|December 16th, 2005|
I’ve said in the past that levels suck.
A few things that have been written about lately, however, prompt me to dig a little bit more at that long-held tenet of mine, because while constant self-doubt is debilitating (trust me), it also often opens up surprising new doors.
My objection to levels in the past has been based around the following:
- The way in which they pull people apart
- The psychological impact of constantly pushing a lever for another pellet
- The huge content multiplier they impose
- The mudflation arms race they create
On the other hand, it cannot be doubted that levels provide a powerful incentive. Why do we have them? What good are they? And do they indeed suck?
A brief history of levels
Levels were pretty much ripped wholesale from Dungeons and Dragons. Richard Bartle has commented that he put them into MUD1 because they provided clear regular feedback on advancement. And that they do.
It’s worth looking at some of the things that changed as they came into MUDs, though. I don’t know how many levels there were in MUD1, but in D&D there weren’t very many. The very notion of having 70 levels (and in the case of many text muds, “remorting,” and in the case of EQ, “Alternate Advancement”) is silly when looked at through a D&D-circa-late-70s lens. Now, I got to D&D late, with the Dungeons and Dragons Basic Set in the red box, and with the stack of AD&D books I still have, a mix of yellow spined and original editions of the 1st edition of the game rules. But a level 20 was nothing to sneeze at in those games. It was extraordinary, in fact.
D&D was notable in its advancement model for a couple of reasons:
- You got experience for anything the Dungeon Master thought deserved recognition
- You never, ever played with a widely disparate group of characters
These two elements were fundamental to how the game worked. In the translation to computers, however, the first was lost; going from analog to digital, from human to mechanical, XP became nothing more than a weighted count of creatures killed. This was a dramatic change in the nature of what we call “roleplaying games,” and the computer gaming industry has been fighting it ever since. A D&D game which was purely focused on advancement was derisively termed a “Monty Haul” game, and its players “rollplayers” (a pun which has surely been reinvented thousands of times by bored geeks).
I wish I could say unambiguously that the center of the pen and paper roleplay session was its narrative, not its numbers. But that Gamist/Narrativist tension (not to mention Simulationist, which has affected the design of a lot of pen and paper games) led to some classic D&D adventures on both sides of the fence: tournament play which was clearly Gamist in nature, pushing to beat a specific challenge (the referenced module actually ran on a time limit, and if you didn’t get your party out in time, they died from poisoned air); versus heavily Narrativist stuff like Ravenloft, which was such a popular story that it led to the creation of an entire setting. Either way, however, one thing is clear: even in the Gamist settings, you were not rewarded solely for killing.
In the early CRPGs, you often controlled a party, rather than a single character, and your party was tightly coupled in level as you progressed through the story. This commonality between pen and paper and CRPGs, however, was lost with the transition to muds and then massively multiplayer games: pen and paper games were geared towards narrow level ranges. You generally did not have an adventure with a level 1 and a level 10 character running around in the same world at the same time. You might have campaigns that were set up that way, but not individual sessions. Modules that were sold or designed by players were set up for tight narrow ranges of content drawn from a larger pool of available content described in the reference books.
Higher level did not imply higher difficulty either. There was a real effort to have the nature of game change as you advanced; the rulesets added stuff like followers, baronetcies, and so on at the higher levels of the game. But you could have a murderously difficult adventure with newbie characters, and a cakewalk one with high-level characters. Even though the amount of experience points needed for a level advanced as you played, the experience grants were scaled by storyline and play session, not by arbitrary number of kills.
In addition, the gap in damage-dealing power between a low-level character and a high-level one was not all that dramatic; a mage got 1d4 extra hit points per level, and even a fighter only got 1d8. I call this the power differential between a newbie and a maxed out character, as it scales the content that is required in the game.
Much of this changed with muds, and the changes have carried through to the MMORPGs we play today.
The common characteristics of muds’ use of levels are these:
- Levels are earned with experience
- The world holds characters of all available levels simultaneously
- More levels were added
- The power differential grew dramatically even between the lower levels
- Each level is harder to get than the previous one
The wrinkles here are many. For example, the ways to get experience have changed over the years. A focus on killing things developed, even though there had been in earlier games a collecting game (in early AberMUDs, for example, you had to gather stuff and drop it in the well to advance). In the early 90s, there was much emphasis on the notion of “exploration XP” — giving XP for entering particular rooms on the MUD, or tracking how many rooms a player had been to. This sort of mechanic never fully supplemented the XP for killing, but is sadly lacking in modern MMORPGs. “Quest XP” is also a very common mechanic that has been minimally used overall, although World of Warcraft makes heavy use of linearly directed quests and you can advance quite well through questing.
