Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Where Has All the Content Gone?

What started as a conversation about Aion's level grind and their promotional Double Experience Weekends, quickly turned into a conversation about end game and leveling. I recalled FFXI, my first MMORPG, as evidence of how things used to be before World of Warcraft, and how this generation of MMORPGs tend to be about getting to max level as quickly as possible. This urgency to hit level cap is very off-putting.

This post is going to get extremely anecdotal, but bare with me. I never hit level cap in FFXI (level 75). I had a few jobs in the level 50-55 range after playing for about 3 years. But I did not mind hovering at those middle levels because there was stuff to do. The world wasn't devoid of interesting quests and fights for low- and mid-level players. Gaining experience simply opened more doors. This is in contrast to WoW's model where you don't even get a key to the building until you max out.

The mechanic FFXI employed to make this low level stuff interesting was level caps. This wasn't a "use it or lose it", loss aversion technique, wherein you locked yourself out of content if you leveled beyond the cap. It was an explicit lowering of a player's current job level to at most the cap (you remained at your level if you were under or at the cap).

One piece of capped content was also an excellent way to make money. Mobs in the world had a chance to drop Beast Seals. Collecting these non-tradable items gave you a non-tradable token, called an Orb. Gathering a party, you went to the zone entrance and used the Orb to start an instanced arena fight against special monsters. As soon as your party zoned in, you were immediately reduced to the appropriate level. All your buffs were removed, and any gear above your new level was immediately removed. With a 55 Bard, I would do BCNM 40 fights. I had my gear for level 55, but I also kept a set of level 40 gear for this particular fight.

You got one attempt per orb. If everyone died, tough. If you won, a treasure chest appeared which had tons of goodies in it. These were slowly sold on the Auction House, and all participants were given an even cut. (This amount of trust speaks volumes about the community in FFXI, but that's another topic.) Spending a few hours on a Saturday, running half a dozen BCNM netted you a few hundred thousand gil, certainly not chump change. This would be equivalent to a few hundred gold in WoW. At level 40.

Other BCNM fights were capped at various levels from 20 to 75 (uncapped).

There are Garrison fights capped at level 20. These are open-world fights where waves of monsters attack an Alliance (3 parties of 6 players = 18); the last wave contains a boss which drops loot.

The Mission for Rank 3 (Missions were FFXI's way of communicating the main story to the players and are otherwise indistinguishable from Quests) was capped at level 25. Another Mission fight was capped at 50. One of the expansions had tons of level 30 capped Missions until you got near the end of the arc.

FFXI had a realm event where Giant Treants spawned all over the world. They reduced the players to level 20, 30, or 50 depending on which one you fought.

Crafting training didn't require levels. Exploring, and thus mining, logging, or fishing from, any part of the world required spells like Invisible and Sneak so you did not aggro mobs (these were available as a level 25 White Mage or you could purchase consumables which gave the same status effects).

So even though FFXI's forced grouping leveling system is sometimes called Draconian or grindy, or simply took too long, you were not at a loss for things to do. I managed to get 3 years out of the game without even hitting level cap. Today's MMORPGs don't even start until cap, which is such a shame.

In WoW all signs point to leveling. Players cannot even craft without leveling. The only low- and mid- level stuff to do are instances, which are really just quest locations and group leveling sessions.

What could be done to WoW to make those other levels interesting? An idea which immediately comes to mind thanks to FFXI is low level capped raids. Create a 10- or 25-man raid for level 50s. Loot that drops can be both soulbound and sellable. Cap Deadmines at 20. Cap SM cathedral at 40. Remove the level restrictions to crafting training. Write some epic questlines like Scepter of the Shifting Sands, but cap players at 60. Possibilities are endless.

At the end of the day, players just want interesting things to do in the world. There is no reason to require them to hit level cap for those interesting things to occur. The question players ask of developers should not be "What is there to do at level cap?" but rather, "What is there to do?". Players have forced developers' hands by simply demanding shorter leveling curves. Why would designers spend months trying to balance content for mid-levels if the average time a player spends at any one level is 8 hours? Might as well funnel everyone to max ASAP and make the content there. I personally hope for the return of longer levels and less cap-centric content.


irriadin said...

I'm of the opposing viewpoint in that I think games should make the process of leveling to max as seamless as possible. That's not to say it should be a cakewalk or anything, but I guarantee you there's a market out there for disillusioned gamers who no longer have tons of free time to spend grinding the same mobs for hours on end.

I've played FF11 (just briefly), Guild Wars (not a true MMO, blah blah), Age of Conan, Warhammer, Aion, and Lineage 2. Out of all those games, I had BY FAR the most fun playing Lineage 2 on private servers where the experience rate was boosted to 45x normal.

