Earning Your Wings

MMORPGs are so full of tropes and standard formats, and have had them for so long, that we don’t even notice them to challenge why they’re in the game and if they’re needed.  Or, in many overdue cases, why they haven’t been changed to something more interesting, immersive and fun.

One of the things that kind of bugs me is how just about every MMO has you starting out with a character who has (a) absolutely no background or prior history in the world and (b) is eerily proficient with a specialized class for no good reason.  When you think about it, how we just “pop” into being as a young adult professional soldier of some kind, it’s not too far to jump to a cloning theory.  We might as well come from test tubes, for all the backstory and history the game provides for our characters.

Sure, some upcoming titles are — happily — trying to rectify this.  Guild Wars 2 will let you choose a background scenario for your character, which should impact your journeys somewhat, and The Old Republic’s initial focus is to put you into a very specific story for your class, to give you a place in the world before setting you loose.

But maybe it’s time we went reached back to single-player RPGs (like Oblivion and Fallout 3) to where you didn’t start as a certified rogue or mage, but you had to earn your class by playing through the initial game.  I think this has a lot of potential in the MMO world, since devs are always looking to tack on more content anyway.  Let’s start you out as a blank slate with only a basic attack and no other skills, and have you explore the world to find people to set you on the path to become a Somebody.  Make trainers actually trainers and not just glorified vendors — if I find a magic trainer, don’t let me pop in a few coins and get a skill out the slot, but have them test me, challenge me, and send me on a series of quests to gradually learn the arts of mysticism.

This is more a pie-in-the-sky idea than any practical suggestion, it’s just that I’m getting a little tired of characters being specially-equipped combat machines that just popped into the world that way without any great explanation.  If more MMOs gave us more than a token of motivation — why am I doing this?  how did I get here?  what are my character’s goals? — then it might go a long way to strengthening an emotional connection between us and our avatars.  Playing through the journey to develop our skills and gradually become a class (or a custom-built character) is a terrific way to do that.

And that’s not to say that it hasn’t been done.  People were tripping over their feet to praise how Blizzard handled the Death Knight intro quests, which is sort of this idea.  Even though you were already that class, you were given a proper introduction and reason why you were there, you had to gain your skills and talents by plowing through the story, and you finally emerged as a fleshed-out character, instead of a template.

In a lot of fantasy books, people who are on a quest to become great magicians or whatnot don’t just become them overnight.  They practice, they have to seek out new knowledge and skills, they have to find specialized teachers in the world, and they have to pay the price in pain and trial for what they gain.  I’d love to see a game where wizards would have to gain spell fragments here and there, and combine them — trial and error, perhaps — to form new spells.  The best wizards would be the ones who had scavenged the world, collected the most and used their brain to construct the most effective spells.

I dunno — just rambling on a Tuesday morning here.

13 thoughts on “Earning Your Wings

  1. Buhallin May 11, 2010 / 9:57 am

    It’s probably just my cynical view of MMO players, but I think this would be a huge dud.

    Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s an awesome idea – but the MMO genre exists where most players look at levels 1 through (max-1) as a waste of time to be rushed through as fast as they can to get to the “real” game. Adding levels -10 through 0 on to the beginning of that, making people run around to get to what they’re used to having as a starting characters… I don’t think that would be a very popular feature.

    Maybe as a skippable alternative, with templates that can drop you out the other side. But I doubt it would see enough use to make it worth the coding effort.

  2. Slymie May 11, 2010 / 9:58 am

    EQ2 tried a concept similar to that when it first released. While I kind of liked it, I see why they changed it to the way it is now.

    It seems like most MMO’s are trying to get the player into their class, into the game, and heading straight towards end-game as quickly as possible. Unfortunately End-Game is where the majority of MMO’s are being designed to be played. I know that sounds like a silly statement, but to me they seem to be designing for players to get through their beginning and mid level content and then spend the rest of their time at the end. Instead of the beginning and middle actually BEING the game.

    Old School U.O. is really the only game I can think of where the “leveling” was the character introduction and the end-game.

  3. Tipa May 11, 2010 / 9:59 am

    Didn’t really work out for EQ2, which did this exact thing. Before it even got out of beta they decided to require choosing an archetype at creation, and eventually decided people just wanted to play their class, dammit, logic be tossed.

  4. Brad May 11, 2010 / 10:02 am

    Honestly, the idea sounds great. It’s why I greatly enjoyed Fallen Earth, Darkfall, and a couple others I’ve played. They are not exactly as you describe, but closer than say WoW or WAR. Unfortunately I don’t think it works for most people. They need the structure, they need to given a few small choices and then told “this is how you do it”.

    During my time in Fallen Earth, I tried constantly to get people to play. The number one complaint I heard from them was along the lines of not knowing what to do with their skills, not knowing how to develop their characters. Several of them flat out told me they needed somebody to tell them what to do, and they could never decide for themselves. Of the few that progressed past the first few levels and tried to develop their characters, more than half just started to throw points every which way, not understanding that they could never be a master of everything that was presented to them. Not being able to understand that if they took the jack of all trades route, they could master none. This group disappeared a short while after once they realized that they could not master everything. Only a very small amount, maybe 1/10 or 2/10 would actually understand the idea of building a character, specializing, and progressing. All the others needed to be mounted with a harness, and led through a themepark with a carrot on a stick dangled in front of them to guide them, and no ability to turn.

    So yeah, I’d love to see more in the way of character development you actually do, but when it happens I do not think it will ever appeal to that many people.

