Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Ghost Town of Norrath Pt 3 – Design Thoughts

Posted by Rampant Coyote on November 20, 2013

This is the conclusion of a three-part series. You can read part 1 here, and part 2 here.

All-in-all, it’s pretty remarkable that EverQuest is still running today. While it’s far removed from its heyday, the fact that it’s still around – running under a different monetization plan than originally envisioned, and in an era probably unimaginable by the original developers – is a testament of its legacy. It was a big hit for its day, and made a lasting impression.

The changes – and the fact that much of the world is a ghost town today – is simply an inevitable result of the design. It’s obvious, when you think about it. Character progress is in one direction (mostly) – up. If you hit the “fast forward” button on the world long enough, you’d always see this. Eventually, you have the entire world milling around at the level cap, looking for something to do. In the early days, they put off the inevitable by slowing progression down in ways that they have now streamlined away.

But the end result is that its now 99% elder game and unused, forgotten space. What do you do now?

The Progression Problem

Truth be told, I don’t know that there’s much they can do. But… if you were to redesign from the get-go, how could you fix this?

Now, this isn’t strictly a problem with all MMORPGs – just this particular style. EverQuest‘s predecessor was Ultima Online, wildly successful at its launch (and still going!), but subsequently dwarfed by EQ (just as EQ was later dwarfed by World of Warcraft). Ultima Online had a very different approach to capping progression – in fact, it kinda make progression a bit more fluid – so it didn’t have quite this problem. It had different problems.

But many games borrow from the whole EverQuest / DikuMUD / Dungeons & Dragons approach to role-playing, heavy on the classes and levels. I like the approach myself. But part of what makes that whole progression fun is that you do dramatically change, you can enjoy previously challenging obstacles become trivial, and previously insurmountable challenges become possible. To me, this aspect is pretty fundamental to the whole role-playing experience, regardless of whether it is implemented through classes and levels, skill increases, loot acquisition, or whatever.

But this has two problems:

#1 – Content is restricted to a certain “window” of character progression – it goes from being “locked” by being impossible to “just right” to uselessly trivial. Players WILL outgrow content. And since progress is in only one direction, they won’t come back for it later unless they start over (one way or another).

#2 – Likewise, players are restricted to a certain “window” of other players that they can participate with, for the same reasons. If content is too easy for you and too hard for your friend, what else are you going to do together?

Common (Partial) Solutions

There have been lots of approaches to dealing with this problem. Back in the original D&D days, the problem was slightly resolved (or at least assumed to be resolved) by having a “practical” level range that was really pretty small. It wasn’t really expected that players would ever get much beyond 8th level or so, and while a 1st level character would be well-advised to hang back in an 8th level adventuring group, they’d at least gain XP somewhat rapidly and get somewhere into the same “window.” Assuming they were lucky enough to survive that long. And while it was a bit more dramatic for a spellcaster, a “fighting man” of 7th level in that game wasn’t overwhelmingly more powerful than his or her 3rd level counterpart.

Of course, then you also had super high-level modules of that era (or the early “Advanced D&D” era) that still had players fighting the kinds of monsters they’d fought back at 2nd level, but in greater numbers and as “speed bumps” on their way to fighting demons and dragons. But that’s beside the point.

D&D Online took something of this approach when it released, making leveling a very slow, lengthy process, but adding alternate progression stages in-between levels. These were dramatic enough to feel significant, but also served to keep players from having quite such a gulf of power ranges between them. It effectively broadened the window, but doesn’t eliminate the underlying problem.

Many games have had a “remort” ability – where you can choose to restart your character from the beginning, but with a key power-level increase that makes you superior to a fresh level 1. Some even allow this to be repeated several times, each time carrying some additional power back with you. This partly solves the problem of progression only going in one direction, but it’s a difficult choice in that the player is once again locking himself out of content – and out of participation with friends – until he comes back to their appropriate level range again.

City of Heroes had a really cool sidekick / exemplar system where a party member could be artificially leveled-up or de-leveled to match the power level of their companion in a group. A sidekicked character would not have the full range of ability that they’d eventually have when they legitimately achieved that level, but they were at least capable of contributing.

One obvious approach to the problem of content getting outgrown is the one used in many single-player RPGs – scaling up the content to match the player level. That gets complicated in a shared world, however. Having Godzilla terrorize the newbie zone because some high-level characters have arrived is amusing maybe once. Many MMORPGs have gotten around this by instancing, which actually works pretty well… but then that really deflates the “massively” multiplayer aspect of the game.  But hey, for games derived from a tabletop game intended for just a handful of people to play together, maybe that’s for the best.

