BackgroundIt is assumed that anyone reading this paper has at least heard of Everquest. Everquest is a Massively Multiplayer Online Game (MMOG). It has a level based character advancement system. It takes from 40 to 100 days of /play time (each day is 24 hours spent playing, so 10 days /play is 240 hours) for someone's first character to get to the original level cap of 50.
Kunark was the first expansion shipped for Everquest. One of the features of the expansion, for many people the main feature, was an increase in the level cap from the old cap of level 50, to a new cap of level 60.
So what's the problem?Because of the time it took for the first expansion to come out, a great many people were at the level 50 cap before Kunark. All were ready and eager for more levels. All of them naturally expected to hit level 60 in very little time. After all, each had obtained level 50, and level 60 is simply 20% more.
The major concern before Kunark shipped was that everyone would be level 60 in a week. Once level 60 they would have little to do, boredom would set in, and many would leave the game. The designers solved this by making the new levels take much, much longer to pass through than the old levels.
Kunark is frequently pointed to and described as a major mistake. People say that it takes too long to level to 60, and that level 60 is "required" to play the game. Levelling they say is boring, and they want to be done with it, and be 60, so they can "play the game". In a nutshell, this is the Kunark Problem.
The Purpose of LevelsWhy do levels exist in a game at all? Lets consider the early game of most any level based RPG. Generally the player starts at level one, walks outside, and starts killing mobs around his level. The level one player can't travel very far, because mobs quickly become far too powerful to defeat, and happily eat level one players that wander out of their pen. The character is thus confined to the newbie areas, where there are mobs that he can kill. After an hour or so, the character reaches level 2. Now the area the character can kill in increases. After another level or two the level 1 mobs are no longer worth killing. By this point, the character has completely left the area he was killing in before, and is killing in a new area. Elapsed time: about 10 hours.
What if there were no levels? What if all mobs were level 1, and all players were level 1, and never advanced? There is nothing preventing the player from leaving the newbie area right away. Instead of 10 hours in the newbie area, the player spends 5 minutes there, then travels to the next area. And the next. And the next. Instead of taking 40-100 days /played to explore everything as it did in original Everquest, it would take at most 1.
Exploration done so easily has little value. Everyone would see Nagafen and Vox on the first day, and since Nagafen and Vox would be level 1, they would easily be killed by whoever felt like walking there. There would be no sense of accomplishment, no sense of wonder, no anticipation and desire to see these rare places, because they wouldn't be rare.
Add levels and suddenly the game is far more compelling and interesting. Levels also add another dimension: replayability. This isn't just playing a character up from level 1 a second time, this is visiting the same place visited before, but at a different level. The location is unchanged; the monsters are the same level, the zone has exactly the same geometry...but it's fun, different, and exciting, because the player changed.
It's the player changing the makes the world vibrant and dynamic, not the content itself. I've been to the same dungeons over and over again as my levels have changed, and each time it's interesting in a different way. The first time it's hard and challenging with a full group, or even multiple groups. Later it's hard and challenging with less than a full group. Eventually, assuming a level cap isn't reached, the dungeon can be killed in while solo.
Thus levels serve two important functions: they slow down the consumption of content, and they create a dynamic game.
Kunark has levels, what's the problem?
Lets look at Kunark content. There are several dungeons for level 51+ in Kunark: Karnor's Castle (karnors), Old Sebilis (sebilis), Chardok, and Howling Stones/Charasis (charasis). Each one of these dungeons is extensive and interesting, and entertaining for hours of game play. In fact, these dungeons are compelling for easily 2 days of /play time (at 4 hours each RL day, that's 12 days playing there every day) each, and maybe depending on the player/group, some dungeons may be good for as long as 3 days, if revisted at later levels.
Now lets do some math. Each dungeon is good for 2-3 days of /play time. There are four major dungeons, so that's 8-12 days of /play time they're good for. It takes from 35 to 50 days /played to get from 51 to 60. 35 days - 12 days = 23 days unaccounted for...using the longest possible entertainment time for each dungeon, and the shortest possible (without heavy twinking) time to reach 60 from level 51. Worst case is 42 days. What happens for those other 23-42 days? All content at that point has been consumed. The extra days are work. Endless repetition, not for enjoyment or entertainment, but solely to gain levels.
There are other things to do, but they involve large numbers of people raiding big mobs, and to do those things most guilds want, or even require, level 60 players. These are end game tasks, things to keep players busy once they reach 60, and they are balanced to be challanging at that level. This is why players feel they are required to get 60 - they are, in order to continue consuming new content.
A related problem is based on player bahavior. Some players will go to karnors at level 51, and not leave until after 55. Why? Because they know the area, they know people there and thus can group with them, and the most important reason, the game doesn't encourage them to leave. The mobs in karnors give xp day after day after day after day. What if the level 1 mobs in the newbie area gave xp at level 5? Level 10? Level 20? What if they gave roughly the same xp as level 20 mobs? That's the problem with kunark. The mobs in karnors are blue, and thus good xp, for all of those levels, all of those days spent playing.
Kunark is content weak assuming 100% consumption of that content. For those that sit in one dungeon for all 10 levels, it's pain beyond description.
A Better Kunark
How could Kunark be done differently? Or more importantly, how can this be avoided in other games? The key is not the total time it takes to reach the level cap. That value can be arbitrarily large, or even infinite. The key is avoiding content burnout, by never forcing, or even allowing, a player to continuously play in the same area.
In this fictional, improved, Kunark, karnors may only be good while level 51. At level 52, the front half of karnors would give no xp; instead, the player would have to move deeper, to the more interesting (and harder) basement and deep castle areas. At 53, those areas would no longer give xp, and the player would then move to the front half of sebilis. Levels 54-58 take much longer than 51-53, so for those levels, each one takes an entire dungeon:
Which further illustrates that there isn't enough content in Kunark for 51-60, which we already knew. But it's more than just a lack of content; even if there were 100 different interesting dungeons, some players are going to stay in the first one they come to until either 1) the game makes them move (because killing there is no longer beneficial), or 2) they burn out on EQ and quit.
ConclusionBecause of the Kunark problem, many people are burned out on the idea of levelling in general. Pain, once experienced, is avoided in the future. At this point it will be difficult to overcome this aversion in future games.
UO had no level system, and very little progression in their skill system. There was thus little barrier to consuming content, making UO a short term game. The long term selling points are PvP and Community, both of which are nice, and both of which are worthwhile. There are plenty of games (FPS) that are pure PvP. There are plenty of things that are pure Community (IRC). Both approaches are compelling to the people that enjoy them.
Levels (or a good substitute) add a great deal to any game. The key points being the limiting of consumption of content (and this is far more than just saving development time, the wait and anticipation is often more enjoyable than the actual consumption, true entertainment comes from within) and the game world as a dynamic place through the change of the player.
Still, as I said before, many are burned by Kunark. Most games currently under development are shooting for the persistent PvP and 3d IRC crowds more than true RPG world exploration and character development, simply because of the negative reaction most players have towards levelling after Kunark.
It will be another generation before levels are seen as useful again. At that time, I hope this paper is useful.