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Raph's thinking on levels

AmarantharAmaranthar Member RarePosts: 3,513
I went back to 2005 on Raph Koster's blog to find a post that has stuck with me for all these years. It was about the pros and cons of levels in MMORPGs (and maybe into the full spectrum of all MMOs). 

In it ( https://www.raphkoster.com/2005/12/22/do-levels-suck-part-ii/ )
Raph states the following:

So it is that the greatest weakness of levels — the fact that they prevent people from playing with one another — can also be their greatest strength; arguably more powerful than any of the Skinner Box sort of bits of psychology. Group identity is routinely cited by players as the most powerful retention factor in online games.

The question is whether one needs levels to accomplish this. Let’s consider the factors that seem to go into creating a success. Leaving aside the basic question of whether you have fun gameplay at a core systems level, the things that have been listed throughout this article are:

  • feedback for achievements
  • public status based on achievements
  • gated communities that require special status to enter
  • the lure of power based on significant achievements
  • regular changes or variation in the challenges undertaken within a given playstyle
  • cozy worlds created with players segmented based on when they entered the game and the rate at which they leveled; or self-selected by players

Now, I agree wholeheartedly with this. To define it further, it's clear that Raph is talking about the power gaps that level based games use. That's the thing that hinders the "Massively" in multiplayer as far as game play among players as a whole. 

I'm just wondering if others agree, and if a worthwhile discussion can be had about it. Can something besides (explicitly) levels with big power gaps make for a great game, yet still hits on the bullet points listed above? 
  

Once upon a time....

AmatheTorvalAlBQuirkyScot
«13

Comments

  • AmatheAmathe Member LegendaryPosts: 6,027
    Many PvE players (including me) enjoy traditional advancement in terms of periodic increases to their power, denoted by levels.

    If it wasn't levels, it would just be something else. Skills. Abilities. Whatever.

    If everyone stayed the same without power increases to separate the old from the new, the accomplished from the unaccomplished, I would pretty much log in and find the nearest bar. Or more likely I would just not log in.

    You want what you do to matter. You want your efforts to produce an observable distinction. 
    AlBQuirkyiixviiiixelockevandal5627kitaradHawkaya399Scot

    EQ1, EQ2, SWG, SWTOR, GW, GW2 CoH, CoV, FFXI, WoW, CO, War,TSW and a slew of free trials and beta tests

  • UtinniUtinni Member RarePosts: 1,180
    Power gaps are just inherent to any RPG. It just happens with character progression regardless of how it's done. I don't think its a bad thing.
    SovrathNorseGodWaanAlBQuirkyiixviiiixelockeVengeSunsoar
  • Jean-Luc_PicardJean-Luc_Picard Member LegendaryPosts: 8,061
    ESO did it well. Besides UO 25 years ago of course.
    bcbully
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  • AeanderAeander Member LegendaryPosts: 4,848
    edited November 6
    Downscaling has alleviated a lot of the design flaws (such as outdated content and barriers to group play) otherwise inherent to vertical leveling in multiplayer RPGs, but I would be inclined to say that levels are the wrong way to go about progression. They are the easy way out.

    A better form of progression would be to encourage the player to overcome many varied challenges throughout the world in exchange for exclusive abilities and modifiers/runewords for existing abilities. Skill hunting is fun. Skill hunting brings people together and drives them towards specific content. It just takes a lot more work on a developer's end.
    CryomatrixAmarantharGdemamicheebaAlBQuirkyJean-Luc_PicardVermillion_Raventhal
  • CryomatrixCryomatrix Member EpicPosts: 2,740
    The reason to play a lot of these games is for the progression. 

    Progression can be in levels, gear, unlocked content, in-game currency, reputation, skills, overcoming new difficulty, etc. 

    The nice thing about these progressions is that it gives people a goal to shoot for. This is what makes me want to log in. I need a goal to shoot for. 

    In PoE, it was figuring out a new build and the challenge of getting high as i can in HC. If i played in SC, there'd be no challenge and no goal worthwhile and i wouldn't play it. 

