Getting more stuff as you level

Me and Arbitrary are currently both rank 37, aka THE END IS IN SIGHT! Actually I feel as though the levelling pressure is off now. I have all the abilities I really wanted from my mastery specs and none of the baseline abilities that I will get between now and 40 are particularly exciting.

Or in other words, I know now how my character will play at maximum rank and I’m having fun with it. I’ll get more xp now regardless of what I do but it doesn’t seem all that urgent. I can play in Tier 4 with my friends (have been able to do this for ages), we’ve been to Bastion Stair, I’ve run around in Open RvR warbands, I pull my weight. Part of this is due to playing as a healer, and because healing spells are never resisted it has always been easy for a healer to contribute at a lower level than tanks or dps classes. But  also I have all my core spells now.

The alure of levelling as a mechanic is that players are slowly introduced to core abilities. It’s an easier learning curve than if you were presented with every ability at rank 1. Plus it’s an incentive. Level up some more and get cool new abilities! You get to feel as though you really worked for it (I’m not big on work ethic in games myself but it works for some people!) But on the flipside, if you have to wait until max rank to get important play-changing core abilities then you may be stuck with a character that plays very differently at endgame. You could spend all that time on a character to find that you hate it.

And even if not, forcing people to wait for important abilities affects game balance for levelling characters. They had to tweak Archmages in beta to give them their damage abilities earlier in rank because they were simply painful to level at all.

Xixaz-AP has a super post on the Vault discussing all sorts of game design issues, with suggestions. The one that caught my eye was the suggestion that characters should get all their new abilities for a Tier right at the start of that Tier. So you get all your Tier 2 abilities at rank 12, for example. He also has some great ideas about indirect rewards and bragging rights.

How would you feel about that? Do you like the idea of having kickass abilities available at max level as an incentive/ reward?

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What is it about MMO designers and pigs?

It is a sad fact that as your character goes through its MMO life, you will end up fighting monsters that look very similar apart from minor colour changes. Those scary level 67 pigs that chased you all over the high level zone are only a quick paintjob away from the level 2 piglets that bothered you as a young orc.

I’m giving pigs as an example because designers seem obsessed with them. I noticed this in Warcraft. What’s the first thing you see on stepping out of your new hometown in Outland? It’s a frickin’ felboar. They can label it as a demon all they want, I know a pig when I see one! DaoC had major pig issues also. The whole of Albion was plagued with them, conveniently congregating in appropriate level zones. I’m sure WAR will also have some favourite monster models that we’ll learn to hate.

But it’s the level-appropriate zones I wanted to talk about. It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking: “But what stops a level 35 pig from going into the newbie zone where it won’t have any predators? I’d do that if I was a pig!” Nothing stops it, just the internal logic of the game doesn’t work like that. Every creature has its allotted location and allowed roaming area, all laid out to make a comfortable progression path for player characters.

The level 35 pigs aren’t necessarily more powerful than the level 3 piglets. It’s not as if they will ever fight each other so that you could find out anyway. The level just indicates at what point in a characters’ ‘life’ they’re intended to be encountered. You could see each PvE zone as representing a spot on a timescale, which is why you start in the easiest zones and move on with the monsters changing with you.

Old school MMOs used to have very mixed zones with high and low level creatures in together. These days, you don’t expect to see much of that and where you do, the high and low level areas are well marked out. The zones are there to shepherd characters through their levelling curve. We like MMOs because we have the illusion of total freedom of action, but in practice they’re pretty much on rails. Still, the ability to go anywhere and get killed quickly (by pigs) if you weren’t ‘supposed’ to be there is probably more freedom than we get in real life …

Is that how WAR will manage things? Probably, it’s a convenient way to keep players of the same level together and we all seem to enjoy it, but we’ll have to wait for the NDA to drop before we find out. We know that the zones are arranged into tiers, where tier 1 is lowest level and tier 4 is where the capital cities and huge fortresses are. Will we be able to go explore higher level areas without pulling half the zone a la WoW? Will they leave it to the other players to keep the lowbies in their level appropriate areas via PvP/ ganking? And, more importantly, will there be pigs?

What can’t you test in beta?

When I’m playing a new game or a new patch in a MMORPG and I find any bug, the first thing I think is, “How come they didn’t spot that in beta?” Closely followed in some cases by, “Wait a sec, I REPORTED that in beta! Why didn’t they fix it two months ago?” I think every gamer knows that nerdrage, the one that wonders what beta was for if not to find and exterminate bugs. The one that wonders why although we’re paying the live game, sometimes it feels as though we’re paying to be testers. The one that wonders why we settle for imperfect products in this arena where in many others, we’d be out with complaints.

