The Anvil of Crom: Offline leveling? It's about bloody time

You'll forgive me if I don't devote this week's column to Rise of the Godslayer. Yes it's coming out in two days, and yes I've been playing (and enjoying) the hell out of the beta, but frankly I think I've contributed quite enough to that particular hype machine at this point. Instead, I'd like to highlight Age of Conan's offline advancement system, and in doing so, attempt to restrain my optimism over the fact that maybe, just maybe, a major MMORPG developer finally gets it.

In a nutshell, Funcom has taken a page out of CCP's book by allowing progression to take place whether or not the player is logged in and chasing carrots. In addition to the free-level-every-four-days mechanic now available on the live servers, the Godslayer expansion will also make use of the system by giving players the option of leveling up their new Alternate Advancement trees over time, whether they're logged in or out (step away from the ledge, naysayers, it's a very slow process in the current beta build).

Jump the cut to see why Funcom made the right decision.

Community reaction to the newfangled system has been predictably mixed. Some players love it, others think the sky is falling and it will kill the game (if not the genre, oh the humanity!). Unfortunately, everyone snarking on about how it is a form of cheating, laziness, and violence against helpless kittens has completely missed the point. Or, maybe they haven't, and they just can't see MMORPGs as anything other than what they've devolved into over the last few years: namely time sinks, grinds, and exercises in repetitive 'gameplay.'

The offline leveling detractors, almost to a man, have spoken out about how the system cheapens gameplay, and invalidates all the hard 'work' people traditionally pour into MMORPG progression. The only problem with this contention is that MMORPGs aren't solely about progression, grinds, and gear whoring. Sure you can reduce them to that, and many people do, but the games could, should, and used to be much more involved.

The genre actually started out featuring titles that were worlds first and treadmill games second, if at all. Titles like Meridian 59 and Ultima Online allowed the player to make their own content until Everquest (and its younger, more successful brother World of Warcraft) came along and hammered us all over the head with mind-numbingly repetitive (but psychologically addicting) DIKU concepts. Perhaps those who scoff at Age of Conan's offline leveling haven't played anything other than these two grinderific theme parks (or their many imitators), I don't know, but the ultimate point is that anything that gives players more freedom, choice, and the time to use it is a positive.

As a virtual world enthusiast, I can tell you that I find leveling to be a contrived annoyance, and frankly, an insultingly uninspired mechanic for developers to mask the fact that they need recurring revenue. I grind when I'm away from my computer, it's called a successful career, and when I get home after a hard day, the last thing I want to do is stare at an XP bar. I understand that some people do, and that's fine, I'm not advocating the removal of that option, but there's nothing wrong with throwing a bone to those of us who like to tell stories, explore, trade, craft, or whatever else catches our in-game fancy. These are, after all, roleplaying games.

When you free the player from spending all his time grinding, you free them up to actually, you know, PLAY, as opposed to work.

Methinks the folks that have a problem with Funcom's offline leveling have never spent any time with EVE Online. If they had, they'd know that when you free the player from spending all his time grinding, you free them up to actually, you know, PLAY, as opposed to work. EVE's skills are earned entirely offline, there is no in-game advancement as it's traditionally defined in MMORPGs, and as a result, New Eden's gameplay is emergent, dynamic, and free form precisely because it doesn't cram a level grind down player's throats and (wrongly) label it 'content' (speaking of which, what does it say about a developer's creativity when their 'content' is so repetitive that the vast majority of players don't even bother to read it, but instead click through as fast as possible in order to get at the next FedEx/mass murder objective?)

In-game advancement does happen in EVE, but it is entirely up to the player as to how that occurs, whether it be socially, politically, economically, or some combination of the three. The point is, the game player decides, he doesn't strap into the same moving sidewalk already occupied by thousands of other maze rats. Too often, this genre regards innovation as a four letter word, and Funcom should be commended for daring to inject a little mischief into the mix.

Despite being somewhat notorious for their buggy launches (Anarchy Online and Age of Conan) the Norwegian development house also deserves props for their ability to right the ship and deliver quality, if linear, game experiences over the long haul. No one would ever accuse them of being a sandbox developer (at least so far), but between this new system and the exciting decision to excise levels from the upcoming Secret World title, you just never know.

Could they also add in player-generated content at some point? Who knows, but if you had told me a year ago that a major theme park game like Age of Conan would be introducing offline progression, I'd have said you were crazy. This shift in mindset, even though it's currently a small one, is more exciting than any number of expansions, raid dungeons, or PvP tweaks.

The only shame is the shortsightedness with which the mechanic has been received in some quarters. The reality is that the offline leveling is entirely optional and therefore everybody wins. Funcom gets paid (as you have to stay subbed to use the system). People that play MMORPGs for the grind are free to continue doing so. People that want to explore, create, or otherwise inhabit a virtual world without fear of falling hopelessly behind the min/max crowd may also do so, at least in Age of Conan. It's a small step, but it's a step in the right direction, by Crom, and at long bloody last.

Oh and before I forget, I give you the barroom blitz.



Jef Reahard is an Age of Conan beta and launch day veteran, as well as the creator of Massively's weekly Anvil of Crom. Feel free to suggest a column topic, propose a guide, or perform a verbal fatality via jef@massively.com.
This article was originally published on Massively.