When Bigger is Better

One function of levels is to spread and pace content, and to guide you through it. If you have an epic tale spread across 1000 quests, you can make a game with 50 levels and have each award 5% of a level. The earlier parts will have simpler gameplay, the middle ones can transition to using skills more strategically, and hopefully you avoid making the ending “difficult” by pumping up the numbers.

Some players in The Lord of the Rings Online™ have been complaining about leveling too quickly. If you stack rested experience with recent bonuses and the new leveling curve, you move through some levels very quickly. If you want a quest to be challenging, you need to plan on hitting it soon, because you will outlevel it within the week, at which point it is green and gray content. Mowing through grays can get boring.

City of Heroes, however, lets you keep almost all the content challenging no matter what level you are. Content is instanced, and levels scale. If you missed a story arc, hit Ouroboros and flash back to it; set your level lower with Ouroboros to make non-instance content challenging for your (new) level. You can exemplar down to play with friends, and task forces do that automatically. In the other direction, you can sidekick up, and Mission Architect can be rigged to auto-sidekick everyone. There is very little you can do at level 5 that you cannot do at level 50, and almost none of it is interesting.

Farming, powerleveling? Unlike many games, it will not hurt your City of Heroes character or make you miss content. You can always go back and do it, without its being trivialized. You can skip the entire game, but that just means you have the entire game as a menu before you, rather than whatever 10% is available at your level. Higher levels mean more content options, not just different ones, and you do not lose the old options.

Once again, I wish more games would learn the lessons that City of Heroes has been teaching for five years.

: Zubon

23 thoughts on “When Bigger is Better”

  1. Gotta agree. I’d been checking out the Age of Conan trial and even before I left Tortage I was running into the annoying “this quest is all grey to me” aspects in areas that really could have been made instanced.

    What made it worse: I tried to make it more challenging by using lighter armor than my character requires… but on a PvP server, that just means that while I made the grey content *mildly* challenging, I made every PvP ambush all the more deadly. On a PvP server, you’ve got to be maxed-out-combat-ready at all times or you’re dead.

  2. This is largely (totally?) dependent on content being instanced and your world fragmented like that. What do you do with a more seamless world?

  3. Agreed. What I’ve been missing from MMOs lately is the sense that you can feel free to do anything that you like – you’re hard-and-fast on quest rails in, for instance, LOTRO. It sounds like the exemplar/sidekick system helps people stay connected with each other and able to play the same content, as well as being able to just be able to pick something to do and do it – without being constrained by the “no progress under my level range” / “dead over my level range” problem. It brings back the free-wheeling “I can try to tackle this” that I had with UO.

  4. Yeah, the exemplar/sidekick system seems like it would grow from kind of cool early on in a game’s life to very cool as a game ages and there are fewer people in the lower levels. Now we need a game with non-zzzz content to pick that up.

  5. Not having played a whole lot of CoH myself, is there perhaps a connection between the content being always balanced/available, and the major grip people have with the game, mainly that the content all starts to look the same after only a few instanced missions?

  6. @falstep: due to the encouragement of altitis that CoX fosters, there are always people of all level ranges available. the exemplar/sidekick system just means you don’t have to think about which of your stable of heroes to bring out for a night with the group past “Are we doing a Task Force that requires him to be higher level?” or “how do I feel like killing stuff tonight?”

    @Syncaine: the people who complain about the content all being the same thing all the time are likely the sort of people who refer to 90% of MMOs out there as “too grindy.” Granted, there is only one progress method in CoX (killing baddies), and afher a certain point you will have fought all of the available villain groups, at which point there is nothing new under the sun as far as enemy AI and powers, but the groups are varied and distinct. If you have the wisdom to do so, you can get a lot more life out of the game by not fixating on doing missions against the same handful of groups for your entire life on the level curve (and beyond, thanks to the exemp/sk system).

  7. World of Warcraft is having this problem as well…not that it needs anymore problems, but with the double Xp for Questing and the Refer a friend program that next you triple Xp as well, people are leveling so fast they only get to do maybe 1/3rd the quests in a zone, and don’t really get a flavor for why that zone is even there and who is conflicted with whom, etc.

