The Arms Race
If you have played an MMORPG, you have probably witnessed the chain of events that happens in virtually every one of them. You fight, level up, get better equipment, and move on to a new area to fight. Rinse and repeat until you hit the max level cap, at which point only the end game content has any relevance. You might also have witnessed another progressive cycle.
The game is released and the content played through, then an expansion is released that upgrades the level cap and introduces more top end content. However, at the interface between the old content and the new is a point where the gear being dropped is easier to acquire and dramatically better than that found in the old content, thus rendering the old content obsolete. As the game gets older, it becomes heavier on the back end because of the large number of top level players, so new players are either left in dead space or twinked so that they burn through the content as fast as possible in order to get to the top, often missing out on everything that the game really has to offer. This is what I refer to as the arms race.
I have seen this cycle repeated over and over throughout a large number of MMORPGs. Some of the older games such as EverQuest and World of Warcraft are notorious for it. It is also an issue that has come to the attention of other developers, the most recent notables being The Secret World and Guild Wars 2 by either auto-leveling players(GW2) or removing levels entirely(TSW). Of these, The Secret World deserves an honorable mention for at least making a solid effort to get beyond that cycle, though only time will tell how successful they were at it.
The problem is two fold. The first problem is that fans demand more content on a regular basis. The second is that developers still think of persistent world games as if they were standalone games, and try to treat them as such. The expansions often play like DLC content for your favorite console game; integrated into the storyline perhaps, but ultimately left feeling disconnected from the overall game.
Why These Methods Will Still Fail
Ultimately, while these mechanics are useful and certainly good in their own right, they will still fail to solve the issue of the arms race. They will fail because they do not address the underlying issues that cause the race to begin with. For example, though GW2 allows players to go back and go through old content and still get XP, the main thrust is still a fairly linear movement from level 1 to level 80, with each tier offering new kit that makes your old gear obsolete. TSW, by comparison, is in a slightly better position in that there are no levels and so no reason to rush to the top, but the loot tables at the high end of the game are definitely better than those in lower areas. Eventually, if it hasn’t happened already, someone will map out the path of least resistance to get max skills and the best gear and that will be all that people do, bringing us right back to the core issue.
The core issue is equipment. It is the armament of the game world itself, and the fact that the armament plays such a huge role in the efficacy of your characters. As long as the armament continues to play such a major role, then the arms race will still exist. There is a reason for the old trope, “Never bring a knife to a gunfight.”
Where the Problem Comes From
Again, as I did in my article on the game community, I want to look at the world around us to find out how and why this problem exists. The simplest method is to actually look at what has happened throughout history. If we were to look back in the archaeological record, we notice that history shows the exact same trend. As new weapons and armament become available, those that have them supersede and suppress those that don’t, so those that don’t push hard to get it so that they are once again able to contend with their neighbors. It is a case of ‘keeping up with the Jones’ in terms of military strength, but also in other areas such as technology and creature comforts.
This brings up two different issues to look at. There is a saying that “if everyone is special, no one is.” It could just as easily have said, “if everyone is twinked then no one is.” So there is the very real possibility of turning the game world into a flat-lined static area that destroys the whole fantasy of being a hero, which would be bad. Coming up with some form of equipment differentiation is definitely one aspect to it.
The second area is in how to keep the content viable and relevant in terms of the game. Just like a civilization that is dramatically under-powered in real life becomes irrelevant, so does the content in games that is under-powered. If the equipment dropped and the experience acquired is not balanced among all areas of the same general difficulty level, then those areas that are lacking will quickly become ghost towns.
A classic example of this was the entire area between Freeport and Qeynos in Everquest once the Luclin expansion was released. Because the experience and loot were so much better, and the difficulty so much lower, that one expansion managed to relegate an entire in game continent to a deserted wasteland. Areas that had formerly been hubs of player traffic became empty wastes of resources. While MMO’s such as Rift and GW2 have attempted to get around this by adding in local events to draw players back, it doesn’t solve the issue. GW2 in particular has had some limited success with this, though, because of their dynamic leveling system.
How Can We Fix It?
I cannot say with any certainty what the best approach to solving this dilemma is. Despite the rather simplified breakdown I have given of the topic, it is very complex and something that some of the most brilliant game developers of our time have been working at for years. However, there are some reasonable conclusions that we can come to based on what has and hasn’t worked coupled with an analysis of the problem.
First, we need to stop escalation. That is, we need to stop with the circular logic of making players stronger in order to compensate for the mobs that we made stronger because the players were stronger. There is not a system in existence that can handle that type of design. Eventually, it will always ‘jump the shark pit.‘ To take another classic example from Everquest, players eventually got to the point where they could solo the gods, and yet were not considered gods themselves. I am not really sure how that works, but I digress.
Second, we need to stop expanding worlds that have already been defined. By this I mean, once you have defined a world and its boundaries, do not arbitrarily keep adding new continents and/or other absurd additions to the game world. Part of the suspension of disbelief is that the world must be internally consistent, which is impossible if the basic geography of the world is in a constant state of flux. Moreover, each addition to the game world is a huge investment for developers in terms of time, money, and resources. Those resources could be better spent continuously revamping the game world areas that are already in existence.
That would accomplish three things. It would keep the game world fresh and give the illusion of a ‘living, breathing world’. It would take much of the risk out of the investment, making investors much more likely to continue investing, which in turn keeps the game alive. More importantly, it would give the developers a chance to continuously tweak the balance to all of the world’s areas to ensure that they stay relevant at all times while continuing to provide new content and experiences to the players.
If new content must be introduced, introduce it in existing zones. Get creative with it. Perhaps an ancient temple was discovered underneath a modern city, or previously unexplored part of the jungle was opened up through the activities of a nearby city, and angered a group of unknown midget cannibals that are now feasting on kidnapped farmers in their jungle abodes.
Lastly, reduce the overall impact of weapons and armor. Great equipment does not make an interesting character or a good player. There are literally hundreds of other ways to improve upon characters without resorting to giving them a bigger sword or a more explosive fireball. While having the flashy kit is certainly not a bad thing, it should be doled out only sparingly. After all, consider how hard it is to get your hands on a nuke or a predator drone. If everyone had one of these, then what would the police end up carrying? How much better would they have to be in order to counteract what your weaponry? Instead of making the weapons so much better, let’s make the characters better.
We need to break out of the old single player game mentality and start thinking of these play spaces in terms of worlds. Since they are persistent worlds, we can look to our own world for answers to troubling questions and creative solutions to long standing problems. The answers are out there, all we have to do is look.