I have previously recounted bits and pieces of my experiences in StrangeMUD, the game that introduced me to online roleplaying and was my gateway drug to the MMOs of today. These days, StrangeMUD is still up and running, but the population is thin; when last I logged on, I saw only one other player who was as surprised to see me as I him.
There were likely several reasons why people started to leave StrangeMUD back in the day, but I remember one such reason very clearly. Back then we didn’t have quests unless an Imm was online and had declared that this day was the day we would Quest(tm). Usually we would log on, go to a few well-known areas, kill the famous mobs for their famous drops, chat, maybe group up for a particularly difficult kill, etc.
However, since part of the process to become an Imm was to create an area of one’s own, some Imms felt slighted that players did not frequent their areas, as some areas were clearly more popular than others. There were prolonged and heated debates on the game’s bulletin board about the matter. In an attempt to make sure that everyone’s areas received visitors, game-wide nerfs were put into place; suddenly, you would kill that favored mob that dropped that wonderful cloak, and find that not only was he more difficult to kill, but he no longer dropped anything. The solution, the Imms said, was to explore! Go out and find those other areas, they said.
The problem with this decree was, of course, the harsher nature of online RPGs in those days. Not only did you have to be careful not to be killed lest you leave your corpse (with all its loot and gold) behind in a hostile area, but there were death traps as well, which would simply destroy every item you were carrying without hope of retrieval – and being in a group rather than a solo player would in no way mitigate the loss. Most of us playing the game had no intention of wandering around the game world blindly hoping to stumble upon something interesting when so much precious loot was at stake.
Furthermore, the daily practice of logging in and “running the rounds” so to speak was part of the social life of the game. With that missing, people simply… stopped coming online. I watched the “who” list grow shorter by the week, until I, too, started forgetting to come back.
The moral of this story is that some people, by which I mean at least myself, like to explore, but do not necessarily like being hindered in our attempts due to either arbitrary difficulty spikes, acts of game god, or level gating. I am seeing three general trends represented in current and upcoming MMO’s approaches to the matter (sandboxes notwithstanding only because I don’t play sandboxes):
Rift (the prevailing mindset): Some things simply should be able to kill you if you wander into a higher-level area than your own. Get bigger numbers to counter their numbers. I say this is an example of the “progression model” because as with most MMOs, the emphasis is on growing your character number-wise, and level-gating serves as a carrot for players to pursue: to one day be powerful and well-geared enough to be able to safely explore that content. Level first, explore later.
Guild Wars 2 (we’ll fix it or die trying mindset – see also City of Heroes/Villains and Everquest II for similar, though not identical, ideas): You’ll always scale up or down to the area you’ve entered so that your numbers will roughly match the mob’s numbers. I call this a “bandaid model” because it doesn’t get rid of the level-gating (or levels) so much as it seeks to make those levels less relevant via scaling and side-kicking. It does raise the question of why we should bother with levels at all, but in this model exploration is king, since there is nothing keeping you from running over that hill yonder.
The Secret World (you’re not in Hyboria anymore): No levels, only skills. There will be mobs you can only take down using skills you can only purchase after you’ve earned a certain amount of xp (or purchased their pre-requisites). I call this the “oh what the hell, let’s try it out” model because given that The Secret World is a story-based MMO and not quite a sandbox, I’ve no real idea what effect this will have on exploration or how open the world will be (can you even wander the world without unlocking areas via story-based missions?).
Since neither TSW or GW2 are out yet, I will have to withhold judgment as to which of these models I would prefer, but I can easily state that I am quite tired of the first model, boy howdy. Exploration, and primarily story, are what drive me in an MMO, and current offerings can be admittedly weak on story, and then gate me from exploration on top of that.
What would an MMO be like, if it just let you wander without fear of death by numbers? It would have a different audience than many existing MMOs to be sure, but – what would it look like? Does this idea begin and end at games like Myst URU?