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Raising the level cap

AuthorMessage
Squire
Dec 02, 2008
543
It seems to be assumed by some players that, when the next world is released, the level cap will be raised. That's what most games do.

And so I present the alternative: when the next world is released, don't raise the level cap. No, seriously. You can stop laughing.

A lot of MMORPGs are based around In Game Rewards (with the caps intended to be mildly derogatory). The basic premise is to say, here's an activity that is kind of stupid and boring, and you probably won't want to do it. If you do do it, we'll give you an In Game Reward of experience, gold, items, or whatever, so you really should do it, even though it's stupid and boring.

This attracts players who don't mind if a game is dreadfully boring, just so long as it constantly gives them In Game Rewards for doing things in the game. I think it's silly to care so much about getting something that doesn't exist outside of a game that they don't like, but apparently a lot of such people exist.

The easiest way to pick out such players is that they identify themselves when they ask if one quest or another is "worth it". To this, perhaps the sanest answer is, "worth what"? Is it worth half a sack of rice and two Argentine pesos? It is sometimes enough to make one want to grab the poser of the question firmly by the shoulders, shake him vigorously, and ask, what is wrong with you? Why are you playing this game if you don't like the combat or doing quests?

The point of this is that games predicated on attracting that sort of players have to constantly make it so they can offer new and better In Game Rewards. One of the easiest such rewards to offer is experience points. Go kill a thousand furbolgs and I'll give you a bunch of experience points, and then you'll be higher level. People who crave In Game Rewards love being higher level. As such, games built around offering an endless stream of In Game Rewards have to either set the level cap so high that barely anyone will ever reach it, or else increase the level cap from time to time.

But not all games are like that. Adding some stupid things to grind levels in makes perfect sense in an awful grinder like Runescape. It doesn't make sense in a game based around not having any grinding, such as Super Mario World. Fans of the latter game would have complained vociferously if they often had to stop for an hour to run back and forth stomping wigglers in a highly repetitive manner before they could move on to the next level.

More to the point, Wizard101 is not like that. People who mainly want In Game Rewards would have long since quit upon discovering the light dependence on level and gear. (You mean that three level 10s would have a good shot at beating one level 50 in a 3 on 1? The horror!)

A while ago, one of the bigwigs at KingsIsle commented that he was surprised at how many hardcore gamers the game had attracted, perhaps mainly meaning people who had played quite a few games, and were neither children nor playing the game with their children. There are several reasons for this.

First, not all gamers are teenage boys with overactive hormones. (I don't think I can be much more explicit than that on a kid-friendly forum, but people who have played a lot of games know exactly what I'm talking about.) Likewise, not all gamers are foulmouthed or crave graphic violence. Removing the offensive content that would make parents appalled at the thought of letting their child play a game makes it kid-friendly, but not adult-hostile--or at least not intrinsically loathsome to adults who aren't mainly looking for prurient appeals.

The reason why some kid-friendly games are of interest to no one but kids is that they don't stop at taking out offensive content, but go on to oversimplify things and remove any depth from the game. For example, one of the contemporary competitors of this game in the "kids' MMO" market is Fusion Fall. Combat there literally consists of holding down a button until either you die or the mob dies. That's not interesting gameplay; that's insipid and pathetic--and I'd have recognized it as such when I was in the target age range, too. If you try to make a "kids' game" and start by assuming that kids are idiots, your game isn't going to be very good.

Wizard101 conspicuously does not do this, of course. There's a good bit of depth in the combat system, to the degree that trying to compute the optimal deck for some particular non-trivial situation is a pretty hopeless endeavor. Trying to solo Spike the Crusher or Meowiarty in a single battle when you first meet them is more of a challenge than a lot of MMORPGs have anywhere in their entire game.

Second, and perhaps more relevant, a lot of gamers are not merely looking for In Game Rewards. Rather, the basic philosophy is that gameplay should be interesting for its own sake. If you wouldn't do some quest except for the reward it offers, then you don't like it, and shouldn't do it even with the reward. If skipping those rewards will make a game unplayable, then you don't like the game and should quit and find some other game to play instead.

This is the sort of veteran gamers that Wizard101 has picked up, and not those looking to do something stupid for the sake of grinding levels. If the basic game design will chase away those who really just want epic loot, then surely those who remain are not so interested in grinding out levels.