Because of the codebases used in many of the most popular muds, quests were difficult to implement, and having them was actually a major selling point in the first few years of the 90s. But puzzles and quests have a long tradition in the mud world, and they’re sometimes far more intricate than the stuff in the MMORPGs today, generally thanks to the immense flexibility that text can bring to the table. (If Legend wouldn’t freak out, I’d post the walkthrough of the Beowulf quest just to illustrate the point).
Despite the presence of quests, however, killing things became the primary mode of interacting with a virtual world despite the wide variety of possible interactions. The “XP run” was born… lacking the play-session scale of pen and paper gaming, levels were defined instead by using a baseline of “number of creatures to kill to get the next level.” Typically, like in D&D, the levels were given a larger and larger required experience point cost, but without the saving grace that rewards were scaled by the necessities of storytelling. Instead, what was rewarded was repetition: “I need 20 rats to level up.”
The second fascinating wrinkle is the way in which this had distorting effects on the reward scale. Increasingly, games came to treat level as implying a level of difficulty — or at least, tedium. While the first few levels of a mud were notorious for being difficult, the general design trend was towards offering bigger and bigger rewards as you rose through the levels, and thus requiring bigger and bigger enemies, often requiring bigger and bigger groups. While this trend did not receive its apotheosis until the days of “raids” in EverQuest, the seeds were clearly sown earlier: you leveled because it got you better stuff so you could fight bigger things that gave you better stuff that…
The result of this cycle is that more levels needed to be added to the typical D&D style progression, because that retained players more, offered more regular rewards (if you think about it, the reward feedback given by a pen and paper game was actually pretty sparse), and provided a direct point of comparison between games. Because the power differential was being increased, more levels needed to be added.
The long-term result is mudflation. Players reach the top of your level ladder, but you need to keep them occupied, so you add more levels, and with them, more powerful items to serve as rewards. But then you have these powerful items trickling around the game economy, so everything in the game gets a little bit easier. This makes people level faster to the top, which then results in your adding more levels…
Even aside from the classic mudflation effect, you also have what I call database deflation, which is the devaluation and redundancy of your statically created data, occurring simply by the fact that you added more levels, regardless of whether there are players present or not. Any given monster or obstacle can literally be evaluated as a % of the path needed to reach the maximum level; by adding levels, you are adjusting the percentage the monster is worth.
The upshot of all of this was three-fold:
- a common practice of engaging in regular character wipes or equipment wipes. (!)
- the invention of numerous systems to push players through the same content repeatedly without increasing levels. The best known of these was probably “remorting,” which allowed players to take a maxxed out character and start it over as a different class, but with the same identity and gear. I’ve constantly been surprised that this hasn’t been applied to the graphical games.
- the invention of a whole host of systems to prevent players of disparate power from playing together.
The latter is important, because it gives rise to twinking, to level limits on gear, to soulbinding items, to sidekicking and mentoring, to PK level limits, to PK zones and safe areas, to group level restrictions, and to the concept of level-limited geography.
That’s quite a host of side effects. Power differentials between levels are at the root of countless systems in modern MMORPGs. Twinking exists because godlike characters can help mouselike characters. Same for grouping level limits. Level limits on gear exist so that swords from Valhalla don’t fall into mouselike hands. Soulbinding exists for the same reason. And PK zones and level-limited geography exist so that godlike characters do not crush mouselike ones.
Lastly, sidekicking and mentoring, which I believe were first seen in City of Heroes — wow, what a brilliant hack! We’ll allow people to temporarily change level to get past all the barriers we just put up because we included power differentiating levels in the first place! It seriously is a genius solution (I mean that quite honestly) but it also points out exactly how many undesirable side effects have come about from levels over the years.
The upshot is that whereas in D&D levels were used to bring people together, in MMOs today they are used to keep people apart. In a pen and paper campaign, it was considered mere politeness to allow a newcomer to skip to the level of the current adventure; this is inconceivable in today’s distortion of the system.
If anything, this little history just illustrates the ways in which levels have changed over the years. It’s important to realize that most of these side effects didn’t exist in the original D&D model because it proceeded from different assumptions. Rather, they are all adaptations caused by the use of the model in a very different situation.
In the end, one thing tends to remain constant: a graph of population of characters at each level in your game database will generally show something that looks a lot like what you see when you hold up your left hand and try to make a V. If you have an uneven rate of advancement from level to level, you will get a slightly jaggier graph as players accumulate at the “hell levels,” but broadly speaking this graph always holds true. The start of the graph is your influx of newbies, the downslope in the lower levels is because of abandoned characters, and the spike at the end is where everyone ends up. The middle levels tend to have a far far lower population.
Seeing this graph, it’s clear why adding content at the top and causing mudflation is the typical path: it’s what would satisfy your customers. But it has huge implications on content creation costs and on the notion of user segmentation into “cozy worlds”.
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