    In SC 2, it is improving and moving up the ladder. 

    In Entropia, my goal is to gain in skills to kill bigger monsters but in reality, Entropia is just a place holder game and the progression in the game is essentially muted by the way the game is. 

    Being level 10 in entropia or being level 100 in entropia is the same as walking into a casino with $20 to spend or $2,000. You are playing against the house and that never changes. 
    AmarantharAlBQuirky
    Catch me streaming at twitch.tv/cryomatrix
    You can see my sci-fi/WW2 book recommendations. 
  • AmarantharAmaranthar Member RarePosts: 3,513
    Aeander said:
    ...(Delete for space)...

    A better form of progression would be to encourage the player to overcome many varied challenges throughout the world in exchange for exclusive abilities and modifiers/runewords for existing abilities. Skill hunting is fun. Skill hunting brings people together and drives them towards specific content. It just takes a lot more work on a developer's end.
    I really like this idea. 
    I had a similar idea for trade skills, with an example of a Stone Mason needing to go into ruins and study the remnants of arches in order to gain the ability to build them in Player Construction. 

    I suppose there are many ways to make discoveries in a truly adventurous world. 
    AlBQuirky

    Once upon a time....

  • AlBQuirkyAlBQuirky Member EpicPosts: 5,519
    edited November 7
    I can't imagine what an MMORPG screen would be like with 2500 players all in one space. If I try, I see a 0.25 FPS rate.

    Progression is the backbone of RPGs. Because of this, you will have "power gaps." Players have differing amounts of time (or money, now) to play. Attempting to make them "all the same" defeats the purpose of playing, doesn't it?

    ESO did it well. Besides UO 25 years ago of course.
    With UO, I realize they just increased skills as you used them, but did "power gaps" still exist? Maybe not as great of a gulf, but still present?

    - Al

    Personally the only modern MMORPG trend that annoys me is the idea that MMOs need to be designed in a way to attract people who don't actually like MMOs. Which to me makes about as much sense as someone trying to figure out a way to get vegetarians to eat at their steakhouse.
    - FARGIN_WAR


    (And now Burger King has MEATLESS burgers!)

  • iixviiiixiixviiiix Member RarePosts: 2,000
    The logic of level 30 kill level 30 enemies is ruined the design . why level 30 can't kill level 60 or level 90 enemies ?
    GdemamiWarEnsemble
  • UtinniUtinni Member RarePosts: 1,180
    AlBQuirky said:


    ESO did it well. Besides UO 25 years ago of course.
    With UO, I realize they just increased skills as you used them, but did "power gaps" still exist? Maybe not as great of a gulf, but still present?
    The same great gulf between capped players and newer players in UO and SWG
    AlBQuirky
  • BeansnBreadBeansnBread Member EpicPosts: 6,934
    Raph is definitely my weak spot when it comes to game designers. I've seen so many normal people embarrassed by designers they believe in. I am prepared to be disappointed by what I consider to be a game designer that could make my bullshit gaming fantasy come true.

    Brad. Fuck off.
    Marc. Fuck off.
    Roberts. Fuck off x 10.
    Raph, bring me my dreams.
  • UtinniUtinni Member RarePosts: 1,180
    Raph is definitely my weak spot when it comes to game designers. I've seen so many normal people embarrassed by designers they believe in. I am prepared to be disappointed by what I consider to be a game designer that could make my bullshit gaming fantasy come true.

    Brad. Fuck off.
    Marc. Fuck off.
    Roberts. Fuck off x 10.
    Raph, bring me my dreams.
    I love his games too, but it's been over 15 years since he's done anything meaningful. Hopefully he's got some help in the design department this time because UO and SWG were both primarily PvP endgame.
    Mendel
  • anemoanemo Member RarePosts: 1,788
    Guild Wars one did a good job of demonstrating an almost-ish levelless system.  It took 30 hours of casual play to get to max, but still felt like you were "leveling" as you unlocked a new skill, cosmetic, or achievement.  In later expansions that time to max was halved.


    kilunAAAMEOW

    Practice doesn't make perfect, practice makes permanent.