As such, it isn't necessary to have an endless stream of In Game Rewards in order to keep your existing playerbase. More to the point, it isn't necessary to have the lure of gaining experience and levels to keep your existing players around.

It actually goes further than this. A considerable fraction of veteran gamers not merely don't want endless In Game Rewards, but further, want a game not to offer them. See, for example, Guild Wars, which was reportedly made on a relatively small budget (at least compared to the big budget games that are its nearest competitors) and has been quite successful. You get to the level cap with perfect gear very quickly, and then the focus is on doing content for the sake of doing content, without it making your character the slighest bit stronger. When ArenaNet made it possible to grind levels in PvE only skills, that was quite controversial; one could fill books with the arguments back and forth over whether the existence of Ursan Blessing was a good thing or a bad thing.

If it's unnecessary to raise the level cap, but there weren't any real reason not to, then it would make sense to increase the level cap. There are, however, some serious advantages to leaving the level cap untouched, as Guild Wars demonstrated.

(Finishing this post goes over the 10,000 character limit for a forum post, so I'll have to add part 2 in a separate post after this gets posted.)

Squire
Dec 02, 2008
543
(part 2 of the above post)

First off, once you get to the level cap with perfect gear, you can PvP without being handicapped by your low level. If the level cap isn't going to rise, then if you're set for PvP at one time, if you quit and come back two years later, you're still set for PvP as far as level and gear goes. This makes it much easier to come back to a game if you quit.

Second, it allows for content to not have a canonical order at the level cap. This makes grouping much easier. If you'd like to group with your friend, it's good to be able to. If your friend is in Mooshu and you're still doing Marleybone, you really can't. Sure, you technically can use the friend warp option and fight alongside him, but at least one of you isn't going to be making progress in the storyline area that you're on. If both Grizzleheim and Celestia assume that you're at the level cap, and you want to do Grizzleheim but your friend has already done it and wants to start on Celestia, if there isn't an implied order between the two, you can join him as a full partner in his group.

This can be broken down a lot further than merely different orders among worlds. For example, in Wizard City, a player can do Triton Avenue, Firecat Alley, and Cyclops Lane in any order. Within a given zone, a lot of the side quest chains can be done in any order. Having fewer roadblocks in place to say, you have to do everything in this exact order, makes it far easier to group with other people.

Third, it allows you to put in some real challenges, especially at the end of a world. If Krokopatra were really hard, so that a lot of players simply got stuck there and couldn't advance, that wouldn't just be frustrating to be unable to beat one particular battle. That would shut them out of Marleybone, Mooshu, and Dragonspyre entirely. That would be a very bad thing, and is the reason why you really can't make challenges that gate off future content all that difficult.

KingsIsle has tried to evade this by making Sunken City, Tomb of the Beguiler, and Kensington optional side instances. If a player can't beat one of them, he can skip it without being stuck. But that kind of devalues them by making them unnecessary side areas that many or most players won't touch.

If Grizzleheim and Celestia can be done in either order, then getting stuck on the end boss of one doesn't mean that a player can't even attempt the other. That allows KingsIsle to put in some challenges and let people get stuck for a while without worrying that it will block them off from entire large blocks of content.

Fourth, it makes more storyline sense. In the storyline as it stands, players putter around through Wizard City for a bit, then end up chasing Malistaire through four worlds before finally defeating him. When Dragonspyre hadn't yet been implemented, the storyline was that you chase Malistaire through three worlds and then run into a big sign that says "someday there will be content here". That's rather jarring. Defeating Malistaire and tying up loose ends so that the spiral is no longer in mortal danger allows for a more fitting ending, and a game that feels more complete.

If you're going to make overarching storylines that trace through several future worlds, you run into the same problem. You know that something dire is going on in the next world and just can't get there yet. If each world has its own separate storyline that wraps up upon completing the world, this isn't a problem.

Indeed, current worlds already do this to some degree. Upon completing Krokotopia, the tuts are defeated and the manders are freed. Upon completing Marleybone, the O'Leary gang is broken up and Meowiarty is headed back to prison. Upon completing Mooshu, the emperor recovers and the various oni that were defiling the land are driven out.

But there is no intrinsic reason why one has to free the manders before ending the O'Learys' crime wave. Neither the O'Learys nor the manders have ever heard of each other. With Marleybone a higher level world than Krokotopia, gameplay mechanics demand that the lower level content be done before the higher level content. With no increase in the level cap, that is gone.

