It was a casual status update, or so I thought.
Blizzard had just announced players could pay to boost a newly created character to level 90 – the starting point for content in their upcoming World of Warcraft expansion. I had linked to the offer with a sardonic “Oh Blizzard”.
Within minutes there was a 200-comment thread cascading down my Facebook page.
The core of the fuss was that I viewed the move as the inevitable final step in a long devaluing of gameplay. I and my friends had jokingly predicted it years before, and here it was. The significance of playing a character to endgame had been so diminished that it was finally discarded. For a fee, you could jump straight to the end “where the real game began”.
What others saw as a reasonable convenience we felt to be the last act in a slow tragedy - one whose real drama had played out long before. It was as if a forest which had been reduced to acres of lifeless land through environmental abuse was being bulldozed to make way for a parking lot.
Sure the parking lot made sense now. The trees were already dead.
“Levels” as an approximation for power and achievement began with the granddaddy of all role playing games – Dungeons & Dragons – and turned out to be an enduringly elegant construct. Gary Gygax, the game’s creator, made a remarkably intuitive leap when he came up with them.
Levels suit the nature of computer games beautifully. Games are software, and software works with numbers. Levels provide those numbers in a robust form. Anyone who has tried to build an RPG knows what I’m talking about. A system without levels ends up with things that are called by other names but which serve precisely the same purpose, only usually not as well.
Levels are also useful in communicating game information to players, being at once clear and easy to understand. If levels aren’t used, something else must be contrived to fill the same role. In the end it often makes sense to just stick with levels.
If the effort is reduced, so is the value. One does not exist without the other
This isn’t simple theory crafting. I worked on a game whose leaders nursed a hatred of RPG systems, and were fanatical about removing all the trappings of them. They were going to create a bold new age of numberless RPGs, and issued design mandates ensuring that happened.
The first thing outlawed was levels. So off we trudged with shoulders back and jaws set to build a leveless RPG world. Years of fruitless iteration and downward spiraling later, they came to the bitter conclusion that levels would be needed after all. Right before crunch they switched to a half-baked level system. It was all too late to save the game, but the failure was a compelling argument for the value of levels.
That value is something that extends well beyond technical convenience. There is an intrinsic link between levels and gameplay that is treacherous to disturb. The value players place upon a high level, for instance, is dependent upon the effort required to get there. If the effort is reduced, so is the value. One does not exist without the other.
This isn’t a function of levels per se of course. At the very least it’s the way human beings are wired psychologically. There may be (and probably are) more profound reasons for it, but the link between effort and value cannot be avoided. This seems obvious but judging by the number of games that ignore it, it musn't be.
Good games play upon and develop this value. Those who have played a lot of games, and especially a lot of good games, have this sense of value honed to a razor’s edge. That is why players will react immediately and passionately to any change that they feel does even subtle violence to the integrity of game achievement. Such changes threaten to undermine the meaning of their entire experience.
...easy rewards were only effective in motivating people to pursue easy rewards
Several studies undertaken by educators in the 1990’s showed that when people were offered easy rewards, they developed the habit of choosing the easiest possible task in any scenario. Rather than progressing to overcome more difficult tasks, people motivated with rewards began avoiding difficult tasks altogether. The surprising conclusion was that easy rewards were really only effective in motivating people to pursue easy rewards.
This use of continual reward to motivate behaviour has been termed control through seduction. And it just doesn’t work. It is also disturbingly familiar for anyone who plays games.
It has become a mantra of modern game design to reward early and often. When RPG’s first began, maximum level was around 10. Leveling as a result was meaningful. Gaining a single new level brought with it significant gains. Levels weren’t just milestones, they were pillars of achievement and represented substantial effort on behalf of a player.
In the modern paradigm of easy rewards, this was too hard and too slow. So the positive feedback loop was boosted by increasing the frequency of leveling. The number of levels was increased to match, with some systems going into the hundreds. Eventually the act of going up levels was so common and easy it became meaningless or worse – it became a chore. The journey which levels represented had been deconstructed so entirely it had effectively been usurped by its own rewards program. Just as the studies predicted, rewards became their own end. And so here we are.
The truth is levels are not really the point. Despite the passion on my Facebook page, they never were the point. It is that their slow devaluing is indicative of a much deeper trivialization of gameplay. When in a final act of deconstruction the journey they represent is discarded altogether, games haven’t just been made easier or more accessible; they have been changed into something else entirely.
For many of us, that something else no longer has value.