Leveling – Not just for players

I recently got tangled in a tasty, albeit short forum discussion. We were discussing LOTRO, and at some point one of the participants said, quote, “Is this another game that unless you play with your friends as much as they play you’ll be left in the dust?”. To which I naturally felt the urge to reply, “Why shouldn’t you be left in the dust if your friends play for a week and you don’t?”

It went from there, and I got more or less dogpiled (but in a very good way), which gave me the opportunity to think a little about this. Meaningless musing follows.

Their position was quite simple, and probably quite right as well: It’s frustrating when real life attacks, and one player in a regular group of friends is forced to take a break. Upon his return, he finds his friends had kept on advancing and suddenly he can’t adventure with them. They’ve advanced too much for his level.

Which, I think, it’s a valid concern. If you have a regular gaming group, you eventually develop friendships, or those friendships existed beforehand. You play the game for the game, sure, but also as an activity with these people. Their concern at the creation of a progress gap certainly has merit.

However, I think mine does too. So I have to repeat myself, “Why shouldn’t a player that hasn’t played for a week or two be left behind by those who did play?”. Because my thinking is that your in-game progress is produced, precisely, by playing the game – not by not playing the game. If you play, you progress. If you don’t, you don’t. Simple as that. Of course this creates progress gaps, but there isn’t anything you can do about it.

Or is there? The most common system I’ve seen to mitigate that progress gap is a rest xp system. Sure, you do not gain xp while you don’t play, but once you return the game gives you a break and allows you to gain xp at an accelerated rate so it’s easier for you to catch up. I think it’s a good system. It compromises where it should compromise. It acknowledges that real life intersects badly sometimes, but also doesn’t give the non-players any undue advantages over the players. What do I mean by this? I mean simply that if I, a player, have played for a month and gained (x) units of imaginary progress, whenever a non-player returns, to give him a way, as per mechanics, to eliminate the gap altogether and instantly and perform as if he also had (x) units of imaginary progress would inevitably cheapen my own and force me to rethink the value of my own progress.

In other words, if a player that hasn’t played for a month can simply start playing again and perform essentially the same, or almost just as effectively as I have, then why in the name of Cthulhu did I waste my time progressing all through that month?

The vibe I got from the discussion at that point is that such respect for consistent mechanics had no merit. Or rather, it was superseded by the need, the will or the ‘right’, if there’s such a thing, for people to play with their friends if they so wished, mechanics and the intrinsic value of character progress be damned. I think that’s a bit selfish.

Like the example I put forth in the discussion. I like to play with my friend Joey. But when he takes off for a week and he comes back, seemingly with little or no difference in his effectiveness, I’d be peeved. Surely not at Joey, but at a game that allows me to progress for a week or however long, then decree that whatever difference accrued is worthless. If I can play for a week, a month or a year more than you, why shouldn’t that difference show and matter? And if the difference doesn’t matter, then why did I bother playing the game in the first place then?

People then pointed at other options. Rest xp was mentioned, of course, but -for some reason- wasn’t universally accepted as the best way to handle progress gaps. EVE’s offline leveling was also brought up as a good thing, seeing as how avatars effectively do progress while the player is not playing. CoH’s sidekick/downgrade system was also touted as probably ‘the’ best system that let friends play together without the progress gap mattering.

To which I replied, half seriously and half in jest, how WoW didn’t have any of those things except rest xp, and there it was. Still being the #1 MMO ever with millions of players, with few people denouncing the creation of progress gaps as game-breaking issues.

No one, in my estimation, had a good answer for that. I wasn’t trying to knock those other systems. I think they all have merits and drawbacks, in their own ways. I was just pointing at a successful (by far and large) example of a game that doesn’t really give much of a damn about the existence of progress gaps, yet there it is still. Successful as ever, pretty much, despite its longevity.

And I’m most definitely not knocking off, or dismissing those whose main preoccupation is to play with their friends. What I put to them is, yes… you want to play with your friends whenever you want. But at what cost? At the cost of making their progress meaningless? How would you like it when the tables turn and it’s their turn to lag behind? Would you really like it for the game to decree your accrued progress as insignificant just so they don’t feel left out and have to catch up?

That’s probably why I like rest xp the most. Because it doesn’t automatically allow the non-players to return and perform just as the players after only five minutes of playing. With rest xp, non-players still have to ‘work’ to close the gap, we’re only letting them do it a bit faster. Rest xp doesn’t do anything to shorten or eliminate the distance between players and non-players; what it does is to shorten the time needed to bridge the gap, and nothing more. Non-players still have to close it. Which is a far cry from people demanding for everyone else’s progress to stop mattering just so they don’t have to catch up and feel left out.

Which leads me to another interesting observation I came across during the discussion: People don’t just want the cake, they do very much want to eat it too.

As an example of this, a couple of comments shed some light on the personal experiences of some players. One of them, a WoW player, said he and his friends had abandoned the game because, and I paraphrase, it was too much of a hassle for said friends to keep up with the others’ progress in order to play together. Sure enough, and soon enough, they all had created the obligatory army of alts to still play around other friends’ schedules, but they got tired of it as well. So they eventually got tired of the game.

That is a huge point. Dare I say, an xbox huge point. It tells me that people don’t just want to play with their friends – they want to do it at the speed of the fastest leveler in the group. Otherwise, it feels hollow. In other words, they want cake and a fork to eat it as well. Why? Because, as much as some people may cry out about how playing with their friendly group is their main preoccupation, they still have that little voice inside that comes up whenever they play the game in a way it’s not ‘supposed’ to be played.

