Tag Archives: Guild Wars 2

Stepping off the Treadmill: Alternatives to Gear

Honesty time: I have had enough of gear. The concept of continually acquiring new and better equipment lies at the heart of virtually all MMORPGs, but I’m just sick of it. It’s an easy way for developers to provide a carrot for players to chase, but I don’t think it’s healthy for the genre in the long run, and I for one am simply bored with the whole concept.

A high level character shows off their gear in World of Warcraft

Gear as a vertical progression system works well in single-player games because eventually you’ll have the best gear and be done with it. In an MMO, that can never happen. Regular gear resets are a necessity, so gearing becomes a treadmill where you never really get anywhere. Today’s best in slot will be tomorrow’s vendor trash.

It’s also a terribly binary form of progression. Either the item you want drops, or it doesn’t, and your time feels wasted. This can be mitigated with currency systems, where if gear doesn’t drop a currency that can eventually be spent on gear does, but even that only lessens the problem, rather than solving it entirely.

And of course it creates terrible inequality between players. There is inevitably a large power gap between those with the best gear and those without, fostering elitism and excluding many people from content.

It doesn’t have to be this way. There are other alternative progressions systems out there, and while none are perfect, many can avoid the pitfalls of the gear treadmill.

Continued Leveling

In most MMOs, leveling is little more than a time-gate. It’s something you work through before getting to the “real” game, which is usually where the gear treadmill kicks in.

But it doesn’t necessarily need to be that way. Leveling is something that can continue indefinitely, providing players constant, incremental power increases. You can see examples of this in Diablo III’s paragon levels and Elder Scrolls Online’s champion points.

A necromancer character in Diablo III, a game where leveling never ends

There are some disadvantages to such a scheme. In the long run the constant small stat boosts can add up and begin to create balance issues or other strange behaviors, and as with gear, you risk creating a large divide between the haves and the have-nots, though that can be mitigated with catch-up mechanics.

Endless leveling does have some major positives, though. Because pretty much anything can give XP, leveling is a progression system that offers incredible freedom to the player. Any playstyle can be therefore be meaningfully rewarded. Add global level-scaling as seen in Guild Wars 2 or ESO, and your options become almost limitless.

You can also say goodbye to play sessions where nothing is accomplished because what you wanted didn’t drop. You’re always going to be earning at least some XP. And while it’s still vertical progression, it’s not a treadmill, because the levels you’ve already earned are never made irrelevant. You’re always moving forward.

Non-combat Skills

Not all progression needs to be about helping you kill stuff faster. Progression can instead take the form of various non-combat abilities and buffs. Perhaps players can gain new movement skills, or learn new languages to access quests from isolated NPC races, or gain more incremental buffs to things like movement speed or gold find.

The masteries introduced in Guild Wars 2’s Heart of Thorns expansion are one example of this, and some of ESO’s champion points and Diablo’s paragon levels also offer non-combat improvements.

Horizontal progression such as this is good because it side-steps nearly all of the problems with gear. The gap between veteran and newcomer is largely irrelevant, since both groups maintain roughly the same power level where it most counts. There is no treadmill, as the bonuses you’ve earned are always relevant. Like endless leveling, it’s also a good opportunity to reward all playstyles and make every session rewarding.

A character in Guild Wars 2, a game with a vocal but not always successful commitment to horizontal progression

The downsides are that non-combat bonuses don’t always have the same “sex appeal” as doing more damage or having more health, and it can be difficult to design non-combat boosts that are useful enough to be appealing but optional enough to not break the game.

Non-combat progression likely works best as a supplement to other systems rather than the core progression model of a game. It can be something to help you achieve your other goals, since not everyone will find it a worthy goal unto itself.

Cosmetics

Progression doesn’t even necessarily need to be about gameplay. It can also just be about bringing the flair. There are already plenty of people throughout the MMO community who will pursue gear purely for its looks, rather than its stats. Some wily developer could capitalize on this and put cosmetic progression front and center.

In theory, cosmetic progression was supposed to a key part of Guild Wars 2’s design, though it never seemed to quite work out that way. I don’t think it had enough different looks to choose from, at least at launch, and limiting the transmutation charges needed to a change an item’s appearance was a mistake. If you want to make appearance items a core progression system, it needs to be easy to create, save, and swap outfits at will. Otherwise you encourage people to find one look they like and stick with it forever after.

