Thursday, May 21, 2009

Random Shots: Adventures In Advancement Schema

  • Over at Kill Ten Rats (one of my favorite MMO blogs), Zubon and Julian hosted a discussion about the effect of levels on PvE encounters. The thing that struck me, as I know it has occurred to others in the past, is how leveling schemes inform every decision about how you'll play an MMO. I'm going to review a few games and discuss the positive and negative aspects of each.

  • World of Warcraft - With as acclaimed as the game is, it's pretty funny that World of Warcraft actually has the most traditional advancement system in MMOs. Following the line back through Everquest and DIKU-sytle MUDs to Dungeons & Dragons, advancement occurs through experience levels and equipment upgrades. This model has stood the test of time due to the obvious benefits:
    1. gaining levels is a strong, visible goal for character improvement,

    2. discrete levels allow for targeted content challenges, and

    3. it is not very complicated.

    In the con column, targeted content can be trivialized when a character outlevels or outgears the challenge. This also means that groups of players need to be at a similar level to play together or the content might be too challenging or too trivial. WoW avoids this problem by just not caring. The assumption is that a new player will solo low level content until they can reach the newest expansion zone and can play with everyone else.

  • Everquest 2 - In development at the same time as WoW, Everquest 2 also borrows from its predecessor, though it remembered to borrow something WoW left out. Along with leveling and gear upgrades, EQ2 has a robust Achievement system, based on EQ's Alternate Advancements. This provides diversification of characters while promoting quest completion, exploration, and killing special enemies. The game also allows higher level characters to temporarily set their level to match lower level members and earn achievement experience instead. It's an excellent system to force players to roam widely through the world and facilitates playing together instead of grinding a single track to the endgame. The primary downside is that Achievement experience is another linear grind, with many of the attendant problems leveling has. The fact that EQ2 gives so many options to grind them in parallel is a testament to the game's designers.

  • Warhammer Online - Born from the lessons taught by WoW, Warhammer Online has a very familiar feel. Only in this case, you have a Career Rank, capped at 40 earned through PvE, and a Realm Rank, capped at 80 and earned through PvP. Again, we have multiple advancement tracks that you can grind in parallel. WAR allows lower level characters to PvP with high levels through a Bolster system which temporarily sets a player at a higher Career Rank. This helps keep PvP battles balanced, but Mythic still has to gate content to prevent griefing. Thus, there is the same rush to the endgame and empty low level content.

  • Guild Wars - As a direct reaction to the standard MMO style, ArenaNet designed a game specifically to avoid the leveling treadmill. Instead, Guild Wars treats the accent to the maximum level of 20 as an extended tutorial, saving the majority of the PvE content to be challenging at that level. There are maximum gear levels as well, with upgrades primarily to mix and match the most optimal statistics or for cosmetic reasons. Also, since the game is based on slotting a limited number of skills, the player grows horizontally by accumulating a wider variety of skills. With this system in place, you can guarantee a large amount of appropriate content to players. However horizontal growth is not a strong incentive for players accustomed to continuous increases in power, which is why GW added faction and title grinding into later editions.

  • Free Realms - While other SOE games have been quite conservative, Free Realms turns out to be the most innovative recently. Instead of a single vertical advancement track, FR's job allow a single character to advance in 15 separate jobs as fits the player's mood. With six potential combat jobs, low level content can be used repeatedly while low level caps don't get in the way of people playing together. The nine other jobs open a number of mini-games that add variety to the game. On the positive side, having so many options means that one can easily change focus as your mood shifts. As a negative, fans of linear advancement will chafe at the lack of focus to the game. (I know this is a weak entry. I'm enamored with Free Realms right now so I haven't had time to turn a critical eye to the game.)

  • EVE Online - I haven't played much EVE, so I'll keep this short. However, it's too important of a game to leave off. EVE Online completely throws out the level grind for a skill based advancement. Skill based games allow for infinite customer customization with the risk that eventually, everyone looks the same. EVE seems to have avoided that pitfall by having too many damn skills. Beyond that, EVE's skills are earned completely in real time. As long as you have an active account, you can earn skill points whether you are actively playing or not. While this means that newer players can never catch up to veterans, skills in EVE only allow for more options. A new player can still perform specialist roles with just a little time and effort. This type of advancement system would be anathema to a great many players, but EVE (and similarly Darkfall) exalts its chosen niche.

  • As I was researching this post, I found that Ferrel over at Epic Slant already had a number of posts about this very thing. Go check out his Character Advancement/Development posts for much more. If you have anything to add or correct, or maybe just want to make fun of me, go ahead a leave a comment.

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