Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Character Skills in a Star Trek MMORPG +

Originally Posted by Random Redshirt:

Ensign: Level 1-20
Lt (JG): Level 20-30
Lt: Level 30-40
Lt. Cmdr: Level 40-50
Cmdr: 50-65
Capt: 65-70
Adm: 70+
There's something worth seeing here: a rank system based on a numerical calculation is simply another form of level system. The main difference is that it replaces groups of levels with a name instead of displaying individual level numbers.

That said, there's one other important and positive difference: the distance between two ranks is much larger than the distance between two typical MMORPG levels. In other words, it takes a lot longer to go from the rank of Commander to Captain than it does to go from level 35 to 36. That has beneficial effects on gameplay, and we can know that because we've seen both approaches used in various RPGs.

In a conventional MMORPG your character has a class in which you can rise through 60 or 70 or 90 levels. Developers do this because they've apparently decided that all gamers are basically simple-minded creatures -- lab rats, really -- who can be trained to press a lever over and over and over again if doing so will frequently cause a yummy "new level" pellet to be dropped. By dicing up class competencies into many, many little pieces, developers can offer levels more frequently, thus (the theory goes) keeping the rats -- er, that is, the customers -- playing longer.

"I just need 324 more XP to ding to level 40!"

A character advancement system with far fewer levels but which requires the same overall amount of effort to reach the highest level, by comparison, doesn't generate this mindless lever pressing behavior. The distance between any two levels is so great that there is obviously no point in spending multiple play sessions standing in one place doing the same thing over and over again. That would be too boring even for a lab rat.

So people don't do it. Instead of grinding for XP because the next level is perceived as being so close, they stop focusing on gaming the system and concentrate on exploring the game's content. As they do so, they collect XP as a side effect... and eventually, it adds up to being enough to ding to the next level, which -- because it's rare and unexpected -- feels incredibly satisfying.

Doesn't that sound like more fun than standing at a little lever going, "324... 323... 322... 321..."?

Having only 10-12 levels seemed to work out pretty well for this little game I once heard of called Dungeons & Dragons...

...so why isn't it good enough for online RPGs? Like, say, Star Trek Online, where mindless behavior would seem to be the exact opposite of what the gameplay should be designed to encourage through its reward schedule?

Are MMOG developers in general really so deficient in imagination that they can't come up with any desirable forms of frequent reward besides character class levels? I don't believe that, but maybe I have a higher regard for their creative abilities than they do.