MMO area levels

One of my bigger pet peeves with MMOs is how they divvy up where people play. The general problem that developers have had is that they need  to protect newer players to the game. They can’t very well have a level 500 dragon coming in to kill a level 1 newb. If this happened, the newb would likely think the game was too hard, get frustrated and leave. If a player does this, there is little reason to have the game around as if people quit that fast, you aren’t getting their money.

So developers have at a very early stage decided upon a basic progression of the world. You go from level 1 area, to level 10 area, and so on until you reach level 100 area. And once there, many developers discovered that you need something to do past that and the easiest way to do this is with raids (there are more ways but this is easy because it provides players with the ability to do basically the same thing they’ve always done to get to the level cap in the first place… that is to make high level huge mobs to kill to get loot).

Now with my pet peeve. By doing this what you essentially are doing is segregating players off into different corners of the world. If you are of this range you go there, if you are that, you go over there, and there is little to no reason to have the two associating whatsoever. This is a huge problem. MMOs aren’t about playing by yourself (despite what you WoW fans say), they are about playing with and meeting other people. If you are segregating people, how are they supposed to interact?

This was actually the main genius of EQ1. More than most players they forced people to play together. So they brought people in with the pretty graphics (at the time) and they keep them by establishing relationships between people. What happens is that people are less likely to leave when they have these in game connections. They will still leave if real life issues come into play, or if the game just becomes unbearable… but when those new shinier games come out in the upcoming years, they almost always return to the old games where they miss their friends, their playtime, etc. This is great for the player.

Unfortunately, raids are just about the only mechanic in these games to bring people together. EQ1 forced people to group by the time you were level 5, but not many other games do this (maybe Vanguard) and this is with it’s drawbacks as well. Namely it becomes more difficult to level for people past the first rush and thus harder for future new players to get into a game once there aren’t as many low levels there. So you see where segregation becomes an issue?

There have been a few other mechanics from time to time that help out this situation. DAoC I believe these days has an in-game help channel these days that new players automatically join and then elder players can join to help out. The elder player’s main reason for doing this is generally to recruit. Now many games do have this system, for instance EQ2 has their 1-9 channel which offers the same ability, anyone can join and help newbs. However, I think the format does change from general chat, into real help when you actually name it help and thus the newb usually gets a better experience. This system actually dates back to even earlier games, my first game Shadows of Yserbius had a server for new players to join (back in the day where you could play your character on any server you wish), this place had a guide overseeing things, but other people went to help new players and play with them as well largely for the same guild recruiting reasons. This was actually perfect for games, seperated the new player, made sure they were safe, and offered them interactions. Actually, studies have shown (sorry I don’t have a linky on this) that a player who has contact with someone else in an MMO in the first 24 hours (positive contact that is), is far more likely to subscribe past the first month than someone who doesn’t.

An evolution of this sort of help room idea was Asheron’s Call’s Allegiance system. It did almost exactly what the designers thought it would. They wanted to provide elder players a benefit for helping newer players in order to encourage a positive interchange between the two. Thus, they made it so that the higher level player would get two things… experience and a status rating. The status rating was intended to allow you to use some nicer items (and some types like crowns & scepters were only really usable by people with the rank to use them), but the real draw was the experience. The lower player never really gained anything out of this deal but the developers thought that in order for the bigger player to keep the lower player, what would happen would be that the higher level would aid the lower by offering advice, help, items, and money to the lower (oddly the last two these days the devs try to stop people from doing lol). It worked fairly well until people figured out how to game the system, but if they hadn’t made it so easily gamed, then it would have been a fine system (AC2 fixed many of the issues but made the xp gain so small that it wasn’t even really worth it for the smaller player unless they had 2 or 3 dozen players directly under him which was never likely going to happen).

The last system in place to get players together is mentoring, which allows players to move down (or up in CoH) in level in order to play with other players not in your range. Usually it offers some sort of bonus to the smaller player as well, and I do think this system works as intended. It allows friends to play with each other regardless of level but does almost nothing for complete strangers (though it could if people were in general somehow more charitable and helpful by nature).

So this leaves me with the same issue. Even with these, there is a general disconnect between the elder and newer player which hurts the society of a particular MMO. And I think a big part of this has to deal with the fact that we are segregated at our core. One of the reasons I made the suggestion a few weeks ago that SOE integrate more high level content into low level areas to get more use out of them a few weeks ago was just for this reason. The only game I really know of that didn’t have this segregation as much was really Ultima Online. In that game, it didn’t occur as bad because the world was more seemless… Yes if you went far out in the wilderness or into the dungeons, it was more difficult than if you stayed near town, but there was some variety. New players could go out really far and still find creatures to kill, while there were lizardmen and orcs that oftentimes could be found near town for the bigger players. I also think there was less difference between being an elder and a newb. In that game, it was possible to contribute to killing a larger creature at least a little, though obviously still not much. So at least the new player could find SOME use to a group that they just don’t even get in the modern MMO where if it is a red creature, you are completely useless to it.  Because this world was more mixed in the end, it ended with a healthier community and I might add had a ton of players despite constant competition. I think it stayed fairly in play until a few years ago where it just became far too long in the tooth to take, in fact it still has a fairly decent population for it’s age I am sure and probably has more people than many second generation MMOs which has been the primary reason that they are scared of making Ultima Online 2.

So is this the only way to do it? Intermingling content? And if so how exactly do you do so without putting the new player in harms way? Is this where instancing comes into place? And if you also despise instancing and don’t want to do that, how then do you do it? Or is there an alternate way to make players co-mingle that benefits both players? Is there another game that does it even better than what has been done before? Surely there has got to be a better way to do this without totally segregating players….