    "At one point technology meant making tech that could get to the moon, now it means making tech that could get you a taxi."

  • RungarRungar Member UncommonPosts: 66
    the distinction must be made between hard levels and soft levels. Hard levels are those that you might have seen in everquest or wow. If your not the right level you just cant do it because the monsters scale to level.

    Eso on the other hand has soft level and none of these levels change the monsters level because you start off at the monsters level. 

    Eso is the far superior model here because it has the best of both worlds . I think they are actually on to something with their achievement system where it might be completely possible to remove levels altogether and just focus on achievements as a means to improve your character.
    Iselin
    We shall know them by their works
  • BeansnBreadBeansnBread Member EpicPosts: 6,934
    Utinni said:
    Raph is definitely my weak spot when it comes to game designers. I've seen so many normal people embarrassed by designers they believe in. I am prepared to be disappointed by what I consider to be a game designer that could make my bullshit gaming fantasy come true.

    Brad. Fuck off.
    Marc. Fuck off.
    Roberts. Fuck off x 10.
    Raph, bring me my dreams.
    I love his games too, but it's been over 15 years since he's done anything meaningful. Hopefully he's got some help in the design department this time because UO and SWG were both primarily PvP endgame.
    Oh yeah, his faults are awful. I agree. 
  • BeansnBreadBeansnBread Member EpicPosts: 6,934
    edited November 7
    Rungar said:
    the distinction must be made between hard levels and soft levels. Hard levels are those that you might have seen in everquest or wow. If your not the right level you just cant do it because the monsters scale to level.

    Eso on the other hand has soft level and none of these levels change the monsters level because you start off at the monsters level. 

    Eso is the far superior model here because it has the best of both worlds . I think they are actually on to something with their achievement system where it might be completely possible to remove levels altogether and just focus on achievements as a means to improve your character.
    It's like watching a novice trying to find the "sweet" spot.
    Post edited by BeansnBread on
  • acidbloodacidblood Member RarePosts: 858
    Aeander said:
    Downscaling has alleviated a lot of the design flaws (such as outdated content and barriers to group play) otherwise inherent to vertical leveling in multiplayer RPGs, but I would be inclined to say that levels are the wrong way to go about progression. They are the easy way out.

    A better form of progression would be to encourage the player to overcome many varied challenges throughout the world in exchange for exclusive abilities and modifiers/runewords for existing abilities. Skill hunting is fun. Skill hunting brings people together and drives them towards specific content. It just takes a lot more work on a developer's end.
    The problem with a system such as you describe is it's strictly prescribed nature... i.e. to get ability X you must do activity Y. Generic 'levels' and 'experience' are much more freeform (at least in a well-designed and 'open' game)... i.e. the player is able choose how they want to level; quests, dungeons, PvP, plain old grinding, etc.

    Note: This is not to say quests to gain abilities are a bad thing, but they should be supplementary to a progression system, not a replacement. And the same can be said for gear.
  • AeanderAeander Member LegendaryPosts: 4,848
    edited November 7
    acidblood said:
    Aeander said:
    Downscaling has alleviated a lot of the design flaws (such as outdated content and barriers to group play) otherwise inherent to vertical leveling in multiplayer RPGs, but I would be inclined to say that levels are the wrong way to go about progression. They are the easy way out.

    A better form of progression would be to encourage the player to overcome many varied challenges throughout the world in exchange for exclusive abilities and modifiers/runewords for existing abilities. Skill hunting is fun. Skill hunting brings people together and drives them towards specific content. It just takes a lot more work on a developer's end.
    The problem with a system such as you describe is it's strictly prescribed nature... i.e. to get ability X you must do activity Y. Generic 'levels' and 'experience' are much more freeform (at least in a well-designed and 'open' game)... i.e. the player is able choose how they want to level; quests, dungeons, PvP, plain old grinding, etc.

    Note: This is not to say quests to gain abilities are a bad thing, but they should be supplementary to a progression system, not a replacement. And the same can be said for gear.
    That depends on how specific requirements for Y ability are. Ideally, most abilities would have alternative requirements, or require one to, for example, slay a rare type of dragon that could be hunted in a multitude of locations. That said, there is nothing inherently wrong with guiding players towards specific activities, and nothing inherently virtuous about freeform progression.


