June 7th, 2006

Auto Assault

MMO Theory: The Leveling Treadmill

Even with my time being my own (since no employer will put up with a crazy like me), I really only have the time and attention to play one Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Game at a time. And I have a strong preference for games that aren't generic Dungeons and Dragons rip-offs. Normally, this hasn't been a problem for me, because science fiction MMOs are pretty scarce. (Apparently so are the customers, unfortunately.) It wasn't any trouble for me to jump from Anarchy Online when something much better came along (a low hurdle), and it wasn't any harder for me to jump from Neocron to City of Heroes when it went down the toilet with Neocron 2. But now I'm in an interesting quandary: there are, finally, two science fiction themed MMOs that don't suck. Which is causing me to think about what I actually value the most in an MMO, what I really want as Mr. Morden would have asked. And two things in particular are on my mind, the first of which is:

The Leveling Treadmill and My Bad Case of Alt-Itis.

There's a psychological trick that MMO game designers have been playing on their customers since Everquest. At this point, it's reached the point of being standard industry wisdom, one of the things that you have to do to have a financially successful subscription-based game. It works like this. Generally, from character level 1 to character level 2 takes the amount of time it takes you to run through the basic chat and movement and combat tutorial, which is usually about 20 minutes. At that point, you get a big, substantial boost to your basic character stats, plus at least one cool new ability. Then it takes you about a half an hour worth of missions to get to level 3, where you get a smaller but still substantial boost. From then on, for as many levels as there are character levels, it takes you more and more time to get less and less of a boost each time.

And that wouldn't matter so much, if it weren't for this: much of the storyline, much of the back story, much of the art, and so forth are all locked away where only higher level characters can get to it. So in the end, if you actually want to participate in the final story lines of any one of these games, you're going to find yourself at the same power level, with nothing new to look forward to but more and more of the same, for the several weeks of playing time it takes you to, say, go from level 44 to 45, or from level 59 to 60, or whatever. Weeks, I'm telling you. And the standard industry accumulated wisdom is that once you've got them hooked on the new content and new abilities and level boosts, you keep the stream of monthly payments coming by stretching out the time between those rewards as much as possible, just barely slowly and steadily enough that they don't rebel. The players call this "grinding" because it gets to be just that, a grind. The industry looks at their cumulative subscription totals, which have risen pretty steadily from around a thousand, 8 years ago, to almost 13 million now, and claim that this proves that their model works.

And I hate it. With a fiery passion. As I hate most attempts to jerk me around. And now that I'm playing Auto Assault, which very specifically and by design doesn't play that trick on their subscribers, I'm finding out something about myself. You see, in all of my previous MMOs, I got a reputation for having a really bad case of "alt-itis." That's MMO jargon for someone who just can't sustain interest in one character, because they feel like they have to play all of them. In my case, somewhere around level 10 or 20 or so, in all of my games, I've gotten the urge to start over with a different character class, a different combination of powers, a different role-playing concept, or something like that. It's done well for me in one regard; it's made me very good at understanding the differences between the various character classes in these games, and being able to explain them to new players. But I just discovered that it's not alt-itis at all, because I don't have a trace of alt-itis in me now. No, what was feeding my constant creation of new characters wasn't alt-itis, it was an allergy to grinding. I was losing interest at exactly the point where the curve on the leveling treadmill was starting to get steep.

And now when I go back to City of Villains to start playing my characters again with the new game version, it feels like a chore. I can either finish leveling up my level 40 characters to 50, finish the story line and really prepare myself for final player versus player combat, knowing that it will take me unthinkable amounts of time to get each of the only four meaningful power-ups remaining to me. Or else I can go back and do the same missions that I've done way, way too many times with new alts. Either way, I can't face it.

Which would seem like it would make it a pretty easy decision to make, wouldn't it? And it would, if it weren't for one little other industry problem: MMO Herd-Think. More about that tomorrow, because I'm out of room for tonight.