    Blizzard is just driving players toward the expansions so they can make the green, thats all.

  8. @Julian: A seamless world could take the City of Heroes approach for zone events and Giant Monsters – the mobs themselves auto-scale individually for each player, relative to that player’s level.

    A level 5 and a level 50 can team together and both get xp, do damage etc according to their level.

    @Syncaine: The everything look the same feeling has more to do with that instanced maps are reusing building blocks which you tend to recognise quite soon and to some extent that you often fight one type of enemy group in each instanced mission.

    But the amount of enemy groups is probably larger than counting the different mob groups in your regular fantasy MMO (e.g. boars, elves, bears, or whatever you may find).

    The availability is what what makes teaming so easy to get into and contributes to a friendly atmosphere, IMHO.

  9. @Julian: scaling mob encounters in a seamless world is simply a technical problem. There’s nothing to say that as soon as one engages a mob its capabilities vs. your character’s (or group’s) couldn’t be scaled to match a certain level of difficulty.

    Our static LOTRO group has had some discussion (ok, and me complaining) about our current lack of challenge given both the recent bonuses/xp curve changes and the fact that we usually have a full group of very experienced MMO players. So far in the couple months we’ve been playing the only real challenges have been multiple master elite mobs, and even then we handled them with aplomb. While I was initially excited by the 3 level bump we got, I’m now regretting that we’re even more overpowered for our current quests. Hopefully it will even out as the level curve spreads out.

  10. @Scott: The first problem that comes to mind in that scenario is one low level player or group of low levels simply tagging the mob to reduce it to their level, while around comes a the high level grinder/farmer in cahoots with the first group just slapping around power-reduced mobs.

    Instancing that type of content would at least reduce the problem of open world tagging like that, with the addition that to mitigate this problem, in an instance it would be easy to take into consideration the presence of that high level character to raise the mob up a bit. In an open world, which high level character of all the present in the area are you going to consider?

    Furthermore, in a seamless world, if you say “okay as soon as a high level character hits the tagged mob, it would raise to its level”, but that’s opening the door to a heap of griefing. High level players just tagging what low levels are fighting purely to mess them up and get them killed.

    I imagine this is mostly applied in heavily instanced worlds because in there you have much more control about who’s present and who’s engaging what. I don’t think applying this concept to open worlds is such an easy hurdle to overcome as it seems.

  11. @ Julian: The simplest solution would likely be not to allow ungrouped people to be involved in the combat. So the lowbies tag the monster, its stats are reset to accommodate the lowbies, and the highbie can’t interfere. Or the highbie joins the group, and either has his level dropped to the rest of the group’s, or the lowbies are promoted to the highbie’s level, or the lowbies get no exp. No griefing, no farming using highbie help.

  12. Foolsage, the problem with that (I’m picky today huh?) is that yeah, you solve one problem but you create a bigger one: You start removing player interaction in the open world. Why can’t a passing player, whatever his level in relation to anything, try and give a lending hand, shoot a heal, distract a second mob, etc. out of kindness like that? Happens every day, many times, and random little things like are things that finish fleshing out the world.

    I don’t think that kind of thing is worth killing just to have the issue of levels a little bit easier to handle.

  13. I can’t wait for Going Rogue’s new city. I have a _suspicion_ that a new _city_ means CoH2: a new engine, where oldCoH can be played on the new engine, but the newCoH can’t.

    I notice the video shows a city with no War Walls.

    Now, I don’t think gameplay will change _much_ but…

    That said, there _is_ now another way to advance in CoH, and that’s crafting.

    hm… mmm… I dunno. We’ll see, right?

  14. Don’t put the scaling on the player or on the mob, put the scaling on the interaction. i.e. If a level 50 player attacks a level 5 mob, don’t drag the player down to level 7, or the mob up to level 48, instead, scale the attack down to level 7. This way if a level 5 player comes by and whacks the mob as well, his level 5 attack will attack as a level 5 attack.

