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The Myth of the End-Game - or why do we Need to Level up?
by Joao Beraldo on 03/22/10 12:57:00 am   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


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.

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Jonathon Walsh
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Very interesting write-up and sounds a lot like thoughts that have been going through my head lately. I'm so sick and tired of leveling up to unlock content.

Have you tried EVE Online? It's an interesting system that I believe implements some of what you are suggesting. The skill system in EVE Online is such that players can quickly become effective in a given area and then are free to branch off into specialization or other areas. This allows for a gentle introduction to game mechanics without taking forever to 'level up'.

The other core component to EVE Online is the ships and their fittings. These resources are the most important aspect of your character's capabilities. Like the resource management you talk about, players have to manage their ships and fittings and know when to bring out the big guns and when to fly something more disposable.

The type of resource management you describe also has another big benefit. It helps to balance the economy. In a traditional EQ/WoW MMO there is very minimal monetary drain. Old armor is disenchanted, potions comes from other players, and nothing is ever truly lost. By incorporating a resource to the daily lives of players you create the opportunity to balance your economy better.

I'd love to see the system you describe in an MMO or other RPG-like game. I'd also really recommend that you try the EVE Online trial if you've never played the game before so you can see a system in action where resources define the player rather than skills.

Nicholas Bergquist
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For other examples of level-less designs in paper and pencil RPGs you should check out Traveller, Runequest, Call of Cthulhu, Big Eyes Small Mouth, Hero System, GURPS and many more. In terms of the tabeltop world, the idea of a set of mechanics that are unrelated to the leveling expectations of D&D have been around since the 70's, about as long as D&D has been offering up its rigid class and level designs.

That said, D&D has had a profound impact on how CRPGs and MMOs work, and one which is not easily dismissed. Your suggestion on an early level cap leading to an expansive end game reminds me a great deal of Guild Wars, which does exactly that, by capping the level advancement at 20, which you reach about 20% of the way in to the storyline; most of the game is played at a "capped level" where you continue to accrue skill points, gear and other preipheral traits, but your key stats otherwise stay the same. Guild Wars also allows open customization with no limits in terms of how you distribute your 20 levels worth of atributes and accrued skills, within the limits it sets.

Anyway, I enjoyed the article, and shall keep an eye out for more...

Ted Brown
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Awesome, I had this same thought this weekend while re-playing Mass Effect 2. I realized that maxing out my level didn't change my play style as much as I would think.

I do think the point is to provide that illusory crumb of comfort, but I don't think it's as useful as designers think it is. In WOW, for example, most characters never reach the cap.

Abandoning levels forces us to think holistically, outside of the "clean" realm of spreadsheets and numbers, where we must engage artists and programmers to find the fun of the game. I think that's why it scares many designers off.

Glenn Storm
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If leveling up in an MMO is not about choices in interactive narrative; not about story, then isn't it about evolving the gameplay? Shouldn't leveling up be about gaining choice in terms of player agency (more moves, different styles of play, unlocked combat combos, etc.)? While I can understand if you've leveled up in game X and it doesn't feel any different, I think the ideal we're talking about it more of an evolution in the game that's being played. No?

ken sato
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My apologies but I could not help chuckling...

"Milord, please accept my respects to the success of achieving your title of Duke of Bogamor..."

"Most assured...most assured."

"However I have noticed that you have left your spreadsheet assessment of work-able hours, seasonal crop rotation, and army-to-siege costs left open because..."

"By the GODS!!! I haven't used my +10 Ever-Immolating Saber of Confounding in ages!!! What was the spreadsheet file name again-"

It's a conversation I've had with ever lead or senior that goes to director. Sometimes leveling up or 'promotion' isn't what it's cracked up to be!

Now, as to 'open' level progression, you have to remember that scope and variability are going to affect the progression system. In some cases, stat modification and new kit just aren't going to cut it as the new experience of being able to bash something to death quicker gets confounded by bigger baddies in order to keep the experience competitive. (Please note at 'open' in level progression produces the same complexity as 'open' world or sandbox titles. A few simple additions can make any process relatively costly to test and be understood during development, which has a tendency to get out of hand relatively quickly. Then all you can do it triage, cut and reduce, which can be painful if you feel you're just at the edge of having a strong, valid, and complete system. It always feels that way.)

