As a gamer who enjoys tearing apart the things that he loves, obviously I’m a fan of Yahtzee Croshaw’s Zero Punctuation reviews. Recently, he posted an Extra Punctuation article musing on level progression in MMORPGs, wherein he proposes a reversing the traditional assumption of progress in leveling systems with a system wherein, as a player progresses through the game, they essentially lose levels, what he frames as leveling backwards. (If that description is unclear, just read the article.) It’s an intriguing idea, though I don’t think the game he described would actually be that much fun. However, his post got me thinking about an alternative that I think might be genuinely cool.
Think of a martial arts master instructing a new pupil. The master tells the pupil, “We will start by teaching you the basics. Then, we build on those basics with advanced techiques. However, when you are truly ready to become a master, you will return to the basics.” That is my idea in an anecdote. Put another way, progression would neither a matter of straight gain nor loss, but a matter of refinement.
The player lives in a kingdom at war, and they have reached the age of conscription. Off they are sent to basic training (newbie zone), picking up some skills and spells along the way. After passing a series of tests, they are thrust into a series of front-line battles as cannon fodder. With each battle they survive, they learn new tricks, which they put into use on more complicated battlefields – the first fights are simple infantry skirmishes, but soon the opposing armies are bringing out fantastic war engines, powerful battle magics, and strange beasts. They distinguish themselves enough to attract the attention of their kingdom’s elite commandos or shock troopers and pick up a second set of more powerful skills or spells, then are sent on increasingly dangerous and increasingly decisive special missions, eventually culminating in the most decisive mission of all – the one that wins the war.
But the story doesn’t end there; the player’s unit is disbanded and the war is over, but who could settle for a quiet life after the things they’ve seen? And, though open hostilities are over, the world is hardly a peaceful utopia. Those war engines and battle magics are now in the hands of bitter-end deserters and bandit raiders, while the beasts roam free to terrorise a countryside that the victorious nation cannot afford to protect and defend against these unconventional threats. Enter the player, now a wandering adventurer, no longer able to draw on their nation’s deep pockets, stripped of the special equipment and magical components now classified as military secrets, but they still have their friends and a desire to continue protecting the land they put their life on the line for not so long ago — or maybe just the need to make a living, though fighting is all they know.
The tutorial and cannon fodder missions span maybe the first ten levels. The battlefields are PVP areas or PVE raids, so right from the start the player is thrown into the group content. There’s no “looking for group”, the players are thrown straight from their bivouac into an instanced battlefield populated by whoever else was logged on at the time (plus NPCs to fill out the ranks and play out scripted events). Progression here is largely canned: based on your original class, you get certain powers/abilities and static buffs at each level, along with new equipment issued by the military as technology advances or supply lines improve.
The special ops missions take up the next ten levels. There’s a bit of divergence here, in that the shock troopers continue to play PvP battlefields (opponents of similar level, mixed with cannon fodder NPCs), while the commandos are playing raid instances. There’s no artificial gate, of course, players can switch between the two at any time. Progression gets more custom at this point. As soon as they’re recruited off the front lines, players choose a specialisation that gives them a new set of powers, abilities, and buffs. As they level up, they get to choose between a few new ones based on their class and specialisation. Furthermore, they get access to special equipment which can be requested from the quartermaster or captured on the battlefield.
Only after the war is won does the world open up to free roaming. The player’s equipment is all gone now, though their military pay and pension allows them to buy some mundane weaponry and adventuring gear. Without constant drilling, too, their stats have decreased a little and they’ve forgotten some of the more specialised skills and spells they learned in the military. From this point forward, the player doesn’t learn any new powers whatsoever. Instead, at each level, the player has the option to sacrifice a power they know to gain a perk that enhances their other powers in some way, representing tricks and improvisation they’ve picked up during their adventuring. Straight damage improvements would be rare — in terms of raw DPS, a character at level 20 (top of spec ops tier) should equal or even best a player at any stage of the open game. Instead, the improvements would be equivalent to D&D’s “combat style” feats or stances, adding versatility and secondary effects to existing basic attacks. The player, while adventuring, comes across new magic items every level or every several levels, as rewards for completing quests, but magic items also degrade with use, eventually becoming mundane; in this way, quest loot is keeping them at roughly the same power level, rather than gearing them up as they go. In addition, the passive bonuses granted by magic items should be less than for the commando stage of the game, with items mainly providing situational utility effects.
The archetypal end game character would have roughly three or four attack powers, with four or five “stances” that modify those powers in various ways. There could be somewhat more traditional progression of picking up non-combat skills, but essentially they’ve got eight slots to fill on their combat hotbar (two being devoted to health/power recovery), less than half of which will be “spam” buttons. Only one combat hotbar will be required, since no character will ever have enough powers to fill up more than that. This is, in fact, an explicit part of the game design, tying into the main mechanic of sacrificing some attack powers to enhance the remaining ones.
Another consequence of this is that there’s no reason that an “end game” character couldn’t play the same quest as a level 21 character. A character at level 21 will have roughly the same DPS, roughly the same armour class, etc. as a character at level 31 or 41 or 61. In fact, they’ll have more attack powers to use, though the higher-level characters will actually be more versatile through their stances. The biggest difference will be in non-combat skills, and high-level characters might acquire a reputation with various factions that allows them to call in favours of various types, but there will be no artificial level-gating on either general regions or specific quests. (For the most part; there would still be reputation gates that lock certain areas/quests/items, or quest chains that can’t be done out of order.) This also means that there isn’t a clear “main quest” story progression, rather the player explores the world in whatever direction they choose, and the game won’t prevent them from doing so. Some areas may be dangerous for a player to solo through, but they’ll be just as dangerous for a solo player of level 60 as one of level 21. Instead, the open world game relies on a combination of dynamically-generated content and a steady stream of crafted content released at regular intervals. The crafted content would be a combination of traditional instances and world-based event content.
The leveling model actually provides a unique opportunity for advancing the world’s story through world-based events. Traditional MMOs typically advance the world’s story through static raids occurring at certain levels, such that every character plays the same story at the same time in their life; however, the player rarely experiences the story at the same time as other players. This is essential with traditional leveling, because otherwise players would feel that they missed out on the opportunity to play through certain story events by being at the wrong level at the wrong time. However, having a roughly-constant power curve in the open world stage would allow a game to evolve its story through “live” events that happen and then end, leaving the world changed for everyone, even players who didn’t directly participate. Nobody would be blocked from participating by virtue of being at the “wrong” level for the event, though care would have to be taken to allow players in various time zones and with restrictive play schedules to participate — a soluble problem, I think, though not one I’ve solved to my satisfaction yet.
Having a constant power curve and the assumption of continuously-degrading magic equipment also allows interesting possibilities for open world PvP and PvP instances. Again, a level 21 player and level 61 player would be roughly equivalent in HP, armour class, and DPS, so “ganking” would be hard to pull off. Also, since magic gear in the open world stage wouldn’t provide much in the way of passive bonuses, PvP loot could actually be pulled directly from the losing character’s inventory without leaving that character unplayable. At the same time, the winner gets a piece of equipment that’s already been partially spent and that isn’t necessarily more powerful than the gear they’re already carrying, so there’s little incentive to gank players just to grab their gear. (In fact, questing will always produce better results in that regard.)
I’ll probably continue having more ideas about this in the future, but I’ve hit 1600 words, and I think I’ve covered the main bases in terms of how the system I have in mind differs from a traditional MMO and the advantages of abandoning the traditional system. Thoughts? Comments? Etc.? Anybody want to help me found a new game company or hire me for theirs? ;)