Star Wars: The Old Republic has a very good outfit system that allows you to save multiple looks and swap between them whenever, wherever. It’s certainly encouraged me to horde a massive amount of cosmetic gear. Also, while it’s not an MMO, Overwatch seems to be doing quite well with a purely cosmetic progression model, so I definitely think it can work.

I think the trick to a really strong cosmetic progression system is to have a wealth of options. Not just the usual gear slots we’re used to, but also visible jewelry, dyes and accessories to modify your clothes, and perhaps unlockable hairstyles or idle animations.

SWTOR is a good MMORPG for cosmetic progression

Make it so no two characters ever look alike, so each avatar is a visual record of that player’s accomplishments. Then move it beyond avatars to also include non-combat pets and mount skins. Even spells and abilities could potentially be reskinned, with more unusual effects reserved for the greatest in-game accomplishments.

With some creativity, the potential for cosmetic progression is almost limitless. The only real downside is that, like gear with stats, cosmetics don’t lend themselves to incremental progress very well. You either get the item you want, or you don’t.

Earning Abilities

Another option for horizontal progression is to continually earn new abilities. These abilities are not necessarily more powerful than what you already have, but simply add new options. This is a more niche option, but for me personally, it’s the most appealing form of progression.

The main example of this I can think of was the late, lamented ability wheel of The Secret World, wherein players constantly earned ability points that could then be spent unlocking hundreds of active and passive abilities. Only a few of these abilities could be equipped at a time, making for careful strategic decision-making and allowing for true horizontal progression. Leveling up different jobs on the same character in Final Fantasy XIV could also be considered a version of this progression model, though a very watered down one.

There are a lot of obvious advantages to this. It greatly narrows the gap between the haves and the have-nots because veteran players simply have more options rather than being directly more powerful.

It also eliminates the treadmill issue. Your old abilities are never invalidated. They will always have uses, even if they’re niche.

The Secret World was one of the best MMOs for horizontal progression before its reboot

The downsides are the potential balance issues caused by endlessly adding new abilities and the design challenge in keeping the new abilities meaningful and interesting, but I don’t think those are necessarily unsolvable. TSW may have had cookie cutter builds for certain situations, but there were no builds that dominated every aspect of the game, and almost every ability was useful in at least one or two circumstances.

These new abilities could be earned through traditional XP farming as in TSW and FFXIV, but developers could also get more creative. There could be lengthy quest chains where one learns new abilities from a master, or defeating a powerful boss could grant the player permanent use of one of the boss’s powers.

Mix and Match

Ultimately, no one single alternative to gear will work for everyone. It would be best to combine a few to achieve a broad appeal and add depth to the experience.

But really, that’s to be expected. Even games that do rely on gear for vertical progression often include at least some elements of other systems.

What is clear is that the gear treadmill is not the be all and end all of MMORPG progression. Developers like it because it’s easy to design, and players like it because we’ve been conditioned to, but the genre can and should do better. There are alternatives out there. All we need is a developer with the courage to try.


Guild Wars 2: Path of Fire Preview Shows Promise

I have a strange and complicated history with Guild Wars 2. Like a lot of people, I fell hard for the hype before the launch. Once I finally got my hands on the game, I played heavily for several weeks and had a great time… until I didn’t.

The new Crystal Oasis zone in Guild Wars 2: Path of Fire

Part of it was how far the game had drifted from its original concept. Part of it was the lackluster story. For a variety of reasons, I fell out of love with GW2, and while I’ve revisited it a couple of times, I’ve never been able to recapture the magic.

Still, when ArenaNet announced a free preview of the second expansion, Path of Fire, my curiosity was ignited (hurr hurr). I decided it was time to give the game one more try.

Into the desert

First, it needs to be said this was a very small preview. It included only a brief leg of the new story and a very small corner of one of the new maps, Crystal Oasis.

I was also mildly irritated by the fact that you could not bring an existing character into the preview, but instead had to create a new one that would then be wiped. I suppose that’s to ensure this is truly a preview and not early access, but given how little content was available in the demo, I’m not sure I see the harm in letting people get a head start on it.

One interesting thing about this, though, is that I was able to make a revenant character despite not owning Heart of Thorns. Of course, in retrospect, diving into some relatively challenging endgame content on a class I’ve never played before may not have been the brightest idea I’ve ever had. There was certainly a learning curve, to put it mildly.

It’s very difficult to draw any conclusions about the story of Path of Fire. I haven’t played GW2 in a long time, so I have no context on what led to these events, and the amount of story in the demo is, again, incredibly small.

