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Level playing field

Posted by Rem on June 18, 2011

Yes, it’s going to be one of those posts.

When I started playing LotRO back in 2007, truth be told, a major motivation was to just “sample” what an MMORPG plays like, what it does wrong and to come up with ideas how it could be done better. I then found myself having lots of fun playing it and the rest is history. Not exactly history you can expect to be taught in history class. Unless it would, in some unthinkably wicked way lead to me ultimately making some sort of discovery that will elevate mankind onto another level. Which would be cool. Or to be directly related to me becoming a historically renowned villain. Which would be uncool. The part about me becoming a major villain, not so much about LotRO being directly linked to it. Although that would suck too, really tired of those “gamer plays games, goes on to destroy the Moon” stories. Other than those possibilities, I can’t really see how anyone would ever be taught the beginnings of my MMORPGaming in history class, so I guess it’ll be more like mysterious and forgotten history, rediscovered millennia later to make gullible people believe the world will end in 4012 AD. Don’t ask me why or how that can possibly have any connection or meaning at all, those future mountebanks are just crazy like that. How are my KiaSA-style tangents coming along? Working on it, working on it.

So, anyway, the earliest major point of criticism was, to put it in the words of a friend: “forget your stats, forget your gear; there is one number that determines how your character performs more than all others combined: your level”. Almost 4 years later, and the grave gravity of those words weighs heavily on my shoulders, like a heavy weight that makes everything appear much heavier. In fact, compared to what I’ve seen since, those heady days appear almost like a dream of level-unhindered harmony, when we’d be dancing and running over green meadows with higher and lower level mobs alike. Killing each other in the process, naturally. I mean us and the mobs, not players killing each other. LotRO is a fairly strictly PvE-focused game.

Mobs as far as 9 levels below you, if memory serves, would get on your case, as LotRO used a sharp aggro cut-off, rather than a gradual never-ending reduction in perception radius, if it was 10 levels below you, it would ignore your existence completely, but spot you perfectly fine if the difference was less. Which was more than a little silly from a simulation point of view. But naturally – and it’s a shame it’s so natural, really – no later than when you were 5 levels higher than the mob, the poor bugger may as well have had his weapons – or claws – replaced with cotton swabs, as they’d never be a danger to you. On the other end, you could pick a fight with a mob 5 levels above you, and it would be a winnable affair, the sharp cut-off, i.e. the point at which you’d just be precluded from being able to hit, coming somewhere (not far) above that. It was indeed easy to see that your level was not so much a representation of your character power, as naive pre-MMO me had thought, but the very basis and structure of said power, everything else effecting only a small variance.

Interlude:
This is not to downplay the insane power creep and power discrepancy games like WoW or RIFT create between characters of the same (max) level due to escalating gear rewards. Not only because any character below max level does not have access to that gear, but also because the means of earning that gear are usually balanced in such a way that there is no way for a sub-level-cap character to appropriately contribute to the success of the process of their acquisition, even if they are not, which is also often the case, mechanically excluded from participation at all. In other words, at best a raider can toss a BoE drop to a leveller/alt, which they won’t be able to equip until they hit level cap; there’s no way for the leveller/alt to actively earn that reward themselves.

Fast forward to RIFT. Let’s keep this short with one concise example: if I take on a mob 3 levels above me, something close to half of my attacks do not land in the target, despite me having a 5% hit bonus from talents and another 1.5% from gear stats. This breaks simulation, breaks immersion, and basically constitutes the game coming at me with a big flashing neon sign saying “do not go this way, go that way”. On the other end, of course, it also gets dull to fight mobs you outlevel pretty quickly. All in all, you end up with this really narrow corridor of “what you’re supposed to do”.

Why does this bother me particularly? Because I play together with MFCFKAMFDFKAMFLM (My Favourite Cleric Formerly Known As My Favourite Druid Formerly Known As My Favourite Lore-Mistress), and I’m really very much enjoying it. Currently, we’re levelling together. Levelling together means, because of the above, staying at the same level, ideally within a few percent points of a level from each other. As soon as you drift apart even a little, you start banging the walls of that narrow corridor and the game comes at you with its flashing neon signs. Consequently, when one of us doesn’t play, the other, effectively, can’t do anything. This is exacerbated by the quest driven game play, which offers you exactly one way to interact with the content, by “doing the quests” – which is content we want to do together. In fact, RIFT offers a resort of sorts here, in the form of the namesake rifts – one could run around a lower level zone just outside the XP range and close rifts. Doing something like that alone does start feeling like an end in itself pretty quickly though.

So what’s the result? A subconscious rush to level cap. Which is ironic, because RIFT is a game that is actually really good fun to play below level cap as well. I have been and am still enjoying the levelling process, despite having never been a fan of quests. But this is one of the fundamental reasons why people rush to level cap. Not because we’re all impatient and can’t enjoy the road for the goal. Not all of us are, at least. No, it’s because only at level cap that number which is way more powerful than it should ever have been stops changing, and only then can we meaningfully play with others. Especially with specific others rather than random others. On a level field.

To close and be clear, I’m not complaining about playing together. Playing together is awesome. I’m complaining about the restraints resulting from a level-centric quest-driven game design. One of those restraints is that playing together only works either in a perfectly static group (which excludes the “sharing independently made discoveries and experiences” element) or at level cap (which needlessly devalues the game before level cap). Yeah, I told you it was going to be one of those posts.

11 Responses to “Level playing field”

  1. Nils said

    Great post. I agree with .. everything.

  2. [...] was reading this excellent post by Rem which crystallised a bunch of ideas for me. Levels in games were first introduced way back [...]

  3. ArcherAvatar said

    I definitely agree with the sentiment of the post… in a perfect (online) world levels would only restrict what skills or abilities you had access to, and would have no effect otherwise on your ability as a player to take on content… basically, you might be missing some of your “tools” at earlier levels, but if you were creative and resourceful with the limited skills your character had then you could still be very successful in combat… there would still be a motivation to level up (to gain access to new skills) but simply being a higher level than a mob would not be an instant “I win” button the way it is in so many games.

  4. Tesh said

    Not sure that I have much to add to this. Great article!

    …now I need to find a good reason to link to it. Sort of a “yeah, what he said” without sounding too inane.

    • Rem said

      Heh, thank you :)

      Also, I finally started reading your blog (I know, was about time) and am quite intrigued!

      • Tesh said

        *chuckle*

        Thanks! I’m kinda all over the place, but I do try to tie most of it back into game design at some level. Thanks for stopping by!

  5. [...] One of his memorable quips is the suggestion of a “level 60 Chun-li” and the absurdity that such an image presents.  It’s silly to think that player time investment in building a character would outweigh player skill in the fighting game scene, yet it’s precisely that paradigm that drives PvP in most MMOs.  This is why open world PvP inevitably degenerates into a cycle of bullying and “ganking“; players aren’t looking for a fair fight, they are looking to win, or worse, to give grief to other players.  A game system where time investment brings more powerful characters in the form of higher levels and/or better gear doesn’t offer much in the way of a fair fight.  (Notably, it also causes problems even when you’re not playing against other players… there are problems playing with other players against the computer.  Levels do weird things sometim…) [...]

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