    I also really like the idea of a crafting system that tells a sort of story. Harvesting a specific ore in a specific cave could have a unique visual change on the blade. Perhaps that cave has a particularly high cobalt content in its metal, causing all of its metals to take on a bluish hue. Perhaps you want to modify the blade with etched runes in a particular language. And then imbue said runes with energy from a particular type of rare enemy to gain a particular energy color. A sort of quest-driven crafting system with the quest goals left entirely up to the player. Of course, this sort of thing is quite ambitious and likely unfeasible for now.
    kilunKajidourden
  • IselinIselin Member LegendaryPosts: 13,106
    Rungar said:
    the distinction must be made between hard levels and soft levels. Hard levels are those that you might have seen in everquest or wow. If your not the right level you just cant do it because the monsters scale to level.

    Eso on the other hand has soft level and none of these levels change the monsters level because you start off at the monsters level. 

    Eso is the far superior model here because it has the best of both worlds . I think they are actually on to something with their achievement system where it might be completely possible to remove levels altogether and just focus on achievements as a means to improve your character.
    It was very easy for ESO to make the transition from zones separated by level to the system with all mobs at the same level because the feeling of growth and character development was never really tied to character levels.

    It was always about growing individual skill lines and spending the points you got from leveling, quest rewards, PvP and Skyshard exploration to get new and better skills from those lines you had partially or fully unlocked... even to the extent of using the same points to advance crafting perks you had unlocked there.

    The only part of the game that still feels like traditional character-level locked advancement is ironically the Champion points end game which is itself a shameless copy of the Diablo 3 Paragon system. Consequently the more significant power gaps that exists in the game are all Champion point related as you would expect.
    TorvalAlBQuirky
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  • AeanderAeander Member LegendaryPosts: 4,848
    anemo said:
    Guild Wars one did a good job of demonstrating an almost-ish levelless system.  It took 30 hours of casual play to get to max, but still felt like you were "leveling" as you unlocked a new skill, cosmetic, or achievement.  In later expansions that time to max was halved.


    Guild Wars 1 was really what I was referencing in terms of skill hunting progression. It was super fun, and I think had real potential to be built upon. Tragically, a similar system had been mentioned in GW2 development blogs (with traits as rewards for specific quests), but this was scrapped prior to launch. It would later be briefly re-attempted to massive backlash. You can't just take progression that people already had access to and gate it. And traits, unlike skills, are not intended to be side grades and should not be gated off behind this kind of progression.

    As far as levels go, I don't view levels in Guild Wars 1 as progression, but rather a form of tutorial. The leveling process was so quick, and once that level 20 cap was hit, there was a huge world to play, entirely designed around you learning to play at that power level. 

    Guild Wars 1 was horizontal progression done right. 
    Kajidourden
  • cameltosiscameltosis Member EpicPosts: 2,213
    I have a lot to say about this subject :-)

    First, let's clear up a few things as we're talking about "levels". That term is not useful enough by itself as it can mean a huge variety of things. So, terminology:

    1) Vertical Progression
    When most people talk about levels/leveling, this is what they actual mean. Vertical progression is when things "go up" - skills get more powerful, stats get bigger etc.

    2) Horizontal Progression
    This type of progression is when things progress sideways - things don't get bigger or better, they're just different. this type of progression is concerned with customisations and specialisations, rather than just getting bigger.

    3) False Progression
    This is any type of progression where something progresses but it doesn't affect gameplay at all. The way you play the game before you progressed is exactly the same as after you progressed. Easiest example of this is stat increases when you level up in an RPG - the stat increase doesn't actually affect the gameplay in any way. This type of progression is pure skinner box.

    4) True Progression
    This is any type of progression that actually has an effect on the way you play the game. This is things like unlocking new skills when you level up - that new skill actually changes the way you play the game, either by extending a rotation or giving you more options/capabilities.



