Teaching an Old Dog a Better Trick
That Same Old Song
Ultima Online, Everquest, Asheron's Call, Dark Age of Camelot, and WoW. These titles dominated the world during their prime. Even as I write this, WoW is still flush with subscriptions, but it isn't the genre defining juggernaut that it once was just a few years ago. This evaluation is by no means a slight against WoW or its fans. It is simply the reality of a game that long in the tooth.
What is it that WoW does well? It is a group based level/item grind treadmill. You level up, get gear, so you can level up some more and get better gear. When you think you are at the top, Blizzard just lays down some more road to the horizon. This formula while relatively simple is very addictive and enjoyable in that you can just get blissfully lost in the world.
AC, EQ and DAOC were essentially the prototypes of WoW. Ultima Online was the first MMO of the modern era, but a completely different type of game. However UO's style of play and mechanics are definitely a reflection of a much more innocent time. When designers gave players the freedom to kill each other, but assumed it would be rare because players would police themselves. That same game today would be a hellish landscape of the worst kind of people that the cloak of anonymity creates. Even in 1997-2001 it's greatest weakness was the subset of players that spent all their time trying to ruin the game for everyone else. But much like WoW polished the DIKU like mud style gaming, a new version of UO would just polish the rough and unorganized griefing of classic UO. You only have to turn toward XBOX live to see how prevalent hateful trolling has become in the gamerverse.
And now we are stuck in a rut. The magic of MMOs that got gamers' imaginations fired up about living worlds and non stop adventure and immersible game play has faded. We've all seen what these games have to offer. How many times are gamers expected to dedicate a year or more of their life to leveling up a character to get the best gear in the game? It isn't that the new generation of MMOs are bad, it is simply that the audience has grinding fatigue.
The time is right for an evolution. That is easy to say, and developers throw that word around so much it loses it's meaning. However, much wide spread access to broadband changed the face of TV, MMOs are at a place where they no longer have to worry about retention as a revenue stream.
What has changed today?
Now it made sense during the golden ages of these games to use timesinks to retain players. After all these games made money based on subscriptions. But the new revenue is geared around micro payments, expansions, and advertising. You don't necessarily need to stick a carrot out in front of the player and lead him a long a never ending path.
Timesinks, grinding, and treadmill style gameplay are the chains holding back evolution.
What I see as the future, is a game that fixates on the positive aspects of MMOs. Socializing, competition, reward, and adventure.
Currently levels are used as a crutch. They are the tasty treat you get for completing a boring task so you have incentive to complete the next boring task. Levels are not inherently bad though, they help you learn your character, grow with him, and bond with him. Levels in this sense are an abstract way to represent maturity and experience.
Using levels is good, but leveling should end. How many levels does one need? 20? 50? 80? I'd say 30-40. Why this arbitrary number? You want the player to feel like the max level was a journey, but not so long that leveling becomes the only thing he has known for so long he doesn't want to stop. And then, never increase the max level. I find it pointless to max at 40, only to increase it to level 50 for the expansion. After all, the character doesn't get more powerful, he just matches his power with the increased power of the expanded world.
The crucial part of leveling is allowing the character a to grow, and let the player make decisions that will influence and shape his character. Leveling up a character gives that avatar personality and a history, and the player forms a relationship with that character and will want to continue to play him. This journey from 1 to max level, should be an important part of the world. Accomplishments should be seen throughout the world. In game books should chronicle each player's deeds. NPCs should talk about the players. Statues should be built to commemorate a heroic act. This means many duplicated accolades per world, but that is ok. If the journey is long enough, there will be plenty of opportunity for each player to distinguish himself. And as a player, I don't mind sharing the same adventure, it is just nice to be acknowledged.
What this means is, being max level shouldn't be the goal. The journey should be the goal. Encourage players to build their character's history and reputation. Don't just get to max level as fast as you can to Raid or PVP, but spend time adventuring and figuring out what sort of mark you want to leave on the world. And this is a process that won't end even when you hit max level. Your avatar should always have room to grow and have goals to achieve.