  5. aliferooted May 11, 2010 / 10:02 am

    I agree that MMO’s are light when it comes to backstory. Questions like, “Why am I here, and where did I come from” or “Why does my Bright Wizard carry a staff of fire?” are left largely blank. Sadly, many who play these games forget that they are MMO R P G ‘s and never give it any thought at all. They play “arcade style” and just want to go to the grind treadmill of levelling and rarely stop to enjoy the ride, or wonder about their background.

    For those of us who do care about such things, this is a great opportunity to do a bit of creative writing and build the background for yourself. Maybe even include why you named your character the way you did. …Assuming your character name isn’t PWNZU or something. 🙂

  6. Tarisai May 11, 2010 / 10:47 am

    Live in the now, man. How does this help me get epic loot?

    I don’t want to have to sit through un-skippable cut scenes or read a couple of paragraphs en route to level cap. Developers need to spend more time on new raids cause the other day I capped a toon after 32 hours game play following this power guide on curse and now I’m bored of the raids already.

    Fluffing a game with story, consequence, character development, purpose, reasoning and all that new age sissy liberal crap gets in the way of what I really want for all my time playing a video game: a set of kick-ass pouldrens.

    They better start making new armour sets everyday ’cause I’m getting bored and I’ll take my sub elsewhere.

    AND WHY WOULD I WANT TO LOOT SPELLS!? OMG, JUST MAKE THE DROPS PURPLES! FFS!!!

    :D:D:D

  7. Thiago Zanatta May 11, 2010 / 10:51 am

    The Death Knight starting zone is very good mostly because of the chances in the area while you are questing. all other classes just feels like you are a generic RTS unit that spawned from the barracks and has to kill rats and spiders while the blacksmith is upgrading your gear.

  8. sgamer May 11, 2010 / 10:52 am

    This totally makes sense. Guild Wars kinda had this with the Elite spells, because you had to take the sigil and capture the spell from a boss that used it, which was a really neat concept and fun in execution.

  9. j1000 May 11, 2010 / 11:04 am

    Origin stories and training experiences are nice, but it’s hard to see how they improve the MMO part of these MMORPGs.

    My general opinion is that if it’s not something you can do with friends, we shouldn’t be adding it to MMOs. There’s enough stuff that requires or encourages you to play alone already.

    Plenty of games have tried training quests. The WoW rogue poison quest comes to mind, which used to need to be completed to unlock the poison skill.

    Quess like this were mostly stripped out of WoW because they were bottlenecks, which amplified every minor flaw of the quest because they were flaws you HAD to sit through.

    If your bottleneck quest requires a group, then you HAVE to sit around until you can get a group for the bottleneck. I mean, you could putz around leveling while waiting for a group, but if your best options are wait and do nothing or wait and level without an important and cool ability, then something’s wrong with your game.

    Plus, since it’s a bottleneck, your higher-level friends are themselves tired of helping people through the same darn bottleneck quest over and over again.

    If the bottleneck quest is solo, then the cool, interesting flavorful part of your game is a single player experience. Not worth $15/month.

    Of course, the solution is to make training quests without bottlenecks, where you have multiple ways to earn your new skill, and you can probably find a group for one of them, or pick the solo option if you just can’t.

    That’s a lot of work to cover a minor flaw in the narrative presented to you by the game. If I start wondering about where my character came from, and what job these trainers are really doing for him, I just make up an answer.

    Ultimately, there are a lot of problems in every game that can’t be imagined away. I think we should be grateful for the ones that can be.

  10. Bob T May 11, 2010 / 11:05 am

    One word: Darklands. Single player CRPG from the pre-MMO DOS era, published by Microprose in 1992, with the most brilliant and innovative character creation system ever.

    When you start you select your background (rural or urban, poor, merchant class or wealthy, etc), distribute some bonus points into stats, and apprentice into fields which were limited based on your station and situation. Each year you make a further selection from available choices. Each selection “ages” your character and you can leave character creation and set out whenever you want, so you have to balance experience with loss of some starting stats. A young rural character might be very strong and sturdy, a few years in the military to learn weapons and get a shiny sword and chain shirt and he’s ready to go. Rough and tumble, but not very polished. A rich landowner’s son might become a knight, less strength and stamina but smarter with more opportunities to advance and better gear. Casters (alchemists in this game) typically had to study much longer and usually were powerful but older and frail. Clerics studied in the church.

    By the time you finished character creation you knew your character’s backstory and knew *why* they were good at the things they were good at. Freakin’ genius!

    I’d love, love, love to see some version of this used in an MMO.

  11. Voph May 11, 2010 / 8:45 pm

    I remember Aion definitely gave your character a back story. I don’t remember tons about the game, but the whole rediscovering your past was always interesting. Other mmo’s I’ve played, not so much.

  12. We Fly Spitfires May 12, 2010 / 4:11 am

    Tipa makes a very good point and I agree completely. I hated the whole “archetype” system which forces you to make a generic “Warrior” and then specialise every few levels.

    But I don’t think that’s what you’re really getting at here, Syp… I think you’re talking more about either giving characters a background or letting your start from scratch. I loved the way you were “born” in Fallout 3 and developed your character from there. That was true roleplay! It also worked because it didn’t take so long and end up boring the player 😉

    In MMOs I quite like the idea of a short intro, maybe an hour or two long, that lets define your characters background and abilities through your actions. Tortage in AoC worked pretty well but it was too long and frustrated players who want to roll alts.

  13. Tesh May 12, 2010 / 9:21 am

    I’d love this sort of thing… but I think it should be optional. It’s certainly not going to make everyone happy, but I do believe there’s an audience for it. The question them becomes: Is that audience big enough to make it worth the dev time?

    …I’m not sure on that one.

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