Other Ideas

So I’m spitballing a little here. I’m not an MMORPG expert. To be honest, since EverQuest I have had to deliberately swear ’em off a little bit. I actively avoided World of Warcraft during its heyday because I knew it would be a dangerous time-sink for me. I still play them – and still sometimes lose far too much time to them – but I do try and keep things very limited. It doesn’t stop me from thinking about them, though. I mean, ever since I read the short story Catacomb in the pages of Dragon Magazine in the 1980s, I’ve been enamored by shared virtual worlds, and the cool possibilities of playing role-playing games on a larger scale.

If lower-level characters could be at least partly insulated from higher-level challenges and events following players around regardless of zone, that eliminates another part of the Godzilla-in-the-newbie zone problem without having to overly depend on instancing.

In fact, lets think about the movie “The Avengers” for a minute. A little Joss Whedon pic that some of you may have heard about. The group is really divided into two “power levels” – or maybe three, but we’ll say two – a group of elite or somewhat souped-up normal humans (Captain America, Black Widow, and Hawkeye), and then a group of cosmically powerful individuals (Thor, Hulk, and Iron Man – who makes up for what he lacks in raw technological power with a wider array of options and mobility).  While they all have their own little stories to some degree, and then they all work together in a coordinated fashion to some degree, you also have two separate but related events going on. The elite human team deals with the symptoms of the disaster – fighting the ground-war – while the cosmic team goes closer to the source, beating up armored flying leviathan troop-carrier creatures, beating up a god, and sealing up a giant interdimensional portal over New York.

Now, that’s not a good long-term solution for a gaming group or an MMO, because eventually you want to be the person with the cosmically important job, not just cleaning up the messes from that guy. But it offers some ideas of how low-power and high-power characters can still play together on a limited basis.

Alternate progression paths are of course regularly discussed and, on a limited basis, implemented. It’s quite common in action movies and stories to have specialist characters who are critical to the group’s success, but are useless as a front-line fighter. In some ways, this drifts us towards the Ultima Online approach, where you can’t be good at everything. Clever quest design might require the combat-gods may have to bring in some help specialized in other areas – including those of lesser power. Unfortunately, barriers requiring a specialist tend to be more of a frustration in general, and a gentle / subtle push in hat direction is often ignored.

In D&D 3.x, there was an experience point requirement for manufacturing magical items. While that sort of thing fuels alternate advancement options in many games (including EverQuest), there is something to the idea that experience points could be something that you can “spend” – possibly for the benefit of your party.  This is again more of a “slowing down progression” solution than solving things.

But what about a character voluntarily choosing to temporarily become a lower-level character, with XP rewards for that level going into alternate uses (not to level up). Again, shades of City of Heroes. Perhaps that XP bonus could be used to “power up” item rewards gained through the lower-level content (such that they may be useful at the player’s real level).  Suddenly, all that lower-level content is no longer useless and forgotten, and progress is no longer strictly one-way. And

1st Edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons even had something of an alternate advancement mechanic, too, with the original Bard class (or really, the human race’s approach to multiclassing). You’d effectively remort as a new character class, level 1. In order to gain XP, you had to restrict yourself to acting just as this new character class – at least until you surpassed your previous level. In 1E, you eventually went back and did it again, but this time actually became a “super-class” – a Bard. Yeah, back then bards were badass.

Something like that might be an interesting alternative to a remort or an alternate character – you could actually have a character who might be leveling up as several different classes at a time. Given a few seconds’ notice, you could transform into the class most necessary for situation, complete with different gear, and perhaps even be able to blend the abilities of several at once.

There are a lot of weird ideas that could be explored. And probably a lot weirder ones already being done that I’m not aware of.

Filed Under: Design, Retro - Comments: 6 Comments to Read

  • Vatina said,

    Guild Wars 2 tries to do this by scaling -down- your char to fit the current level of the zone you’re in. In theory this means you can always do stuff with your lower level friends.

    FF14:ARR has the other thing you talked about – one character can be all classes, and they are all levelled individually. I only tried this a little bit so far so can’t say much about it, but it’s an interesting idea.