Fifth, no one will be upset about wasted experience. Once players hit level 50, any additional experience that they would have gained doesn't count. If the level cap is raised, they'll have to re-earn it later, which can be frustrating. If the level cap is left untouched, they'll still be at the level cap and any experience that went over the cap isn't wasted.

Sixth, the formulas can make sense without needing to be changed. At level 50, a class's max health before gear is always a multiple of 25 and usually a multiple of 100. At most levels, it's not even an integer before it gets rounded. This isn't a big thing, but it is aesthetically nice.

Seventh, you can avoid power creep issues. The base power pip chance before gear is 10% at level 10, and it increases by 3% every four levels. That scale would give 40% at level 50, and 70% at level 90. In the latter case, the high level gear would make it pretty trivial to get power pip chance to 100%. Increasing accuracy from gear could make some classes never fizzle apart from black mantle, and reduce the drawback of classes that fizzle a lot. Increasing health and defense from gear could make battles take ever longer. A long battle with Youkai once in a while is good. For every battle to take that long would be tedious.

The various power creep issues can be resolved by nerfing some things, but this will create new play balance issues. Play balance is very tricky to get right, and raising the level cap is all but guaranteed to break whatever semblance of play balance you had before. Constantly buffing one skill and nerfing another can kind of fix this over the long run, but in the short term, constantly having skills get changed around is aggravating to players--especially when you can't freely redo your training points or change your class. Leave the level cap alone and the waves of nerfs and buffs are unnecessary.

Mastermind
Sep 20, 2008
336


You like speaking your mind, don't you .... heh

Scarlet SkullHammer (Death 35, Black Pet, "Shadow")


Survivor
Aug 24, 2008
13
Very well thought out my friend. I have only really played MMOs that have a level cap that does not go up. Dark Age of Camelot, Guild Wars and City of Heroes/Villains. I have seen what happens to good games that get the cap increased as players lose their social lives to grind gear to be able to grind for more gear. All in all this game is just right the way it is. Challenging combat, well told story lines and imaginative worlds are what keep me coming back for more.

Defender
Aug 19, 2008
193
Very interesting analysis.

One comment. The most awesome thing about this game is that it draws from such a large audience. Your message sounds as if you want part of that element to go on...by not allowing the level cap to increase.

If some people like that part of the game, then what harm is there in making the game work for them also?

Seems you assume that ALL players put major importance on the PvP? Personally I like the quests and storylines and after trying the PvP could care less about it. I don't mind that its there....many of my friends spend all day there....doesn't bother me.

Different people play these games for one reason or another and I think KI is ahead because it appeals to SO MANY!

To start ruling out particular parts of the game because "those people wouldn't play if you stopped doing x" sounds a bit .... um .... thinking of a nice way to say it...snobbish?

Explorer
Dec 22, 2008
58
Cynical wrote:
Very interesting analysis.

One comment. The most awesome thing about this game is that it draws from such a large audience. Your message sounds as if you want part of that element to go on...by not allowing the level cap to increase.

If some people like that part of the game, then what harm is there in making the game work for them also?

Seems you assume that ALL players put major importance on the PvP? Personally I like the quests and storylines and after trying the PvP could care less about it. I don't mind that its there....many of my friends spend all day there....doesn't bother me.

Different people play these games for one reason or another and I think KI is ahead because it appeals to SO MANY!

To start ruling out particular parts of the game because "those people wouldn't play if you stopped doing x" sounds a bit .... um .... thinking of a nice way to say it...snobbish?


I definitely have to agree with you about PvP. I really could care less about it also. I enjoy playing the story lines and believe it or not, the grinds also! I do get a thrill every time I level up.

I just made grandmaster the other day and was ecstatic. I for one would hate to see the level cap stay the same.

Squire
Dec 02, 2008
543
Cynical wrote:
If some people like that part of the game, then what harm is there in making the game work for them also?


Game design entails making a lot of choices. Different people want mutually contradictory things in a game, and you cannot satisfy them all. If one person loves sci-fi and hates fantasy, while another person hates sci-fi and loves fantasy, you cannot create a single game to appeal to both. Try and you'll probably create a muddled mess of a game that appeals to neither.

