Wednesday 2 March 2011

The levelling rift.

I’ve had the last three days off of work, and astute readers may notice that this neatly coincided with the beginning of the head-start event for Rift. However, I did in fact go away on holiday with my family.

‘Head-start: you are performing it quite incorrectly’, as I believe those cool Internet kids would say. Overlaid on a picture of a cat or a cheeseburger or something, whatever is required to make the lol-manipulation rules Meme complete[1].

What I’ve noticed upon my return is that the people I had hoped to play alongside are now fast approaching level twenty five – half way to the level cap. I’ve no intention of racing to catch up, so I find myself looking at the prospect of a solo adventure in Rift, taking as much pick-up group action as I can stomach along the way. There really is something to be said for the static group that plays once or twice a week: a harsh regimen to follow when undertaking it in an MMO for which a monthly subscription is required, but a great way to reduce burnout and to make sure that you always have friends to play alongside.

My concern is that there is one other faction for people to play and, should they wish to keep things fresh, a choice of the three remaining classes that they haven’t already played to the level cap, with no alternative levelling path within their current faction of choice. Does Trion have enough going on at the end-game to keep players invested (in several senses of the word) in their game? I have no idea, talk of content aimed at retaining players has been sparse.

And have MMO developers given up on the idea that a levelling curve can have a logarithmic shape, such that the early levels are gained quickly but the later levels come ever more slowly? For example, I remember World of Warcraft’s initial run from one to sixty, and although I was less experienced at blitzing through MMO content than I am now, my colleagues and I had tremendous fun playing the same characters nearly every night for many months before we even began to approach the level cap. Are developers now fearful of making players work for their levels, unsure of their content and whether the players of today have the conviction to stick with a game when levels aren’t handed out on an hourly basis? Again, I remember playing for a week in City of Heroes and not gaining enough XP for a level, yet I was still having tremendous fun. I wonder what it was about WoW, CoH, LotRO and others that kept a healthy number of players playing without the need for a constant stream of levels. Of course even WoW now hands out levels as though they were going out of fashion, and LotRO’s levelling curve has been smoothed and rounded until it represents more of a gentle slope.

It appears to me that the Skinner box has moved: where previously the player would pull the lever and get a reward of XP – and that reward (in combination with loot) was enough to keep them coming back and pulling the lever again and again – now players aren’t satisfied unless they pull the lever and gain a whole level. It concerns me that levels seem to have become the de facto reward over experience points, and I feel that this has dramatically reduced the amount of room that developers have to manoeuvre when it comes to keeping players happy on the levelling treadmill for any serious length of time.

[1] In Internet theory, a collection of lol-manipulation rules (a funny message spelt incorrectly, picture, or combination of both) is said to be Meme complete if and only if such a system can simulate any single-celled organism mashing a keyboard with its proto-fists.

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