Time Frames

This world we live in — the real one, not your virtual world of choice — is one in which we value time over anything else.  We’re constantly trying to make things faster because faster is ‘better’. The same principle appears to apply to MMOs.

Time frames for just about everything used to be very different in MMOs.  Leveling used to take years, then it went to months, now it’s as low as weeks or even days. Finding a group used to take days or hours, and now it’s instantaneous.  Obtaining the gear you wanted could take months and months, but now if you take longer than a few weeks or even days to gear up you must be a filthy casual who clearly isn’t as good as the guys getting their gear to drop on the first run.

Everything is speeding up, and as a result everything is getting more shallow. People care less about the moment, less about the experience, and more about getting to the next activity as quickly as possible. Developers are spending less time building quality experiences and focusing more on quantity.

So the question now becomes how do you slow things down, or should you slow things down?  I am clearly in the camp of people who believe MMOs shouldn’t be about ‘racing through’ but ‘living in’ the world. So with that said, I’m going to focus on the how. Some of these ideas work well together, and others do not. I’m just going to take inventory of the first 4 or so ideas that come to mind as I write this out.

Remove levels
Leveling creates a virtual finish line. There’s a desire to push toward reaching level 50 because that’s the perceived point of victory.  If that’s gone, you’ll take a vertical environment and almost flatline it completely from the start.  People will look around and say, “well, what do I do?” That’s when you can turn their attention to other activities meant to cultivate a virtual world. You actually want that moment to occur where they pause and think.

Increase the scope of character development
Characters have devolved into three things: (1) Levels, (2) Ability, and (3) Gear.  There are so many other opportunities available for customization. Characters should be able to develop social identities and/or a role in their virtual society. I can remember an experience I had in SWG where I had tapped a resource node and was harvesting amazing resources. I supplied those resources to dozens of other crafters and become a supplier. I spent a week doing nothing but trading commodities.  I had other activities I could do, but I put them off to take advantage of this opportunity.

Expand the world
Easy one. Make the dang world a whole lot bigger. I want the world to be so big that I can’t even possible comprehend its magnitude.  That feeling of not even realizing how big the world is and how far I have to travel, or how far others players are from me, is such an amazing sensation. It will eventually fade, but it should take months, not says, to have that illusion at least come into perspective. Traveling should take time and players should be spread out.

Increase the difficulty
I won’t soap box this topic or wax poetic about the old days, but realistically things just aren’t dangerous anymore.  I’m not saying you should die every time you walk outside a town or that you should lose your gear or experience. I’m also not saying fights should take longer or that combat should be twitch based.  I’m simply remembering a day when danger existed and how danger made me think before acting. That pause was important and slowed everyone down.

Instead of logging in and thinking I need to gain ten levels to feel accomplished, I just want to log in and have moved the mark ahead a tiny bit or had a fun enough experience that it doesn’t matter — perhaps I even lost progress. That mindset can still be present in today’s burn ‘n’ churn MMO, but it’s not at all supported by the game.

I want MMO time frames to once again be months rather than days. I want the experiences to last and the scope of every day activities to grow. I want a richer, fuller, and … I want MMOs to present an opportunity to build a ‘life’ once again.

  • Lack of difficulty is what I miss in modern mmorpg.
    Increasing the difficulty significantly is a good thing.

    A sense of danger. How many games have you played where you see they put in the effort to create a dangerous looking monster, but in reality it was just a speed bump.
    A ferocious looking Orc with a big club should be crushing the sculls of lone explorers. (or ahum so called lone heroes that are mere men)

    This would also cause people to band together out of necessity. Who knows you might even make a new friend.

    But what about lone players? Stay near the cities and be part of it or seek out less threatening creatures.

    A lone goblin scout might be what your looking for after you have some experience hunting wildlife.
    Psshht that goblin scout might just as well be a trapper. Waiting for someone like you to come along.
    Goblins band together. There is a reason if they wander alone..

  • I guess I don’t really understand the “anti-level” folks’ position all that much. I think levels have worked pretty well for MMOs (and in some way pencil and paper RPGs) in a similar way that the holy trinity has. It’s not particularly elegant or immersive or realistic, but it works. Level is a great way to have a general assessment of a character’s power. It allows development of content to be targeted for a given character based on level, etc.

