The Tyranny Of Levels

WoW has reinforced for me, in ways I had nearly forgotten, the way that levels swamp all considerations of skill or even sanity. This is especially striking coming off a long binge of Team Fortress 2, where a good headshot kills anything.

Level-related modifiers stack to make it pointless to play outside a narrow range. It would be enough to have the numbers get larger with every level, as they do, so good luck using that 50 damage attack against the 200,000hp enemy. Most games add a modifier based on level differences: it is not just that you get higher stats and better accuracy as you level, but also that you have a bonus to hit lower-level targets, with a corresponding penalty against bigger targets. You also face reduced damage against them, above and beyond their improved defenses, while they get those benefits against you, the lower-level target.

Let’s linger there a moment. Long long ago, City of Heroes had its “purple patch,” which imposed level modifiers. Your 50 damage attack against the 200,000hp enemy would only do 20 damage, and that was before applying the enemy’s defenses. Even if you could take down higher level enemies, it was not worth it for the time involved. (And, just in case you found a time-efficient way to do it, much higher level enemies yielded less or no experience.) WoW feels similar. Asheron’s Call assigns levels to enemies but intends them as rough guides to how powerful they are, with modifiers to experience gains but not relative effectiveness.

This makes fighting an even-con elite easier than a higher-level normal foe. Sure, it may have three times as many hit points, but I do not have an arbitrary accuracy penalty, so I can hit the thing. I can kill a caster six levels higher than me, but it takes a few minutes, and I could get the same reward from killing two lower-level foes in half the time.

: Zubon

I am open to the notion that WoW looks this way due to the way weapon skills work, rather than some additional penalty. A level-based hard cap on weapon skills creates the same effect.


Continuing through classic WoW, the zones have great diversity between them but little within. You notice that each zone has its own palette, although it may take some reflection to notice how thoroughly and well that is done. I will get back to within-zone sameness another day, but let’s discuss for a moment how you execute the palette swap.

The problem is non-trivial. The seasons change as you cross onto a new map, but few comment on the walk from the perpetual winter of Dun Morogh to the perpetual spring of Loch Modan. You must have noticed at some point, but did you notice when the transition happened?

Some of this is gamer suspension of disbelief: we are used to having everything change when we get to a new level of the game, and moving to a new zone is the MMO equivalent. The game environment also facilitates this the same way it keeps you on the theme park quest path: channelization. How many zones have wide-open borders that you can traverse, rather than walls of impassable mountains with narrow openings?

Those openings can become rather like tunnels for about a draw distance, so that you see big rocks covering the transition point. The transitions to and from Loch Modan really are tunnels, enclosing you so that you cannot see the set being swapped, like taking an elevator in Portal. In other zones, see bridges and rivers serving a similar purpose. You may note this as a problem at the border of Westfall: river and bridges, yes, but it is brief enough for you to see the transition. On the way in, there are quest-givers to distract you, but Duskwood makes it look like the world ends across the river.

Touring through some other games of my acquaintance: City of Heroes does the same thing, complete with loading screens. Asheron’s Call never does, since you can run everywhere from anywhere, and there are large areas over which you can watch the land change. The Lord of the Rings Online™ Volume One: Shadows of Angmar™ is mostly open, with channelization into the lategame zones and the ones added post-release. The Lord of the Rings Online™ Volume Two: Mines of Moria™ channels everything, but it is set in caverns anyway. Yohoho! Puzzle Pirates has separate islands, with boats as loading screens (WoW does the same at points). A Tale in the Desert takes the same approach as Asheron’s Call, with some really impressive geography reflecting years of effort from volunteer world-builders.

: Zubon

Impassable hills are also good for hiding the Potemkin village nature of most of the landmass. Cataclysm needs to re-do the whole landmass anyway so flying mounts cannot show that there is nothing behind the backdrops.

Morrowind Singularity

I am reading Vernor Vinge’s Marooned in Realtime, the well-known book about people who missed The Singularity. Last night, a character explained how an intelligence explosion works. You find ways to improve intelligence; you use that enhanced intelligence to improve intelligence further; repeat as necessary. At some point, you figure out the fundamental principles of the universe and build your own using common household items.

Anarchy Online and Asheron’s Call players have their own recursive self-improvement. Cast your level 5 spells to buff your stats, which lets you wear better equipment, which lets you cast level 6 spells, which lets you wear better equipment… That process caps due to game design choices like diminishing returns and spell durations, as opposed to the intelligence explosion, which is self-accelerating.

Only this morning did I learn that Morrowind includes intelligence explosion as a mechanic. You can beat the game in less than fifteen minutes, starting with the step “Create and drink Fortify Intelligence in batches of 5.” It is like having a skill that grants you bonus experience every time you earn experience, where you improve that skill by earning experience.

And now I have the compulsion to re-read Godel, Escher, Bach.

: Zubon

Try Asheron’s Call

Asheron’s Call is now offering a free 14-day trial. It’s a different world with skill-based advancement, highly variable loot (as opposed to a few defined drops), no crowd control spells, and the ability to dodge ranged attacks based on movement and player skill (not just the roll of the dice).

You can see my description of Asheron’s Call from Shiny Happy Week here. If you have never tried it, why not give the old underdog a shot?

: Zubon

Some Things Asheron’s Call Did/Does Right

[Asheron’s Call] Asheron’s Call, my first MMO. We spend years hoping the next game will give us back that sense of fun, joy, and wonder at our first game. Our first anything. The newness itself is probably what we are seeking.

On Dereth, we were all humans, visitors from the next dimension over who fought monsters to reclaim another race’s lost lands. Our souls bound to lifestones, we fought to the death and beyond against monsters that returned to plague is in a cloud of purple smoke. We began our days with Drudge and longed for the day we could meet the deadly Olthoi. And, over time, we went hunting for phat lewts and tried to keep on leveling.

Continue reading Some Things Asheron’s Call Did/Does Right