A Norn revenant in Guild Wars 2: Path of Fire

So take this opinion with a hefty grain of salt, but it seemed like GW2’s story-telling had improved in the time I’ve been away. None of the dialogue made me cringe at all, the villains seemed truly threatening, and the characters displayed some genuine personality.

In other words, it’s minimally competent, which is more than can be said for all the Guild Wars 2 story I’ve experienced up until now.

I noticed some interesting environmental story-telling, as well. In town, you’ll occasionally find fanatical servants of the new villain trying to radicalize desperate refugees. You have the option to call them out, sparking a brief fight. There doesn’t seem to be any significant rewards for doing so, but it’s a nice little bit of immersive story-telling.

I groaned inwardly when I found out that Path of Fire was focusing on desert zones, as deserts are one of my least favorite video game biomes (jungles being another). That said, though, my fears may have been unfounded. While some sections of the Crystal Oasis were a bit bland, mostly it’s a very beautiful and inviting zone.

The architecture, for one thing, is fascinating. There are pyramids everywhere, but ArenaNet seems to have resisted the urge to ape ancient Egypt as have so many other digital deserts. Instead, the pyramids and other buildings seem a strange mix of Aztec design, Arabic stylings, and some unique flavor all their own.

The Crystal Oasis is at its most beautiful at night. The skies turn into a riot of stars, and the whole landscape is lit in soft, gentle tones. But even during the day, it can still be a pretty zone. Guild Wars 2 has always had a fantastic art style, and there are times in the Crystal Oasis it feels like you’ve walked into some beautiful old oil painting.

The town of Amnoon in Guild Wars 2: Path of Fire

On the whole, Path of Fire leaves a surprisingly strong first impression.

Annoyances

As I delved deeper into the content, though, I started to run into some frustration.

For one thing, mob density in the new zone seems absurdly high. You can’t walk two feet without getting attacked by at least one or two mobs. Definite flashbacks to Orr. At one point I became trapped in one corner of the map for what felt like about ten minutes because I just kept getting jumped by more mobs faster than I could kill them all. It wasn’t even part of an event or any particular point of interest. It was just a random patch of sand that was for some reason guarded like Fort Knox.

There are a lot of wandering veteran mobs, too. Again, playing a class that was totally new to me can’t have helped, but I found them largely impossible to solo, and most frustrating was that a lot of them spam crowd control on you. This is something I always found frustrating about high level Guild Wars 2 content; who thought that being stun-locked by every mob you meet would be fun?

I was also reminded that death is strangely punishing in GW2 for what is ostensibly supposed to be a casual game. Waypoints are few and far enough between that dying can send you miles away and cost you a significant amount of time just to get back to where you were, especially if you need to fight your way through respawned enemies.

Finally, Path of Fire adds one new annoyance in the form of unidentified gear. In the new zones, new items drop as unidentified items and can only be used once you take them to a vendor and pay to have them identified. This is being sold as a way to make inventory management easier, but in practice it’s just a waste of time, and I deeply resent having to pay for loot I’ve already earned (even if the fee is admittedly quite modest).

On mounts

A raptor mount in Guild Wars 2: Path of Fire

Of course, one of the biggest new features in Path of Fire — and one of the few available in this preview — is the addition of mounts.

For reasons that I’ve never quite grasped, mounts are a topic of incredible controversy in the Guild Wars 2 community. I think both sides of the argument have overblown things, honestly. I never saw any particular need for mounts in GW2, but I also never saw any real harm in adding them.

Having played with one, though, I think they’re a positive addition to the game.

Firstly, I like that you get your first mount almost immediately upon entering the new zones. Guild Wars 2 has always been good about not making you wait for the good stuff, and I’m glad to see that’s one element of the game’s design philosophy that hasn’t much changed.

As for the mounts themselves, they’re not just passive speed boosts. They also have special movement and combat abilities. The raptor mount including in the trial has a long jump that can be used to clear large gaps, thus allowing you to reach otherwise inaccessible locations, as well as a sweeping tail attack that allows you begin a fight with a nice burst of AoE damage.

The mounts themselves are also incredibly well animated and have a real sense of weight and momentum to their movements. It’s hard to explain, but they just feel good to pilot in a way that mounts of other MMOs simply don’t. Unfortunately, it seems some people are experiencing motion sickness while using them, but as someone without such issues, I found mounted play to be a real joy.

