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Linear Character Development: The Problem with Levels in MMORPGs

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What's up guys, you knew this one was coming :) I have, for a very long time now, been a proponent of non-linear character development in MMORPGs. In other words, I'm not a big fan of the system of levels that are pretty much the norm in MMORPGs these days. In this thread, I'm going to look at some of the different aspects of MMORPGs that I think are hurt by linear character development. At the same time, I'd like to identify why this system will continue to be successful regardless of its flaws. Finally, I will suggest some ways that developers could counter-act the flaws of a linear character development system without making overly drastic changes to MMORPG design. I just want to point out that this is the Game Design forum and not the Business & Development forum. As someone trying to break into the industry, I have no illusions or fantasies about how things work or what designers actually do on a day to day basis. However, I really think that "what works" cannot be an excuse to stop us from exploring ideas- if not at work, then certainly here in the game design forum. Anyways, let's have a good discussion and try to stay on topic! The Level System So, the subject of my criticism is pretty much an accepted convention of the RPG genre: the level. This system of gaining experience to a certain point, where a player levels up and is in return awarded with additional skills or increases in stats is a shared trait of the majority of RPGs in existence. As you might guess, the term "level" derives from the original gaming concept of stages, where a player plays through a series of "levels" to systematically advance in the game (although of course it didn't actually derive from the gaming concept... just this idea of stages of advancement/progress). By applying this concept to character development, one very smart designer effectively moved game progress from a linear narrative to a non-linear character-based system. With character-development based play, players could focus on developing their character instead of just "beating the game" in the sense of a linear narrative. The level system basically took this concept and systemized it in a way that opened up the door for tons of RPG systems and for games like dungeon crawlers where a story wasn't even necessary! So, you ask, what's the problem? The Problem I - Levels Reinforce Linear Play Well, it begins with a very simple fact: levels, while being part of character-development, still reinforce linear play. Levels are an integer, and they can only increment as integers, so fundamentally they represent linear development. Obviously, game designers have found ways to sophisticate this very basic system of levels, skills and stats. Equipment is the most obvious factor, with added items that players can use to customize their character. Likewise, other game systems outside the level system like classes, titles, feats, crafting systems, etc. have all made the process of leveling- an inherently linear process- seem a lot less linear. So, you ask again, with all these extra features, what's the problem? The Problem II - Levels Applied to EVERYTHING The problem, is that the system of levels pervades all aspects of an RPG even if it does not do so directly. Equipment, for instance, commonly has "requirements" in level and in attributes (which are determined by levels). Likewise, feat trees may be dependent on levels, and "Advanced" or "Secondary" classes may be unlocked by achieving a certain level. Every level increases the HP, mana and attack/defense of a character, and every level has its own set of monsters. In many cases, a player will be forced to play in the area that is "in his level range" until he levels up. Upon leveling up, the player then moves on to the next level's area- effectively returning levels to their original meaning. This is good in the sense that it provides players with a smoother learning curve while systematically increasing the difficulty. It is also good in the sense that the narrative as put forth by developers can be consumed in a very predictable way. Again, this does not seem too bad, since this is what RPGs are all about anyways- character development and narrative... right? The Problem III - Linear Development in a Persistent Worlds Unfortunately, this is only true in single player RPGs (and only some single player RPGs), as MMORPGs claim to be more than this. One of the most fundamental advantage of an MMORPG is its online, social aspect. A common claim is that players will "forge their destiny in a world" and "influence the story of the game." But really, what makes your average MMORPG different from, say, Baldur's Gate 2, which you could play online with other players as well? The answer to this question is that, for much of the time playing, it's the same- except the MMORPG will have more options of party members and it's story and combat system are much weaker. Certainly, every MMORPG has its own unique features: end-game raids and PvP arenas, crafting content and economies, as well as all sorts of mini-games and events. But at the same time, there is no denying that until a player levels up to whatever level limit, s/he is effectively playing a glorified linear RPG (sometimes cooperative, sometimes single-player). There is no actual player influence of the game world, there is no sense of a changing "persistent world," because until you reach the end-game, most MMORPGs are a linear process of leveling. Fundamentally, the promise of an MMORPG is to grant the player non-linear play- gameplay that allows them to influence the world around them, through their own choices and actions, in meaningful and interesting ways. Yet what is provided in most cases is only the illusion of non-linear play, while linear play dominates the majority of play time. Now I am not saying here that linear play is horrible and should be banned forever. Certainly, linear narratives and gameplay have been primary features of many great games- MMORPGs included. WoW is the perfect example of a