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A shortcut of sidesteps

Tim Dale
05.07.09
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While there are some exceptions, the majority of MMOs present the player with a clear and defined long-game task; the advancement of levels through the acquisition of experience points. It is a time-honoured tradition stretching right the way back to EverQuest and beyond. The journey from brand new character at level one through to seasoned veteran at level fifty was presented as the main thread which bound separate play sessions together, and for most, was the game.

Over its decade long lifetime, and particularly prior to World of Warcraft's emergence, EverQuest had always stood as something of a bastion of the substantial time commitment in MMO gaming. Slaying a path to ultimate glory was always a somewhat serious proposition in those times, and tales of a two thousand hour trek to the top were not uncommon.

Ten years, twenty-five extra levels and fifteen expansions later, it seems surprising that as a result of a recent player poll, the grand dame of the grind itself will soon be offering a new type of server on which players start life not at the beginning but in the middle, at Level 51. Is this a lamentable admission that the early levels and original content are now no longer relevant, or a pragmatic shift in attitude acknowledging that more and more, the real game only starts when the levels end?


The new EverQuest '51/50' server sends a curious message, effectively starting new players out just where the originally launched 'EverQuest' content ends and allowing them to get stuck right into the more advanced expansion content right out of the gate. While at present, it is merely one server out of many which will have this specific rule set, it does hint at interesting view held by existing players of the game, many of whom will already have characters well beyond level 51. Given the option, when working on alternate characters, these players would quite happily not have to work through the early game again, a part of the game which they are likely to have already seen more than enough of.

In a game of EverQuest's vintage, those early zones and levels are likely to be quite desolate places. Although the game as a whole may indeed be healthy and populous, at this stage in its life it is unlikely to be attracting large numbers of brand new players with whom to group up in the early levels, and the end-game is going to be the place to be, with its established community of veteran players. So why not offer a short-cut? MMOs are by and large, about the people, so directing new players to where the existing players are can only be a good thing.

But with a game in which so much 'level inflation' has happened, the time in the lonely low levels a new player has to endure before arriving at the bustling end-game increases with every expansion, and eventually can become insurmountable. It simply isn't worth the time and effort to get to what is now perceived as the 'good bit' or 'real game'. The new 51/50 server will offer a bit of a leg up and a faster route to the more recent and favoured content, but at a cost, reducing large swathes of the old world to little more than an occasional day-trip for nostalgic tourists. Perhaps these places had been reduced to that already, simply through lack of new blood passing through on the longer, normal route to the top, and the idea of starting in the middle is merely a matter of shoring up a kind of neglect which was already inevitable and well-advanced.

A short-cut to the late game is also available with World of Warcraft's Death Knight, the prestige class added with Wrath of the Lich King. Here, in a tacit acknowledgment that given the choice, many players would prefer not to have to repeat the entire levelling process again if possible, the Death Knight starts at level 55, as long as the player has made it to 55 at least once before on that server. The mechanism is different to the EverQuest 51/50 server, but perhaps the underlying sentiment is similar; that the original early content is outdated and no longer appealing, and that more recent expansions are where the players really want to be.

Both World of Warcraft and EverQuest offer substantial raiding content, most of which is aimed at players who have long since outgrown the experience bar, and the game itself changes. Being forced back into the levelling game again, simply because the guild needs a member of a different class for the end game becomes less than appealing, and with enough discontented feedback, it seems the games themselves are changed to accommodate.

Will we see other elder statesmen of the MMO genre begin to offer similar measures? A staged phasing out of the early and increasingly redundant levels and content, to make way for the ever increasing level cap and newer and fancier expansions? The same accumulation of fifty levels needed, but which fifty levels those are changing. Will these measures become more and more generous? 65/400 servers? EverQuest currently stops at level 85, a figure which is likely to rise further if the game is to continue to exist at all. How many of those levels will continue to be deemed important or actually worth playing through, or will we ultimately see an entry point at level 85 itself; at the end?

Perhaps one day, in addition to race, class and hairstyle, we might see 'Level' as a selectable attribute during character creation. In such an MMO, the players would be able to pick and choose interesting aspects of their careers in a very non-linear manner. Regular groups might decide that Thursdays are 'Level 20 Night', or that next week a trip one of the late seventies dungeons would be fun, and the entire experience would become something much more diverse and perhaps unpredictable. City of Heroes' 'Ouroboros' offers something of this, using the conceit of time travel to allow players to de-level themselves temporarily, to tackle earlier content that they may have missed, or simply want to do again, in a kind of flashback episode. However, the system only allows downward levelling, and levels must still be obtained in the usual manner before it can be fully used.

A more sinister way to sidestep the early content and go directly to the top is sometimes employed in power levelling services or character sales on third party websites. Typically reviled, purchasers of this kind of short-cut are often exposed by their lack of fundamental game knowledge of the calibre that is expected of a player who has worked their way to the top levels. This is certainly one reason why an officially sanctioned and designed-in power-levelling system, such as the 51/50 rule set, might not be such a good idea. Although neglected and empty, the first fifty levels with their associated repetition of gameplay, are important in teaching the player how to tank, or heal, or otherwise play their role. Being suddenly catapulted to the lofty heights also bypasses this practice, leaving the player more reliant than ever on theory and adaptability. Some can cope and thrive in this situation, but others cannot.

Many of the older MMO titles seem to have adopted a more cunning approach to the problem of obsolete content, and by altering the standard rate of experience point gain, can greatly speed up the process of moving players through the more vintage game to the new and recent bits, the expansions and raiding culture. EverQuest in particular is a much swifter journey than it was at launch, and some are dismissive of the 51/50 leg up, suggesting that this point can be reached in a matter of days and weeks anyway, rather than the months and years of old. So maybe this new server isn't quite the I-Win Button it could be, but a fascinating move none the less, and perhaps a herald of more drastic ones to come?

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