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Are Level Caps Killing Your Game?

Level Caps Killing Your Game? – Written by Sean “Blazek” Emes, Edited by Jordan “Doomhammer” Kahn

The Massively Multiplayer Online (MMO) industry has been in a pretty sad state over the last seven years. Many games have been released only to disappoint hundreds of thousands of fans who proceed to discard the game within months, causing most games to fail or switch to a free-to-play model to stay alive. So what’s the problem with most of these games? They try to emulate that game we love to hate: World of Warcraft (WoW). The ironic thing is that WoW has been around for eight years and most of its fame and popularity was generated from the release and its first expansion. Now, even WoW has changed and the model has caused players to become increasingly disappointed since the expansion of Wrath of the Lich King.

Graphics and Gore Will only get you so far

So what’s the problem?

The main issue with MMO’s is actually the same issue with most console / single player games: what do I do when I beat it? Now that sounds funny to say about a game that has a persistent online world, but it is very true for most MMO games today. From Rift to Star Wars to Warcraft to Warhammer, players hit a wall when they finish leveling and accomplish all the end-game content, effectively “beating” the game. At this point players are forced to do the same thing week after week until a new dungeon comes out, or get tired of it and cancel their subscription. Even worse, most of these games kill off prior end game content, meaning new players will never experience a large portion of the game, and loyal players go through many hours of work just to have gear replaced, in some cases much quicker than before.

Back to Basics:

The reason we get excited about some new MMO is because it does something different that we like. We continue to play through the leveling process as we have a goal, getting to the level cap, and it takes effort to get there. Most games are able to find ways to make leveling both entertaining and difficult and thus it feels rewarding to play through the game and have that maxed level character as a symbol of our accomplishment. However when we no longer have a goal and are just repeating the same predictable thing every week, we lose interest.

The original idea of MMO games was to have a persistent online universe that always had something to do, or some way to improve ourselves or our friends. Developers need to get back to this basic idea and give players a way to constantly stay engaged and a reason to continue to play.

Okay, true but what’s the alternative?

Most MMO games create or expand upon fairly unique ideas that make their game different and at least enjoyable the first time through. This is where all the hype is generated and players feel hopeful about their new game. Unfortunately, this fun factor dies before or at the level cap when the content is finished by excited gamers, leaving not enough interesting content to do. There are, however, at least two very clear solutions developers can take to keep players interested and thus retain subscriptions.

Love it or not, FFXI was able to keep a very loyal fanbase for years

The first method is pretty simple: Stop killing your content!

Final Fantasy 11 and Dark Age of Camelot actually did an amazing job at this; the level cap in both games was not raised over the life of these games (only recently with FF11), however developers found ways to either reinvigorate older content or simply diversify items so much that all prior endgame areas were worth doing. Final Fantasy did this best as every expansion provided some very valuable items that took weeks, sometimes months, to acquire. Many of these items provided a unique bonus that could only be attained from limited rare items, giving new players a vast amount of content and veterans a feeling of accomplishment without actually losing value of items attained.

The second method, a never ending war with spoils towards the winning realm.

Now, this sounds much more on the side of PvP oriented games, however adaptations have been attempted already, with mixed success. Two examples were the NPC factions in Aion and Tabula Rasa. While it is true these two games did poorly, it was not strictly because of their NPC factions or the consistent war. Mostly, developers fail to realize what this system actually requires and we end up with many games that claim to have expansive PvP but are nothing more than battlegrounds and meaningless open world combat. Conversely, there are a handful of games that have been “successful” with this model. For example it’s the single reason Dark Age of Camelot was able to celebrate their 10 year anniversary last year, and most of their audience decline is due to the age of the game with an outdated engine or game mechanics, and a much younger audience entering the world of MMO games.

Because of the Realm War, DAoC kept my Subscription for 5 Years!

Food for Thought:

Most, if not all, MMO games released in the past seven years have attempted to follow a flawed example, one that wasn’t even what led to World of Warcraft‘s success. Combined with launch issues and the incredible amount of options on the market, many players end up going back to what they knew or jumping on each new thing right as it releases. Developers need to break this habit, create some innovation and consider what will actually keep players for the long run. Two simple ways to do this are to give so much content throughout the life of the game that players always have something to do to feel rewarded, or to create a world where there is no ultimate ending. While there’s always the risk that players will feel frustrated and overwhelmed at always having more stuff to have to do, giving them that opportunity will continue to bring players back again and again. Just don’t let the game engine get out of date.

Article written for Geek to Me and reproduced with permission of the author and vVv Gaming.

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