well-executed MMORPG with linear development, with well-timed expansions increasing the level cap and extending the "end" of the linear narrative. How Levels Fundamentally Cripple Player Competition & the Economy The problems, however, have just begun. A standard system of levels in an MMORPG also cripples its player competition, because the competitive aspect becomes focused wholly upon "leveling" and not on the competition itself. Even if one player may have more skills than the next, if he is 5 levels below that other player his chances of winning in a PvP engagement are not very high. Likewise, participation in the economy at a lower level becomes impossible as loot, NPC drops, and crafting materials are stratified based on the range of levels and cannot be accessed by those at a lower level. Therefore, lower levels of players are excluded from meaningful participation in the economy. Even if valuable materials are placed in low-level areas, higher-level drops will always sell for more game currency, and thus resources will always be bought up and controlled by higher levels. This pattern is the very same inflation that plagues every MMORPG economy out there, except for the ones with non-linear character development (see EVE Online case study). How Levels Hurt Meaningful Play In this way, player competition is restricted to who can level up faster, and who can farm the hardest. Until the level cap is reached, it is a race to the top and to be competitive a player must learn how to "power level." Not only does this undermine and take the fun out of the linear gameplay that is laid out by the developer, but the player is effectively forced to "grind," or in other words, engage in a meaningless activity to attain their real goals. Obviously, there are some players who simply attempt to "enjoy the game" and feel no such pressure to level. Indeed, it can be said that most players enjoy the process of leveling to a certain extent. At the same time, however, it would not be incorrect to state that the need to "level up" takes away from the enjoyment of simply playing the game, and that this enjoyment is NOT the primary reason that players play MMORPGs. Developers are also not all as well-versed in content-creation as Blizzard, and therefore this process of leveling is rarely as engaging, polished, and bug-free as it is in WoW. The meaningful play in MMORPGs comes most often at the end of the leveling-up process, where end-game content provides unique cooperative challenges and competitive PvP play. The question I ask in this thread is this: is the grind to the max level all that necessary? Why Levels Are Still Preferable- To Developers as well as Gamers There are many reasons for keeping things the way they are, and "it works" is only one of them. The most apparent point is that its easier- for both developers and gamers. Developers can simply extend a game by adding more content, and the only difference would be that the content would be higher-level. Likewise, many gamers prefer to "grind," and prefer the tangible progress that comes from a mindless activity to the intangible progress that comes from testing their skills against other players. These players simply prefer to have an easier path in advancement than to have "meaningful play." In other words, they enjoy showing off their level 60 character and calling level 20s "noobs," when in fact all they did was grind more than the level 20s! How to Upgrade the System Without Breaking It So with this in mind- is it worth upgrading to a more sophisticated non-linear system for character development? YES!!! You can do it without sacrificing those players who prefer the grind. Going back to the example of EVE Online, European developer CCP was able to come up with a system of "skill points" based on "trained time" that was not related to in-game activities. Character progress and "leveling" effectively became a grind that was based on time subscribed and not actual time spent grinding in game. For those gamers who prefer the grind, what could be a more mindless activity for character progress than... doing nothing! At the same time, the integrity and value of player skill in the game is preserved because even if those players subscribe to an account for 3 years but don't know how to play, they would suffer due to their lack of skills in the game. It's NOT Just the Levels It is important to note here that levels themselves are NOT the issue, it is the stratification of items and the additive increase of player power that results from levels that are the real problem. In theory, levels could be maintained in a game like EVE, by simply having an equation based on the number of SP (SP, after all, is basically like XP!), and it would not affect gameplay at all. The real benefit of EVE's non-linear character development system is that player power does not additively increase every level for over 50 levels. Increases in skills, in other words, have diminishing returns in value and are capped out. This gives older players an advantage while still including newer players in player competition. Certainly, this is a major reason for why EVE's economy has been heralded as the strongest economy of all MMORPGs. For more on EVE Online, please see my case study on the game. So just to reiterate: levels are not the problem. The problem is that for every level there is a set of equipment, NPCs, skills, HP, and Mana that is increased in a linear manner. This increase mathematically prohibits the game's design from having feasibly practical competition between players except at "max level." The result is that the game will always be based on this form of linear grind of levels, and that the bulk of content created by the developer is simply played once, then becomes completely irrelevant for the rest of the game experience. By converting to a non-linear system of character development with, most importantly, diminishing gains for character development and a set of game-world items, areas, etc. that remain CONSTANTLY relevant, developers can focus on creating content that adds depth to a MMORPG as opposed to simple length. That's it for today, and I look forward to your replies. Cheers, -Pin