As a long-time MMORPG fan, it’s easy to be cynical about GW2 adding mounts. It can feel like they’re hyping a basic feature that dozens of other games already have. But credit where credit is due: Guild Wars 2 built a better mousetrap. I don’t want to go back to traditional mounts now.

The new Crystal Oasis zone in Guild Wars 2: Path of Fire

Walking the Path

I’ve got to be honest: I went into this preview expecting and on some level perhaps even wanting to dislike Path of Fire.

And there are definitely some things about it that deserve to be criticized, and it’s not exactly a revolution that’s going to solve all the game’s problems.

But it also needs to be said that there’s a lot about Path of Fire that’s genuinely worthy of praise. Mounts are awesome. The new zone is beautiful. The story at least has potential. If it’s not reinventing the wheel, then at least it’s putting some sweet rims on it.

For me personally, and perhaps other people as well, it may still be too little too late to bring me back to the game, but at the very least, current Guild Wars 2 fans can confidently look forward to what’s ahead.


Six Greatest MMORPG Character Creators

If you’re anything like me, you can get lost in MMORPG character creators, spending great lengths of time perfecting every detail of your avatar. MMOs are games that you may end up playing for months or years, so it’s incredibly important your characters look just right.

But of course, not all character creators are, ahem, created equal. Some offer very limited choices, while others go to absurd lengths to give you total control over every aspect of your appearance.

We’ve put together a list of some of the strongest MMO character creators, so you too can create your ideal avatar.

Elder Scrolls Online

A Dark Elf templar in Elder Scrolls Online

ESO’s character creator is weird. It has a great many options, but it still doesn’t feel entirely satisfying to me as a character creation freak. A lot of the options don’t seem to make as much difference as they should.

That said, I’m still going to give it a nod simply because it has a few features that most other character creators lack. The most interesting is an age slider that lets you adjust the apparent age of your character independent of other features, allowing them to be anything from a fresh-faced youth to a wrinkled crone.

Star Trek: Online

A Romulan character in Star Trek: Online

Despite being an older title nowadays, Star Trek: Online is still holding its own as a strong contender in the character creation field.

Its strength lies in the sheer wealth of options. It might not have quite as much fine detail as some others, but it does allow you to customize nearly every aspect of your character’s physical appearance in at least some way, as well as their uniform and gear. Even your character’s idle animations and general body language can be customized, which is something I dearly wish more MMOs offered.

In keeping with Star Trek’s style, you can also choose from a rather extensive list of playable alien species (though all humanoid, sadly), and even create your own species by selecting the option for a custom alien and mixing and matching visual details and racial abilities.

Guild Wars 2

A Charr engineer in Guild Wars 2

One downside to a lot of MMORPGs with strong character creators is that they usually limit you to playing only humans or very human-like races. This is understandable, as adding detailed character creation options for a variety of diverse races is a big technical and artistic challenge. Adding just one race that requires totally different creation options essentially doubles the workload, and it only gets worse from there.

Still, it can be disappointing as a player to be limited to only basic humanoids, and that makes Guild Wars 2 something of a breath of fresh air. It does offer a variety of races, and several are quite exotic, from the feline Charr to the plant-like Sylvari.

The character creation options in GW2 are perhaps not quite as impressive as in some other games on the list, but they’re still pretty robust, and it’s just about the only game that offers both interesting racial choices and major visual customization, so it deserves major props just for that.

Champions Online

A player character in Champions Online

Fighting crime is important, but looking good while doing it is more important still. Champions Online understands this, and it has the character creator to match.

The options for your avatar’s physical appearance are solid, but it’s when you factor in the costume options as well that the options become truly staggering. Whether you want some traditional brightly colored spandex or a more gritty, modern hero with realistic armor, there is a plethora of options.

A large number of CO’s costume pieces are unfortunately paywalled, but even if you never pay a cent, there’s still a massive selection.

Black Desert Online

A Maewha character in Black Desert Online

Black Desert is a strange case.

In many ways, it’s unequaled in the field of character customization. The amount of control you’re given over the smallest details of your avatar’s appearance is simply amazing. You can tweak every little aspect of their face. You can add highlights and lowlights to their hair or adjust its length in whole or in part. You can choose the color and shape of their pupils.

Black Desert is the first game I’ve played where the character creator has a learning curve, and I mean that as a compliment. You can truly get lost in this thing. It’s almost a game unto itself.