    Yes, this means you remove the ability of a high level player to go mow down entire zones full of low level mobs in minutes, but does having that really add to the game?

  15. I’d have to say that allowing high-level players to ‘sanitize’ an area does in fact add a certain level of dynamism to the game; if nothing else the player is losing a tangible sense of progress, which I’d argue is not a trivial lack in an MMO context.

  16. I’m a huge fan of sidekicking and the other level-disparity solutions that CoH uses. I think they’re intelligently designed and I’m still shocked they haven’t been more widely adopted in other games.

    That said however, I’m becoming more and more hesitant to accolade the CoH keep-leveling principles. Partly because I also love a good Endgame where the balance is more finely tuned. CoH did a great job balancing players regardless of level, but the content itself never achieves that great balance between Players versus Environment that can be found within Endgame instances in other games (notably WoW).

    MMORPG Nirvana, for me, would not be made the way CoH does it, because it has too many compromises, especially in procedural content. I have friends who outright refused to play CoH after seeing / realizing that so much of the game is formulaic.

    So overall, I can understand why the lessons haven’t caught on. It’s easy to dismiss some of the advances when a lot (a LOT) of people dismiss CoH as sucking overall (I’m not one, but I see the perspective and agree entirely, absolutely to their reasons).

  17. Ugh I hate it when I post and then realize I’m probably not being clear. I’ll try to paraphrase myself:

    The best solution IMHO is sidekicking, level pacts, etc. while leveling, but not make leveling such a long climb and have a solid Endgame for better, hand-crafted content.

    The criticism with CoH’s procedural content is not just that it’s repetitive, but that scaled content has a sameness in challenge.

  18. If only someone could take the lessons of CoH (sidekicking, etc) and combine it with the lessons of Warhammer (“endgame” feeling from level 1 by allowing you to participate in PvP/raid-type content seconds after entering the world instead of forcing you through 50+ levels of fetch/kill quests grinding to the endgame) and make a game that is worth playing at every level that allows all players to play together at any level.

    Or maybe its the levels that are the problem, but so many people seem to crave levels as validation that playing is “gaining” them something…

  19. @Jason: I dunno, I didn’t like Warhammer’s level-tier system, it never gave me that feeling of Endgame all the way up. It was supposed to, but then I don’t think of Endgame as just PvP / raid-type content. The PQs were better, at first, but they just didn’t maintain quality throughout. Good ideas, meh on execution.

    I think Champions Online has PQ-like content along the way, or at least I’ve heard there’s a PQ in the starting tutorial.

  20. I suppose the problem there is that you didn’t want to play the game they built. Their endgame was PvP, and in Warhammer, you can PvP from the get-go (well, you could, with population issues you can’t anymore, and you wind up having to grind to higher tiers to find decent PvP). The problem I find in many games is that I hate the traditional idea of “Endgame”, which to me means “playing in a way you didn’t play all the way to get here”. Most games, in my opinion, die at the level cap. Most games are also reborn at the level cap, because they are two entirely different games. There is no raiding at level 1, and at the level cap you almost have to raid to keep progressing or else you will top out and have nothing else to gain.

  21. @ Julian: I don’t think you can have everything here. On the one hand, there’s a concern that assistance from higher-level people can make content trivially easy and allow farming, so it’s nice to prevent this. On the other hand, there’s the desire to let anyone assist who wants to (I agree that altruism is socially desirable). On yet another hand, there’s the desire to allow players to outlevel content such that they become the God-Emperors of newbie-land whenever they deign to visit. Pick the two out of these three that you want to see manifest, because all three seem collectively incompatible. Most games today choose the second and third options, while some pick the first and third.

    Actually, the simplest way to have all three options, and the only way I can see to prevent their mutual incompatibility, is to stick to a horizontal progression system instead of a vertical one. One of the central theses of vertical progression systems is the third option above; the idea that over time players outgrow content. That’s not necessarily true in a horizontal progression system.

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