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For those gamers who prefer the grind, what could be a more mindless activity for character progress than... doing nothing!

This attempt to validate your solution in the case of grind-preferring players only works if they also see grinding as a mindless activity. Unfortunately for your argument, those players enjoy solving the relatively trivial puzzles presented by the grind mechanics, and thus 'doing nothing' holds no special attraction for them. And so your current solution fails to accommodate them.
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So just to reiterate: levels are not the problem. The problem is that for every level there is a set of equipment, NPCs, skills, HP, and Mana that is increased in a linear manner. This increase mathematically prohibits the game's design from having feasibly practical competition between players except at "max level."
I don't think there is a problem here. Reaching max level is not a difficult task in most of these games, and it satisfies those players who find the level grind interesting (generally non-competitive players).

Should we just cut out that player segment? Obviously this is hard to justify from a business perspective, but as you say, we are looking at this from a design perspective. And from a design perspective I don't think there's a strong conclusion either way. Guild Wars (which is truly non-linear at the extremely easy-to-reach max level) essentially cuts out the grind, but fails to satisfy grind-preferring players. WoW satisfies the grinders, but the competitive players have to slog through the grind to get to what interests them. But if you let the competitive players skip the grind, then you invalidate the grind-players' achievements, and thus fail them (since they want to see their game as meaningful, and be included in the player network).

In short, cut out linear development, and you fail players that enjoy linear development. I don't think EVE is a very good example of a non-linear game either - obviously player power is related to skill points in a somewhat linear manner. Guild Wars is a much better example - after about a day or two of playing, the gameplay is truly non-linear. I could pick up the game now, and in a few days have a character of the same power level as any other player in the game.

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Before I type any of my opinion on this page, I want to warn everyone that I totally despise MMORPGs. My comments are from the perspective of someone who only enjoys single player RPGs, so beware.

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Original post by PinWang
The Problem II - Levels Applied to EVERYTHING

...

In many cases, a player will be forced to play in the area that is "in his level range" until he levels up. Upon leveling up, the player then moves on to the next level's area- effectively returning levels to their original meaning. This is good in the sense that it provides players with a smoother learning curve while systematically increasing the difficulty.

I disagree with the statement about it being good. It's possible for a game to make it apparent to players that an area is more difficult than their current abilities. There's no need to forcably limit their access. That's just dumbing down the experience. It doesn't allow players to reach outside of their character's abilities by playing more cleverly, which is usually where most of the fun of gaming comes from, in my opinion. Let them bite off more than they can chew, if that's what they want to do. Just make sure they're aware of it before you strike them down for failing.

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Going back to the example of EVE Online, European developer CCP was able to come up with a system of "skill points" based on "trained time" that was not related to in-game activities. Character progress and "leveling" effectively became a grind that was based on time subscribed and not actual time spent grinding in game. For those gamers who prefer the grind, what could be a more mindless activity for character progress than... doing nothing! At the same time, the integrity and value of player skill in the game is preserved because even if those players subscribe to an account for 3 years but don't know how to play, they would suffer due to their lack of skills in the game.

Your solution is power rewarded by age? It seems pretty backwards to me to reward players for anything other than their control over the game. You're essentually taking all control to manipulate their power away from them.

My advice to fix these problems is to reward players who play skillfully with ranks, status, and priveleges, rather than stats like speed and strength. This would allow brand new players to dish out incredible talent to steal status away from seasoned players. On the other hand, we probably wouldn't be calling it an MMORPG anymore.