For me, I feel that I've received the most not just from increase abilities, but also new environments, NPCs, and kit. One of the things that's kinda stayed with me from the AD&D days were the items that made you an item if you weren't high enough level or always managed to make your saving throw. The caveat was you had power, but really powerful items like 'the ring' had it's own priorities, it's own goals, which would affect how the player behaved. Granted it took some role playing but it often produced the most interesting sessions.

Finally on progression design, since leveling up is probably the most understood mechanic available, it requires the least amount of explanation or thought on maximizing returns. Most players skip through and on-screen text that tries to lay this out much like warranty details. While I don't think that inserting legalese would be helpful-it certainly doesn't encourage people to read warranties!!!-a progression path UI or menu certainly would. From a management side, knowing what your options / goals and how it will affect the next cycle of leveling might help to make better choices. This includes the odd-ball, 'healing' for a tank where all the other 'tanks' see the tank-healer as a sissy for going out of the standard skill progression. (Hey, a little real world social modeling can be quite fun.)

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I wrote up a game design one day for an MMO with no levels, if interested here it is:

An MMORPG without levels.

All players start their first life equal, but as different classes. Later lives start to blur the class line despite being tagged as say a "warrior". That warrior might have many different skills from past lives (other classes). For instance if that 2nd life warrior lived a first life as a sorcerer then he might have access to "frost bolt" despite being a warrior. The warrior's base stats might lower the damage of the frost bolt, and the amount of times he can cast it (because of a smaller mana pool), but he still has access to it. As far as gear is concerned, sorcerers for example will be able to wear heavy armor as long as they have lived a past life as a heavy armor wearer and earned those proficiencies then created their second life sorcerer to carry over those proficiencies.

To carry over an armor proficiency it will take a skill slot meaning that is one less combat skill you can carry over. If a sorcerer carries over "heavy armor" to their second life then they will be able to wear heavy armor and light armor (because the class itself gets light armor innately). If they want to be able to wear any armor they'll have to take an additional skill slot and dedicate it to "medium armor" plus they will have had to played an entire life as a medium armor wearer and earned that proficiency through quest then passed it down their family line.

Skills are the form of progression, not levels.

Characters start out in their "prime" physically, and the idea is that as the body gets weaker the mind gets stronger.

Skill gain is non linear. While there will be skills that certain classes cannot learn (in a single life) there will also be multiple skill paths possible for characters of the same class.

Skills will be truely learned through action and quests not simply finding a trainer and training.

Characters can die permanently.

Characters can die of old age.

Depending on actions characters will "wear and tear" faster than others causing a sooner death.

When a character dies their knowledge is passed down their family line allowing the player to start a new character that is in their "prime" physically that retains knowledge discovered by their family.

Equipment from a past life can be left behind for family members, but they will suffer aging penalties that lower their stats. Preservation on three items to start can occur which will retain 100% of the item's original stats. These preservation slots can be increased over time. At some point all equipment will be able to be preserved.

Each time a player plays a life they can only be one class, but if a past life has been played as another class then skills from that class can be transfered over.

Not all quest lines and areas will be accessible in 1 life or even 2 lives some will require multiple lives to be led before being accessible.

Some quest lines and areas will be class specific and may even require multiple lives in a particular class to be led before gaining access to them.

Some of the most powerful abilities will require multiple lives to be led in a single class giving that family line a high specialization in a specific class.

Character creation will include a family crest that will be extremely customizable. All characters in a family line will wear this family crest or it will be visible in other ways.

Characters will be referred to by last name so that friends can always contact each other. First names can be changed with each new life, but have no effect on messaging.

Lifeline is basically how much time a character has left before they die permanently. This time can be shortened at a faster rate by doing certain quest lines (quests can take in-game years to complete) or actions in the game.

Lifeline timer can be stopped or started by the player. The reason for letting the player start and stop their own lifeline is so that during those times that they are lookign for a group they aren't dying if they don't want to be. Certain actions will always decrease time from a character's lifeline. If a character is currently on a quest or in a group they cannot die permanenty. If a character has been grouped for over 8 hours a check will be made to see if they should be permanently dead and if so they will die. This is to prevent people from staying online and grouped to remain alive. Another exception to the not dying while grouped rule is that a character can die after any new skill is gained or quest line is finished whether grouped or not.

There is no penalty for dying permanently because that would be counter productive. The point of the game is to live through a life and learn different things with each life lived. The only drawback to dying is that certain quest lines may not be accessible in your next life unless you choose the same class again. Some characters may die before they have fully learned all they can at which point if they want to learn things from that class they will have to start a new life as that class. So that this doesn't get repetitive there will be quests for second life characters that were not accessible the first go around.