However, there is one major drawback to Black Desert’s customization that keeps it out of the top spot. Each class is not just gender-locked but locked into a specific physical archetype. Your warrior can never be anything but a mountainous beefcake, for instance. You can play as an older man with the wizard class, but there’s no female equivalent. And so on.

It could also stand to have more hairstyle choices. Those are surprisingly limited.

Aion

A character in Aion

It’s been years, but I still haven’t seen an MMO with better character customization than Aion.

Aion has a slider for everything you can imagine, and probably at least one or two things you can’t. It’s a game that gives you almost total freedom to make exactly the character you want.

Above, I said that MMOs with good character customization are often very limited in racial choice, and that’s true of Aion, too, but it doesn’t really matter because the character creator is so powerful you can pretty much make your own races. Want to be a three foot tall pixie with pointed ears and purple hair? That’s an option. Or if you’re prefer, you could be a seven foot tall meat mountain with gray skin and grotesquely disproportionate facial features.

In Aion, the greatest limitation is simply your imagination, and that’s why it deserves the top spot on our list.


Four Things Eastern MMOs Can Learn from the West

A few weeks ago, we looked into ideas that Western MMORPGs would do well to borrow from their Eastern counterparts. Now, it seems only fair to do the reverse, for there are also areas where the East would do well to take some cues from us.

The Odessen Alliance in Star Wars: The Old Republic

To address an elephant in the room, a lot of people will highlight grinding and overbearing monetization as the chief sins of Eastern MMOs, and I won’t say that’s entirely wrong as those are common problems in games from Asia, but I don’t think it’s a universal truth, and plenty of Western games are grindy or greedy too. I don’t see it as a black and white issue.

Either way, the idea of Eastern games being tedious and “pay to win” has been beaten to death, so I’d rather focus on other areas where Eastern games would do well to take some lessons from the West.

Putting More Effort into Story

I wouldn’t say that Eastern games are lacking good lore or the potential for interesting stories. I’ve been saying for years that Aion’s lore is really fascinating and far better than it ever gets credit for.

The problem, though, is that in most Eastern games I’ve played, the story still feels like kind of a background element. There isn’t a lot of effort put into developing it or helping the player experience it in a dynamic way. It’s usually bland quest text.

In the West, we’ve seen MMO games make great strides toward better story-telling in recent years. Voice-acting, cutscenes, and story events have greatly increased in both quality and quantity. Games like Star Wars: The Old Republic, The Secret World (RIP), and Elder Scrolls Online have shown that MMOs can offer stories as strong as anything in the single-player realm, and often treat story as meaningful content in its own right, equal to raiding or PvP.

You generally don’t see this kind of thing in Eastern games, and even when you do, it’s usually hampered by poor localization. Again, there just doesn’t seem to be a lot of effort being made.

The grim realm of Coldharbour in Elder Scrolls Online

The one notable exception to this, at least that I’ve seen, is Final Fantasy XIV, but it’s gone to the opposite extreme. I never thought I could play an MMO that spent too much time on story even for me, but Square Enix found a way. So… many… cutscenes…

Better Racial Choices

One thing that always bugs me about Eastern MMOs is that a lot of them don’t offer a selection of playable races, and even when they do, their racial choices tend to be severely underwhelming. You can be a human, a tall human, a human with cat ears, an Elf analogue, or for some reason a prepubescent girl.

I think this is a trade-off for how much more powerful the character creators in Eastern games tend to be. It’s a lot of work to design robust customization options for a variety of strange and exotic races. But Guild Wars 2 did a pretty good job of balancing both, so clearly it can be done.

Western games don’t always have as much racial variety as I’d like, either, especially when it comes to more recent titles, but even so it’s safe to say we’ve got the East beat in this regard.

World of Warcraft lets you be (among other things) a giant cow, a zombie, a panda, a werewolf, or a space goat with tentacles. GW2 lets you be anything from a giant Viking to a cat monster with horns to a talking salad. I don’t even have space to list the staggering variety of oddball races the EverQuest games let you play as.

Armor that Deserves the Name

“Realistic armor” probably isn’t the right term, seeing as MMO armor is almost never realistic, but there’s a line between “adding some artistic flair because it looks cool” and “you’re literally fighting dragons in a pole-dancer costume.” Most Eastern games have soared so far past that line they circled the Earth and passed it again.

