What to do about character growth?

harvest101I’m trying my darndest to stick to just three MMOs at a time — I think that’s a good balance for me with my time restrictions, and it allows me to focus on projects without getting too distracted or underwhelmed with leveling.

So right now I’m in the middle of a summer frenzy of baby alts in all three titles: a new Minstrel (yes, another one) in LOTRO, a Mage for my return to RIFT, and my QL3-ish Dragon in The Secret World.  I feel like I’m indulging in guilty pleasures by having so many lowbie characters right now, because I know that I’m partially chasing that new-experience smell.  You know the one: Where every game session is a giddy reveal of level-ups, new skills, gear swaps, and noticeable improvement.  Insert your own junkie metaphor and away we go!

I love a nice pace of character growth to my games.  Yet MMOs have often felt unbalanced in this regard, tipped toward having too much growth and change in the early game and far too little and too infrequent advancement in the late game.  Once my character gets to mid-to-late game, I’ve probably developed a build that works for me and won’t really change.  New skills aren’t really game-changers for the most part, and once you’ve seen the top of a talent tree, you can’t reach any higher — just wider.

The question I’m pondering today is what to do about character growth.  How do you make a player feel as though his or her character was still achieving goals and developing in a significant way even after 150 or 200 hours or gameplay?  Is it possible?

Some ways that MMOs have dealt with this issue include:

  • Creating an absurd number of levels (Anarchy Online) or an absurd number of skills/skill levels (Asheron’s Call, EVE Online)
  • Encouraging players to branch out into achievement-related activities
  • Developing a second character advancement system (AAs from EQ2 or war-steeds/LIs from LOTRO) to parallel the main one
  • Encouraging the chase of gear treadmills via dungeons and raids
  • PvP levels and ranks (WAR)
  • Holding back new advancement systems until players hit a threshold (planar attunement at level 50 for RIFT)
  • Permadeath
  • Crafting and hobby systems
  • Encouraging players to start up alts via reincarnation systems (DDO)
  • Endless skill point acquisition (TSW, GW2)

Am I forgetting some?  I probably am.  It’s good to know that devs are thinking about this and clearly making an effort to provide more of the sweet dings that high-level players crave, but I’m not sure if we’ve hit on a universal solution as of yet.  Thoughts?

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6 thoughts on “What to do about character growth?

  1. There will always be a player who hits the brick wall of advancement; as for ‘endless’ levels, that doesn’t really work if there’s no meaning to leveling. I do like hero class systems and MMOs that generally let you learn all classes on one character. I guess it’s alting in a sense, but FFXI had an interesting approach to jobs and job-combos, so there was a lot to do and achieve long after you hit max level the first time.
    I’d also like to see more ‘endgame progression’ in terms of social achievements (not literal achievements, mind..) – building towns and cities, trade alliances, and yes more significance to crafting, housing etc. maybe the answer isn’t so much to add more progression content like with linear raiding, but adding a much wider spectrum of gameplay options. the more you can do in an MMO (sandbox), the longer it takes until you’re out of things to do. and let’s forget about these levels already – they’re so counter-productive to the whole idea. :)

  2. Like the whole job mixing thing Syl mentioned above, FFXI did one other thing that I really enjoyed and have never seen since. Situational gear.

    Because the game had equipment swapping macros (and because they never almost never fully invalidated gear by putting bigger and bigger numbers on new stuff unlike other games) there was no such thing as a truly all around ‘best-in-slot’ piece and acquiring all of the really good equipment at any given level required a fairly significant investment. Hell, at max level my black mage had 8 staves, 4 sets of gear (full magic damage, magic damage/accuracy, magic accuracy/spell cd reduction, and MP recovery), and a few misc pieces that I used even more situationally.

    It made inventory management a real pain in the ass, but I derived quite a lot of enjoyment from being able to choose how complex I wanted to make the game. You could play the game with a lot less than I did, or with a lot more. Beyond a certain level all you were really getting was pride and the ability to take on content faster or with fewer people than other groups.

  3. I think Guild Wars 1 had one of the best – endless skill points but also an incredible variety of skills that you had to travel out into the world to buy or ‘capture’. It gave you a reason to keep exploring and a mechanic to make choosing what to learn in what order a meaning. Guild Wars 2 has the endless skill points thing but you get most of the good ones for your profession/build by the level cap so it doesn’t have anywhere near the same draw (IMHO).

    I also think EQ2′s AA system is pretty awesome, not only because it offers such depth of customisation (melee cleric FTW!) but also because the AA slider has the added benefit of giving experience gain rate control to the player (at least to subscribers anyway).

  4. At the risk of once again showing myself to be a complete TSW fanboy, I think the ability wheel is the best option I’ve seen so far. It’s got the feeling of constant progression you get from a gear treadmill, but without the demoralizing knowledge that the gear you worked so hard on will be useless again in six months.

  5. Seconding Tyler, I also think TSW’s missions echo the situational gear Attic Lion mentions that FFXI had. I have yet to find or hear of a gear-load out that fits every situation, and I am constantly tweaking my current abilities to see what new things might better balance my survivability, DPS, and healing.

    I think Syl is on to something with the non-raid/dungeon focused “end-game” stuff, which nut TSW has quite frankly not cracked at all.

  6. I’m still waiting for an MMO where there is no “character growth.” Seriously. Let the growth come through the storyline and through decisions and interactions with NPC’s, rather than through a skill/gear rat race. People enjoy PnP with maxed out characters (DnD), PvP with maxed out characters (LotRO), and even fantasy novels with maxed out characters (Erickson, Haydon) – so why not an MMO with elite/epic characters right off the bat?

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