Storms on Cloud 9 #31:
Depreciation of Character
by Scott Holliday
With a title like that, you're probably thinking that I'm going to say something about those fresh-faced new players, or maybe something about us old jaded bags of bones. Alternately, you might think I was about to launch into a discourse on deflation of in-game money and levels. Actually, my topic refers instead to the age of the character and the choices involved as they gained those levels.
I'm a fairly unforgiving sort when it comes to games. Sometimes, I'll become so frustrated with fairly insignificant issues that I won't play a game (that I'm paying for) for a month or more. Since my interests are usually along the explorer mindset, this frustration is often because of unresolved stories, lack of purpose, or just a realization that in order to explore, I must first achieve. However, the worst cases involve games which exalt the "no-turning back" sort of choices. Permanent penalties enforced for your remaining life (as a character) based on pursuing the path less taken.
At this point, you might be scratching your head. The worst that can happen is you die and respawn right? Sure, most games have an xp penalty or something, but it's no big deal. The answer of course, is there are far worse things than death. So, what is worse than character death? Among other things, a flawed build. Yes, sometimes a flawed character build can be a source for excellent RP. However, most of the time, it's simply unnoticed except by the player (such as myself) who realizes that their character is inferior to those around them. Classic inferiority complex? Yes and no…
Imagine a typical MORPG. Since most use experience and level systems, we can assume that this one will too. Each level you get to choose a new skill or ability to add to your repertoire. Nifty, but what happens when you choose the "wrong" skill? Maybe you just wanted to try out a different combination. Maybe you wanted to see for yourself what the skill actually did. Maybe it was an accident (as recently happened to me).
Can you back up? Can you explore before making up your mind? In some games, you can. In some games, it doesn't really matter since skills come and go with time. However, for the rest, you have a problem. I've seen players in some MORPGs purposefully having themselves killed repeatedly just so they would lose a level (using that game's mechanics), so they could lose the skill and choose a different one. In other games where this option wasn't available, players would just drop the character and start over from scratch. Effectively destroying all of the treadmill they'd already made it through. Worse, they were discarding all of the RP relationships that they had formed.
Why? It's just one skill, right? Of course, it might be a whole plan or design that you didn't realize was flawed until much later. But even one skill gone awry is often enough to make players very unhappy. Look at it like this. When a character is born (or conceptualized), they start off with a certain amount of potential for change and advancement. Each level that goes by, they exchange some of that potential for specific upgrades. When they "max out", they have no potential left. That character is developmentally dead. So each wrong choice that is made along the path is wasted potential. By those measures, the most interesting character is brand new. All of their choices are still open! To an explorer mind-set, it's an untouched wilderness, ready to be mapped.
I guess maybe I'm ranting because of my recent mistake. I'm still playing the character, but I always have to look at that niggling error I made and realize the lost potential. It's very frustrating. Worse, the game doesn't allow you to explore the character design itself. In order to see each of the "level 50" skills, you would need to make a number of characters equal to the number of "level 50" skills offered. Compound this with all of the different combinations and permutations possible. Instead of the intrepid explorer, I feel like a blind-man choosing randomly from the pot whenever I gain a level. Will my choice add to my character, or will it be another niggling injury to my pride?
As a simple rule of thumb, a character should never be worse off in play than when they've first begun. Of course, there will be exceptions, but as a whole I think it's a simple enough rule. As soon as you start penalizing players for their choices made, your players will stop making choices. And when you penalize players for playing, you aren't going to have as many players.
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