A paladin character showing off her snazzy armor in World of Warcraft

Putting aside the obvious sexism, I just can’t take a game seriously when even high level armor leaves all major organs and arteries exposed. It’s just dumb. And the fact that the aforementioned little girl races usually end up in stripper costumes too just adds a whole other level of wrongness.

TERA general chat is still the most disturbing thing I’ve ever seen in an MMORPG, and I played The Secret World as my main game for years.

The West definitely doesn’t have a spotless record when it comes to the “female armor” issue, but things have certainly gotten better over time, with most sets in most games now being about as revealing (or non-revealing) for either gender and armor in general making at least some effort toward verisimilitude. And even at our worst, we never quite equaled the absurdity of gear in many Eastern games.

Consistent Settings

Eastern games often seem a little too eager to throw immersion out the window when the mood strikes them. I remember aways back TERA added a police car mount completely out of the blue.

A police car. In a secondary world high fantasy MMORPG.

That’s an especially egregious case, but it seems to be pretty common for Eastern MMOs to randomly through in cross-overs with totally unrelated games or other obvious anachronisms that just don’t make sense in context.

This is another area where the West definitely doesn’t have a perfect track record, either. You can find the Hellbugs from Defiance in Rift for some reason, and World of Warcraft’s events tend to echo real world holidays to an uncomfortable degree, but I’m not sure we’ve ever gone to quite the same extremes the East has.


Five of the Best MMORPG Level Scaling Systems

Level scaling in an MMORPG is a wonderful thing. It makes the world more immersive, it effectively expands the available content, and it breaks down social barriers.

I am a firm believer that having level scaling is almost always better than not having it, but not all level scaling systems are created equal. The ideal level scaling system is easy to use, rewarding, and liberating, without entirely erasing a player’s sense of progression. Let’s take a look at some of the best systems in currently running MMOs.

EverQuest 2

A screenshot from EverQuest 2

EverQuest 2 doesn’t have global level scaling, but it does allow players to “mentor,” lowering their effective level for a time.

As the name would imply, the system is mainly intended for use by high level players who want to assist their low level friends. Mentoring grants bonus experience to the person being mentored and also allows the higher level player to gain some rewards from content that would otherwise be trivial to them, though their XP gain is reduced while mentoring.

EQ2 players can also “self-mentor” by visiting an NPC and paying a small fee. This allows them to lower their effective level in five level increments. You can cancel the self-mentoring at any time, but to reactivate it you’ll need to return to the NPC.

It’s a bit of a clunky system, but it’s better than nothing.

Guild Wars 2

A mesmer character in Guild Wars 2

Guild Wars 2 is by no means the first MMO to feature level scaling of some kind, but it is arguably the MMO that put the concept on the map, as least as far as the modern era of MMORPGs goes.

GW2 made its global level scaling a core selling feature of the game, focusing on its potential to aid socialization and keep the entire game world relevant.

In GW2, each zone effectively has a maximum level. Anyone exceeding that level is scaled down to it, though they will still receive experience and loot commensurate with their actual level.

It’s a pretty good system, but it’s not perfect. While improving your skills and gear can still make some difference, the rather strict level cap on each zone means that you’re not going to feel that much more powerful as a level eighty in a level ten zone. But at least it does deliver on its promise of helping people group together and keeping the whole game world relevant.

Star Wars: The Old Republic

The planet Ziost in Star Wars: The Old Republic

SW:TOR uses a system that’s similar to that of Guild Wars 2, but I would argue it’s a little better.

Like GW2, each of SW:TOR’s zones has a maximum level that all players will be scaled down to, but in this case the max level is slightly above the intended level range of the zone. Therefore, when you return as a high level character, you’ll be noticeably stronger than you were when playing at-level, but not quite enough to totally trivialize the content. And of course you’ll be getting rewards equivalent to your actual level.

For me, this hits the perfect balance of rewarding progression without making older content completely toothless or irrelevant.

Rift

A promotional screenshot from Rift

Rift’s level scaling comes in the form of a mentoring system similar to EverQuest 2’s, but it’s much more flexible and easy to use.

Mentoring in Rift can be used to exactly match the level of another player, and is applied automatically in certain types of content, like Instant Adventures. Players can also mentor themselves down at any time by simply clicking their portrait and selecting the option. In this way the player can set themselves to any level below their own, while still receiving rewards equal to their true level.

