the Type 2 format, now called Standard, which only uses cards from the past two years' worth of sets and the latest base set, so players in 2015 don't have to worry about cards that were released in 1995. It was a highly controversial move, to say the least, when it was originally announced, pissing off vast numbers of fans who'd been there since the beginning and heralding “Magic is dead/dying” headlines on... well, probably the three or four websites that existed back then.
Wizards of the Coast was fine enduring the storm of player rage and emerged stronger than ever. Two decades later, Magic is still going strong, with about 20 million players across the world, and Standard is its most popular format. If you're the cynical type, you can't deny that a big reason for the implementation of Type 2/Standard was to rotate out old, overpowered cards, and “force” players to buy new cards. But if Type 2/Standard hadn't come along, there's no way Magic could draw in new players, who would continually get their face stomped in by megabuck decks full of cards made before they were born. Sure, it provided some short-term, regular, profit, but the move was made to bring new people into the game and help them be competitive as quickly as possible.
More alike than different
MMOs have many similarities to CCGs. Both are “continuing game services” with some level of progression for its players. As a result, at some point after launch, players have built up a number of material resources that give them an innate advantage over new players – cards for CCGs, and stats, whether through levels or gear, for MMOs – that has little or nothing to do with player skill. That's great for existing players, making them feel powerful and all-conquering, but without some way to “boost up” new players and give them a chance against older players holding all those advantages, those new players won't last long. And without new players, any game would die a slow, drawn-out death.
Wizards of the Coast realized this 20 years ago, and current MMO developers are also coming around, to a degree. Why else would so many of them offer instant near-max-level boosts and so many XP bonuses (along with occasional upward level scaling)? They know that new players, seeing awesome high-level gameplay, don't want to do mindless quests for months to get there. True, getting to endgame in an MMO is probably quicker and definitely cheaper than assembling a top-tier CCG deck, but it's also easier to quit an MMO and move on to one of the other hundreds out there if it takes too long to get to the parts that make the game stand out from the crowd or accumulate enough numbers to be competitive in PvP.
(This is a separate issue from having enough skill. It doesn't matter how skilled you are, your level 10 character wouldn't last a minute against a level 50 button-masher in pretty much any MMO.)
Right now, this is the preferred modus operandi for virtually all MMOs: Have a traditional leveling experience early in an MMO's life, when people are just happy to be there and there are lots of people leveling around you. Then, when the leveling grind gets to be too much for veteran players and new players – all of whom, by definition, weren't there at the start and probably aren't as obsessively passionate about the game – don't want to take a long time to enjoy the meaty parts of the game, introduce ways to skip leveling content and rush straight to endgame.
Does it work? Somewhat. Does it invalidate a lot of work on those early leveling experiences and generally make leveling pointless? Definitely. Is there a better way? Maybe.
The essence of it is this: Leveling in an MMO is a false triumph, a way to make you feel good about yourself by seeing your numbers go up without actually making you better – and maybe actually making your game experience worse. Does it matter if you do 1,000 points of damage every time you hit against an enemy that has 10,000 hit points or if you do 2,000 per hit against something with 20,000 hit points 20 levels later? To put it another way, is the level 50 raid when the game comes out any easier than the level 60 raid in the expansion? Or the level 70 one in the next expansion? Or are the numbers just bigger? What do you actually gain by increasing your level other than the ability to go back and do lower-level content more easily?
The biggest problem, though, is the multiplayer aspect. In a single-player game, it doesn't matter if I level faster than you do in yours; your game experience doesn't affect mine in any way. In an MMO, though, me being at level 50 and you being at level 30 does make a difference, whether we're friends and can't effectively play together, or enemies, and one of us will annihilate the other. Even if you're OK with being torched by other, high-level players as you level – and I can see some of the thrill in that – a lot of people aren't.
I think this is one of the major factors behind the dropoff that MMOs, especially free-to-play MMOs, experience following their launch. When you see the mountain of tasks that remain ahead of you to access the best parts of the game, you're more likely to move on to something else – and maybe back to that game where you're already at max level and get to do the fun stuff – rather than stick it out in this one, especially if you're a latecomer and aren't as insanely passionate as the people who are beating down the doors to the server on launch day.
This is why I've been advocating for games with lighter progression curves and, when feasible, the elimination of strict vertical leveling that does more to separate players instead of bringing them together – which is kind of the point of a multiplayer game. This isn't to say there should be no statistical progression at all, but it should be meaningful and balanced. Getting a weapon that does 10% more damage is pointless if all the enemies have 10% more hit points. Similarly, there's little point to having twice as much DPS as everyone you're facing. It'll be fun for you, for a while, until the people you're farming decide they'd rather do something else. (And no, pounding on hapless players 20 levels below you doesn't make you a good player.)
Leveling the field
I understand why games do this, and I won't deny enjoying that mental pleasure of seeing my numbers go up. But it's playing the short game, enjoying that fun rush at the beginning, while sacrificing long-term health – exactly the sort of thing Wizards of the Coast realized was having a detrimental effect on Magic: The Gathering, all those years ago. You can still experience that thrill of gaining new abilities and power, but it doesn't have to come with separating players with a wide gap in their capabilities.
This is how PlanetSide 2 and world vs. world in Guild Wars 2 work. New players are several steps behind long-time players in both games, but they can at least be competitive and, with a little skill or the help of teammates, win evenly matched encounters. Or imagine a game like World of Tanks or League of Legends requiring you to play single-player matches for 50 hours before getting to try out PvP battles or pitting you in matches against players with vastly superior firepower right out of the gate. At no point have I heard anyone in any of those games lament that they didn't have to grind out levels before getting to play the core part of the game.
Could the same thing work in a non-PvP game? I'll admit, that's a concept I haven't fully worked out yet, but I think it could be possible. In a way, it already exists, and you probably play a game that does so. When you do reach max level in an MMO, you don't delete that character and quit the game. Now that you can't level any further, you find other ways to increase your capabilities, often by acquiring new and better gear through raids, gear that usually has a relatively minor statistical edge over non-raid gear.
This doesn't mean that I expect everyone to be handed top-tier gear or the coolest achievements as soon as they log in, or even – in some cases – that they should get to attempt the more difficult content in a game before learning some of the basics. But they should at least be on a fairly even playing field and get to try the best parts of the game as quickly as is feasible to begin working toward those high-end goals. What does leveling, with its disposable gear that we'll replace every other day, add to the experience? Exploring various zones and a vast open world is nice, but there's nothing that says that has to be tied to huge vertical stat increases. Again, you do dungeons after you've already attained max level, so why couldn't this be the same in other zones?
To be clear: I don't want to eliminate progression in MMOs. But hard vertical progression as the only means of advancement is unsustainable in the long run. MMO developers seem to learn this lesson a few years into every game's run, making changes like purchaseable level boosts or level-scaling – often hand-in-hand with a F2P move that's needed because they're not drawing enough new players. Maybe that's the best course, to start off traditional and then switch gears later, though I think that leads to messy conversions, like SWTOR's recent level downscaling, and more consternation among existing players (“I worked hard for these levels and now you're selling them in the cash shop?”), than there needs to be. If MMORPGs want to last for years, it might be time to they start building them like that from the ground up.
About the Author
Jason Winter is a veteran gaming journalist, he brings a wide range of experience to MMOBomb, including two years with Beckett Media where he served as the editor of the leading gaming magazine Massive Online Gamer. He has also written professionally for several gaming websites.
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