Wizard101 has already made a lot of choices in their game design that do chase away a lot of potential players:

*aggressive whitelist chat filter
*light dependence on level and gear
*graphics that aren't exactly high end (so the system requirements can be very low)
*very tame violence, as opposed to blood and gore all over, or even shooting and stabbing
*turn based combat
*easy transfer between realms (yes, there really are some people who loathe this)
*no transfer of items between accounts
*nearly everything soloable
*maximum group size capped at four

And yet to choose otherwise on any of those counts would have deterred some of the people who do play the game from doing so.

The vital thing is that a company make its choices and stick with them. Make radical changes to a game and you alienate much of your existing playerbase, but don't necessarily pick up the other demographics you're targetting. Furthermore, you create a bunch of disgruntled former players who will go around bad-mouthing your game. Go to a gaming forum and ask someone about Star Wars Galaxies and you're likely to get an earful about how Sony ruined it with their New Game Experience and everyone should boycott Sony because of it. This can happen even if no one on the forum you post on has ever played the game.

The choice on increasing the level cap hasn't yet been made, and going either way would arguably fit with the existing game design. But once the choice is made, it will make no sense to increase the level cap upon releasing one world, but not upon releasing another. If the level cap is increased to 60 with the release of Celestia or Grizzleheim or whatever, you pretty much have to assume that down the road you'll be looking at an awfully long road to reach the level cap of 100.

Survivor
Aug 24, 2008
13
Another alternative could be to come up with a different storyline that does not have you chasing Malister (forgot how to spell his name). Sure I mean going after the big bad evil wizard is nice and all but honestly I do have a problem with them sending a child to fight him. Why not let us "grow up" a bit in the appearance department as well.

Survivor
Jan 28, 2009
18
ninnian wrote:
Cynical wrote:
Very interesting analysis.

One comment. The most awesome thing about this game is that it draws from such a large audience. Your message sounds as if you want part of that element to go on...by not allowing the level cap to increase.

If some people like that part of the game, then what harm is there in making the game work for them also?

Seems you assume that ALL players put major importance on the PvP? Personally I like the quests and storylines and after trying the PvP could care less about it. I don't mind that its there....many of my friends spend all day there....doesn't bother me.

Different people play these games for one reason or another and I think KI is ahead because it appeals to SO MANY!

To start ruling out particular parts of the game because "those people wouldn't play if you stopped doing x" sounds a bit .... um .... thinking of a nice way to say it...snobbish?


I definitely have to agree with you about PvP. I really could care less about it also. I enjoy playing the story lines and believe it or not, the grinds also! I do get a thrill every time I level up.

I just made grandmaster the other day and was ecstatic. I for one would hate to see the level cap stay the same.


Here here! I have to agree that to rule out increasing the level cap would be limiting the experience of other players.

I also have played other MMOs (Final Fantasy XI). I have to say I enjoy the level grinding, farming, and questing. But it does seem a bit of a waste to farm for gear that doesn't get better, or levels that don't increase. Seems to me that quests (and this IS a quest driven game) that give gear that is NOT as good as the level you are fighting at, or just XP when you're capped and it doesn't count, is fairly pointless. There is no drive to continue my lvl 50 Myth Mage when I can't get the XP, the gear that drops so far is not as good as I have on me, without even finishing all areas. I haven't even gotten to Crown of Fire, the big boss, or 1/2 way through Dragonspyre itself.

Sorry, but I have to vote for a level increase. I can't equip myself better, can't earn more than 99,999 gold, and don't like spending all my game time in PvP. I love this game, so don't get me wrong. But even my kids ask "what are you going to do now?" I say I don't know.


Squire
Dec 02, 2008
543
Some games are a lot heavier on level grinding than others. Some take it to the extreme that whoever has spent more time leveling wins, just because he's spent more time leveling. At the opposite extreme, a game could make it so that your character at creation is as strong as it can ever be.

Wizard101 isn't either extreme, of course. But compared to most MMORPGs, it's a lot closer to the latter than the former. People looking for the former aren't going to play this game. And that game design is not a fluke: consider that the web site warns of the dangers of spending too much time playing computer games--which is exactly what excessive leveling in a game encourages.

Is Wizard101 so light on leveling as to demand that the level cap never be raised? No. Raising the level cap to allow characters to get stronger would completely break a game like Guild Wars or Puzzle Pirates, but here it would work out all right. But it's light enough on leveling that leaving the level cap at 50 would fit the game quite well.