[MUD-Dev] Advancement considered harmful (long)

Brian Green brian at psychochild.org
Sat May 27 18:38:58 CEST 2000

I've been doing some heavy-duty thinking lately.  Luckily for the list,
I'm "between game jobs" currently, so I'm not bound by a draconian game
company NDA; I am free to share my ponderings with others in a forum
such as this.  I've been reading the boards over at xrgaming.net, so
this has influenced my thinking quite a bit.  I thought I'd share some
of my conclusions and see what the list thinks.

I'm most likely not going to say anything that you haven't heard stated
in other ways before.  I hope that by explaining the reasoning behind my
thoughts, we can come closer to truly understanding what we currently
feel on an intuitive level.

I also want to preface this by saying that I am fairly critical (and
complementary) of some of the current graphical MMORPGs in this post.  I
certainly don't mean any disrespect to the developers of these games, I
am hopefully providing soul-searching analysis to help us advance our
field.  While it's nice to be one of the first in a medium, we have to
realize that we have a long way to go before we can pat ourselves on the
back on a job well done because we've solved all the problems.

It seems that as we develop games, the social and interaction aspects
are becoming more and more important.  The text MUDs I used to play were
largely single player games with other people in them.  You could often
play solo, meeting up with someone to chat, or to swap items, etc. 
Later, I played some games that limited character abilities, encouraging
people to group together.  You had to rely on others because you just
couldn't "do it all".

In the graphical, commercial area, we've seen similar development. 
Using more recent examples, Meridian 59 was largely a single player game
where you could socialize with other people.  Working together was
simply not encouraged by the game mechanics.  UO was largely the same
way.  As someone pointed out, mining is usually something that you do
with other people, but in UO, working near someone else means you are in
a competition for resources.  With the recent changes to add a party
system, this could change a bit.  EQ took the baby steps that text MUDs
did, and encouraged (some would say required) groups of players.  AC
seems to be more agreeable to single player play styles, but codifies
social interaction with the highly successful allegiances.

I've also been pondering advancement.  This seems to be a really sticky
issue in a lot of games.  I've read several treatises on EQ about how
advancing in levels actually means that you become relatively less
powerful to your surroundings.  Yet, people still advance like mad,
trying to gain higher and higher levels.  Why is this?  Is going on a
dragon raid that much more fun than wandering through an area killing
orcs?  If so, why is it more fun?  From what I've seen about dragon
raids on EQ, it seems that the risk is quite high, and while the rewards
are high, you have a reasonable chance of walking away with no benefit
for your efforts.

As a comparison, I recently finished re-playing Ultima 4.  (I tend to
buy a lot of games, like the Ultima Collection, then let them gather
dust as I dive into other projects.)  In this classic game, advancement
comes in two ways, level (which really just increases HPs), and stats
(which really requires HPs, because the magic orbs you gain stats from
do damage to you).  In reality, though, increasing levels didn't do much
for me in terms of raw power.  I was able to fight most of the standard
enemies and win even at lower levels.  Even in the dungeons, where you
meet harder enemies, you aren't really overwhelmed.  What advancement
did allow me to do was survive longer between "healing/resting"
sessions.  With higher stats, I could finish battles faster (I hit more
often, for more damage, and could cast more spells), and I could last
longer (the small amounts of damage individual groups of enemies did to
me didn't bring me down quite as fast).  This "advancment" allowed me to
finish the "final" dungeon, which is basically one long endurance test.

The RPGPlanet article Raph posted really got me thinking about this. 
Advancement in single player RPGs is a tool for pacing.  In the Might
and Magic games, if I started at 70th level with stats over 200, I could
just rush to the main boss's lair and eat him alive.  Instead, I start
at 1st level, with stats under 20, and I have to work my way up.  As
soon as I get to the next level of competence, I'm ready to head to the
next area, where monsters are about the same relative level of
difficulty.  It also makes a fun diversion while I'm collecting the
pieces I need to move the story forward or to learn about the wonderful
backstory the designer has provided.

So, what the hell does this have to do with modern MMORPGs (or whatever
acronym you wish to use)?  Well, I think that our games should do more
to encourage socialization and interaction.  This doesn't just mean
forcing people to group together or making everyone able to kill
everyone else and warning the players, "Watch out, everyone's going to
try to kill you."  It means actively constructing our games to encourage
people to make friends, make (in-game!) enemies, and have fun while
playing.  This is, after all, the whole point of making the games

I can imagine that there will be a cry from all the people that like to
play "solo".  This is probably going to be a fairly unpopular opinion,
but I'm actually coming to the point where I think it's a waste of our
time to try to accommodate such players.  Again, what's the point of a
playing a "massively multiplayer" game if you don't want to interact
with the masses of other players out there?  There are plenty of single
player games that can provide all the solo experiences you can handle. 
You also don't have to worry about stuff like the grief player coming
along to ruin your fun (unless it's your little brother/sister whining
for you to get off the computer. ;)