That might sound outrageously high, but keep in mind that Lineage 2 is one of the most celebrated grindfests in the vaunted history of Korean game development. At 45X rate in L2, you can get a character to the level cap in roughly a week of intense play, two weeks at a modest pace.

The last MMO I tried to get into was Aion, and yes, the grind got unbearable during the mid 30's. I simply don't have the kind of time to devote to MMORPG's as I once did, but I would still like to play them. Hence why my resume of MMO's played includes such lackluster duds as Warhammer and Age of Conan (I also played Hellgate London. Go ahead, laugh.) I don't want to have to spend months stuck in mid-level areas because I generally don't play MMO's for PvE content.

Now, I fully understand your point, but consider this: when you throw PvP into the mix, you'll probably realize why players want to level up quickly. MMORPG's are, by their very nature, extremely competitive. You want to get your tier 256 armor set so you can be one of the cool kids. You want to be at the level cap so people will see your skull icon and go scampering.

Logan said...

irriadin brings up a good point.

in a PvE based game like FFXI this slower pacing can work very well... but in a PvP game the slow pace just won't work.. unless you do like guild wars and can make a lvl capped character specifically for pvp and then enjoy the pve with a different character at your own pace.

motstandet said...

I think you've uncovered a differentiating factor between FFXI and some of today's MMORPGs: namely PvP.

FFXI had no PvP when I began playing it, and later introduced a system called Ballista which was an objective-based game. Think of Battlegrounds, but out in the middle of Tanaris, with other players running around. Only those who signed up could participate, i.e. attack other players and complete objectives.

But tangent aside, it is certainly plausible that the lack of direct player vs player competition stinted my desire to level and gain power.

I can vividly remember yearning for power in WoW in order to thwart the gankers or best my rivals in Arathi Basin.

Many of the games in today's MMORPG market seem to use PvP territory control as an end game. I can certain understand the lack of mid-level content now.

So a slower leveling curve with content throughout requires minimal or no PvP?

irriadin said...

"So a slower leveling curve with content throughout requires minimal or no PvP?"

I think that this is true to a certain extent. It would definitely create a more relaxed (or even "casual" though that's a loaded term these days) experience. That being said, I don't think PvE and PvP have to be entirely divorced for slow progression to work.

Something that might work would be an MMORPG that has a staggered world. Some MMO's have played around with this concept, but to my knowledge, only for the tutorial or "noob island" or what-have-you. Basically, you get this area where you are free to level at your own pace, and only players within your specific level range are allowed in this area, so you're not getting ganked by someone 30 levels higher than you, but perhaps 9 at the very most.

If the game world were divided in such a way (1-9,10-19,20-29,etc) sure, it would be less MASSIVELY NON-LINEAR / OPEN, but it would also be easier to ensure the experience is fun and enjoyable.

Kenny said...

Anarchy Online has level capped territory control wars for.. I dunno, like 8 years now? Too bad FunCom fucked it up in the past years, really bad. Funny thing is that they are now trying to breath new life into the game by adding lots of mid level stuff.

My take on this is that we have players who are not hardcore "Achievers" but could enjoy the game in their own style. But for most people having intrinsic goals and rewards only is not enough, especially in the face of pushing extrinsic rewards pointing towards achieving (leveling).

Nils said...

That's about as un-immersive, un-credible and even inconsistent as it gets.

I play one character. Why should he scale in power depending on the enemy he fights?

I am all for slow leveling. But don't use this kind of cheap trick, please.

irriadin said...

Yea, I think the real problem here is differing play styles and whether someone is more PvP oriented or PvE oriented. I'm of the former persuasion, so I always try to level as quickly as possible in order to get to the end-game PvP. The rest of the content only exists as a means of me getting to the end. I almost never read quest info or have any idea what the story is, apart from "ok, I need to go here and kill 10 of these things to get 10,000 exp."

motstandet said...

I've always viewed (perhaps incorrectly) that PvP was a test of skill; it was meant to have tactical play and reward the better player.

One reason I've shied away from PvP in MMORPGs is because it is not what I have assumed it to be. It is terribly imbalanced in terms of objective player power and abilities. I'd rather play on a much more even playing field--something like TF2.

But if PvP is indeed as you describe--not a true test of skill, but merely another location to show off your virtual status and gear--then I completely understand its purpose. Rather than passively compete with other players by standing around in the middle of IF, showing off your Tier 20 epics, you are actively besting them in Arena or Battlegrounds with your superior gear.

I find it ironic that the status-seekers engage in the tactical play, while the players looking for an even playing field enjoy being leveled capped for an encounter with the AI :P

* A minor addendum to my Ballista description above: Ballista games were also level capped.