An odd thing happened to me this weekend. I had one of my (in)famous ‘weekend insights’ which, while in itself are not odd at all, came out of completely different subjects I’ve been working on for the last couple of months. In the end, it’s all about character progression and how some MMOs portrait their end-game.
Hi, I’m João Marcelo Beraldo, content designer and fiction writer, and I’m here to blabber about progression and end-game.
The magic of RPGs
I’ve been playing RPGs for years now. I believe my first contact with it was a Portuguese edition of Deathtrap Dungeon when I was 10 or so. Since that distant mark on my timeline (somewhere around 1989) I have played a lot of RPG systems, both paper & pen and computer. But in my later years, already working as a professional game designer, I came across doubts of what was really fun.
You see, even though I played several different systems, most of my life I have been playing or Game Mastering some edition of Dungeons & Dragons. I slowly began to lose interest in it during it’s 3rd edition and had none whatsoever in the 4th edition. While I don’t want to get into a discussion of this or that is the better system, I want to point out why my interest faded. It felt like it simply became a struggler to power up and gain more super powers. I felt like it wasn’t about the solving of puzzles and playing a part in a story. It was about gaining uber powers, hacking up epic monsters and finding even more powerful artifacts. And then, eventually, your character would be so ungodly powerful that you had to retire, because it just was too far away from the norm to even be fun anymore (or, in some cases, the RPG system itself told you it was time to retire the character).
It led me to design a new RPG system thinking of a grittier style of game, where skills and quick-thinking were the answer and not picking a power of a list and rolling a dice. While that system never got finished to my satisfaction (and then I didn’t understand why), I came up with an idea with my team at work: each of us would help create a new gritty fantasy world where we would play in. I figured it would get everyone interested if it wasn’t just a world I created, but something everyone was part of. And then I searched for a game system and came across A Song of Ice and Fire RPG, by Green Ronin (based on the George R.R. Martin novel series of the same name). It was gritty, it was low-magic and it was both leveless and classess. It sounded perfect.
Then I came across a curious question: if there is no level, no magic, no magical items, doesn’t every character eventually look too similar, with the same skills, qualities, etc? It came to me that, in a way, it was what happened to D&D 3rd edition’s Fighters at higher levels. At some point, most were very similar in their choices of feats. The answer to A Song of Ice and Fire’s system came almost immediately: Because it’s not the character that matters, but the House he represents and the story he plays a part in.
So, I had an insight on RPGs, and that was it. Great! So that was definitely the RPG system I was looking for and that was it. Or so I thought until this Sunday afternoon.
While mindlessly browsing my emails, I came across a newsletter from ENWorld, which mentioned among its news an article about ‘making DD4 similar to E6’. I confess my curiosity was entirely personal. I dubbed that RPG system I half-designed E20, just prior to changing its mechanics from 20-sided die to 6-sided die (which would mean it should be called E6 now). So I clicked said link.
And came across a PDF on how to make D&D 3rd edition grittier by stopping level progression at level 6 (instead of up to 20). Instead of acquiring more levels (and so hit points, attack bonus, skills, news spells, etc), characters would gain feats alone, that might increase existing powers and abilities. It also limited the range of overpowering spells that come with higher levels.
While the pdf explains various reasons for this decision, it just added up to my previous conclusion about A Song of Ice and Fire and something else I’ve been preaching about to fellow game developers where I work at.
What is leveling for?
The first answer I always hear when I ask that question has something to do with “rewarding the player for his efforts in the game”. And while that certainly is a very good reason, I follow up with the question: “but what happens when the player reaches maximum level?”
At this point, answers diverge. Most of the time it comes to a second overt or covert progression, which works on some MMOs and paper & pen RPGs.
Good friend and former game director Marcelo Carvalho (who unfortunately died earlier this year of leukemia) used to tell me that we shouldn’t worry too much about mid-game. While at first that might sound like a crazy idea when you’re talking about a MMO, the point was that what made an MMO successful is early and end game. Mid game was just what connected these two parts. The mid-game is when the player learns the game, decides how he preferred to play. It doesn’t have to be long. It doesn’t have to be a different experience. By the time the player reaches end-game, the player knows how to play the game and is prepared to play it for as long as his interest last. And that is what leveling is for.
Leveling is a long-range tutorial. And, while we often need that ‘nursery’ where players feel comfortable learning the basics of the game so that the early-game feels safe, but still fun, learning the game happens all the way from level 1 to top. It is, of course, a matter of making the journey pleasant. It’s part of the game.
I won’t get into my complaints of the “the fun starts at 60” I’ve heard so often about WoW and similar games. But neither will I delve into the “fun leveling of DDO” I often use as a counter. For the purpose of this article, both are wrong.
And what IS right?
If I knew the ultimate answer, I’d be rich. Or incredibly frustrated. But I’ll risk an answer to that question.
Define a basic progression. It may include levels, but just as a temporary solution. Titles may work. It’s important that the player understands that leveling is not what the game is about.
As the player plays this initial phase of the game, slowly present him new features, new elements of lore. It’s important to make all of this part of the game, as this is the perfect moment to teach the player about the game lore and his purpose in the game world. Allow him to find and chose items, decide which ones fit best his game style.
This journey shouldn’t last long and, by the end of it, the player may choose to make changes to his decision. Maybe his choices during level up were not exactly what he expected. That’s ok! You can change here and there and remain in training for as long as you want.
As the player reaches this maximum level and feels like he is ready, release him into the wild. Not alone, of course. Allow him a guide if he wants one, but make it clear he has a whole world to explore if so he desires.
This is when the end-game starts, quite early one. It stops been about progression and becomes about the experience. The player knows the basics about lore and game features. He has his items of choice, the looks he wants. That initial barrier has been put aside. It’s time for long-lasting fun.
In a previous article I mentioned the idea of meta-story (which was later tangently worked on different articles, like the recent Story-Generating Games, by Shay Pierce). It’s about the story the players create in their minds based on gameplay experience. And while I agree with Shay that some single-player games do very well with a well-crafted story like Uncharted 2, the fact is that MMOs cannot depend on the same premises. Different tools for different jobs. And that is what seems to be missing on most MMOs out there.
Does that mean the perfect MMO (in my point of view) is about story? Not in the common sent of the word. It’s about player experience. And, while you can come up with torches and pitchforks wanting to storm my humble abode, complaining of the lack of achievement and the obligatory grind element, I call up resource management.
Yes, resource management. It’s not about grinding to get the epic item. In an MMO, eventually everyone gets the epic. And, then, its nerfed out and a new epic is created. It’s neither about the perfect craft that you come out with only in special occasions like in pre-CU Star Wars Galaxies or old-time Ultima Online. It’s about making your chose of items into powerful items.
Look at it in this perspective: instead of grinding the same mob or raid repetitively for weeks or months, you choose how, when and where to gather items that, when consumed, empowers your choice items. Call them potions, talismans, crystals… It doesn’t matter as long as they improve upon your own choices temporarily. It becomes another player choice: when to use them.
Is this the formula for the perfect MMO? I cannot answer that question. What I can say is that it is about time we try something new.