    Some people argue for skill-based progression, which to me is more of a semantic difference than a substantive one, since really all you are doing is breaking out the level part of a character into its constituent parts of a character’s abilities. He might be level 1 at archery, but level 20 at using a sword. I guess I can see some of its benefits, but you see this type of distinction even in “level-based” games where you have a “skill” like sword or blacksmithing that increases with use, but also an overall “level” that represents your character’s overall experience (EQ for instance).

    I whole heartedly agree with your other points. Particularly, the size of the world and difficulty. I don’t mean difficult in learning the speed or combination within which buttons should be pressed. Rather, that there is some depth or a learning curve required and allows players to use different strategies or tactics to overcome obstacles in the world, be they monsters, NPCS or environmental hazards, etc.

  • I know the games about to be mentioned are not MMOs, but the “Souls” series (Demons’ Souls, Dark Souls 1 & 2) were the last games that have really resonated with me in terms of world size and difficulty. I think in part the world size was due to the difficulty, as exploring was a slow, terror-filled process. The demons you did fight were bad enough, but worse were the things imaged behind every corner, or lurking just out of sight in the darkness. I also find it interesting that these games harbored some of the more (in my opinion) fleshed out worlds, despite the lack of any serious sort of a story, maybe because of how much effort it took to explore said world.

    Anyways, I’m not sure how well this exact sort of concept would translate to MMOs, but I do think that some greater sense of difficulty is one possible way to make a world come to life – by making you earn what you see (though not difficulty purely for difficulty’s sake).

  • Sense of Danger
    I still have extremely fond memories of WoW where I was exploring the back corners of Duskwood when I stumbled into some portal thing, a few seconds later and enormous green dragon poured out of the mists and killed me.

    I always thought it sucked that the world dragons where removed from the game, I never got to go back and defeat that dragon at max level.

  • “Remove Levels” – I do believe that this would accomplish the goal and makes overall sense. However, as an alternative we can also “sort of” remove the ceiling or finish lines for levels or we can make the ceiling so high that nobody could possibly expect to reach it in a very long time. One example of this was Asheron’s Call where the max level was really high but it was almost cosmetic in nature. I believe it was 200+ but you could pretty much do anything at 60+ and while you would continuously get rewarded with new levels – at some point it didn’t really matter (but yet there was a benefit).

    The second example is the DAOC realm ranks – since this was based on non-instanced PvP – it wasnt something you can just crank out easily (e.g. with battlegrounds)…with the final RRs being so high and so far away – it removed the pressure to get to max level ASAP and you kind of could just enjoy the journey and increasing the RR was a side product instead of the focus.

    Increase the scope of character development: I always thought that there is an additional opportunity for character development by giving players the chance to participate in the equivalent of a “bureaucracy.” An example of that would be to hand out (maybe via elections) certain positions to the player base and with each position there would come some sort of responsibility. A major for each town, guildmasters for all crafts that may influence prices, people who are responsible for housing development and would grant people access certain ploys for housing but where there are responsible for expanding a town in an acceptable fashion. You could create hierarchies within each and further subdivide responsibilities.

    Obviously that needs to be carefully planned but the possibilities are endless. Being a bureaucrat may sound “boring” until someone comes to you and needs something and suddenly you feel like you have this small amount of power and a sense of importance in the world.

  • I can see a lot of ways to design a game without levels. But I don’t mind levels. The first game I played online the levelling was slow… glacial. If I was going to put in levels, I suggest having less levels. Lots of areas to adventure in for each group, but very complex areas where you can make better prigress by grouping. A game like this also needs a different economy, whereby you can also increase your challenge and reward by doing it with less people… thus earning bragging rights.

  • @Argorius
    Another good example was AA’s in Everquest. I believe the term for that kind of level cap is a ‘soft cap.’

  • Preaching to the choir. There are very simple steps that can be taken towards each of your points, but they are not being implemented in current or even future MMOs on the horizon. Sad but true.