Sunday, June 3, 2012

Levels, Story and multi-player roleplay

I'm a believer that common wisdom is generally the most suspect as it gets analyzed the least.   Two design main-stays that have gotten cemented into stone in the MMORPG world are leveling and linear questing.  I'd like to take some time to unpack and examine these as, while both serve important game-play functions, they also both serve as social play barriers.

This is a big topic and can be viewed from many angles.  I'm going to start with my off the cuff take that may be incorrect or incomplete.  (Likely incomplete.)

Leveling was  inherited from the pen and paper RPG space, most notably D&D where it served to shape the character's story into a traditional farm-boy becomes hero arc.  Online it provides goals and a feeling of accomplishment and 'direction' to one's play.  It also 'hooks' the player a tangible recognition and reminder of the time they have a;ready invested in the game and that they would lose if they walked away.  Finally, it gates access to what is generally limited content and doles it out over-time, prolonging the game experience.

Story gives context and meaning to the actions in game, this helps immersion-- particularly with the maybe less imaginative mass market.  It also helps limited and repetitive gameplay to feel more differentiated.  Lastly, it again provides a feeling of motion and progress through the game.  It is linear because, frankly, no human being has really figured out how to tell a non-linear story.  Given that our first instincts as a child telling a story is to begin every sentence with "and then..."  this may be built into us as animals.

All that said, there are real issues and bad second order effects of both of these.  The biggest issues that interest me are how they get in the way of players role-playing together, and what cna be done about that.

Levels, by their gating nature, serve to exclude players from playing with others who do not have characters of similar level.

In our pen and paper games, we could get around this with "tag-along" characters who would level up to the party level pretty fast due to the exponential nature of the experience and reward system.  Some MMORPGs have tried similar things, most notably "City of Heroes" with the Sidekick system.   The problem with that is that, in an MMORPG, this defeats the gating purpose of levels by accelerating the leveling speed of such sidekicks.

Another approach is to "gimp" the higher level character down to the sidekick's level of ability (what players called the "reverse sidekick" in CoH). This is harder to get right.  Go too far and the player feels cheated out of their accomplishments and wont want to do it. Don't go far enough and again they over-balance the content and unreasonably accelerate the advancement of the lower-level character.  It is also difficult to justify from a story/roleplay perspective in two ways; first, why is the higher level character suddenly weaker?  Secondly, it generally means repeating linear content which removes an surprise and breaks the linear flow of the story.

Moving on to linear story, its purpose in part is to help immerse the player.  But it can often end up doing the opposite.  If you allow players to play the same stories over again, then the illusion of linearity totally breaks down.  if you don't, however, then only those characters at the exact same story points can play together.

A second problem with linear story telling is that it doesn't really scale.  Having just defeated Foozle the mighty wizard is a lot less interesting when half the people you run into already defeated him and the other half will be defeating him sometime in the near future.  This effect cheapens the feeling of success, and fights immersion by exposing its artificial nature and the "man behind the curtain."  Ultimately this fights with one of the reasons for having story to begin with.

The most extreme example of this is probably Star Wars:The Old Republic.  This game only makes logical story sense if played with a mixed class set of characters at the exact same place in their stories.  There is a limit  of four players total in such a group because thats the total number of available classes and "your" story is fixed to your class.

That these mechanisms are deep in the core of MMORPG design today is pretty much unarguable.  Funcom's new MMORPG The Secret World claims to be "level-less" on the surface, but if you look a bit deeper its still there.  Its just takes the form of  skill trees and gear acquisition.  The effect is the same however, to gate what content you can or cannot handle.

I would argue that, as barriers to multi-player roleplay, these two assumed game structures have kept us back.  I'd even go farther and say they have made all MMORPGs today to a large degree design failures as Roleplay Games.  The result is that asynchronous play, often called "alone together" play has become the norm.  Doing anything multi-player takes a huge effort on the part of the player so many if not most, don't go to that level but just solo quest and chat with their friends while they do so.  The tactical players will form large teams, but they have no interest in story or roleplay.

If our games are really just tactical games, then we are wasting a lot of effort and resources on roleplay-like features.  If our games are really asynchronous roleplay games then again, we are wasting a huge amount of resources on enabling multi-player gameplay when really all that is needed on the backend is a chat server,  If they  are really supposed to be true multi-player immersive experiences, I'd argue that we are defeating ourselves in relying on these game mechanisms that fight that purpose.

Do you agree?  And if so, what might we do better/instead?  if not, why not?