I think such demands as adding solo play options in our games is really
distracting us from accomplishing our main task, which is to create
compelling games for groups of people to play.  Now, I'm not saying that
our designs need to focus on how to completely eliminate solo play, but
I don't think we should make concessions in the game in order to
accommodate the "lone wolf" player.  I think that if a player likes the
game and wants to play solo, there is enough creativity in the players
that they can figure out a way to do so.  They figure ways around most
of the other things in our designs that we've neglected. :)

What about advancement?  Well, I'm going to make another radical
statement: I think that classical advancement in online RPGs has been
more of a hindrance than a help in encouraging player socialization and
interaction.  Let that sink in, and think about it.  "Pacing" is a much
less useful idea for us in MMORPGs; it should be that player
socialization and interactions that determine the pacing, not game

"What?!?" I hear people scream.  "Have you lost it?  We have a long and
glorious tradition of such advancement in online games!  People have
socialized and interacted just fine in the past with such advancement
mechanisms in place!"  I know people are yelling this, because this is
what I would have been yelling a year or two ago.  Let me explain,
giving some information to back this up.

So, like most good MUD discussions, let's start with Dr. Richard
Bartle's four player types.  The biggest obstacle to removing
advancement is that this is what Achievers thrive on.  According to
Bartle's observations, Achievers make up the largest group of players on
a typical game.  Heck, the biggest graphical MMORPG, EverQuest, caters
almost exclusively to such players and has been rewarded with a large

But, let's look at this under the light of socialization and
interaction.  Advancement which depends on large disparities of power
between high and low levels undoubtedly make it hard to socialize.  If
I'm 2nd level, and my friend is 52nd level (out of 60 levels), we are
probably not going to have much in common.  While I'm wandering around
killing orcs, he's planning a dragon raid, or wandering the appropriate
dungeon looking for the newest, coolest item.  I'd find his activities
much too dangerous and instantly fatal (and thus, not fun), he'd find my
activities to not help his advancement at all (and thus, not fun).  If
he were to start a new character, he'd leave a hole in the social and
advancement fabric where his previous character existed.  Even if he
wanted to help me gain levels faster so that we could play together,
there are usually rules against such activities (most administrators
call it "cheating", or more recently, "twinking").  Therefore, in such a
situation, a high level and a low level player are, in general, not
going to form a solid in-game social relationship between them without
outside influence or conditions.  

Basically, it's possible to get the "alone in a crowded room" feeling;
when I log onto a server and see 2000+ other people, how many of them
can I really socialize and interact with?  How many of them are going to
have a direct impact on my game experience?

As for interaction, this is also negatively impacted by disparity in
power between extreme levels.  The most popular form of interaction that
is not purely social is Player vs. Player (PvP) fighting.  It seems like
people are just itching for an excuse to fight one another.  Yet, such
fighting quickly becomes unfair in the system we've been discussing. 
Using the 2nd and 52nd level players above, there is NO contest as to
who is going to win.  If there is a contest, then the levels are a
meaningless number and it is arguable that you have eliminated a large
amount of "advancement" anyway.  So, meaningful PvP interaction between
these players is not only unrealistic, but unproductive.  Disputes, even
meaningful ones in terms of game story, aren't settled by combat, but by
merely comparing numbers without the aid of game mechanics.

Even advancement itself is harmed in the long run.  Because of the
nature of numbers based game systems, advancement must eventually be
limited; if it is not, then you run the risk of exaggerating the problem
of disparity of power between extreme levels.  Even with asymptotic
advancement, eventually the costs of advancement outweigh the benefits
for most players.  This means that if advancement is a goal in games,
the end will eventually be reachable by the players.  Eventually the
advancement-focused player is going to be done advancing, and is going
to become bored.  Since the game has been focused on advancement all
this time, they will want more advancement.  Barring that, they are
going to use their advancement for their own amusement, generally
becoming the holy terror that is the high level, bored PKer.

So, going back to Bartle's groups, we've managed to alienate Socializers
(who enjoy social interaction in terms of the game), the Killers that
benefit our game (who enjoy interaction through meaningful PvP), and
eventually Achievers (who will leave when the advancement ends).  All we
have left, after everything is said and done, is a game with a few pure
Explorers wandering around wondering where everyone else is; probably
not even them if they've managed to dissect your game to their

So, what's the solution?  Eliminating advancement is a sure way to
alienate Achievers, our largest segment of players.  Well, I'm going to
avoid being one of those annoying people that lecture on a problem at
great length, then don't give at least a reasonable start to a solution.

As EQ has shown us, even a heavily achievement-focused game can
encourage interaction by creating game mechanics that require it. 
Meridian 59 taught us (well, me, anyway) that even the most "single
player" game mechanics with the crudest player grouping ("guild")
mechanisms can produce some wonderful socialization and interaction. 
"Guild wars" were a common and interesting part of the game.

