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The Soapbox: Leveling isn't bad -- its implementation is


Disclaimer: The Soapbox column is entirely the opinion of this week's writer and does not necessarily reflect the views of Massively as a whole. If you're afraid of opinions other than your own, you might want to skip this column.

It's funny how tastes can change. I know mine certainly have, especially when it comes to entertainment. Heck, I used to swear by The Ramones and a bit of Slayer; now I tend to think that this Joni Mitchell song is a work of sheer genius. It seems that as I grow older, the less I care about impressing other people. My gaming tastes have changed, but maybe not as dramatically. I've never been a hardcore player and have never enjoyed spending countless hours repeating the same task. That sort of behavior tends to turn a hobby into a boring job. MMORPGs are notorious for being filled with content that is often ripped off from other games, so it surprised me when I thought about today's topic.

I came to the conclusion that leveling is not a bad thing. When I say leveling, I mean growing a character by performing an activity, getting better at it, gaining experience and hitting a new level. It's not a bad way to represent real-life growth. The problems come when developers use the same boring systems that are based on leveling to facilitate that growth.

Climbing stairs picture
As I sit here and think about it, most titles I have played use some sort of linear leveling system for character growth. My character performs a task, gains experience, and starts working on the next level. I can see how this has created a grind culture, entire generations of gamers who not only value grind but see it as some sort of badge of courage. "I hit level 99, and now I'm going to do it again!" I have literally seen some players say, "I can't stand this skill, but I have to hit max in every skill possible, so I'll grind it." Is it not ironic that the sheer amount of time spent by these players "working" toward some make-believe in-game level could be spent on real-life goals?

Leveling might very well be to blame for that, but that's no excuse for developers who do not want to get creative and think of new and unique ways to level. Gaining skill isn't bad, but it is closer to bad when the skills are the same skills we have seen before and the way we level those skills is the same as always. Killing 10 rats has gone way past being an ironic inside joke with MMO gamers. Some games might even ask a player to kill hundreds, even thousands, of monsters in order to gain access to a higher level. Why are developers continuing to push out games that offer this gameplay? Well, because players keep playing that way. There's no chicken and egg here; this is simply a case of demand for the same bland leveling being as high as ever. Don't think so? Check out the latest releases and see how characters develop and grow. Yes, there are a few exceptions to this rule, but for the most part, grinding is still par for the course. Players act as if they cannot get enough of it.

"Moving up as you gain skill or experience is not bad, and players obviously enjoy it. It gives them some feeling of growth and can be an actual point of comparison."

I'm not going to try and talk to you about horizontal leveling or sideways or diagonal leveling. There are many great concepts out there, but basic, standard, and good old leveling as it has been done for at least 15 years is not the problem. Moving up as you gain skill or experience is not bad, and players obviously enjoy it. It gives them some feeling of growth and can be an actual point of comparison. "Bob is level 45, and I just hit level 67." It can be used for bragging rights. It might build self esteem in some people (which can be perfectly normal) and might encourage others to socialize. Virtual socialization can actually improve real life social skills. None of this is news.

We players just need different activities in our games. Why kill monsters to gain skill in monster slaying? Why not allow us to spy and observe monsters and gain knowledge that we can later sell to other players who fight those same monsters? Where are the skills for crafting nothing but fluff items? A lot of the crafting trades I have come across feature a few fluff items in their menu, but can you imagine an entire job based on decorating avatars (like Star Wars Galaxies' Image Designer)? What about a horse trainer skill? No, I'm not talking about Ultima Online's slow and steady ability to go out and tame a mount; I'm talking about an involved skill that immerses players in the world of mountable critters. Perhaps we could learn the actual language of that alien three-legged monster and convince it to be ridden?

Within one paragraph, I have come up with some relatively fresh ideas that could be wrapped around existing systems. So why are developers churning out games that still feature orcs, dragons and dwarves going through standard kill-10-rats style leveling? Forget those standard systems even in newer skins. Take the concept of leveling and use it to make entirely new systems. Maybe we will one day see a meditation skill that tasks players with deciphering ghostly messages that appear to them while they concentrate? Sure, they can get better at the skill and they can even gain levels in the skill, but at least it's something new and different. I'd love to gain a level or two in a poetry skill that allows me to record adventurers deeds on glowing parchment! Who among us would love to level up in tree climbing, a skill required to get to the tops of the 200-foot-tall plants on an alien planet (that's where the best goo is!).

"Sure, there are some really nice cutscenes peppering the decade-old gameplay, but I was sort of surprised that an entire galaxy with so many different alien species would offer such standard stuff."

The point is that with almost every new MMO that comes out, especially if it is referred to as "AAA," I hear promises of something new and different. While Star Wars: The Old Republic promised to be something unlike we have seen before, what we actually got was the same standard leveling concept and no attempt at all at giving us any new tasks to level with. Sure, there are some really nice cutscenes peppering the decade-old gameplay, but I was sort of surprised that an entire galaxy with so many different alien species would offer such standard stuff. Of course, tell BioWare it made a design mistake and the studio will gladly point to its bank account and giggle.

MMO games work just like the government does. It operates how we want it to. That means that both entities are formed by the people, for the people. If we continue to vote the way we do, we will continue to get the same concepts and the same processes that we got the time before. While I understand that it's fun to blame some sort of cold machine for churning out the same thing over and over, it only does so because we gladly stand in line and pay for it.

Make no mistake, though: I enjoy leveling. I really do. I like the idea of becoming better at something and have become better at a lot of things in my life. The problems start to crop up when leveling is no longer a base for unique systems to be laid upon and instead becomes the game itself. Leveling just might stop being a vehicle for unique gameplay and will become the only gameplay that is offered.

"What do I do in your game?"

"You level, silly."

Everyone has opinions, and The Soapbox is how we indulge ours. Join the Massively writers every Tuesday as we take turns atop our very own soapbox to deliver unfettered editorials a bit outside our normal purviews. Think we're spot on -- or out of our minds? Let us know in the comments!

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