Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Should games reward your alts for time spent on your main?

Yesterday's rant about one of my personal pet peeves in MMORPG design, time spent traveling instead of playing the game, got me thinking about a bigger picture question, namely the balance between providing more stuff to do on a player's "main" character versus making it easy for interested players to roll alts.

As I previously discussed, developers love it when players voluntarily roll alts and reuse content instead of running out of stuff to do on their main. However, many players DON'T want to be told to start over after spending hours and hours developing a main character. So, the devs face a delicate balance between encouraging investment in an individual character and not discouraging attempts to start additional characters.

Two brief asides before I wade into the nitty gritty here - firstly, I'm going to be discussing rolling alts for the purpose of re-playing the game, whether because you're out of solo content on your main, or you just wanted to try another class/faction. Some players re-roll because their raid or arena team needs another of class X and they drew the short straw, meaning that the whole point of the character is to get it to the level (experience, gear, and skill if there's a learning curve for the new class) of the previous main as quickly as possible. The latter group is out of luck in most games, since very few allow players to skip to maximum level (Guild Wars is one, and WoW has recently released a tournament PVP ruleset that allows pre-made characters with 100% gear parity). I'm presuming that the journey to the cap is at least part of the fun. Second, I'm excluding accomplishments that players are going to complete naturally in the course of leveling, to focus on things that require effort above and beyond what an average player of the correct level would do as they pass through the zone in question.

Time investment for things like factions, mounts, titles, etc, generally falls into one of three categories:

- Accomplishment on your main has no bearing on any future alts
A prime example of this category is LOTRO's deed system (which Warhammer sounds like they're planning to imitate). Deeds sounded great in principle for players with limited time - if you have time to kill even a single mob, you're technically advancing that kill deed counter by a notch, and thus making progress towards advancing your character. There were two problems with the system in practice. First of all, the number of enemies required to advance deeds doubles and quadruples, to the point where high level deeds require 400 kills of the same boring mob type in the same small corner of a zone. This might have been alright if the only reward was cosmetic (i.e. a rare title), but the second issue was that these massacres are REQUIRED in order to unlock trait upgrades that enhance your characters' abilities. (In fact, ironically, LOTRO ruined the most advanced and creative title system in MMORPG's today by requiring players to grind out the cosmetic titles BEFORE they could unlock the gameplay reward - Elbereth forbid that players stop at a mere 150 mob kills when the devs could make them kill 450 - thus ensuring that all of the interesting titles would be vastly prevalent.)

The end result being, you had to consume every last little bit of content in the game - every quest, and farming hundreds of every mob - just to finish your first character. However, doing so has no bearing on how quickly your future alts would be able repeat the accomplishments - 500 mobs is still 500 mobs. Thus a system that might otherwise have rewarded dedication to a single character becomes a huge deterrent to ever making a second one. The travel issue is another example of this - unless the main limiting factor in obtaining a mount is access to cash (again, developers, the gold sellers thank you from the bottom of their cold, hard hearts), your 5th level 35 character runs just as slowly as your first.

- Accomplishment on your main speeds advancement on an alt
Here, I'll cite the various reputation rewards in the WoW expansion. Technically, it's 9000 reputation from neutral to honored whether it's your first level 60+ character or your 10th. However, a character with a rich level 70 uncle might find himself with enough money to purchase 360 [Unidentified Plant Parts], instantly hitting honored with the Cenarion Expedition upon hitting level 60. This means saving all of the reputation to be gained from other CE faction quests for the path from honored to revered, which ultimately helped make my uncrushable solo Pally a reality. Likewise, money for mounts can be a big deal on your first character, but becomes easier and easier with high level breadwinners to pay the bills.

Then again, inflation being what it is, even my level 42 Horde alt had the money to buy his level 40 mount, AND to bank 360 plant parts for level 60, thank to the joy of selling low level crafting materials to bored 70's with disposable income. So the disadvantage is that an easier road for alts may ALSO mean an easier road for mains.

Accomplishments on your main are account-wide
Blizzard has actually been toying with this idea for attunements in the new expansion. Many of you may remember the infamous Burning Crusade attunement tree, that had to be abolished because players did not want to go to that degree of trouble for their alts, and both new raiders and old raiding guilds seeking replacements faced considerable difficulty with the old system. Blizzard claims they're considering account-wide flags - presumably this was going in anyway for the Death Knight - to permit one attunement run to attune all your future alts as well. Guild Wars has something kind of like this in place where your NPC "heroes" and PVP characters have access to skills unlocked on previous trips through the PVE game.

The advantage is clear - new alts are easier, and new alts means more time paying to re-play the same content. However, there are also downsides. Players will spend less time on each alt, and may not get the experience playing that alt that they would otherwise have obtained. This isn't a bad thing if the player is re-rolling the same character class (if, say, you're re-rolling the same class as part of a move from a European server to a US one), but might be problematic if you're jumping from, say, a mage to a Paladin tank having never tanked an instance (which would be a non-trivial problem for me if I ever intended to tank on my Pally).

So what's the correct balance? I don't know for sure, and perhaps the right answer is a mix of all of the above. And, of course, the bar can and should be higher for cosmetic rewards not needed for gameplay (like titles, again, Turbine, I'm looking at you) than for stat boosts players are going to need on every character they play. It also may make some sense to lower the bar for functional endgame rewards when the level cap goes up (Blizzard made some changes to pre-TBC reputation gain, but IMO may not have gone far enough in that department). Regardless, it's definitely something that I wish developers would be more mindful of, especially if "go re-roll" is going to be a big part of their solo "endgame".

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