How can we apply these lessons?  First, we know that players can have
fun socializing and interacting, even if we don't provide the best
tools.  To any veteran, this comes as no surprise.  But, what is
surprising is that although advancement can hinder socialization and
interaction, encouraging them does not have to come at the exclusion of
achievement.  I think that EQ would be a much poorer overall game if it
did not have the mechanics to encourage grouping; it is this element
that, in spite of the achievement focus, allows the game to have what
socialization and interaction that it does.

So, what do we need to do?  Obviously, if you accept my conclusions, we
must eliminate disparate power differences between high and low "level"
characters.  When one character completely outclasses another,
socialization and interaction are hurt.  It follows that we should get
rid of "level" as a pure indication of a character's relative power. 
Or, maybe not.

To borrow a thought from Jonathan Baron's absolutely excellent talk,
"Glory and Shame", the problem comes when the individual achievement is
more important than community development.  We ideally want players to
contribute to the community and the game instead of being
single-mindedly focused on personal advancement.

This, more than anything else, causes many of the problems in our
games.  Some people PK others because they want to high concentration of
treasure found on the victim.  People steal kills or violate etiquette
because they want the possibility of advancement for themselves. 
Allowing another person to gain something I could use usually does not
help me advance.

So, how do we encourage a focus on community development in a medium
filled with people mainly interested in personal advancement?  Easy, we
trick them.  Asheron's Call has provided a wonderful example with their
allegiance system.  Think about it, in order for a patron to benefit,
the vassal has to advance.  In order to benefit more, the patron can
help several vassals advance.  In essence, the patron benefits by
helping others advance.

Now, imagine that this is applied to other areas, like a party system
that shares experience (xp).  I don't get xp from doing things myself
(which in most games my companions get a portion of), but rather, I get
xp for what they do.  If I were a fighter, I wouldn't get xp for killing
stuff, but I might get xp from the Cleric who heals me, or from the Mage
able to cast attack spells because I'm protecting him, etc.  Likewise,
these other characters would gain xp when I am able to kill monsters; of
course, their contributions of healing and attack spells helped me kill
the beast that earned the xp.

I'm sure people will call foul, saying that this system is exploitable;
I ask them to consider two things.  If we are going to remove the
disparity of power between extreme levels, then advancing levels is a
more harmless activity.  Exploiting this system merely to gain levels
doesn't affect the game as a whole.  Plus, consider that this system is
essentially the same as what we currently employ in most of our games,
only that xp gained benefits others rather than ourselves; the benefit
is, of course, that we have encouraged cooperation.

Now, how do you tie this back into de-emphasizing power disparity?  A
proposed system:

Use the Asheron's Call allegiance system as a model.  A player can
gather subordinates, which provide "xp" for the patron through their
actions.  Now, for a few variations.  The "higher" a player is in the
hierarchy, the higher his maximum "level".  So, a grunt would max out
after gaining level 2, his superior would max out at level 3, HIS
superior could reach level 4, etc.  Also, apply the "party xp" idea
outlined above for all the subordinates that work together under a
single patron.  So, a group of grunts working together would gain xp
from each other's actions.  Helping the group means advancing yourself. 
If the leaders of two groups of grunts work together, they can gain xp
from each other's actions, IE, leading their groups.

Now, level would not be the huge determiner it is in current games.  If
anything, level would be more of a "rank" indicator.  A level 6 person
leads more people than a level 3 person, but is not necessarily immune
to that level 3 through sheer game mechanics.  (Of course, social ties
might prove otherwise.)  Also, the level 3 player is not useless to the
level 6 player; she is a potentially valuable ally or social contact
because of her connections.

So, how do you keep people from getting bored in such a system? 
Obviously, players are going to learn quickly that higher level does not
directly make you a more powerful person.  This is where Raph Koster's
concept of "elder games" steps in.  In the ideal design, by the time the
player gets tired of trying to advance himself within the hierarchy, she
will be more interested in social games than advancement games.... 
Politcal maneuvering to benefit an ally or harm an enemy might be more
important than organizing the underlings to raise xp.

Well, this has been a long post.  I'll close my thoughts here and open
it up to discussion.  I hope to see some good critical analysis of my
observations and conclusions.  I won't claim this is any sort of silver
bullet, but I am fairly certain of my observations and conclusions.  The
market is waiting for the next meaningful leap in games, and I think
we're the minds to make it happen.

"And I now wait / to shake the hand of fate...."  -"Defender", Manowar
     Brian Green, brian at psychochild.org  aka  Psychochild
       |\      _,,,---,,_      *=* Morpheus, my kitten, says "Hi!" *=*
 ZZzz  /,`.-'`'    -.  ;-;;,_  
      |,4-  ) )-,_..;\ (  `'-'  "Ritalin Cures Next Picasso" 
     '---''(_/--'  `-'\_)               -The_Onion_, August 4th, 1999

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