Wednesday, April 18, 2012

My MMmanifesto - "no classes, no levels"

The popular-wisdom reply to "what's an RPG" is likely to run along the lines of "well, it's a game where you pick a class that does one thing better than other classes like healing or shooting arrows and you get experience from killing monsters that give you magic items and when you have enough experience you level up and get stronger."

This is basically a description of Dungeons and Dragons. That's wonderful. It worked for Dungeons and Dragons. Unfortunately, because of D&D's success, we've had decades of companies thoughtlessly copycatting these ideas like classes, experience and 'leveling up' into computer games that share the superficial RPG label regardless of whether or not they fit into the new designs. As far as MMOs go, there is a large portion of their core following which has for the past decade been requesting various features like the ability to build their own houses and cities in the game world, mobs that do more than stand around waiting to get killed, quests a bit more complex than "kill ten rats" or a player-driven in-game economy. Though particulars vary from year to year and game to game, the list of requests is likely to be topped by "no classes, no levels" because these two so-called features are blatantly extraneous to the basic idea of a persistent world.

Levels are, in fact, unnecessary for computer games overall. Certainly, it's a very useful number-crunching crutch in pen-and-paper RPGs, a low-digit determinant of anything pertaining to a character's stats. For a computer that can randomize the hydrogen atoms in a cubic light-year of space every three seconds, levels are about as necessary and useful as dice.
This is so far ignoring the difference between single and multi-player. In a single-player game, levels are just extraneous. These RPGs are generally story-based and fairly linear, and the player levels up as the game moves along. For a persistent world, they are counterproductive. Every game that has levels has to be split into low-level and high level areas. For one thing this restricts player choice. At level 37 everyone needs to be in the level 30-40 zone. There is less room for player populations to spread out naturally simply by avoiding overcrowding. It also ends up leaving large portions of the game world depopulated, as players crowd into only the highest-level areas. You end up with large empty stretches of the game world that still have to be maintained by the company, content that customers pay to maintain online even as they are denied access to it because they're the wrong level.
There is nothing aside from their own mental inertia to prevent game designers from trickling in character advancement without using levels. Instead of one overall experience/level bar, give players skill increases for using each particular skill or let them buy whatever magic spells they want from trainers when they want to. In a pen-and-paper RPG this would be a game-stopping hassle, writing down a skill increase every few seconds and keeping track of individual strengths for each skill, but for a computer it's a drop in the bucket.

Classes, on the other hand can be quite useful for single-player RPGs. They provide replay value and shape the player's moral choices to some extent. For a persistent world, though, replay value comes from player interaction and this also defines the player's moral choices. Moreover, while a pen-and-paper gaming group will stop and choose their character classes beforehand, creating a viable team, players are supposed to mix freely by the hundreds in a persistent world. Player populations are predictably unbalanced. One of the constant problems in class-based so-called MMOs is the game-ending "we can't find a tank." What's more, a regular team's RPG lasts for a few quests, but a persistent world is supposed to be, well, persistent. We're talking years and years of being unable to do anything because you can never find a particular class to fill out your team.
I'm not saying that players should have complete freedom, lacking any identity for their characters, but there should be some mutability involved. Moreover, this is so blatantly obvious that games try to bank on the necessity for more flexibility by making alternate characters a part of the game, making players run through the entire levelling treadmill, through the same static content as a new class over and over again. There is no reason not to simply throw  out the classes and let players choose what skills they want to combine.

The funniest part is that levels and classes are often used as each others' justification. We need classes so that players will use the low-level content more than once - or - we need levels because it's the primary mode of advancing class skills. Two wrongs don't make a right; get rid of both.

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