Twinking is not really a thing anymore in modern MMOs, so I think it is worth explaining exactly what twinking is. Twinking is when you give lower level characters, whether your alts or friends, high level gear in order to give the lower level character an advantage in moving through the game.
In early MMOs, this was a big problem because higher level characters had more money, had more gear and had stuff to spare to give the lower level characters so this was easy for them. The problem for the game though is that it tends to ruin the power curve. Games are designed to take X amount of time to get from point A to point B and MMOs in particular are being designed to stretch out the amount of time it takes for players to get bored. They don’t want a player’s attention for a month or two…. they want it for a few years straight.
The initial method in which to stop twinking was actually the most effective, but not flawless. That was… the level requirement (and sort of class requirements… not that an item was limited to only certain classes, but that only 1 class could use an item). The level requirement is pretty simple… you have a powerful late game weapon, you make it have a requirement that it can only be used by late game players by adding a requirement that the player needs to be at the level cap in order to use it. This solves the extreme version of twinking pretty easily.
Now this method does actually kind of break immersion… if I know how to use swords, there’s really no difference between swords, they are all pretty much the same. This isn’t entirely true, of course… but the differences in swords are minute and have more to do with different types of swords than specific swords… for instance if you know how to use a Rapier, you may not know how to use a Great Sword… but that’s extreme. There are also minor differences to builds within the same class, but even so, you might have a minor disadvantage when first getting used to the sword but once you do, you’ll be fine.
It’s interesting to note that there have been methods to merge the level req with a more immersive and natural behavior. The first that I can think of is Dark Age of Camelot, which allowed players to use items higher than their level but the item was under-powered until you hit the weapon’s level… this actually kind of sounds like what I said in the previous paragraph, that was unintentional. I can’t remember if it was also DAoC or another game, but another concept has been to have durability go down faster if you were below the required level, which is a similar concept just done a different way.
The problem is, it doesn’t solve it completely. Not all items are the same even if the requirements are. If you have have 100 levels, and you are max level but want to help a level 5 player out so that they have an easier time…. it’s quite easy to buy them level 5 super rare super powerful items that aren’t easy for them to get due to rarity. So twinking generally still happens.
This lead to the birth of soulbinding. Soulbinding is when an item can only be used by the character it is soulbound to, and this soulbinding usually occurs on the character acquiring the item (though there are games, such as GW2, that has some items soulbound on use). This method instantly takes away twinking… because… obviously you can’t give the powerful items to other players. I believe (though could be wrong) that this idea originated with EverQuest, but was expanded upon with newer MMOs and even within EQ. Originally, it tended to only get done on super rare items and quest items, but the idea of soulbinding has expanded exponentially. There has also been an addition of Account Bound since its inception, meaning that you can trade it between characters within the same account.
I do think that the idea of soulbinding has been expanded upon for a reason other than to stop twinking to be honest. It has become a staple largely to help deal with the high level economy. The problem modern MMOs have is that because there is no durability and no death penalty in most games, there is no way for items to be removed from the game. Raising level cap fixes this issue… but that creates an issue of forcing developers to create a lot of in game content in order to appease all the players at a now higher level. The problem here is that players tend to move faster than developers. I know in WoW… players tend to reach the new level cap within a week (oftentimes days)… now it may take them a month or two past that to start getting the best gear. But once they get that gear they can start twinking other players with the best gear who now also can start twinking other players when they start getting duplicates and so forth. Soooo soulbinding to the rescue. A hardcore player may be able to get the best gear in the game rapidly, but they are going to punish themselves instead of the developers for that so that other players will still need to work for it, giving the developers far more time before the remaining 95% of the player population starts receiving their max gear.
There is, of course, a negative side to soulbinding gear in this fashion. And that’s player interaction. While twinking, overall, is a negative when done prolifically, it isn’t necessarily all bad. Players generally don’t just give each other their best gear, they sell it more often. Generally, straight up giving is held for guildmates and friends. And in reality, this is what an economy actually is… buying and selling things. By soulbinding everything, a game is getting created where the level economy and the boredom economy is taking precedence over the actual economy. And if I’m going to be honest, there are actual players out there who are more interested in the actual economy.
There is also the case for gold farming… by making items soulbound, gold farmers cannot farm high value items and sell them as easily and thus flood the market with those items. But there are better options at dealing with gold farmers and the reality is that game development companies just don’t want to. As evidenced by the fact that gold farmers still very much exist and are as prevalent as ever, and game developers stopped dealing with them completely outside of adding more and more soulbound items.
What I’m trying to say is that, switching to a system that relies heavily on soulbinding in order to stop twinking, keep players interested because they have to actually get their gear, and help prevent gold farmers… is yet another system that is going into place that interrupts player interaction in a negative way. And ultimately, the genre is COMPLETELY built around player interaction. There’s a ton of systems that have been added to the modern MMORPG that has disrupted player interactions, and this one is actually rather minor unless taken to an extreme. But it is an avenue all the same and does have negative repercussions that, I would argue, are actually MORE difficult to fix than the actual issues you are trying to fix by adding in soulbinding in the first place. You could, theoretically, just add another way to force players to interact in its place, but it would likely feel more forced and players resent being forced to interact. And really, nobody is doing this because it feels like more and more in the genre, all they are trying to build are single player games with a built in chat room.
Even past the ‘interactions” concept, making the most powerful items in the game soulbound, completely borks the idea of tradeskills. It continues to amaze me that game development companies continue to include tradeskills in their games while putting in such low effort into making them work, and more often then not making them specifically not work. Instead, because of something like soulbinding, we often end up with generic tradeskills that must be done by players themselves, rather than buying a tradeskill player’s goods as is supposed to be the case.
I will say that, I am not against soulbinding in general… and I’m certainly not against level requirements. I actually think a lot of early soulbinding usage was appropriate. If game devs build in a system in which to get legendary gear that takes a character a long time to acquire and these items are supposed to be the hallmarks of a character’s life… it’s totally appropriate to soulbind that item. I also have concepts in my brain to allow the player to choose soulbinding as a way to pay off positive attributes on their items, which I may or may not get into at a later date. I feel like soulbinding has its place, but it needs to be considered when it is used as it really does take away fun from the game to do it.
So I want to go into a little more how Guild Wars 2 is addressing this because I think that GW2 is proving to be an extreme case of soulbinding in particular. I also want to go into some thoughts that I have on what I would do in order to combat some of these issues without delving into the usual methods. But I feel that this post is long enough, so I’m going to split these into two other posts that will be released in the future. I think this is actually going to be something I do going forward… I will have one post giving a background of a concept and give arguments as to why I like or dislike certain aspects, follow up with a case study of the concept (good or bad), and then followup again with my thoughts on what could be done in a potential game.