Sunday, December 2, 2018

Anyone Seen My Tortoise?

Although I opted out of playing on Lord of the Rings Online's Legendary servers I've been reading a fair bit about them. One of the issues that keeps coming up is the speed of leveling, when compared to the Live game.

The generally accepted view of leveling in LotRO these days seems to be that it zips past in a bit of a blur. I can't say that's been my experience and UltrViolet concurs, but concerns were expressed that, with just fifty levels to do and four whole months to do them in, much of the content would go untouched. Players would rocket to the cap then find themselves with nothing to do but stand around, playing their lutes and smoking pipeweed, trying to think of other games they might be playing instead.

Naturally concerned for such an outcome, and despite having made it clear this was not to be any kind of "Classic" reconstruction in the Blizzard or even the SOE or Jagex mode, Standing Stone opted to apply the brakes. As you can see from the linked thread, that was a decision greeted with less than universal approval.

No surprise there. The introduction of special ruleset servers to an existing MMORPGs is often a cause of worry for regular players. People who are passably satisfied with the status quo tend to interpret any attempt to cater for those who aren't as a direct threat. 

There are two commonly expressed fears. Firstly, the population will split, thereby weakening the existing game; secondly, changes to rules and systems devised for the new servers will bleed across. One of the main reasons PvE players often give for not having PvP in their game, even when it's siloed off onto separate servers, is that developers will inevitably end up altering skills and mechanics for everyone because it's just too awkward to maintain separate systems indefinitely.

On my way from the Lone Lands to Bree to get a ride to the Shire for the Fall Festival.
I remember seeing that argument on the EverQuest forums, all the way back in the very early 2000s, when EQ not only had multiple PvP servers but each of them had a different ruleset. As PvP slipped out of fashion in Norrath and the seemingly endless series of Progression Servers began to trundle off the assembly line, the same concerns passed to them and when Smed had the temerity to suggest the future for EQ lay in F2P, the roof just about came off (although, as time went on to prove, the wheels stayed firmly on).

There's a whole, long discussion to be had about the benefits, impacts and dangers of adding variant server rulesets. I might get to that another day. For now, let's stick to the topic at hand: leveling speed.

It's a truism of the genre that over time leveling gets faster. Is there any moderately successful MMORPG of a number of years' standing that retains the same pace of leveling it had at launch? Sometimes the acceleration is a direct response to a disgruntled playerbase but mostly it's just a natural, almost an organic, process.

Players like their characters to become more powerful. They also like convenience. They react well to things that support those preferences and badly to things that don't. They also acquire both knowledge and resources over time that mean their alts are more efficient at leveling than their mains used to be.

Fireworks! This must be the place. I hear it's great for fast leveling.
The further the end game recedes, the harder players work to come up with shortcuts to get there. Twinking, power-leveling, buying high-level characters, you name it, players will do it. All of this tends to cause a lot of bad feeling and places considerable demands on Customer Service. Rather than deal with that, developers tend to respond by trying to magic the problem away, making leveling smoother, faster, easier and ultimately irrelevant.

The problem then becomes what to do with all that extra content. For many its a non-issue. They skip to cap and stay there, as uninterested in what lies below them as the average householder is about the mineral rights beneath their home.

Some people do care, though. There's a not-insignificant demographic that plays MMORPGs specifically for the quests and another (probably much larger) that just doesn't feel right if they haven't completed everything in a zone before they move on.

These are the people who complain when leveling speeds up so much that quests start to grey out before they finish them. I have never understood this. 

It has always seemed to me that if what you're interested in is completing the quests then the easier the quests are to complete the more fun you're going to have. Yes, the rewards are going to be useless and you won't get much - or any - xp, but if all you're after is the stories and a sense of completion, so what?

Okay, now to grab a quest and watch that XP fly!
Still, it clearly bothers enough customers that developers find it worth taking the time and trouble to implement options to avoid it. That's not always just to please quest-hounds, either. There can be more pragmatic, less romantic reasons.

EverQuest2, for example, has sliders that allow you to choose what percentage of your xp goes to leveling or to alternate advancement. This used to be very important, because AA abilities are very powerful and AAXP becomes a lot harder to acquire at higher levels. It was, at one time, very much in a player's interest to put a character's leveling on hold while working on acquiring a hundred or so AA levels instead.