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Original post by PinWang
The Problem I - Levels Reinforce Linear Play
Well, it begins with a very simple fact: levels, while being part of character-development, still reinforce linear play. Levels are an integer, and they can only increment as integers, so fundamentally they represent linear development.
Levels have an additional property of implied direction. A higher level character is always superior in some way to a lower level character. Which is different from the temperature of my living room.

What are we really measuring with this thing called 'Level'? I suggest that the answer to this question is Progress. That 'level' is a one-dimensional stop-watch, showing how much time and effort and accomplishment the character has been through. A shadow of history.

Which suggests that Level could also be measured by counting achievements. It also might make more sense to grant Level as an achievement for the accumulation of special abilities, rather than the other way around. This way a level 10 wizard still has ten spells, but it is not because he is level 10 that he has them, only because he has ten spells that he is level 10.

It then becomes much more interesting on how to get those ten spells.

[Edited by - AngleWyrm on June 9, 2008 12:15:59 AM]

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Hmm. There's a whole lot of discussion about what levels are in your post, but the only two complaints I see are:

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A standard system of levels in an MMORPG also cripples its player competition, because the competitive aspect becomes focused wholly upon "leveling" and not on the competition itself.


And:

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Likewise, participation in the economy at a lower level becomes impossible as loot, NPC drops, and crafting materials are stratified based on the range of levels and cannot be accessed by those at a lower level.


For both, I don't think this is a problem unless you make it one. In both cases, you can easily participate, you're just limited to participating in your own level range. In WoW, if you want PvP at level 29, then you go into a level 29 Battleground, or you just challenge people around your own level. In WoW, if you want to sell level 36 materials and equipment, you sell them to other level 36 players. You're not really "crippled", and it's not "impossible to participate"; the player is possibly just feeling bitter that their goods don't sell for as much money as higher level goods, or that they aren't as good in combat as someone higher level than you. But that's the whole point of levels.

Also, I don't think EVE's leveling system has much of anything to do with its economy. EVE's economy works for several key reasons:

1) Everything can be player-crafted.
2) Players die and lose everything somewhat often, so they need to keep buying new equipment.
3) Goods have to be physically transported throughout the galaxy rather than all being at a central auction house, which creates spatial supply and demand.

I really don't think the fact that you don't have a level has much to do with it. If they took WoW, made it much bigger and harder to teleport, made crafting equipment better than raiding equipment, and then made your equipment explode every time you die, the economy would be very similar, even though there would still be levels.

I also don't think EVE really solves the two "problems" above. A low skillpoint player can't kill a high skillpoint player in EVE, exactly like a low level player can't kill a high level one in WoW. A low skillpoint crafter in EVE is limited to mining low quality minerals and making low quality goods, and can't participate in Tech II or high level ship production until he gets more skillpoints.

There are ways to solve these problems; the simplest way is to just make a shallower progression curve. If level 70 WoW players were only marginally stronger than level 1 players, then it would be fine, even though there are still levels. EVE does have a shallower progression curve, so maybe that's what you're seeing. So I don't think power difference has anything to do with levels per se; you can have just as much power imbalance in a skill-based system as well if you have a steep power curve on your skills.


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The result is that the game will always be based on this form of linear grind of levels, and that the bulk of content created by the developer is simply played once, then becomes completely irrelevant for the rest of the game experience.

This isn't necessarily true. People who like leveling often create many alts, and will progress through early content a few times. I know I have always have tons of alts in MMORPG's.

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By converting to a non-linear system of character development with, most importantly, diminishing gains for character development and a set of game-world items, areas, etc. that remain CONSTANTLY relevant, developers can focus on creating content that adds depth to a MMORPG as opposed to simple length.

Again, I don't think EVE works as a good example. A high skillpoint player is only going to do Level 4 missions; he's never going to redo levels 1-3. He's never going to go back into 0.8 Space to mine Veldspar. Once a player's got high skills and is out in 0.0 space, he probably only goes into high sec space to sell some things at Jita once in a while. EVE's also a little questionable since its "content" isn't the same as other MMORPG's. I like EVE a lot, but its art and quest content is all the same thing repeated over and over. The fun of EVE is almost entirely in its players.