There are a few things that subtract from a player's lifeline. Completed quests, certain discovered areas, real time if lifeline timer is turned on, and getting "knocked out" (HP to zero). The penalties for getting knocked out other than lowering your lifeline is an equipment quality hit. Equipment will be breakable entirely, gone forever if you die while the equipment is red. Players will sometimes not want their lifeline timer to run out too fast so that they can get the most out of their chosen class before having to start another life. Lifeline timer will not be affected from being knocked out in the first 3 days (actual playtime) of starting a new life. This prevents people that died an earlier life too soon from choosing a new class for the only purpose of getting a single skill then just getting knocked out to move on to their next life.

Since there is no grinding the simplistic "kill x of this" or "collect x of that" type quests are not going to be in the game to litter up a quest journal. Each quest will be a long quest chain. Some quest chains will be entirely soloable while others will not. Some groupable only quests can be outgrown to where a character in a later life is able to solo a groupable quest, and the reward will probably still be worth it because rewards are more than simply gear, they're also skills that can be used in your next life.

The game will be soloable throughout, but players that choose to group more will advance their skills at a quicker rate and will usually obtain more powerful skills in less lives. For instance a solo player will be able to solo certain quests in their first life, but will have to solo other quests in a second or third life when they are stronger while a player that groups more will be able to complete the quest chains that the solo player did in their third life on their first life. It really won't matter to the solo player because they will be progressing all along at their own rate and can still play the way they want, alone. The solo player may even have more fun trying to mix and match class skills best to conquer certain quest chains solo.

With each new life areas open up that were previously blocked off. This allows players to continue to discover new things even after they have been playing for a long time. Past areas can be re-explored with a new character, but it isn't required (so the game isn't the same for each life). Benefits to re-exploring past areas is that skills gained from those areas in a past life will be strengthened slightly. These re-explorations can only give this benefit once per life. Since it is a re-exploration the hit to the lifeline will not be as large as the original exploration, but there will be a hit. The player will have to decide if they want to re-explore to power up a certain skill or possibly live long enough to unlock a new skill later in life.This adds another layer to the game allowing players to re-explore certain areas to strengthen abilities that they like the most without lifeline penalties. Not everyone's abilities will be the same even if they have the same skills because people will choose different re-explorations to do or will not do re-explorations at all. There will be no cap on ability increases because each life should take a significant amount of time to complete which means characters will not overpower content faster than it can be developed.

If a player can learn every skill of every class in the game over many lives then it ruins all customization because once everyone does that then everyone will be the same. To prevent this each time a new life is started the player will be able to choose a specific amount of skills only to begin that life with. Any skills gained during that life will also be added onto the skills the character can use for that life. All skills gained throughout the entire game will be available during character creation for a new life. So a player could potentially have every skill from every class in the game, but they would only be able to load a specific amount each life. So if two players both had access to every single skill in the game they would still customize their character differently each life they started. As a character plays they will unlock more skill slots that can be used for their next life this will be capped however at some point.

Because a player can die permanently and will have to start a new life they will be able to customize their new life while playing a previous life. This is so that a player doesn't always have to go back to character creation each time they die permanently. At any time they can bring up a character creation tool to start planning how they want to live their next life (appearance, skills, attributes, preserved gear, etc).

Main goal for the game is to give players an alternative to grinding levels. Instead of grinding levels people are playing the game to discover many different areas and and to gain knowledge. Certain dungeon's and quest lines will lead to different skill gains, and not all quest lines or dungeons/areas will be able to be played in a single life. This will give players a reason to explore the entire world and every quest line they possibly can to gain the most benefits. As skills are gained they can be passed down to family members when a character dies. This will make for some interesting skill combinations. Some people will choose to play with different classes each life while others will choose to stick with one for a long period of time. The first example will have a great variety of skills while the second person will most likely have more focused and powerful skills. This method of lives and passing of skills allows players to play the game how they want and mold their character how they want to mold them. It also keeps things interesting because people don't get bored of a single class or wish that they had created another class later in the game because they can do that if they want to and still be adding to the strength of their main by doing it!

