Thursday, January 10, 2013

Level Sideways

I have complained in previous posts about the limitations of the outdated (and never truly necessary) mechanic of character levels which is so damaging to RPGs, especially multiplayer ones. What i'd like to focus on now is the treadmill aspect of leveling up in single-player games, using some specific examples like the Elder Scrolls games i've played so far, Morrowind and Oblivion.

Character levels were always unnecessary in computer games because the main benefit of easing book-keeping which made levels so beneficial in pen & paper roleplaying is superfluous for a computer. For single-player games, however, levels are not necessarily detrimental. These games usually involve a more or less linear, story-based progression. You kill a few goblins then kill the goblin boss at level five, then the story moves on and you kill some ogres and the ogre boss at level ten. By the time you get to kill the devil, there's nothing left to do in the game and both you and the devil are level thirty because all the experience you get by killing things adds up to thirty levels. And then the game's over. If you were to remove the character levels from the equation and simply give the player an increase in stats with every enemy slain or every quest completed, you'd arrive at the same pattern. FPS games basically do the exact same thing just by giving the player incrementally better weapons and a better suit of body armor halfway through the game.
There are in fact some games like the brilliant VtM:Bloodlines which removed not only the pointless character levels but also the pointless experience gained through kills from their game mechanics. And...? The sky somehow neglected to fall. Bloodlines played fundamentally like very other RPG, except for being less of a grind.

The main conflict of leveling within MMOs is that a persistent world by definition never ends. This led to the ridiculous notion of an "end-game" class of PvE content which arose with Everquest and WoW, which is meant to hold players' interest after hitting the maximum level. This is really just a continuation of the grind, putting more goals in front of players to chase, with steeper time investment requirements. End-game content simply has higher timesinks by definition. It gives much less reward per time investment but since it's nominally the highest level of achievement in the game, players can be expected to invest that time. See my previous post about character advancement. These "end-game" gear-farming, achievement-farming or faction reputation grinds can safely be lumped in with leveling as a delightful metaphor of a treadmill.

The basic idea is that you give players the impression that they're increasing in power and overcoming resistance as Nietzsche put it by having them progressively increase in levels. If you're level four, then by definition you must be better than those measly level threes. It means you get to leave your starter town and venture out to a cave full of monsters. Again, for single-player RPGs with a beginning and an end, this wasn't too bad. Leveling followed the flow of the story, pointlessly but harmlessly. Multiplayer games, though, should be by definition non-linear, driven by player interaction. Level-grinding became, well, a grind, a chore, a pure timesink. You level up only so that you can kill higher-level monsters so that you can level up some more by killing higher level monsters, ad nauseam. This is the basic concept of the treadmill which has now become intrinsic to the WoW-clone marketing scheme. You never actually get stronger. The monsters level up along with you.

And it is that idiotic hamster-wheel, treadmill, rat-race, timesink, what-have-you, which ricoched its way back into single-player games several years ago because its rampant success online impressed investors and developers so much they felt obligated to cram it down their customers' throats through any product they could. It was one blatant difference between the third and fourth Elder Scrolls games.
Morrowind had character levels. You ran through a few dozen level-ups before cleaning out the game map. However, levelling was not absolute. You couldn't just decide at level ten that you wanted to kill the big demigod at the center of the map. Some places had easier monsters and some more difficult ones. If you tried to hit the east coast of the island at level five, you'd likely get one-shotted by a golden saint before you ever reached the shore. Once you got high enough to wipe out golden saints, you could quite satisfyingly one-shot the rats and imps you'd occasionally run across when visiting the easier regions.
Oblivion, however, used the multiplayer-inspired treadmill. The game would only spawn monsters around your own level, wherever you went: from imps and wolves at level one to minotaurs and trolls at level ten to ogres, liches and demons at level thirty. Even worse, even if you got past level thirty and no new types of creatures would appear, every time you levelled, to about fifty, the ogres and liches and demons would still keep levelling, gaining mainly more hit points so that they still took you as long to kill.

Now, morally, it's obvious that trying to lure players into that hamster wheel is immoral whether it's done in multi or single-player, but it is outright counterproductive in single-player. The motivation is simply not there, on either side.
On the developer side, timesinks became so popular in multiplayer because of the subscription marketing scheme. The longer you can keep players busy, the more monthly subscriptions you rake in. It's morally reprehensible and idiotically recursive since those games are the ones that should not have a linear progression in the first place anyway, but it has a certain internal logic. Single-player games however are still a one-shot affair. Once customers pay up it doesn't matter how long they play the game. All that matters is making a good impression so that they buy the next game, or the expansion pack, or the commemorative t-shirt.
On the players' side, treadmills work in multiplayer because the apparent reward is social status. If your friends are all level thirty and you're level ten, you feel inferior. It makes you want to do anything to get to level forty so that you can lord it over those puny level thirt- oh, shit , in the meantime, they got to level fifty! Better pay for two more months of subscription time to catch up. Single-player games lack that constant competitive prod to get players to instinctively grit their teeth and suffer through whatever grind you force them into.

Oblivion's monster-levelling limits the diversity of the game world, since you'd never see an imp or wolf when you're level thirty-plus, and kills both the thrill of danger, of wandering into a higher-level area and having to run for safety, and the satisfaction of having 'made it' and being strong enough to mow down your enemies. It is not only detrimental to the game experience, which is always true in multiplayer as well, but it lacks any justification, even the purely profit-driven fleecing of consumerism.

Monster leveling is just one way in which WoW-clones have begun infecting single-player games. Constantly respawning mobs, "achievements" pages which prod players to farm said mobs to get a badge, crafting skills which make a show of interdependence to eat up more of the player's time trying to level them all, even reputation grinds having players turn in monster body parts to "level up" with a particular NPC faction have all started chipping away at single-player games' value by introducing more and more timesinks. Monster leveling itself is notable for being such a succinct illustration of the treadmill: you're not actually leveling up if the whole world levels up with you.

Thankfully, players stepped in to correct Bethesda's crass mangling of their otherwise excellent product. Oblivion would have been too frustrating to play through for me without Francesco's leveled creatures, a mod which allows the player to alter the levels at which creatures spawn, maintaining the game's variety and keeping creatures' hit points from making them too much of a chore to kill. It also allows for changes to respawn rates, the day-night cycle, loot drops and i forget what other details which simply made the game a delight instead of a grind.

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