At the risk of making a harsh, dogmatic statement, I’ll go for it: MMOs are, mainly, about progression. And when that progression is not performed, the player is not satisfied. Social gaming, graphics, story… all those things certainly do matter, but they’re all subject to progression. When you players in an MMO can’t progress, or choose not to progress as in this case, that’s when the game starts feeling hollow fast.

So for these well-meaning people (and I really do mean that), playing with their friends is just not enough, no matter how much they say it is. If they can’t do it *and* keep a normal flow of progression at the same time, it’s worthless. Cake + fork. Because, I imagine, if it was only about the social aspect… if it was about playing with your friends as the sole, exclusive reason for playing the game, then the issue of alts wouldn’t matter. If all you ever did in an MMO was to get a character to level 10, then delete it to make an alt, rinse and repeat forever, well then you should be having fun doing that as long as you do it with your friends, right? Because that’s what your there for. To play with your friends. If it doesn’t matter to you what classes or what gear your friends have, because they are your friends and you enjoy playing with them no matter what, then it should not matter to you to constantly have to either halt or restart your progress to keep up with a lagging friend. Hrm.

I still haven’t received a good reply for that one. So, let’s be a bit honest here. Yes. Of course playing with your friends is great. I’ve done so for a long time, and got tons of fun out of it. But maybe we should stop trying to modify progress mechanics for the sake of the laggers. Maybe we should start taking lagging in the chin, and not demand that other people’s progress be halted or rendered meaningless just so we can catch up. Yes, progress gaps happen. There are no ways around it, and it’s unfortunate. But the solution is not to screw other people over, I think. Maybe the solution is to just take one for the team.

That, or start being completely honest for a moment, and instead of saying that it’s just about playing with friends, it really is about the friends + progress as usual, something that cannot be realistically achieved if real life intersects.

This entry might sound harsher than it was really meant to be. I hold no disdain or hate for victims of the progress gap, seeing as how I’ve been a victim of it many times myself. But all I see from many of these people is the denouncing of the problem; not an overall, sweeping solution to the problem of progress gaps.

Yes, rest xp is good but some people don’t like it because they still have to ‘work’/’play’ to close the gap. Offline leveling is an original concept, but some people don’t like it because you don’t have much control over it, or it’s slow, or you don’t end up exactly where a player would have ended up had they played the character all that time. A sidekick/downgrade/stop xp gain has some merits, but it’s only a matter of time until those doing the downgrading get tired of it and want to get some actual progress done with their characters, instead of having to play in a way they don’t particularly care for the laggers’ sake.

Maybe there is no solution to progress gaps, and we just have to roll with the punch instead of coming up with solutions that alter other people’s experience due to our own problems.


3 Responses to “Leveling – Not just for players”

  1. 1 Collin April 9, 2007 at 9:05 pm

    I’d say EVE’s system is far better than rest XP – the only thing that stays “equal” over a week of a person playing or not is their skill training (assuming you set a long skill or can login at least a minute here and there to change skills).

    As for the rest of the game, it all requires effort – want to afford the next ship? You have to earn that money somehow 🙂 Skills may continue, but to progress in any other area requires actual time investment.

    One of the problems with rest XP is that it runs out far too soon. You spend a week or more filling up the bar, and then it’s gone in mere hours, and you’re still lagging far behind your friends.

  2. 2 tholal April 10, 2007 at 4:31 pm

    Based on what you had to say here in this post, it seems that everyone sort of missed the real problem. Put simply, it’s the Level Gap Syndrome. This disease seems to have afflicted most of the larger MMOs ever since EQ reared it’s ugly head. Too much weight is given to the ‘levels’, awarding significant power upgrades at each arbitrarily defined marker and forcing players to segregate themselves based on their progress through these markers.

    MMOs shouldn’t always be about exponential player progress/power increases. UO is an excellent example. If you’ve never played UO, I’m not sure I could adequately explain it.

    IMO, Monty-Haul type level-based games really shred the fabric of online community. WoW is popular for a number of reasons, but using its popularity as a springboard to claim that level-oriented games are what everyone obviously wants is a bit disengenuous.

  3. 3 Julian April 11, 2007 at 1:14 am

    Yeah, when I dropped the comment about WoW it was half in jest. I certainly don’t consider WoW to be ‘the model’ of how many things should be.

    And yet, I can’t help but to point at it. WoW has a hojillion players. Either that hojillion players don’t care about level gaps, or that hojillion players can put up with it. Otherwise, it wouldn’t have a hojillion players. This is not an appeal to authority, but just an observation. Which is valid, I think. You can replace ‘WoW’ with any other successful MMO that creates progress gaps, really.

    I think that, at least conceptually, I can agree with you when you say that MMOs shouldn’t always be about that type of linear, granular advancement. However, all of them seem to be (save rare exceptions liks UO as you pointed out). If 90%, or some other godawful amount, of all MMOs ever created do have this clearly defined, strict and almost dogmatic type of granular advancement, it is the standard whether we like it or not. And by the way, I don’t mean that standard = good. Just saying it is. It is because it’s clear, easily understandable and addresses the problem of constantly increasing challenge to the player quite nicely.

    On the downside, yeah, it creates this type of common progress gaps. Are progress gaps a problem? Maybe. But if they are, it isn’t as huge as some people can make it to be. I really don’t mean to sound like a grade-A smacktard when I say this, but if some people cancel because they can’t play with their friends (a very valid reason), that’s more of a people’s problem than a game’s problem. It’s not that the game is forbidding you, completely, to play with your friends at the speed of the fastest leveler. It gives you a way. If you can’t, or won’t take it, I don’t think that’s the game’s problem, really.

    It’s a personal choice, to cancel in those terms, and should be absolutely respected. But to blame the game for not being designed to wrap around our busy RL schedules with utmost precision, well I think that might be a bit disingenuous.

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