    Raph's comments on the pitfalls of levels primarily refers to the worst bits of vertical progression combined with false progression. Vertical progression segregates the community, preventing multiplayer. As the massively multiplayer genre, this is the absolute worst thing you can do as a designer. In addition, vertical progression segregates the content - only a very small segment of the content is ever relevant to you as a player and eventually, all content will become redundant. This is also exceedingly bad for a genre that supposedly wants to keep us playing for as long as possible.

    The reason why most MMORPGs use vertical progression is very simple: it was the most common type of progression in board games and single player RPGs. Designers simply copied the progression system - it worked elsewhere, so why wouldn't it work with MMORPGs?!?!

    The reason it worked elsewhere, but not in MMORPGs, is because elsewhere the player's game time and the game's time is exactly the same. When you stop playing a single player RPG, the game itself also stops. Same with a coop game - all players and the game progress at the same time, together.

    That condition - of time advancing equally for all players - does not exist in MMORPGs. When I log off from an MMORPG, the game keeps going and other players keep playing. This means that the progression system stops working properly - players advance at different rates and the game world has to somehow work for players of vastly different timescales.


    You can also see the consequences of rigidly sticking to vertical progression.

    The solofication of MMORPGs is directly tied to vertical progression. When you have levels/powergaps, it means that when you want to do group content you only have access to a small portion of the playerbase. There may be 10,000 players on your server, but only 5,000 in your faction, only 1000 online, only 50 in your level range, and only 10 who actually want to group up. Group content during the leveling process only works immediately after release when "the pack" is still leveling up. After a while, most people are at endgame and so the pool of available players for that group content gets even smaller. Devs recognised this, especially as that group content eventually became a barrier to progression, and so they started removing most group content from the leveling process.

    The endgame "issue" is also directly tied to vertical progression. endgame becomes the only place where you can guarantee that players will end up and where the highest concentration of players will be. So, it totally makes sense to develop as much content as possible for endgame because that content will get the most use from the playerbase.

    The gear treadmill is also directly tied to vertical progression. The game conditions us to associate progress with bigger numbers. The leveling process gives us plenty of this, but that stops at endgame when there are no more levels to achieve. So, devs added teh gear treadmill to give us more things to hit for. Sadly, this is almost always false progression - the new gear gives us bigger numbers but rarely affects actual gameplay.

    The "dumbing down" of MMORPGs is also partially tied to vertical progression. It is just very difficult for devs to design challenging content when the power level of the players is unknown. If you put challenging content during the leveling process, players can just wait until their power goes up and it makes the content trivial. So devs just don't bother any more, instead putting the challenging content at endgame where the player's power is more easily predicted and controlled.

    [post is too long, continuing after]



    GdemamiMendelAmarantharAlBQuirkyacidblood
  • cameltosiscameltosis Member EpicPosts: 2,213
    The solution, in my opinion, is horizontal progression.

    This is concerned not with increases in power, but with customisation and specialisation. The most common genre where you see this type of progression is shooters. Something like CoD or Rainbow 6 still has XP (for feedback) and levels (to unlock stuff) and progression (more guns, customisations, perks, skins). However, the progression is not vertical, so these unlocks don't make you better than other people (for the most part anyway, there is still some verticality involved).

    This type of customisation and progression is really great, it still gives you goals to work towards so you are motivated, there is still feedback to let you know you're "doing the right thing", and the customisation aspect really lets you find a playstyle that is right for you. Any vertical increases in stats tend to be balanced by corresponding decreases in other stats, for example, unlocking a sniper rifle might mean each shot can do 5x more damage in comparison to your current weapon, but your rate of fire drops dramatically. The sniper is not objectively better or worse, its just different.


    This is what we need in our MMORPGs. Horizontal progression, focused on customisations and specialisations.

    I'll try to give you a DPS example from a hypothetical game. This game is traditional toolbar+tabtarget combat with a maximum toolbar space for 20 skills (this will be important).

    If you choose melee DPS class, you start with 5 skills and can only do single target damage. There is an extended tutorial to get you up to 20 skills, this part is still vertical progression.