The beauty of this system is that it puts a lot of power in the hands of the player. Not everyone enjoys level-scaling, and in Rift they need not be subjected to it if they don’t want to. If you do enjoy scaling, you have a lot of flexibility when it comes to when and how to use it. You can set your level equivalent to or even below the recommended level of the content you’re doing if you want a challenge, or set it slightly above if you want things to be a little easier.

Elder Scrolls Online

A battle on the sea in Elder Scrolls Online

So far all of the level scaling systems mentioned in this list have one thing in common: They only scale you down, never up. Elder Scrolls Online is a rare and welcome exception.

Actually, saying it can also scale you up is over-simplifying things a bit. Really what ESO does is scale everything — from players to mobs — to a single effective level across the entire game. This system was dubbed “One Tamriel,” and that’s actually a pretty good tagline, as it unifies the entire game into a single cohesive world in a way few MMOs ever accomplish.

In ESO, you can pretty much do anything, any time. You might have a little trouble getting raid invites as a level one character in white gear, but short of that, there really aren’t any limits. Faction restrictions on content have also been removed, so you truly can go anywhere and do anything whenever you want.

Obviously this makes group play a lot easier. If you’ve played since launch and your friend just joined, you can still group together while both being challenged and rewarded. It also makes leveling alts a lot more appealing, since you can take an entirely different leveling path, even if both characters are the same faction.

It also doesn’t entirely erase a sense of progression. Leveling up provides you with more skill points to expand and enhance your build, gear still increases your combat performance, and the Champion Points earned after reaching max level can have a significant impact on your character’s power.

In a perfect world, One Tamriel would be the example upon which all MMORPG level scaling systems are based. It’s simply excellent.


How a PvE Survival Sandbox Could Surpass PvP

These days it feels like you can’t swing an epic Sword of Valor in the MMO space without hitting three or four survival sandboxes. They’re the latest trend every developer is eager to jump on, following WoW clones and MOBAs.

A screenshot from the survival sandbox DayZ

But this is one fad that’s mostly passed me by. There are a few reasons for this, but one of the biggest is the focus on PvP that dominates the survival sandbox genre. I’m not a big fan of PvP, and I’m even less a fan of the free for all anarchy that is the preferred style of competition in survival games.

PvE-focused survival games are rare, and multiplayer versions thereof rarer still. If you want a survival game that hews closer to an MMORPG, you’re doomed to be constantly looking over your shoulder, fearing the next gank.

But I don’t think it needs to be this way. I think a PvE multiplayer survival sandbox can work. I think it could even sell the fantasy of survival against all odds much better than its PvP counterparts.

How We Got Here

First, I think it would be helpful to examine why PvP has come to be the “default setting” for survival sandboxes. Some of the reasons are good, but some aren’t.

Of course, there are clearly plenty of people who simply enjoy it. They find the cutthroat experience of gank or be ganked thrilling. I may not share their view, but I can respect it.

From a broader perspective, PvP puts the “survival” in survival sandboxes. Without risk and loss, the challenge of staying alive in a hostile world would become trivialized, and the entire concept of the genre would fall apart. A survival game needs a threat, and other players can provide that.

But there are, I think, other factors that are more problematic.

A screenshot from the survival game Conan Exiles

To be blunt, PvP is cheap. And I don’t simply mean that as a casual put-down. From a literal financial perspective, enabling open PvP is one of the cheapest ways to add threat and challenge to a game.

Survival sandboxes are clearly games that are being done on the cheap, at least relative to a full-featured MMORPG. Most are indie games who begin charging for admission long before an official launch. For a developer looking to cut corners or at least save costs, PvP is a life-saver.

PvP doesn’t require a lot of development time or expertise. There’s no mechanics to design, no AI to program. Just throw a bunch of people into a box, give them weapons, remove consequence, and let the dark side of human nature take its course.

That brings me to another issue with the survival genre. It seems to be caught in celebrating the worst aspects of humanity.

Most survival games are set after some sort of disaster — usually a zombie apocalypse — and even if they aren’t, there’s usually some sort of environmental threat, like dinosaurs or other nasties. Despite this, though, the greatest threat usually comes from other players. The message is clear: Rather than banding together to survive, humans turn on each other. We’re the real monsters here.

I don’t wish to veer too far off into the realms of politics or philosophy, but to me this seems symptomatic of a growing cynicism in our society as a whole. We’ve come to believe the worst about ourselves as a people. We don’t just acknowledge the darkness within us; we wallow in it.

A screenshot from the multiplayer survival sandbox Ark: Survival Evolved

People are capable of terrible things, but that’s not all we’re capable of, and we can change. We don’t have to settle for the worst; we can be better.

