Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Leveling Game vs. Engame

This is the third post in response to the comments posted here.

Helistar encouraged me to blog on this:
Several MMOs have been criticized because they turn into "two games packaged at one", i.e. the leveling game (quest-based, mostly solo) and the endgame activities (raiding/pvp), which don't share much in common.

Helistar wrote more than that. If you're interested, go check out his comment. On the above quote: I agree that this has happened and I agree that it is not optimal.

Let's first try to understand how it happened. MMORPGs were typically about the 'leveling game'. The designers didn't think about the endgame all that much. They didn't have much hope to keep people in the game after completing the leveling game.

However, it turned out that just attaching some PvP/PvE minigames (endgame) made players play the MMORPG for years! Woah! Nobody expected that. With WoW Blizzard focused more and more on that endgame, because it was so extraordinarily cheap to produce and kept millions of players p(l)aying.

Now, this is a working model. That's why a lot of companies clone it. The leveling game lures players into the game and the endgame keeps them paying for a game they might never have bought, if there hadn't been a leveling game.

The reason there are no pure raiding games is that raiding isn't all that interesting, really. Neither are most endgame activities. These activities are interesting mostly, because they feed on the meaning induced by the leveling game, the community and the simulation (illusion, really) of a world outside the instance.

Now, after some decade of playing these games, many gamers are bored of it. What can be done about it?

Well, if the single goal of a game is ever increasing character power, not much can be done about it. You can try to find some way to get infinite content. Like Psychochild's storybricks. But if the only goal is to increase character power, all games become boring eventually. And this does not only apply to the specific game, but all games that have character power as goal! Once you played one of them, you played them all.
Humans may be a bit stupid, but they aren't complete morons. We understand quite well that something is wrong when we hit level 77; and it doesn't feel as fun as level 5. This is especially true if all our opponents level with us.

My favorite way to solve the problem is to shift the goal of the game from character power progression (CPP), to other things. For example to defending against an ever-ongoing (and seriously dangerous) enemy undead invasion in a PvE sandbox. You can still keep a weak CPP, but you don't run out of content, if the content is created by the interaction of the players instead of an external designer.

Moreover, the goal of the game is now sustainable indefinitely. There is endless content, because it is created by the inter-player and inter-player-group relations. And we know from the real world that this is interesting for .. forever.


  1. Thanks for your answer.

    But I disagree on a couple of points: "pure" raiding games don't exist because nobody even tried. Blizzard is going there, making the leveling game more and more irrelevant. Raiding itself is a fun activity if you like team games, for me the problem tends to be all the non-raiding which is around it (dailies/achievements).
    Also, I'm not sure it's the leveling game which lures people, the friends I know who play MMO do it to play with other people first of all, and the leveling game is very ill suited to having people play together (at least in its current incarnation).

    The idea you suggest in point 2 has been done: just before I tried Ryzom there had been a full-scale invasion which messed up the "normal" gameplay.
    The amount of crying/complaining/whining on the forums was at such a height that I postponed trying the game for some months....

  2. @Hilstar:

    But if something is designed from the ground-up to be about invasions, there'd be no QQing. All that would happen is you'd lose the segment of players who see anything that disrupts their questing as a bad thing.

    For example: if you were playing (association) football, and halfway through the match the ref decided it was a full contact sport, you'd be pretty pissed off. But if you played a full contact sport from the start, it wouldn't cause any whining at all.

  3. I pretty much agree, Drilski. Circumstances matter. What is fun in one game is not necessarily fun in the next.
    Also, exspectations are powerful and need to be managed by the designers.

  4. Couple more points, Helistar. You say
    "pure" raiding games don't exist because nobody even tried."

    I disagree, but honestly, I am not sure. Maybe you are right. But if I had to bet, I'd bet against it.

    "Also, I'm not sure it's the leveling game which lures people,"

    But the leveling game is what players have to do for the first weeks they play the game. There is no player raiding in WoW who didn't like the leveling game enough to play it for weeks.

    The argument that they do it just for the endgame can apply to experienced players only. A new player has no idea what the endgame is like. I don't think a new player would play a leveling game he doesn't like for weeks only to reach a end game he doesn't kow anything about.

  5. @Niels: counterproof to your statement: myself. I joined WoW after having played a single korean MMO (grind) and having heard from a friend about raiding (does this make me "experienced"?).
    He used refer-a-friend and since he had already 3-4 levelcapped characters and knew the "optimized questing", we rushed through the leveling at full speed. From the start my aim was to see what raiding was about, since it sounded interesting. It didn't take weeks, I think it was 2 days play time to lvl 70, and some 30 hours more to 80.

    As a result, I started to learn about my character at level cap, before level 80 I didn't even know what stuff like "Attack power" did to my damage output, and I used a talent spec which was a pure cut'n'paste from a "if you level a druid, do this".
    Sure, with time I leveled other characters, slowly and reading quest texts. But it's not what brought me to the game and it's not what is keeping me in.
    In LotRO I cared more about the leveling game, or maybe I cared more about the world (LotRO quests suck big time). I never ended up raiding there since the amount of farming (= non raiding) for gear is too much for my taste.

  6. Ah. I see Blizzard's super-speed leveling was financially successful. I must say I feel a bit sick.

    But not because of you :).
    I totally support your wish for a pure raiding game. Or pure Arena PvP game. Or pure collect-herbs game. If you wish to pay a sub for that (or do microtransactions), feel free to do so.

    It's just that this is not a game I would p(l)ay. But I am humbly reminded that players are different. Much more different than one can sometimes understand ;)

  7. "MMORPGs were typically about the 'leveling game'. ...
    However, it turned out that just attaching some PvP/PvE minigames (endgame) made players play the MMORPG for years! "

    I'd argue that the real issue arose a step further down the road. People continued to hang out in the group leveling game of EQ even as others dashed on to the raid/PVE minigame. At the risk of oversimplifying an era that I never experienced, I'd suggest that the difference between leveling and endgame in EQ1 was the number of people in your structured group.

    Then Blizzard proved that you can increase your sales by an order of magnitude if you replace the group leveling game with a solo leveling game that allows customers with less structured schedules to give you money. Now the difference between leveling and endgame is twenty minute sessions between dealing with dogs, kids, and life and four hour pre-scheduled raids. This difference is irreconcilable, and the entire business model is to try and do just that each and every expansion.

    That's how we end up with a mess like Cataclysm, where large amounts of content were allocated to leveling players, only to be ruined when the difficulty of leveling got set to lightning speed because the content was never designed to keep raiders entertained.

  8. I was off at a convention, so this is a bit late. But, it's not quite accurate to call Storybricks a way to get "infinite content". As I said in a post on my blog, the attitude of putting players to work is misguided. Our goal is to let players tell their own stories. And, yes, most of them aren't going to be interesting to most other people. But, it's not just PR speak to say we're giving players tools to let them create. In fact, I'm still advocating that we need to build a full game world in addition to the tools, so we're not really saving much effort. But, we'll see how reality goes once we find more funding and get more feedback from people.