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Better Late than Never?

April 20, 2011

Dear Reader,

Yesterday, Tobold spoke about world events, and in the comments to his post I noticed an interesting point being made: that early levels of MMOs are not representative of later levels.  From my experience, the commenter was right, and it began to gnaw at me.  Why?

The comments surrounding this realization included the idea that a person shouldn’t have to play 20 levels of a game to begin to enjoy it.  I wholeheartedly support that idea; games should be fun from the start.  This isn’t always true, though, and though I’ve stuck it out a few times with a game, most of the time I’ve stopped playing and heard later that there were many severe problems later in the game, too (AoC and Fallen Earth are two that come to mind).

Having played many MMOs over the past ten or so years, I feel I have pretty good feeling for the leveling process.  You start with one or two abilities in a relatively safe zone with few challenges.  The first five or ten levels are basically a tutorial for gameplay.  After that, things become a little more dangerous, but you get new powers to help you survive.  Eventually, you hit the max level, and things radically change.

Why?  Why is there this huge shift in the end game?  Why doesn’t gameplay flow along the same line throughout the game?

From here on out I’m going to focus on WoW, but I feel that most the MMOs I’ve played have followed WoW’s pattern.  In WoW, the leveling gameplay consists mostly of doing short, simple activities that can almost always be done solo and are sometimes  easier to do solo (collection quests, for example).  Rarely unless you make a mistake do you need to use your cooldowns, so it’s easy to just macro them into other abilities to make sure you make use of them at all.  If you’re careful, you can avoid killing a lot of extra “trash” (mobs you don’t need for your quest).  Time is best spent doing as many quests as possible as fast as possible.

On the other hand, the end-game raiding experience is quite different.  While the best of the top guilds might emphasize speed, most raiding guilds prefer cautious, careful interactions over hurrying through a raid dungeon.  Macroing cooldowns to other abilities is frequently a bad idea, too, since there may be a time when you need to use them independently of other abilities, such as damage spikes for defensive cooldowns or bonus damage phases for offensive ones.  Obviously, raiding also requires a lot of teamwork, something de-emphasized by the early game (and even the late-game dungeons now, thanks to LFD).  Lastly, raiding is frequently a long-term, in-depth activity.

Now certainly some can say that raiding is a fast-paced, easy activity.  Sure, but I’m writing from the point of view of a Part-core gamer, not a pro.

Why, then, does the early game train us to be short-sighted, impatient, lone wolves when the end game requires the exact opposite?  Perhaps it’s the “fun” factor which the commenter mentioned; perhaps the developers believe that if the game is “too hard” at first, that people will lose interest, so instead players are lulled into a false sense of what the game’s really like and the skills that are required for the end game.

A commonly held teacher teacher statistic (meaning it’s probably untrue) is that it’s about seven times harder to unlearn and relearn something than to just learn it right in the first place.  The game designers, then, are making the transition to the end game that much harder for all of us than it needs to be.

Perhaps their belief is that it’s better we learn what the game’s like after we’re well invested in it (both financially and emotionally) rather than never learning at all.  This “better late than never” philosophy upsets me, though, because I think it engenders a lot of the bad habits that we see cropping up with players.  Certainly impatience is an issue.  Lone wolf behavior is, as well.  A belief that everything should be easy (entitlement) crops up a lot, too.  Every one one of these behaviors can be linked back to the leveling portion of the game.

In the end, dear reader, I have no answer for you as to why the early game of so many MMOs is so vastly different than the late game.  I have no solutions, either.  I don’t think splitting the game into two segments is a good idea; people will find a way to abuse it.  The only solution, really, is better design.  It’s making the first 50 (or 60, or 70, or 85) levels have some gameplay connection to raiding in the end game.  We should discard the adage “Better late than never” and trade it in for the saying humorously related to elections: “Vote  early and often.”  Make use of the leveling portion of the game to train players about the raiding portion of the game as early as you can and as often as possible.


Stubborn (who still levels without twinking and sending money from old toons to new ones)

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