Walker Hardin
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I've not played Eve Online, but the best MMO experience I've ever had was in Planetside. The roles you could take on effectively in battle were completely determined by the equipment your character could use. As you gained XP, you could unlock more and more roles at once...not making you better at the game than anyone else, but giving you more flexibility. Your equipment points could be re-allocated once every 24 hours, so early on, if you were unsatisfied with a stealth-suit wearing character, you could trade it in and try a rocket launcher the next day, or pilot a plane the next. As you advanced, you could afford to keep the stealth build and pilot build at the same time, jumping between them at will through the course of a battle.

Divorcing raw player ability from game XP points places the emphasis on the stories of the battles. The cool moments weren't "I just hit 60," but rather "I just got hot-dropped into a base that never saw us coming," or "my squad was pinned down in a remote outpost behind enemy lines, but we didn't have a pilot so we had to hold out 10 minutes while a transport came from the next base over to pick us up."

The players created the stories and it was the coolest. Granted, this is easier to do in PvP than PvE focused games, but I think the notion of using flexibility and new gameplay experiences as motive for advancement, rather than raw power, can apply to most any game.

Mike Engle
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Leveling is merely a convenient way of controlling the introduction of new gameplay patterns. You trickle in the new abilities, the new monsters, and other mechanics, and each new pattern layers onto the existing ones, and this keeps players engaged.

Levels aren't the only way to trickle new content to players, obviously. They're just one very functional way. (Just one of the additional functions it provides is a Power Metric with which players can judge the combat potency of themselves and others -- which of course has other strengths like feeding player ego.)

Remember when you played Half-Life 2 and found a crowbar (new ability!), and eventually got a pistol (ability), shotgun (ability), and gravity gun (ability)? Every good game ever created has a well-paced distribution of content.

In the end there're a bunch of ways you can pace content distribution. In most games it doesn't make sense to hit the player with all content at once, so then you have to choose some mechanism to pace things out -- level is just one of many mechanics capable of this.

Joshua McDonald
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Leveling has other benefits. One is that it creates an automatic "rags to riches" story. For as long as storytelling has been around, one of the most popular and successful archetypes is the weak or ordinary person who rises to greatness.

Closely related is the ability of leveling to show contrast. Higher level content is all the more epic and impressive because the player has seen and experienced the more ordinary content of lower levels.

That said, I'm in favor of looking into alternatives to a leveling system, but be careful about throwing something away until you understand as many of its benefits as possible.

Bart Stewart
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Always fun to see a discussion break out on this topic!

I see character advancement (leveling) as a tool, which means that it may be useful in some contexts but not others. It also means that if you use it wrong (as a designer), you lose most of its potential benefits to your players.

I'd love to see a MMORPG based on Traveller. You'd have enormous opportunity to define your character's attributes and abilities (including age) during the extensive character generation process. And then you go out into the galaxy and just start playing. There's no grinding to level up to get to the end-game content because it's *all* end-game content. (And note that it would still be possible to allow increasing power through providing extrinsic rewards: i.e., loot.)

Until someone actually tries this, I see no reason to agree with assertions that a level-free game "can't work" or "wouldn't be fun."

For games that do have levels, my feeling is that they're turning people off from character advancement games because they keep adding levels. One of the beauties of D&D was that levels were spaced far apart and there weren't many of them. This is a crucial distinction between D&D and today's MMORPGs, the latter of which often have 50 or more levels, the top of which can be reached in a few weeks or months of play.

And the difference is that when you know it's a long way to the next level ding, you stop thinking about leveling. You just play the game. You enjoy the world-content. In short, you play your character like a character inside the gameworld. That's radically different from player behavior in a MMORPG with 80 levels, where (especially in the early game) you can ding to the next level every few days or even minutes. When leveling up is frequent, players alter their behavior to focus on gaming the game -- they quite naturally grind out safe, simple tasks for cheap XP just to reach a magic number that has zero relevance within the story of the gameworld.

So if you're going to have levels in your game, consider whether you want people enjoying your game content, or if you actually want to attract players who could care less about your story and worldiness and just want to grind up to max level as quickly as possible. If you want to attract and serve the latter gamers, offer 1000 levels. If you want to attract and retain gamers who'll focus on your world-content, offer 20 levels... or even fewer.

Finally, consider that it's not necessary to take an either-or position. Why not have levels for some forms of gameplay and no levels for other gameplay?

I also have a design doc for a MMORPG. ;) In mine, I break down gameplay into about sixteen careers (based on my model of gamer playstyles), and for each career I've created a completely optional career track. What's different about this than other MMORPGs is that the various career tracks vary considerably in the number of levels within each track.

