The news about the Death Knight hero class coming in the next WoW expansion has resulted in a couple of interesting articles. In the red corner, Brandon Reinhart with “Figuring out the Death Knight Part 1: Horizon“, predicated on “I believe that systems that drive players to create alts are generally inferior to systems that enable players to constantly progress an identity”. In the blue corner, Scott Jennings, with “My New Levelling Technique Is Unstoppable“, from the perspective of an altaholic.
It’s interesting, as it echoes me and Melmoth; I tend to stick with a single character in games, he’s firmly in the altaholic camp, so we thought we’d have a bash at exploring the different motivations. *Reclines on the psychologists couch* I suppose it all started as a child, when my mother fed me a single flavour of baby food instead of a variety of flavours…
One problem I have with alts is a psychological inertia that I have to overcome to repeat content, as I posted about previously. MMOG alts almost always involve repeating content to a greater or lesser extent; the different starter areas for the races in WoW and LotRO, for example, cushion the blow for a while, but everyone, Horde or Alliance, winds up in Stranglethorn after a while.
Another problem with alts is that I tend to be something of a completist in games. Not quite a “must do everything it’s theoretically possible to do” completist, the wonders of the internet allow you to realise that even where you thought you were really into something you’re but a neophyte next to a small contingent of obsessives who’ve spent every waking moment of their existence utterly devoted to it, but I think I’m a little more dedicated than an average player, something of a Pareto completist; games often follow the 80-20 rule, very broadly. MMOG levelling slows down as you move through the levels such that it might take 20% of your time to get to 80% of the level cap. Guitar Hero, I managed to get through 27/30 songs of the “hard” career, 23/30 songs of the “expert” career, about 80% of the way through (or 83.333%, if you want to get particularly technical, and obviously ignoring the easy and medium careers just to prove the old truism of lies and damn lies), and I could easily see it taking four times as long to master those last few songs. The Grand Theft Auto III series make it nice and easy by actually having a screen showing everything you’ve done in the game, not just the main story missions but all the little side missions/challenges throughout the game, with a completion percentage, and I’d tend to be somewhere around 80% on those too; I’d do the main story (though saying that, I’m not sure I ever quite got around to the very last mission of San Andreas), find the hidden packages/horseshoes/whatever (getting some by myself, but resorting to a walkthrough for the full collection), do a fair number of side missions, but I couldn’t be bothered with totally completing everything.
I have strong Achiever tendencies in MMOs, as per Bartle, which I think derives from being a completist (although it also bleeds into the Explorer area, both in terms of “map” exploring, finding items in out-of-the-way places and secret rooms, and “mechanism” exploring, though those in turn are largely driven by the achievement or reward that can result). I link to think I have a pretty broad definition of “achievement”, though; in World of Warcraft, there’s gaining XP and levelling up obviously, up to the level cap. There’s the acquisition of “phat lewt”, there are crafting skills, there’s PvP reputation/honour points, faction reputation. There’s also helping friends and guildmates out with any of the above, though altruism has its limits… So, I’ll more than happily help a non-skinner out doing any of the Nagrand wildlife culls, it’s repeating content, but I’ll end up with a fair bit of leather from it so it’s achieved something. On a guild run through UBRS, getting someone attuned was one achievement, and Finkle’s Skinner and a bit of enchanting material were a bonus. At level 60, running a friend’s low-level alt through Gnomeregan was great for his quests and netted some decent loot, I got to see the whole place, interesting to my Explorer side (“proper” attempts had got a fair way through, but fatigue tended to set in after the 17th hour…), and I even got a whole lot of exercise on my dagger/mace/fist skills (as I wield swords the rest of the time). I’ll even count it as an achievement if I pick up some nifty-looking, if totally useless, bit of armour while out and about.
So it’s that achievement aspect that can give me a shove to overcome the issues of otherwise repeating content, some shiny thing dangled to make me feel like I’m getting something out of it, slowly nudging towards that notion of “completion”, although as the nature of MMOs is that there’s no such thing as “complete”, it’s a bit of a Sisyphean challenge.
Probably the best incentive system for my Achiever side, is in City of Heroes. CoH has badges (the concept isn’t unique to CoH, LotRO deeds are very similar, but that’s where I know it best). Badges do almost nothing; a very small subset are Accolades, which actually give your character some tangible (though not earth-shattering) benefit, but the vast majority have no direct in-game benefit. Badges are awarded for… well, everything really. Almost anything you do in the game can get you badges; stand on a certain bit of the map, Exploration Badge. Kill 100 of a certain enemy, there’s a badge for that. Do a certain amount of damage, take a certain amount of damage, craft items, sell things on the auction house, sidekick another player, spend time in a PvP zone, balance three fish on your head while tapdancing and going “flaaaaarrrrrrr”, there’s badges for all that. The net result is, it’s incredibly hard to do something in CoH that isn’t, in some way, progressing you towards an achievement. It might be some insanely stupid achievement, like taking 500 points of damage on your way to the “Take Ten Ffrooglepoopillion Points of Damage” badge, but it’s enough that even in City of Heroes, the alt-iest game ever in the history of time (I think), I have one hero and one villain at the level cap (there is someone in the Supergroup who’s filled *all* *twelve* character slots with level 50s) that I’ll dust off each issue to go badge hunting with. Though I do have a few alts there, too…