A world without levels

With Darkfalls fabled release (do we really believe it?) looming, I figured it the best time to discuss my thoughts on one of my more favorite MMORPG ideas, leveless systems, otherwise known as skill systems.

For those of you who don’t know Darkfall won’t have levels you grind out, it will have skills which as you use them naturally increase. Before this turns into what sounds like a DF love fest (I love the ideas, but have absolutely no confidence in the game or developer) I’d like to interject DF is not the first commercial mmo to introduce it. The first skill based system actually started way back with Ultima Online, the granddaddy of the modern commercial MMO. The only problem was, as the game was 2d, it never caught hold of the gaming community like it’s 3d younger brother EQ. Because of this we now live in a world of consensual pvp, little customization, gear progressions, raid bosses and most pertinent to this post, levels.

UO wasn’t the only successful game to not require levels, the equally sandbox-styled EvE also works off skills to increase the viability of your character. While UO and DF share the classic idea leveling skills when used, EvE took a much different approach in that one can queue up their skill to train, independent of what they are doing in or out of game. This has a few benefits which I won’t discuss here but the point is there actually are many inventful ways to implement this type of system which have been used over the years.

Now back on topic, to image a world without levels lets first explore why we even have levels in mmorpgs. Classically in rpg’s they were used as a barrier to entry, imagine a locked door, to later sections of a game to ensure linearness of the storyline. The developers didn’t want you to accidentally kill the last boss just as you start the game (though Chrono Trigger defies this notion pretty successfully) but at the same time, they wanted a livably world devoid of stages, or levels in a way. Another way to look at levels is using Mario Brothers, as you conquer each stage you are essentially gaining levels so by the time you defeat Bowser, Mario is level 10-3.

When transposed onto mmorpgs, levels are designed to….

  1. provide direction for the player
  2. narrow the scope of the world into manageable chunks
  3. provide a point of reference for how difficult a particular monster is
  4. show proof over a certain master of a class
  5.  provide a numerical value to dedication of a player

In short, levels are the very definition of directed gaming. Any successful skill based system HAS to satisfy all 5 of the aforementioned points.

You may ask why? Directed gaming, even for sandbox mmo’s, is an extremely important notion. MMORPG’s must be huge in scope, plentiful in content, and complex in substance to keep gamers playing for any extended amount of time, and to force the entire game on the shoulders of a new player is both unfair and poor design. All games start offs mall in scope and complexity, gradually expanding as the player gains experience (not level based experience, but actual experience in game) to keep the player from feeling overwhelmed. EvE eventually changed their new player experience to fit this mold as they found retention rates were originally extremely low. Barely anyone could barely wrap their mind around the sheer complexity of the game and with no direction, most gamers felt helplessly lost.

The difficulty associated with designing leveless games should now be fairly evident. Skill based games pride themselves on their lack of linearity, both in content and character advancement, but without some sort of numerical leveling system the developers have to find other creative ways to design directed gaming into their mmorpgs. UO used a grandmaster system where you could GM only a certain number of skills, this allowed new players something to aspire to but also allowed older players a bases of comparison. I’m GM 3 where player X is GM 4, could be used to determine whether I should attack him or not. EvE uses a similar system which examines a players total skill points. Guild X will only accept players with 2 million+ skill points, would be an example.

These methods of comparison are great and all, but they lack crucial information. Did you spend all of your skill points into tanking type skills, or are you some sort of trader? Do you specialize in Caldari EW or are you a manufacturer? While one could look closer at another’s individual skill selections, this is both time consuming and still may not paint the full picture.

If skill based games are hard to compare relative levels of a player, why do make a leveless system at all? The idea behind skill based games is to allow complete customization with out pigeon holing a player into a particular role. Skill based systems allow for “alting” of roles but without the need of rolling a new character. Once you max out your preferred “role”, you can easily begin diversifying your skill set to meet any obstacle which you may come across. Though the main reason as I see it, is skill based systems are closer to real life which make mmorpgs all the more real, relevant and personal to the gamer. If as a developer you can make your gamers care about they’re character, you are on the right track. So now that you understand the benefit to skill based games, lets explore a solution to the problem I raised above.

For my permeation of the skill system, I would implement abstract career paths, and certain skills would be associated with one or more career paths. A dagger skill may be used in both an assassin career but also thief’s. A speechcraft skill may be used in both a traders and a lords (imagine guild leader). Essentially I propose grouping skills based on a single end goal, whether it tanking, healing or trading – which players could easily and quickly view and compare.

This method would satisfy a couple of points. It would supply new players a direction to train skills if they have a career path in mind. I want to be a cleric, so I should train healing magics, maces and medium armor. Even with a HUGE amount of skills, broken into may “paths” the scope of the game would be narrowed. Gear restrictions would of course limit which skills could be used when.

The second thing this would allow is a measurement of ones mastery of the game. A party may be looking for a tank and can choose between a player with 300 skill points in a general career path “tanking” or a another player with only 200. Monsters would also have career ratings as well for better comparisons. A survival career skill “inspect” may allow one to see the career points of a particular monster or enemy player. I could imagine something like, “monster x has 250 points in it’s cleric career while y has 300 career points in warrior – kill monster x first”.

I see grouping skills into careers as an extremely viable option when making the jump from a level based system to a skill one. The objective of any skill based system is to be wider then tall, and while the career system I proposed would add a little more height to the game – the overall affect would be allowing a game to keep it’s width without burdening the player base to create class abstractions which may be different for each person , or even not communicated with new players. Making the game define these career abstractions is better practice in my opinion and leads to better structured customization.

-D^t

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5 Responses to “A world without levels”

  1. ffxidkunite Says:

    i dont see a benefit to your system… if you call it lvl 80 or lvl 200… what is the differnce? i’d rather grind monsters of total xp instead of leveling skills or am i missing something?

  2. I’m assuming you’ve never played a skill based game like EvE or UO then?

    As I outlined in the post, skill based games inherently have an advantage because they allow for both specialization ad diversification at the same time. One can train up or out and still get the same effect. Imagine multi-classing in D&D to the extreme, or imagine the variability you get in FFXI when you have 2 or more high level classes.

    Fewer alts mean the player feels more for their character, which make the game more livable, and livable games historically have gamers who play longer, harder and care deeper about the game.

  3. ffxidkunite Says:

    fast response you need to get out more ^.-

    i did play uo and now ffxi (of course) and once long ago eve so i do understand what your saying… but youre missing my point… what is the difference if youre attaching a level to your character if to play optimally you force them into a class? why not just have class levels and allow a chracter to change classes or have a sub class?

    /FFXIany?

  4. […] Comments Since Brian Green will likely finish his levels theme with his own proposal soon and D^t already has presented his own ideas on the theme, I thought I’d drop in my own proposal. As I alluded in […]

  5. With out going too in detail as to the implementation (wait for part 2), I’ll say skill based games allow the developer to add a layer of realism. They can add new skills, charge more for “flavor of the month skills” and eliminate the need to balance classes around pvp and pve. All abilities are available to all players, the only job the developer has is balancing out player roles, which usually just involves a few opposing skills.

    From a player point of view, again all skills are open to you. If one becomes powerful you have the option right away to take advantage of it. Really the idea of categorizing skills into career’s (or maybe I’ll call it roles) is just to provide an rough outline of what possible roles in the game there are. If by chance, gamers create a new role out of existing skills, the developer can add that career path without changing the game in the least.

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