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How To Replace Levels In MMOs, Part 3

Previously, I detailed some of the pros and cons of levels. Let's define what the goals of a replacement system are, and take a look at why we want to replace levels.

9 Min Read

In my previous post about levels, I detailed some of the pros and cons of levels. I promised that I'd propose some solutions to the problems that levels introduce to our games.

But, first, let's define what the goals of a replacement system are, and take a look at why we want to replace levels.

A Number is Not The Enemy

As people have pointed out in comments, it's not really the concept of levels that we're tackling here; rather, we're taking a look at levels as they are usually implemented in a game. There is no fundamental problem with having a numeric value associated with a character to represent a character like levels do. But, levels as they are currently implemented have a specific load of baggage along with them.

So, something that replaces levels doesn't necessarily have to shy away from being a number. Our goal here is to eliminate specific problems levels require.

Our Goals

As I mentioned in the first article, levels serve three purposes: achievement, information, and pacing. A proper system should fulfill all these purposes. For my system, I want to focus on pacing and achievement more than information.

In the second article, I mentioned some of the benefits of levels. Unfortunately, a new system can be neither familiar or popular, so we're left with only being able to develop a relatively simple system.

Deeds in LotRO

Some of this idea comes from my experience playing LotRO, so if you've played that you might understand a bit better where my inspiration comes from. The main concept that I'm drawing upon here is Deeds; these are a specific action you have to do, usually within a specific zone, in order to get a reward. They're kind of like very simple quests that don't require an NPC.

The typical reward from a deed is a title or a trait. Traits can be selected on your character to give you a benefit; they're kind of like specializations. For example, you might have to kill wolves in The Shire; after killing 30 wolves you get the title "Fur-cutter". After killing 60 more (for the "advanced" trait) you get the Discipline trait which increases Might, Disease Resistance, and reduces incoming Melee Damage. (You can only activate or "slot" a limited number of traits, though. They act a lot like talents, but they're not in a tree formation.)

Some deeds might have you find certain locations on the map, perform specific activities in an area, or even finish a number of quests in an area. Some deeds have multiple parts; like the wolf-killling example above, you get a title and later a trait for the same type of deed. Each class and race also have unique deeds that the player can accomplish; class deeds usually require using a class ability, whereas racial traits require killing racial enemies.

The interesting thing about the deeds is that they're a good way to tie together a bunch of quests without requiring players to keep a quest around in their log. Players can also choose to do a deed or not, depending on if they want the reward. The deeds can also be useful to do at almost any level, since the traits scale with how many times you earn the specific trait. Finally, the deeds aren't always obvious, sometimes you have to explore around or try things out in order do discover a new deed; well, being an explorer-type, I find that to be a good thing.

The problem with deeds as implemented in LotRO is that they tend to feel like a grind. You've killed 10 wolves for a quest and 20 more have aggroed on you. Great! But, now you have to go find 60 more to slaughter to get your carrot. Gah! I've been told this gets worse when you have to go find and murder hundreds of trolls in more advanced areas. (Tell me again why trolls are so feared?)

The Proposal

So, drawing from this system: why have levels at all? Why not just have deeds that are tied to specific locations/zones (perhaps with a few meta-deeds to show how many zones a player has mastered)? Finish the deed and you get a benefit for your character; these benefits would be incremental improvements to your character, and players could choose how they want to specialize their characters.

In essence, you're eliminating experience points from the equation as well as levels. Quests would no longer be the main method for advancing the character, although you might still want quests for the storytelling possibilities, or as a way to give loot to players.

I think with this type of system you want to flatten the power curve as much as possible. A specific trait might only give you a 5% bonus to an aspect of your character. If you focus on a enhancing a particular trait, you might get an overall 30% advantage over someone with no enhancements. This means that all character are roughly equal in power, with some of the more advanced characters having a slight advantage.

Note that this system would work with or without classes.

So, the typical player experience would be as follows:

  • Get introduced to a new zone.

  • Enter the new zone.

  • Finish the introductory activity, such as a breadcrumb quest to introduce an NPC.

  • Find some new deeds by doing the introduction.

  • Finish some deeds and find new deeds along the way.

  • Finish a selection of deeds in a zone, and get an introduction to a new zone.

Compared to Levels

Let's look at our goals and the advantage of levels we wanted to retain:

Achievement - This accomplishes this by allowing players to master the deeds in a zone that he or she wants. This would be similar in concept to how a player is "done" with a raid dungeon once he or she has all the gear required from that dungeon.

Pacing - This is also partially accomplished. Once a player has mastered the deeds of a zone, there is no further benefit to "bottom feeding" in that zone. However, the concept of a "high level" zone is less distinct in this system; restricted entry to a particular zone would need another reason besides just level; perhaps you need a specific key to enter the area, or you need specialized equipment with certain resistances to survive.

Information - This needs more work. Specific deeds completed might be displayed in an examination window, just as talents are in WoW. Titles earned from accomplishing specific deeds might also be used to judge how experienced a character is.

Simple - It's hard to make a system that is quite as simple as levels, but I think this one is almost as simple. As I said above, deeds are kind of like very focused quests in the game world. My better half picked up the concept of deeds quite quickly, even though she's not an experienced MMO player.

What disadvantages typically associated with levels have we avoided?

Segregation - This is a big one. Since we don't have level requirements for zones, players can pick from a much wider selection of zones. Someone who has just started playing could easily tag along with a friend who has been playing for a few months to explore a new zone, assuming there are no special requirements. Instead of the new player feeling isolated, he or she could get the benefit of playing with their friend without the friend feeling like he or she is slumming, or just rushing the new character through content as fast as possible.

C*ckblocking - This is reduced unless specific restrictions are introduced in a zone. A player who is clever enough to survive in a harder zone can face the challenge when he or she wants to, instead of being required by game mechanics to attain a specific level. However, you might still have players putting limits on who they will take along to an event like a raid (or its equivalent).

Oversimplification - If monsters in every zone are roughly equal in power, then advances I gain with my character are meaningful. I can also pick and choose how I want to upgrade my character for the most part.

One big advantage for development is that you worry less about "level-appropriate zones". Instead of adding content and having to focus on low-, mid-, or high-level zones, you can add a zone and players of all experience levels have an incentive to visit it.

New Issues to Consider

A game using this system needs to educate its players about the new system. It's definitely not a familiar system, so you can't expect players to compare it to other things they are familiar with, outside of LotRO. Even LotRO had the advantage of also using levels, so players were motivated to gain xp from the system they were familiar with, and were introduced to deeds along the way.

The other tricky thing here will be to make sure that you give the players proper motivation in the game. Instead of seeking bigger challenges to get more experience, players will need to have a reason to go to new areas. I don't think this is too much of a challenge, since directing characters to new zones is already part of what a good MMO is expected to do.

You also have to worry about power inflation with this system, too. If you already have 10 zones that give bonuses to stats, adding another zone means you'll be increasing the maximum bonus by 10% of its old value, assuming the bonuses in all areas are roughly equal. Now consider adding 5 new zones in an expansion area and say hello to our old friend "mudflation".

(This post originally appeared at http://www.psychochild.org/?p=608)

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