[Edited by - makeshiftwings on June 8, 2008 7:00:29 PM]

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An applicable link posted on IGDA in reply to my post: http://www.zenofdesign.com/2007/03/14/mmo-roundtable-day-3-why-classes-levels-and-the-grind/

I use EVE in this post simply as an example of a compromise "that works." As I mention in my case study, I think EVE is far from being a perfect solution to all the problems that people complain about in MMORPGs.

As Argus argues, to cut out linear development completely would be to alienate a segment of the population. I think EVE is one form of compromise but there can also be others forms; is it possible to create a better design as opposed to a design that leans too much in either direction?

I think mentioning Guild Wars is important here because it has less grind. I don't argue here that the grind is completely bad, just that it is a common complaint. I used to think the grind was the devil, but have long since decided it has its advantages as well as disadvantages. Argus, I agree that many players enjoy easy-leveling and that increasing or decreasing the difficulty of this leveling process is a delicate balancing act. The easiest solution to the problem (as people seem to agree on so far), is to reduce the range of leveling, but this takes away the "low-intensity" appeal of leveling in an MMORPG.

Is it worth the trade off? Personally, I actually don't think so at this point... but are there still certain problems in MMORPGs associated with levels? Absolutely, there are. Do these problems come with benefits? Yes. Should we try and solve these problems while preserving the benefits? YES!

I think AngleWyrm brings up a good point regarding this, by basically saying that levels are an oversimplified measure of player power. Of course, as I argue in my original post, a lot of players love the system for specifically the reason that it is oversimplified. On the other hand, why does it have to be simplified to levels alone? Maybe one solution is to diversify this definition of "what a level is."

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Original post by makeshiftwings
In WoW, if you want to sell level 36 materials and equipment, you sell them to other level 36 players. You're not really "crippled", and it's not "impossible to participate"; the player is possibly just feeling bitter that their goods don't sell for as much money as higher level goods, or that they aren't as good in combat as someone higher level than you. But that's the whole point of levels.

Also, I don't think EVE's leveling system has much of anything to do with its economy. EVE's economy works for several key reasons:

1) Everything can be player-crafted.
2) Players die and lose everything somewhat often, so they need to keep buying new equipment.
3) Goods have to be physically transported throughout the galaxy rather than all being at a central auction house, which creates spatial supply and demand.

I really don't think the fact that you don't have a level has much to do with it. If they took WoW, made it much bigger and harder to teleport, made crafting equipment better than raiding equipment, and then made your equipment explode every time you die, the economy would be very similar, even though there would still be levels.


Although I agree that all these factors you listed apply to EVE's economy, I also think that, critically, EVE's commodities remain constantly relevant from the beginning of the game to the end. Ships, for instance, are influenced by skill points but only to a certain extent, and there is only one set of ships, not one set of ships for each level. It's true that there is a huge difference between tech 1 and tech 2 items, and that the continued usage of tech 1 items can largely be attributed to the fact of harsh death penalties. At the same time, note that there aren't 60 levels of tech. The stratification of power level in items (most items and ships, hardly all of them) is limited to a smaller range that is planned for the overall economy. So instead of having "Rupture Tech I" to "Rupture Tech XIV," there is only the basic ship and the specialized variants.

As you point out, my complaint is that in many MMORPGs, there is "Sword Variant Level 1" all the way up to "Sword Variant Level 80," and despite the variation in swords afford to players... I think this is excessive. Is this the whole point of levels? It is, and that's why my post criticizes levels!

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I also don't think EVE really solves the two "problems" above. A low skillpoint player can't kill a high skillpoint player in EVE, exactly like a low level player can't kill a high level one in WoW.


Low skill point players constantly outsmart higher skill-pointed players in EVE and outplay them in the game. Non-combat characters are also vulnerable even to combat characters with comparably lower skill-points. Significantly, team-based combat allows very low skill point characters to jump in to the game and make significant contributions to high-end player combat. Again, EVE is a compromised solution, and is far from completely non-linear. At this point I think its impossible to make an MMORPG that is not linear at least partially.

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A low skillpoint crafter in EVE is limited to mining low quality minerals and making low quality goods, and can't participate in Tech II or high level ship production until he gets more skillpoints.

