The Think Tank: Building an MMO without levels

Welcome back to another Think Tank! This week, I charged the Massively team with a single task: Elevator-pitch an MMO without levels. What should an MMO without levels look like? Can it even be done in this modern MMO era? Here's what we came up with -- we'd love to hear your take too.

Anatoli Ingram, Columnist

@ceruleangrey: My dream MMO without levels would be a creative social MMO. Levels are mostly a player perception-based mechanic; they're a visual representation of a character growing stronger. In a lot of ways, though, they're used as filler to sort of unlock the rest of the game. So my concept would start with a question I've heard many fans ask: If endgame is the "real game," why are we not skipping directly to that point? The game would have several classes; characters would progress by unlocking the ability to use other classes, which would eventually open up advanced classes and powerful universal skills. There would also be crafting classes, non-combat professions, housing, and a strong focus on giving players the tools to create and entertain themselves with their own gameplay.

Bree Royce, Editor-in-Chief

@nbrianna: One of the neater game systems I've seen is used in LARPing: You declare your set of skills before you start and that's it -- that's your character. No grinding. No building of skills. When you want to challenge someone else, you basically rock/paper/scissors for it based on your declared skills. It turns the game from a min-maxing, character-development experience into a social, character-playing experience where you're actually challenged to figure out what you can do with what you have and who you already are, not grind away at a character you hope someday to be (until the next expansion moves the bar again). So that's what I'd do. I'd treat the whole game like the endgame of any other sandbox where everyone's maxed out; people would have different skills, but the point of the game would not be leveling up in power or in skills but Doing Stuff -- exploring, building, buying, hunting -- for its own sake.

Eliot Lefebvre, Contributing Editor

@Eliot_Lefebvre: Character abilities are limited via unlocking "copies" of them through clearing quests, purchasing them, or completing certain difficult tasks. Similar to the system in Transistor, abilities can serve as enhancements for other abilities, passive abilities, or active abilities. By ticking off a combination of different accomplishments, players can unlock additional slots for active, passive, or enhancing abilities - think along the lines of Guild Wars 2's daily achievements. These remain limited, however, and even when everything is unlocked, players will still be limited by how many abilities they have around. Equipment doesn't contain stats but rather contains passive effects (like expanding your ability to equip things, making you move faster, etc.). Abilities include gathering and crafting, which also must be slotted in like the rest; some battle abilities are useful as support for crafting abilities, for example. All hard stats are handled at character creation, with efficiency at any given task being based off of percentages of those stats (and possible equipment abilities that alter formulas).

Larry Everett, Columnist

@Shaddoe: I guess my elevator pitch for an MMO without levels would look very similar to the skill system in Ultima Online or Star Wars Galaxies, but mixed with a bit of the League of Legends champion system. Players would choose between a set of classes that could be dropped or picked up at any time. These classes would represent a role or playstyle. Weapons and armor would add additional non-comparable stats or even abilities. For instance, reviving a fallen player might not be an ability for a medic, but it might be a device that is attached to a certain piece of armor. The idea would be that no content would be closed off to any player because she didn't have the right abilities.

What do you get when you throw the Massively writers' opinions together in one big pot to stew? You get The Think Tank, a column dedicated to ruminating on the MMO genre. We range from hardcore PvPers to sandbox lovers to the most caring of the carebears, so expect more than a little disagreement! Join Editor-in-Chief Bree Royce and the team for a new edition right here every Thursday.