Tuesday, March 20, 2018

The Shifting Demographic - Level Up Yours

- and I'll level down mine, and I'll get to boredom afore ye.

"No classes, no levels" went the campaign promise of a whole slew of MMOs last decade, inevitably proven false as soon as one began grinding through the game in question. It was a promise appeasing older, experienced gamers' dissatisfaction with the endless treadmill of leveling through a leveled world. Removed from its twenty-deep tabletop DnD setting with its finite campaigns, this mechanic has proven at best extraneous and more appropriately counterproductive to persistent virtual worlds by separating and isolating players. Yet the levels persist, whether officially or in the form of upgradeable gear or hours of training time or any other shallow smokescreen.

In part this is mere inertia in an industry only marginally more creative than Hollywood, the remake capital of the world. Game designers grew up with level-based games and their copycatting, profiteering excuses for minds will not grow beyond levels.

In part this is mere pandering to base human instincts. Humans are primitive apes and human  happiness is "the feeling that power is growing and resistance is being overcome" as Nietzsche put it. While overcoming resistance is a logical part of any goal-driven game, players get much more readily addicted to mere shallow declarations of increasing power, to the soaring music and flashing effects of a LEVEL UP message.

However, it largely serves to control player behavior. Experience points and character advancement being the biggest motivator in DnD as well, online game developers have latched on to this carrot to stick the player firmly on their rails, to prevent the players from choosing their own paths. Some might say that such games (WoW-clones, mostly) only truly begin at maximum level (when the gear farming grind begins) but then we're still left with the obvious question of purpose. In this light, leveling up one's character to maximum would seem a mere extended tutorial. After all, MMOs (as the logical convergence of several previous genres) were originally some of the most vast and complex games around. Their learning curve, especially for the likes of EVE-Online or A Tale in the Desert, was notoriously steep, with intricate technology trees contextualizing all player action within a coherent microcosm.

Interestingly enough, it was not the more complex games which held fast to the leveling treadmill. In fact, the more dumbed down, linear and repetitive the game, the more likely it is to feature big flashy LEVEL UP effects. So levels as tutorial are less a consequence of an MMO's difficulty as of the expected stupidity of its target audience. Inevitably, as computer games shifted from their old nerdy audience of the late '90s to the mass market, simplistic hand-holding and pats on the back became more and more important. A "no classes, no levels" MMO would by necessity be an aggressively niche-oriented product.

The main question would be how to get the message out to the right niche. Maybe target fans of hard science fiction? Red Mars MMO, anyone?

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