There are ways to solve these problems; the simplest way is to just make a shallower progression curve. If level 70 WoW players were only marginally stronger than level 1 players, then it would be fine, even though there are still levels. EVE does have a shallower progression curve, so maybe that's what you're seeing. So I don't think power difference has anything to do with levels per se; you can have just as much power imbalance in a skill-based system as well if you have a steep power curve on your skills.


Strongly agree. However, I think a shallow progression curve is not as important as a DEEP progression curve that has diminishing returns (as is the case in EVE). As I argue in my original post, it is the constant act of incrementing stats additively by level over a range of over 50 levels that really creates the problems I'm talking about.

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This isn't necessarily true. People who like leveling often create many alts, and will progress through early content a few times. I know I have always have tons of alts in MMORPG's.


Again, strongly agree. As I state above, I'm actually on your side with this one... but I still think there is a possibility to improve the flaws here without sacking the entire system.

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Again, I don't think EVE works as a good example. A high skillpoint player is only going to do Level 4 missions; he's never going to redo levels 1-3. He's never going to go back into 0.8 Space to mine Veldspar. Once a player's got high skills and is out in 0.0 space, he probably only goes into high sec space to sell some things at Jita once in a while. EVE's also a little questionable since its "content" isn't the same as other MMORPG's. I like EVE a lot, but its art and quest content is all the same thing repeated over and over. The fun of EVE is almost entirely in its players.


I like EVE a lot too, and it's important to note that its art and quest content can be the same thing repeated over and over again because it doesn't have too many levels! Also, I have to say that there are a LOT of players who play the game in EMPIRE despite being 'old' in the game. The respective advantages/disadvantages of high sec, low sec, and no sec, I think, are another topic altogether though :)

So, to be more specific with what I've learned, maybe the problem is having too many levels and not having levels to begin with.

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How about replacing levels with age?

Your character's age progresses even when you're not logged in.

When you're in your 20-40-ies (say after 1 year since the character's creation in RL time), you're in your prime. After that, as you get older, you start to become more weak in some areas (e.g. physical) while still retaining some benefits (e.g. wisdom), but overall getting worse, until your character permanently dies of old age.

When logged in, you could still 'hunt mobs' in order to temporarily raise your skills and increase strength (i.e. like going to the gym in RL), and gain loot/materials for crafting/drops/money from hunting. You could spend your time crafting, trading or doing other merchant-like things. Or participating in PvP, wars, castle sieges, raiding, clan stuff, etc.

Maybe you could mate in order to create children who you could maybe play when your main character passes away (benefit being that you'd be able to pass on some of your skills/training/good genes to your offspring).

It could be pretty balanced in PvP in that even a 15 year old who trains hard and plays well (skilfully) can beat a 25 year old who rarely logs in, but is strong anyway due to beind older. But then even the hard-core kids with their uber characters will get older and weaker as they age.

:P

I'm kinda half-serious about that idea, in that I find it's pretty ironic and sad how much MMOGs pretty much try to imitate real-life.

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The problem with leveling progression is one that I have tackled in a different way. Each level requires twice as much experience as the previous, so at some point no matter how much you "grind" (within reason), your level is going to effectively top out, and you won't be *that* much higher in level than other players that haven't spent quite as much time as you. Also, the power increase is relatively linear, especially in hits and attack ability, so a 10th level character is not twice as powerful as a 5th level. So far, it seems to be working.

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Well, it's good to hear that you're getting some things off of your chest; however, from an industry standpoint, ranting won't get you anywhere (except out of a job). You would be better off implementing your ideas in your own game and sway your audience--maybe the industry, too. Actions speak louder than words, sir.

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Original post by LmT
Well, it's good to hear that you're getting some things off of your chest; however, from an industry standpoint, ranting won't get you anywhere (except out of a job). You would be better off implementing your ideas in your own game and sway your audience--maybe the industry, too. Actions speak louder than words, sir.

That advice doesn't readily apply to MMOs. It's something most people will only ever dream of creating, so discussing the ideas behind it is a valid activity. Telling someone to make one instead of talking about ideas is like telling some amateur filmmakers on a forum to stop discussing their visions and to make a real movie instead.

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