Series Info...Pleasures of the Flesh #7:

Character Advancement

by Heather Logas

A big part of what makes an on-going game so enjoyable is watching your character grow. A character starts as a few mental concepts jumbled together. Through playing over a period of time, the player gets to understand the character better. The character gains depth and life through play. They also gain valuable contacts and resources, and grow a wealth of information about the game world that surrounds them. These are the “intangibles” that characters gain over time simply from participating in the game on a regular basis. And then there are the “points”.

Experience points (also referred to as “XP”, “EXP” or “eeps”) are what many players measure their characters by. In most games, a player gets experience points for their character which in some way makes the character more powerful. These points may affect how physically, mentally or socially powerful a character is or allows a player character to acquire new skills and abilities. They grant the character things they would not be able to get through role-playing alone. In classic MUDs, for example, characters would get XP for killing creatures. These points would add up until the character gained enough to grant them a new “level”. Going up a level usually granted the ability to take more damage from monsters, as well as other bonuses such as the ability to do more damage, or cast new spells.

I am sure that over the years there have been many experiments in the digital realm for the granting of experience points and other ways to advance characters. Here is one more suggestion, based on my experience playing live action games.

In LARPs, there are many different ways to gain power in the game world. Becoming an expert fighter is only one possible way, and is not even the most assured way. LARPs do have systems of either levels or experience points, but a good number of these points are gained from simply showing up. In the rules for Mind's Eye Theater LARPs, it suggests giving an experience point for each game a player attends . Players do not get additional points for killing anything, but may occasionally gain extra points for completion of plotlines.

At first glance, it seems difficult to award “attendance points” for MMORPG players, since they can log on multiple times a day or anytime during the day or night. A slightly different approach would need to be taken. Instead of granting points for each log in, every week of gameplay would have a set amount of points associated with it. If a player logged in with a certain character at any point during the week, that character would be awarded their monthly points. The player could then spend their points on different skills or abilities, or save points for the following month in order to buy more advanced or special abilities. This would have several advantages over the common leveling system.

First, a player would have the freedom to pursue any activities they desired during their on-line time, instead of having to spend all of their time engaged in repetitive activity.

Secondly, it would help in the time commitment aspect of MMORPGs. It would help to better support casual players as well as more serious players because all characters would be receiving the same number of points, regardless of how many hours they played. Casual players would be able to log in for smaller segments of time and enjoy their gaming experience while not becoming frustrated that other players were rapidly out-pacing them level-wise.

At the same time, players who invested a good deal of time would still be able to enjoy the fruits of their labor, because they would be able to actively pursue goals and spend more time in social manipulation, which would potentially ultimately lead to more in game political power.

Thirdly, this system might help alleviate the level rifts that in many current MMORPGs can occur between friends. Characters that start at similar power levels will still be at similar power levels months later and can still socialize and adventure together, regardless of whether one player spent a good deal more time playing than their friend.

Changing the focus of the games will also help the problem that is found in most MMORPGs with characters at extremely low and high levels of power being bored.

Currently, a beginning character in an MMORPG is stuck desperately trying to kill small animals like rabbits or rats (or other non-combat related but no more enjoyable repetitive activities) in order to get to higher levels when they are able to start gaining access to some of the more desirable powers. This is not a whole lot of fun, but the players see it through based on the promise that they will be able to eventually have more interesting things to do.

The problem is worse when characters are extremely high level. At this point, they have already seen and done everything that can be seen and done. Their characters are far above the scope of power of everyone else, and there is no further to go. There is not much left to hold the player's interest.

Games like EverQuest address this problem by releasing expansion packs that add new higher levels and new powers to go with them. But if the player was enjoying doing other things than simply leveling, they would be able to get involved in the game much earlier in their character's life-cycle, and would still have plenty of things to do even when their characters were of very high level (plan coups of their rivals, plant nasty rumors, or even just throw big contests or events). Finally, using the above experience system, characters would reach this very high level of power at a much slower pace, because they cannot simply log in hour upon hour of play time in order to advance.

Changing the importance of and rate of acquisition of experience points could greatly help change the nature of the playing experience in online RPGs. While I am sure there are many smaller independent games that have experimented with different styles of character advancement, major MMORPG titles seem content to re-hash variations on basically the same mechanics over and over again. But like many other things about major MMORPG titles, taking a risk here and there might set a new game apart from its rabbit slaying brethren.

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