There’s nothing necessarily wrong with some games making humanity’s darkness their star feature. Sometimes I like to indulge my dark side in games, too. But I find it disquieting that an entire genre seems to have made “people are awful” its core conceit.

In the end, all a survival sandbox needs is persistent danger. Players are not the only or even necessarily the best way to provide this. I think the environment can provide just as much of a threat, and perhaps even bring something positive to the online community, as well.

How It Can Work

At a fundamental level, all we need is an enemy for players to fight, something genuinely threatening. The trouble is that humans tend to be a lot smarter than AI, but I think this problem can be solved.

You don’t really need AI that’s particularly good at strategy. You just need it to be powerful, and unpredictable.

Zombies are played out, so let’s say our bad guys are robots. I’ve been watching a friend stream Horizon Zero Dawn lately, and I can’t help thinking what an amazing setting it would be for an MMORPG — or a multiplayer survival game. But if you prefer, you could also imagine our hypothetical game is Terminator Online.

Power is easy enough to achieve. Just give the bots a numerical advantage over players. Design it so there will always be more robots on a server than players by a wide margin. Doesn’t matter if they’re stupid individually; their sheer weight of numbers makes them a threat.

A screenshot from Horizon Zero Dawn

Players should generally be more powerful than the machines so that other players are always seen as a valuable resource. It’s a quality versus quantity proposition; players are stronger, but bots are much more numerous.

Unpredictability is a little trickier, but I think it can be doable without investing millions into advanced AI research. Again, the bots don’t need complex strategies to be a threat. Place some broad limits on their behavior — an upper limit on the number of NPCs that can be deployed server-wide, for instance — and then apply a certain degree of randomness to their distribution and aggressiveness.

Those two factors alone should be able to make for an unpredictable world. One day, the bots might swarm a certain zone heavily while neglecting other regions; the next, they might stick to the wilderness, presenting a threat to lone wanderers but not organized groups.

This would undoubtedly lead to some odd behaviors now and then. The robots might go a brutal rampage across a zone with no players. They might swamp a smaller settlement so much the players within have no hope of survival.

I think that’s okay. Survival sandboxes have always been a bit random, and they were never meant to be fair. A PvE sandbox doesn’t need to change those things.

What’s most important is that players never feel entirely safe, that they never know exactly when the next blow will come.

Couple this with the removal of the option to attack your fellow humans, and suddenly you have a game where you’re always happy to see other people. Bonds are formed not by arbitrary goads toward socialization, but by the simple fact that there’s strength in numbers.

Hasta la vista, noob

I think the bigger challenge would be to ensure nothing else in the game’s mechanics discourages cooperation between players, but I think this is also a solvable problem.

My initial thought was to emulate the open-tapping and personal loot of Guild Wars 2, but that could sabotage the scarcity of resources that is a core part of the survival genre. Adding more players would simply generate more resources.

A better option might be to make resources more of a node system than directly looted items. If players capture a mine, then those in the immediate area can craft metal items.

This could also create interesting emergent gameplay. Maybe there aren’t any mines in your area, but a new one just opened up to the west, so you have to make the journey there to craft new weapons.

But the bots are swarming between you and the mine. Do you try to sneak through and hope you don’t get noticed? Do you take the long way around and risk the mine being conquered by bots in the meanwhile? Do you rally your fellow players and fight your way through?

Adding some randomization to the resources could also help ensure scarcity. Mines regularly deplete, farms regularly fail, and so forth. New resources will appear, but not always consistently. Shortages can happen, forcing players to ration, or perhaps to risk forays into enemy territory to capture what resources remain.

With a few simple mechanics, we’ve designed a game full of danger, where survival is a constant struggle, but where other players a resource and not a threat. It’s human versus machine in a constant struggle for dominance. Picture people manning the walls of player-made cities in a desperate struggle to protect precious resources from a swarm of robotic foes. Picture random strangers rushing to each other’s aid after a wilderness encounter with a bot patrol.

That, to me, seems like a much more appealing prospect than the Lord of the Flies simulators we’re stuck with now. Rather than encouraging the worst in all of us, a PvE survival sandbox could foster cooperation and fellowship among players.

It might not solve toxic behavior in all cases, but I do think it could foster an environment that’s more positive than negative. Adversity can bring out the worst in us, but it can also bring out the best, and it’s time the survival genre acknowledged this.