    After that, it becomes about unlocking more and more skills that give you access to specialisations. Perhaps you want to focus on AoE? You'd go off and progress by unlocking AoE skills that would replace your single target DPS skills. You end up being stronger in situations with lots of enemies at the expense of being worse in single target situations. Maybe you want to add more utility to your build, so you progress by unlocking utility skills like stuns or debuffs, but at the expense of being able to do lots of damage.

    You can extend that to gear.

    Heavy armour gives most resistance at the expense of movement speed. A sword may be better at armour piercing than an axe, but worse at bludgeoning. Maybe a weapon has a higher crit chance at the expense of base damage.


    Point is, there are a ton of ways to give players progression to work towards using the horizontal approach. Sadly, it's just not really been tried very often so most players are unaware of how it would work. Luckily, Camelot Unchained is building their entire game around horizontal progression. It will still have some vertical increases, but the stated goal is to have a veteran player only have about 10% more power than a complete newbie.
    GdemamiMendelAmarantharAlBQuirky
  • GdemamiGdemami Member EpicPosts: 11,742
    This is what we need in our MMORPGs.
    ...so your solution to RPG part of the game is to remove it. Brilliant.
  • cameltosiscameltosis Member EpicPosts: 2,213
    [final part, I promise....]

    Something I think is extremely important when discussing progression systems is how do players make use of that progression, and this is where I feel MMORPGs are getting progressively worse.


    Progression is about acquiring abilities. It is a means to an end, not an end in itself.

    I feel like a lot of developers, especially in the MMO space, seem to have forgotten this important rule. We go through RPGs, acquiring all these abilities, stats and gear, but we rarely get much of an opportunity to actually use all this new shit. Instead, we acquire new shit in order to pass the "gate" of the next bit of content that allows us to acquire new shit.....

    We keep on progressing so that we can keep progressing.......with no point at all. We never get to enjoy what we've unlocked, we never really get the time to master what we've unlocked. It becomes a pointless cycle of progression, a pure skinner box.


    What I'd love to see is better content design from developers so that we can put our newly unlocked customisations and specialisations to use. By doing this, we can shift the emphasis of progression from the game (skills and stats) and onto the player (can we learn how to play the game better and thus achieve more?).

    In a horizontal game where power doesn't increase, I feel like this should be easier to achieve. If the power level of players is always the same, then setting the difficulty is much more predictable. A related note to this is depth. Modern MMOs have become very shallow when it comes to combat (primarily due to action combat), which means difficulty is based more around stats than player skill.

    If the combat system is deep (or any system for that matter), it means players will have many more options for success and thus more ways to develop their own personal skill levels. Depth also fits in perfectly with the idea of progression through customisation - simply having more customisation options means the chance of extra depth increases.



    Think that's it for now, sorry for walls of text!
    MendelAmaranthar
  • cameltosiscameltosis Member EpicPosts: 2,213
    Gdemami said:
    This is what we need in our MMORPGs.
    ...so your solution to RPG part of the game is to remove it. Brilliant.
    Lol

    A role-playing game's only requirement if for the player to be able to pick/choose/act out a role and for that role to have a meaningful effect on the game.


    The progression system involved has no bearing on whether a game is an RPG game or not.


    Even if you thought that way, horizontal progression is still progression. You can still have levels, you can still have classes, you can still have XP, you can still have gear, builds and stats. The only thing that would change is that your characters power, relative to others, wouldn't increase.
    Torvalanemo
  • ShinyFlygonShinyFlygon Member UncommonPosts: 35
    edited November 7
    Gdemami said:
    This is what we need in our MMORPGs.
    ...so your solution to RPG part of the game is to remove it. Brilliant.



    Is that really your takeaway? Because horizontal progression is absolutely not a removal of progression. It's literally in the name.

    Even though no one seems willing to admit it, many MMOs are finally realizing that the vertical approach is untenable in the long term. It's why WoW is having to squish levels. And if you look carefully, you'll see that many of the advancement systems they've started using are a lot more horizontal than vertical in nature.
    MendelGdemami
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