Monday, August 6, 2007

MMORPGs Without Character Advancement

Time for yet another jeremiad on the evils of the "character advancement" model of MMORPG design. :)


"But MMORPG players say that they like character advancement!"

This is the one of the two most common objections I hear to the idea that RPG players don't need their characters to improve abilities during play. (The other being, "But without character advancement, what else is there to do?")

The problem with "players say they like it" is that it's a circular argument. Of course they say promote character advancement as gameplay -- what else do they have to compare it to? It's what MMORPG developers give them, so it's what gamers think they're supposed to want, so it's what they say they expect, so it's what MMORPG developers give them, etc., etc.

The problem with this theory is that there's evidence that an RPG without in-game character ability advancement can be quite popular. Namely, Traveller.

One of the most successful science fiction RPGs of all time, Traveller was known for (among other things) the richness of its character creation system. There were hundreds of skills, and numerous career paths for generating desirable skills. You could spend hours rolling up a character if you wanted to. But once you were done, you were ready to play. In Traveller, you started playing the game with a completely formed and capable character -- you spent zero time leveling up just so you could someday start to play the game. (Unless of course the developers raise the level cap before you get there, in which case you're still not ready to start playing.)

People liked Traveller. (Still do, in fact; that's why the fifth incarnation of this game is due in 2008.) A lot of people played it, and it received critical praise as well. And yet there was no leveling-up. So there's some evidence that no, character advancement is not essential to the RPG genre.

In fairness, this isn't conclusive evidence. (Is there ever any such thing?) It's possible that the MMORPG players of today aren't the same kinds of people as the tabletop-RPG players of yore. Maybe implementing a roleplaying game on a computer somehow causes it to attract people who actually enjoy spending weeks doing the same trivial thing over and over and over again, rather than people who prefer to proceed directly to an engaging adventure with other people.

Or maybe that's a false conclusion based on insufficient data because there simply aren't any high-quality alternatives to character advancement games. Maybe a MMORPG that replaces the leveling treadmill model with the "complete character" model that has been successful in RPGs before would prove to be even more popular than the current bunch of MMORPGs. Of course it's easy to guess that there's some theoretical reason why a polished and content-rich game of complete characters can't possibly succeed... but how can we find out without someone actually trying it?

I don't think this idea is as unreasonable as people who've only experienced character-advancement games claim it is. I think there's at least some evidence that it can be successful in RPGs. So I'd like to see it given a real chance in a serious mass-market AAA title.

One of the side effects of not having invested hundreds of hours leveling up a character is that the cost of losing that character permanently (the so-called "permadeath" design option) is reduced. Which brings up the following common objection:

Originally Posted by LtPowers:
But [permadeath of a character who has no character levels] does mean losing a character you've built and gotten to know over the course of X length of time.
Yes, and that's not trivial for roleplayers (although it's less important to other kinds of gamers, for whom the avatar is just a sort of humanoid-shaped vehicle). But how many social-content-oriented roleplayers would insist on playing characters in hazardous careers if they had other kinds of careers to choose from (such as the politicians, journalists, and entertainers in the game design I'm working on)?

Even if roleplayers did choose military/spy careers, I believe the problem of losing a favorite character could be mitigated by two features. First, design character death sequences in such a way that one's death has meaning -- if you go, you go out in a memorable blaze of glory. The emotional attachment that some people have to their characters would not be brutally severed; there'd be an appropriate closing of the book for that character and an in-context progression to a new character.

And second, since in a complete-character game items become a more important marker of a character's history, a game with permadeath should probably also offer a "will" system, where a player can pick some of the items belonging to a character who dies and give them to the next character he rolls up. This takes most of the sting out of the other usual objection to character death.

But even without these features, permadeath in a game where characters don't have to level up is viable because of one major win: the insane investment of time that people put into leveling up their characters is eliminated completely. So the cost of permadeath goes waaaaaaay down when the risk of losing character ability advancements is reduced to zero by eliminating character advancement. When you start a character with all the skills you want, losing a character just means rolling up a new character.

Make that even less painful for most gamers by offering the "dramatic death" and "item transfer" features, and I think that -- for the right game -- permadeath would be accepted.

But please note: I'm not saying permadeath is the main reason for eliminating character advancement. I'm saying it becomes a potentially workable side benefit of doing away with the need to spend a bunch of time leveling up every character. It's just one more reason among several to consider building a MMORPG around a complete-character system instead of making yet another game wrapped around the grindy character-advancement model.