Actually, in a lot of industries, they’d be jealous of games companies that are able to run betas with thousands of free testers. No matter how complex the software or the number of users, most situations can be tested if you have enough time and resources. But even so, some parts of the game are difficult (or impossible) to test until you go live. Here’s some of the reasons:

Player behaviour in live games is different from beta

1. The economy. You can test that everything is basically working. People can buy and sell things. You can measure how much gold (or whatever you call your currency) they are earning and how much they are spending. But players in a beta know that their characters are disposable. They don’t treat the economy the same way as they do in a live game. They just won’t put the same amount of effort into trying to game the system (or at least to work it as efficiently as possible).

2. Crafting. Same reason as above. For disposable characters, there’s a limit to how much effort people will put into crafting. Also, without having all the information available on external websites (which will no doubt be up shortly after launch), players will go through the learning process themselves in beta. After that, you can assume most people will look things up. Which is sad if you like to discover things for yourself, but that’s a part of MMORPGs which has pretty much drained away unless you are a the cutting edge. A developer could buck this trend by changing all the recipes after beta, but then you have the possibility to introduce new bugs.

3. Customer service under pressure. Your beta players will mostly be better disposed to the game than live ones, if only because they don’t want to be thrown out of beta. They won’t be pressuring GMs in game as much or as harshly. You also probably weeded out a lot of the inarticulate players when you got them to fill out a webform to get into the beta. These things will not be true in live, plus your customers will (hopefully) increase by at least one scale of magnitude. You can get round this by employing people who have had experience with larger games but it’s not something you can test in beta.

4. Griefing, exploiting, goldfarming. You can try to test for these by encouraging your beta testers to go for it. But it’s pretty much guaranteed that players in a live game will find things to do that you hadn’t thought of that are against the spirit (or the letter) of any player behaviour agreement that they signed. I’m hoping that Mythic is egging on the beta testers and encouraging griefing, so that they can figure out what players may do in live and how (or if) they want to deal with it.

5. (Balance.) I put this one in brackets because of course you can test it, but that doesn’t guarantee it’ll be the same in live. Balance issues are very different among a player base that knows all the best tactics and overpowered builds (from websites) than in a player base that is still learning them. The longer the beta, the more likely these issues are to come up then. But of course, every time the devs tweak a class or a game mechanic, the beta testers have to figure out how to abuse it all over again. It is really common for a game to have balance issues and beta testers to say “I told them about this X months ago!” Truth is, by the time a game gets to the end of beta, the devs probably aren’t looking for feedback that says “Redesign this class/game from the ground up,” even if it is good feedback.

Levelling Issues

If the testing is focussed on specific parts of the game (ie. testers are all told to go and test a particular career, or scenario, or keep siege) then it’s hard to test issues arising from a more varied player base.

1. Powerlevelling. A combination of some of the above issues. Beta testers aren’t as motivated to beat the system as live ones will be, because their characters are disposable. Also you may not have the different level ranges available to players that would make this possible. It may be that powerlevelling isn’t a gameplay issue. But probably devs want to know how fast it is theoretically possible to level, and if they’ve missed any exploits. You could certainly have a competition for beta testers to test levelling speed if it was important to test out those issues. But I don’t know if many devs do that.

2. Looking for Group functionality. This won’t be as tested during beta as it is in live because there isn’t the sheer variety of level range and possible activity (ie. levelling, PvE quests, scenarios, dungeons, etc) in the game yet. Dungeons in particular are often focus tested so players don’t need to use LFG functions to group up for them.

3. Mixed level groups. If there is a period of non-focussed beta towards the end of the process where every piece of the code is basically there and players are left to their own devices, you can test this. But it won’t be the same as in a live game where Ms Hardcoregamer wants to play with her boyfriend Mr OoShiny — or at least to help him out with some quests. Players will want to know how easy it is to group up with people of different (in some cases very different) levels and how it affects xp. Beta testers are less likely to play like that.

Complexity

Some issues are just harder to test because of the increased complexity of having hundreds of thousands of players in live.

1. Complex timing issues (this is to do with the software, not to do with player timing). You can test a lot of these by limiting the number of people on live servers, and then running test servers at the same capacity. That should catch most of the really weird bugs. But occasionally 1000 players will all decide to jump up and down on one particular spot in one particular scenario while all messaging each other or some other inexplicable thing and manage to find an obscure bug. These bugs are really pernicious because they’re usually hard to replicate — for that reason, it’s not worth worrying too much about them.

2. Complex network issues. Running several dozen servers is very different from the handful that are used by beta testers. Mythic certainly have experience in running large MMORPGs, they should be ready for what WAR can throw at them, but they didn’t get that experience from the beta.

3. Players doing things you never thought of. With thousands of beta players, they will think up a lot of interesting stuff to do that devs hadn’t expected. But it is guaranteed that in the live game, someone will still think of some new bizarre thing to do. Humans are good like that.

4. Different server types. I’m not sure how much time there would be for testing different server rulesets. Usually the goal is to test out the core ruleset properly. There won’t be time to do the same level of testing on different rulesets, although anything obvious should be checked. So there may be issues with a new ruleset that no one expected or thought to test. Not really a complexity issue so much as a time and tester management one.