My military career tracks, for example, tend to have lots of levels. That's because I'm betting that the gamers who will be interested in a career based on killing people and breaking things will also find it satisfying to receive frequent level advances as rewards.

On the other hand, I have some career tracks (e.g., Deep Space Scout, Planetary Scout) with only two or three levels. And the Prospector career has no levels at all. These careers are designed this way because I'm similarly betting that the sorts of people who prefer solo/loner gameplay won't be interested in the artificial notion of "leveling up" as fun; they'll be more into exploring the gameworld which levels would only impede.

So to sum up: I see levels as one way among several to reward players for playing a game; I'd be careful to have too few levels than too many; and I think it's completely possible to design a game that has no character levels at all that's wildly fun for a lot of people.

Now some publisher or VC just has to be persuaded to bankroll such a "risky" design....

Joshua McDonald
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I have mixed feelings about the long, separated levels you suggest, Bart.

I think that to some degree, they would achieve their stated purpose. On the other hand, you'd have a lot of players who want to be powerful enough to handle particular content or team up with their friends who have been playing the game a lot longer. These players would simply be frustrated at having to play even longer than they do now to get where they want to be.

My philosophy is that if people believe that the game gets good at the maximum level, then designers need to figure out what makes max level so fun and apply it to the leveling process. In my opinion, this boils down to two primary things:

1. Rewarding Challenge: As funny as it seems, many of the people who clamor for more challenge are the same ones who will speed-level by having top-level friends run dungeons or other content with them. Doing this makes you level faster and get better loot.

A player who chooses to make the game a challenge by playing in areas above their level or low-manning group content gets less experience for his time and doesn't build up as good of loot because the total number of enemies killed is far fewer. Even if you aren't running around with a high-level friend, it's still most efficient to fight enemies which are at or slightly below your level.

2. Meaningful rewards: Nearly everything you get during your leveling time becomes meaningless quickly, as you get loot built for higher level characters. At max level, on the other hand, loot not only tends to last longer before it's replaced, it actually makes you capable of handling the more difficult raids.

Solution? There are probably others, but I like the approach below because it could be smoothly added to existing games, rather than recreating the genre from the ground up:

1. Create special rewards/content that are only available for people who choose to challenge themselves: It makes sense from a story perspective that when little VanCleef hears that one of the men who slew Arthas is coming after him, he's going to hide instead of coming out to fight the way he would if he was getting attacked by 3 level 18's. Make it so the best leveling rewards require the players to challenge themselves.

2. Make some of these rewards as Bind-On-Account components for grand items: If you know about these while leveling your first character, you'll constantly be going for cool, challenging content in anticipation of being able to make your max-level character as powerful as possible. If you learn about it afterward, you'll do it with your second character to support your first (kind of a reversal of max level characters passing down items and gold).

3. Allow level-freezing: WoW finally added this. This is primarily to facilitate #1, so that a person is less likely to accidentally level past where he can get a reward (basically, you'd frequently imitate end-game during the leveling process).

4. Fill some equipment slots with items which give functional benefits, rather than stat-driven: Assuming you're going with a traditional inventory system, pick a few slots and declare that those will never have items that statically increase stats. These items would typically add new abilities or modify existing ones (preferably by a percent) and would generally be the most difficult items to obtain. As long as the primary benefit of an item is its stats, it will get replaced quickly by something that simply has higher stats. However, if it is good for its functionality, players are likely to keep the item for a long period of time.

Joao Beraldo
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Well, well... Good to know that article sparkled some interesting discussion. Thanks for the interest! ;)

First and foremost, it must first be clear to everyone that every game mechanic is part of a whole. So simply having a game without levels or following what I described is not enough. There are other mechanics (and content) that help define the game in itself. For instance, as Mike Engle said, it works like a Power Meter. But why can't this power meter be based on, say, the character's current equipment and/or condition? Or, in a twitch-based game like Planetside or Taikodom, about other sorts of stats (kills/hours of play? Hits/shot?).

Engle's mention of Half-Life 2 is the sort of direction I mean. There are several single-player games that use other sort of progression. In space sims like Starlancer, Freespace and Wing Commander the player unlocks new weapons and ships of choice as he completes objetives and earn medals (which are nothing more than achievements). Their 'progression' is often based in titles that may or may not be an equivalent to levels. Talking about achievements, why cannot those unlock abilities and also serve as a 'Power meter'? A game could be designed after that concept. Team Fortress 2's recent update has archivements to unlock new weapons and items. It's always a matter of how you apply an idea.