  • Maklak said,

    > heavy on the classes and levels. I like the approach myself.
    I strongly dislike this myself. I find it too restricting and artificial, as well as too combat-focused. I find point-buy or learn-through-use systems to be superior in pretty much every way, except to a game designer who cares about balance and progression. The rest of your post is pretty much patching up the problems caused by using levels and classes and killing xp in the first place.

    > Having Godzilla terrorize the newbie zone because some high-level characters have arrived is amusing maybe once.
    Oh come on, pulling a tough to kill monster with an AoE attack to the newb zone of opposing fraction is hilarious. Well, maybe apart from getting banned, that is no fun at all.

    As far as I’m concerned, WoW sucks and Ultima Online was the best MMO I’ve ever wasted my life playing. Well, except I was suffocating under skillcap and statcap.

  • Vatina said,

    To make a more interesting post:
    I’ve found that one thing that draws me to play an MMMORPG for a prolonged time is something detached from all these things – it’s actual -roleplaying-. I’ve found myself playing a certain game for years longer than I otherwise would have, through making great friends that I go on “adventures” with, not much different from tabletop RP, sometimes incorporating the different kinds of game mechanics offered. Maybe going through an ingame dungeon, or meeting enemies from the opposing faction and doing pvp – then playing out the consequences of who won or lost afterwards.

    As long as the game offers a deep and interesting world to explore and some great immersive tools, this can be really fun.

  • Adam said,

    Vatina mentioned Guild Wars 2 and I’d like to expand on what they did. They do level your character to the appropriate level for the area you are in. This has some effects to the game play that I think can be seen there today, if you were to log on and try it out.

    In some MMO games you have a large selection of races you can choose to play. In many cases they each have their own “starting” areas and at some point the zones get joined up with that of other races until you end up with the end game comprised of all the races. Similar to EQ, both one and two (but much less in two) That leaves huge amounts of content that the average player will never see because they will have no reason to go to those other areas. They do their starting zone and move on, perhaps not even thinking about other races starting zones. In Guild Wars 2 they artificially lower your level when you enter an area to match that areas level ranges. And then they give you reasons to go to and ‘finish’ each zone in the game. For the folks that just want to get to 80, they still give lots of experience for doing the lower level stuff. For the folks that want to get more power, they offer “achievement points” for exploring all areas of the game. For people that want to experience the high level meta events in each area they can do that with large groups of similarly leveled people. They have the concept of a jumping puzzle and each zone is filled with one, two, or even three of them. They are cleverly hidden and I didn’t even know they were a thing until my character was 80! Then I had a reason to go and re-explore every zone in the game. GW2 does have its share of the ghost zones already, but I don’t feel like the zones are totally useless like I did when I got past them in EQ.

    Also, similar to other MMO’s, they use the concept of a “living world”. They actively change zones to add in new major themes to the game. There seems to be a path to repurpose under-utilized zones.

    Don’t get me wrong! GW2 has its share of issues and it’s not the end all game by a long shot. But I do feel they made a lot of interesting and so far successful choices about how to design the game. For someone that want’s to analyze a game I feel they would find a plethora of interesting mechanics in the GW2 design.

  • Adam said,

    Also, I want to add, that I am very sad about CoH. I enjoyed looking at the memories I made in that game and while thinking about the fun times it was always comforting to know I could go back and play it again if I wanted. And of course, now, those memories aren’t so comforting. I guess that’s the risk one runs when they get invested in these types of games. What’s the saying? “It’s better to have loved and lost than to have never loved at all?” Cheesy.. but I think appropriate.

  • Brian 'Psychochild' Green said,

    Most level-focused games suffer from what we called “MUDflation” back in the days of text MUDs. Every addition has to be bigger and better than what came before, so you get an inflation in the power curve every time. This is doubly true for commercial games, as they want you to be excited about the new content rather than the old stuff.

    Personally, I’m fond of the idea of de-emphasizing (if not downright eliminating) the concept of levels in games. I think this is one of the things that drives the “ghost town” aspect, in that the older content holds little appeal to someone who has leveled past it. Even something like Guild Wars 2‘s downleveling system makes it so that at higher levels, the only reason you go back to lower levels, besides to play with friends, is because you can roll over something easier for an achievement or somesuch.

    I’d like to see the whole world become one big adventure, where your ability and knowledge is what makes an areas “easy” rather than just pure numbers. But, on the flipside, this would probably make the game a lot more niche interest.