Posted Mon, Mar 18, 2013 by ricoxg
Thus we come to the alternative game style which is most often associated with theme-park games--level-based progression. The two are not quite as synonymous as skill-based progression and sandbox games, but they’re found together far more often than not. The reason they’re often married is because theme park games are looking for the easy everything. The developers want the game to be easy--easy to maintain, easy to upgrade. Most importantly, they want it to be easy to predict what you’ll do.
In level-based games, where you go, what you can make, what you can wear, what you fight… it’s all based on your level. So, yeah, it’s a lot easier for developers to build a game around that. They can keep everyone on neat little tracks from point A to point B. The advantage is that they know exactly how powerful the others in your group are, and precisely how powerful the opponent is, whether mob or player. If you lose a fight in a level-based game, it wasn’t due to the fact that the other player had more skill than you; he just played his character better than you did.
Where skill-based games expect you to fail, level-based games are trying to keep you from it. You only attack mobs that are the right level, or get missions/quests that you can actually complete. Then, if you do bite off more than you can chew, there’s rarely any real loss involved. The Affordable Healthcare Act allows you to rez at your nearest spirit healer with little to no real penalty.
The result of all that is a consistency that a lot of players (and I shamefully admit, often older players such as myself) prefer because you always know what you’re going to get. You know how long it should take to accomplish certain tasks. You also know about how challenging any given part should be: easy. It’s not a bad word, but “easy” is what we’re talking about here. Level-based games are just easier all around and, for a lot of gamers, just what they’re looking for.
Of course, we have to get to the touchy part of the game-type, how it relates to the socialist model for economics, and why that appeals to a lot of people. Before you get out of shape about your game being a communist propaganda tool, take a second to look at it. Consider some of the core concepts of most theme-park games.
The biggest, or at least one of the most glaring, is the concept of uniformity. There’s an illusion of choice and individuality, but ask yourself if that’s actually real. There’s always a best set of gear for a given class, best talent/skill/whatever build, and best line-up of abilities. There may be some minor differences here and there, but everyone is just expected to conform, and those who don’t find themselves without a group soon.
The second is that of imposed equality through game mechanics. While it doesn’t really shout at you like the some of the other things pointed out above, it’s still pervasive in these types of games. You can’t have exceptional weapons and armor for your level because they’re all restricted by level. If the gap between those who have a lot of in-game currency and those who don’t widens too much, systems are put into place that serve no purpose other than to suck cash out of the game. Additionally, all crafts tend to be equally accessible by everyone and no one is really allowed to become the grandmaster forger of awesome swords +12 on the server because anyone can get that recipe if they want to.
That sounds like a lot of bad stuff, so why would anyone like something like that? Because it’s fair… well, people think it’s fair, but that’s another article. The idea is that if we even everything out to where I can’t craft anything you can’t craft, and I don’t have access to any abilities you don’t have access to, then you should never get steamrolled the way you might in a skill-based progression system. You’ll never get run out of the market by a competing corporation like you would in EVE because resources and recipes are pretty universally available. It’s more complex than that, but really it’s all about leveling the playing field so everyone has an equal chance, and that’s why it appeals to a lot of players.
You may think the point of this article is to point out which system is best, but that’s not the case. It’s no secret that, being a rather capitalist-oriented fellow myself, I happen to prefer the skill-based progression system and sandbox games. But this isn’t really about what I prefer, it’s about answering a question: which system is best?
The answer is neither. They both have their place in the gaming industry, just like the economic and associated governmental models have their places. We couldn’t have a good capitalist society without a socialized library or education system, both of which are institutions I’ve taken serious advantage of over the years. In the same way, I think the next exceptional game will be the one that finds the proper balance between the two.
Until then, we’re all going to have our preferred system and good reasons to like it, but we also need to understand that not all players are alike. What works for the potty-mouthed pre-teen, probably isn’t that great for the employed adult gamer with responsibilities. Both systems have strengths, and both have their weaknesses. I’m very interested to see how the hybrid system promoted in The Elder Scrolls Online addresses each and whether this will be a redefinition of gaming, or another failed attempt at having our cake and eating it too.
Perhaps, the best method is to be like the reed in the wind; bending upon the breeze, it finds its strength in flexibility.