Why do we need character levels in MMORPGs?
The usual reason given seems to me to be little more than an unquestioned belief that characters must "grow" in MMORPGs. Level mechanisms are then implemented to achieve that goal.
But where's the evidence that all characters in MMORPGs must somehow advance in power? It's a common belief, but are there valid objective reasons to support that belief? Is character advancement really the most revenue-positive of all possible approaches to the online RPG play experience? Or do most games only wrap their gameplay around a character advancement model for no reason other than because most other MMORPGs work that way?
Let's look at this character advancement model thing. To keep the conversation interesting, I'm going to diverge a little from my preferred objective approach and instead begin with a conclusion: the assumption that characters must "grow" through some in-game mechanic is no more than an assumption; it has no basis in objective reality as being so much better than any other approach that it must always be the core of every MMORPG. Character advancement, in fact, imposes some problems, which means that it's not necessarily the best approach for every MMORPG -- some games would benefit from a core design in which characters don't advance in innate abilities as a result of (or reward for) gameplay.
The rest of this essay will follow that "we don't need no steenkin' character advancement!" belief to see if it can be justified. Can we really have good MMORPGs that aren't wrapped around character advancement?
To start with, there's nothing sacred about character advancement. It's a gameplay mechanic, and that's all it is. That means it's not perfect (because nothing related to human behavior will ever be fully acceptable to everyone). Implementing any kind of mechanism for improving innate character abilities (such as skill-learning or level-raising) as a reward for accomplishing gameplay goals generates certain pathologies in online games because people will abuse any automated reward system.
Specifically, character-advancement games, with their emphasis on "high-end" content, send the message that you can't access the really fun content until you've maxed out your character's levels. This causes players to grind for XP in order to reach the highest level as quickly as possible. Instead of having fun playing a game, players must work to reach a point where they can (eventually) start having fun playing a game.
By acknowledging this problem -- which is what a good designer ought to be able to do -- we can start to look for alternative mechanisms of play that don't suffer from this effect. These alternatives might have problems of their own, but at least then we've got a palette of design choices. If our game doesn't need the "character level" advancement mechanism, we don't have to use it; we can try something else... like not having character abilities that "grow" through gameplay at all.
The one great advantage of deep-sixing character levels is that you as a designer no longer have to worry about pacing the leveling treadmill because there are no levels. You could still have skills; you could even have different levels of particular skills -- they'd just all be learned during character creation. Instead of trying to find way to minimize grind time to level up as rapidly as possible, players would be free to spend their play time enjoying using the skills they gave their characters.
I happen to like this approach because it's oriented more toward exploration and artistry than toward achievement, which is already plenty advantaged in MMORPGs. But the fact that I personally like it may not be the best measure of the value of an idea. Like any design solution, a MMORPG without character advancement is definitely going to have some kinds of problems of its own. The question is, what are those problems, and are they really worse than the problems generated by character advancement?
So OK, let's consider the usual objections to designing a MMORPG that's not wrapped around the idea of character growth. Here are some of the perceived problems I've heard expressed regarding the "no character growth" design, and my responses to those objections:
1. Players are used to progression-based games, and will reject a no-character-growth game as too different.
This one could be true of many who currently play MMORPGs... but who says a game has to focus on attracting only current players?
I don't even know that the assertion in the objection is true. How do we know that enough players won't adopt a different kind of game to make that game viable? Remember that once upon a time there were no MMORPGs at all -- a lot of tabletop RPG players managed to make that transition. Personally, I suspect that the only people convinced that "players don't like change" are the publishers who want players to stay locked into genres that they (the publishers) think they have a big market share of.
Should game designs be dictated by publishers? or by designers?
Overall, I don't believe there's enough hard evidence on either side to decide this one. The best way to find out if this objection holds true or not is to test it with a few otherwise well-designed no-character-growth games and see how they do. If we build several of them and no one comes, then fine, we can all go back to cranking out character growth games.
2. Without leveling up to occupy their time, players will focus even more than they do now on burning through content, so a no-character-growth game will have to provide a lot more content.
This objection is probably valid. The only way I can answer is to say: OK -- so provide more content than the usual character-growth game. If you're going to have an exploration game (as opposed to a collectible/achievement-oriented character growth game), then there had better be plenty to explore.
Best bet: Create large worlds (if fantasy) or large galaxies (if SF), then manage the expansion rate by limiting the top travel speed and not resupplying characters who go too far beyond the current frontier (sort of like the old tabletop wargame concept of units losing quality when they go out of supply).
The problem of providing plenty of content is a real one, and I don't want to sound like I'm brushing it off. I'm not. But I do think it's a more manageable problem than some people think, as long as we're willing to do some hard thinking about what we mean by "content." For example, I suspect that hand-tweaking procedurally-generated content holds considerable promise as an effective middle way between pure random-generation (too inartistic) and pure hand-crafting (good artists are expensive and need time).
Basically, if you're determined to define "content" only as loot and leveling up, then you might as well just make yet another character growth game. If OTOH you're willing to see content less as "stuff" and more as "experiences," then your game design options become a lot more open.
3. Not letting characters grow impedes the growth of the players who run those characters.
This is a concern that Richard Bartle in particular has expressed. One of Richard's beliefs is that some players grow as real people by playing characters. Through the act of pretending to be someone else, they learn about themselves; as they learn, they grow. Through this process, players slowly become more like the characters they play, and their characters become more like their players. Eventually there's no real distinction between the two; for Richard, this player has completed his or her Hero's Journey. (This is my very brief restatement of Richard's position; if you're at all interested in it you must read Richard's book Designing Virtual Worlds to get this argument in his own words.)
To some people (probably those more interested in virtual worlds as games to be played than as places in which experiences can happen), this will sound like a silly argument. I don't agree; I think it's a serious statement about what it means to be human. In the end, how we behave as human beings is the only thing that matters. The way that these game worlds help people engage in that process of becoming full humans makes them important, and makes this question of player-growth-through-character-growth worth considering respectfully.
That said, while Richard may be correct that players can grow by playing characters (and I believe they can), I'm not sure he'd agree that character growth is necessary for player growth. The key is not whether some arbitrary system for leveling up is implemented -- what matters is that players can have a wide range of experiences (through their characters) that illuminate their values. In that case, a game design that rewards players for engaging in different kinds of gameplay could be just as effective for helping players grow as persons as a game design that rewards players for scaling an artificially constructed ladder of character levels.
I'm not saying I think KOTOR should be used as a values education tool, but I do think it's a good example of how "character growth" can be about more than just gaining power, and can still be a lot of fun.
More to come on this subject....