Walsh, I tried EVE a couple of times. And, while I have be pros and cons about that game, I consider it an 'almost there' on the subject of my article. In fact, I had originally included mentions of Eve and Ultima Online, but I figured it might give out the wrong impression of a hardcore game (as it seems to have given to people like Ken Sato.). Resource management can't be as simples as it needs to be. I remember reading of a game concept a little while ago. It was a dungeon crawl style game in which you controled individual characters who had to find treasure and escape the dungeon. Monsters moved in the shadows and would kill you if they caught you. But they were afraid of light sources. So, you had to use candles, torches, lanterns, etc (plus light sources on the map) to complete the game. 'Light source' was the game's Resource Management. And that was it. Simple and the would game was designed around it.

I don't find leveling to be a curse that must be rid of. In fact, what I mention is that it should exist in MMOs, but as a teaching device. It has been greatly overused in MMOs as a way to control the player's access to content so that he doesn't consume it all too fast. Which lead to a culture of 'how fast can you level up'. For example, DDO's leveling up was fun. I only remembered when I was looking for a dungeon and couldn't find any for me. I recently played Star Trek Online and, as much as that game has flaws, I hardly noticed the level requirements as a content blocker (even though I faced a couple of battles that felt too hard for the power level indicated on the mobs). Both do it because they are fun to play (and, so, to level up).

I didn't have the opportunity to play Planetside, even if I heard of it a few times before. But it sounds like an interesting idea. One that may fit perfectly because it is an FPS and, again, twitch-based games work differently from roll-based ones like most MMOs. Even if I think a similar model could be designed as such.

Bart, I find your idea of different 'classes' interesting. Some game have been working on different gameplay per class, but I don't think any one did go too far into it. Warhammer has some of it. On single/multiplayers, all of Alien vs Predator incarnations did the same. And it might work. But, as I said earlier, other game mechanics must exist to support it, so that your careers are not unbalanced neither does it feel like playing completelly different games (say, the Scout never meets the Military unless through an Auction house).

(I'll get back soon to continue replying!)

Bryan OHara
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@ Walker - Thank you for mentioning Planetside! As Joao just said, it's balanced nature derives from it being an FPS, which demands that all players are, more or less, on an equal level. Planetside offered players an increase in flexibility over time - they could access more styles of play at once as they progressed.

I think this can be carried over to other MMOs. A lot of RPG systems actually limit the game as you progress. Characters "specialize" in order to stay competitive and accessing other styles of play often requires the creation of another character.

I just spent a few minutes typing out what my ideal MMO system would be, only to reread it and realize that I was describing Eve Online. Oops! I do love Eve because it breaks the MMO image, but I am far from calling it the perfect game. If only I had time to play it!

Christopher Wragg
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No leveling is doable, you just have to find other gimmicks. For instance you still need to introduce content in an easy to consume manner, you need to explain why you don't just go fight the end boss straight away (as your power level won't really change in any measurable way), you need to provide player with tangible methods of measuring character growth (technically good story, or NPC relationships could do this). You need a reasonable way for players to change their play style if they don't like the character they've developed thus far, and you need a way to measure challenge, as it become trickier to scale challenges.

Unfortunately levels provide a neat discrete way of managing all those things, hence why they've been used consistently. Loot is also a poor substitute, as you end up leveling gear rather than leveling a character. Of course greater availability of types of loot and skills can provide ample metering of growth AND provide means for changing a players play-style.

Juan Del Rio
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@Walker and Bryan

Planetside was an excellent experience because the game never became about the level ups, the loot or the fiction, it was all about the experience. It was the first game that made me realize the futility of war but I had fun every minute of my gametime. In one game I was the transport driver, the sabatour, the heavy reinforcement and the trooper. It felt good helping my team and you came away with a great story every day. No grind, just fun.

Mark Venturelli
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"Leveling Up" is not a "teaching" mechanic, at least not on today's design trends. Is yet another part of ever-growing extrinsic reward systems that plague most of the online (and some of the offline) games that we see today. And most of these games fucking suck. Higher-level discussions about how to handle these extrinsic systems while keeping the same redundant, retarded gameplay at the core seem futile to me.