Options built into the UI are practical if prosaic but some games take their RPG heritage more seriously. LotRO has an item known as The Stone of the Tortoise, which switches xp gain off completely. It's mentioned in the linked thread above and when Wilhelm observed that he was having to avoid certain activities for fear of outleveling his chosen zones, Lathe popped up in the comments to suggest he might want to use it.

This seems like a sensible recourse. The weight of evidence suggests that most players either don't relish leveling at all or would prefer to scamper through at a brisk trot, if not a full gallop. It seems churlish for developers to insist everyone slows down and smells the slaughtered corpses when the role of Fotherington-Tomas-gone-psycho can be applied at will on a one-to-one basis. 

Despite this apparently benign solution, an obverse trend seems to be gaining traction. Flat or horizontal, the idea that all zones can be created equal has been in vogue for some time. I'm not sure I approve but at least  it's better than another card in the developer's pack, the scorched earth option.

Nearly an hour on a horse, two dozen beers, failed the quest, no xp at all. Stone of the Tortoise? Where's my sodding Stone of the Hare?
World of Warcraft's Cataclysm expansion is probably the most (in)famous example. Aion is the latest.  Instead of allowing players free choice on how and how fast to level, the developers simply carve out great chunks of content and throw them away. They then add a multiplier to xp gain on the existing content and call it job done.

I was playing Aion a while back. It made such a deep impression on me I can remember literally nothing about it. I'm not about to work myself up into a surrogate frenzy about the disappearance of content I never cared about in the first place.

If I was playing LotRO regularly, though, I might worry. A little. Players on special ruleset servers are often the strongest enthusiasts for the game and the most vocal advocates for it. Developers also tend to spend more time working on those servers and have more direct interactions with the players there than is usual on a regular ruleset server.

It would be no surprise to see a patch note sometime that mentions a change to Live server XP in some fashion or other. These things happen. If it does, you can bet the Legendary server will get the credit or the blame.

Really, though, these tweaks and changes seem inevitable. I was pondering whether MMORPGs really need to keep adding content but you might just as well ask if they can afford to keep hanging on indefinitely to the content they already have.

Don't ask me. I just play the things.


  1. I do like EQII and the ability to put experience to other use. That is the ideal solution for me because, while I hate out leveling content, something within me also rebels and just turning off xp as well. I have been so conditioned by games over the years to consider advancement as a primary concern that it is hard for me to fight that notion.

    1. Me too. If I'm enjoying myself doing what I'm doing there's really no reason to care whether it's giving xp but soomehow it always niggles me if it's not.

  2. I tend to be the kind of person that complains about levelling being too fast. The reason is that for me an RPG (MMO or otherwise) is at its best when it gets me to care both about the story/affairs of the world I'm in and progressing my character. If I'm engaged with both of those things at the same time, that's the perfect balance.

    If I stay in an area that I've outlevelled just for the quests, I'm losing the character progression aspect. If I move on to keep improving my character but this means abandoning the current "I'm saving this zone" story arc halfway through, my character's actions will feel weird/nonsensical to me. Either way I lose.

    Something like an option to pause XP gains is better than nothing, but in essence it's just a way of letting the player choose their poison. If you were enjoying what felt like a good balance before, it's still frustrating to be asked to basically give up half your fun.

    1. Yes, there's no getting around the loss of progression mechanics when you outlevel an area. You don't get xp so your level doesn't go up and the drops and quest rewards aren't upgrades. If you play a lot of characters then there's always the Heirloom/Twink aspect, but in a way that pushes the problem down the road because when your alts get their share of loot from the same or equivalent areas it won't be any good to them either because they're alredy using your hand-me-downs.

      There are certainly ways around it. Games with housing benefit because furniture doesn't generally care about levels. I guess that's why a lot of quests in EQ2 have house items as rewards. Most developers don't seem to give it much thought, though.

      It's the players who claim all they want to do is finish the zone/area/region storylines that puzle me, though. I can't see how taking a few minutes to kill ten orcs at level to get to the next few sentences of story dialog is better than one-shotting those same orcs in a few seconds and getting to the next part of the plot that much faster. I personally prefer to do narrative quests after they grey out for exactly that reason.


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