I fear that when developers abandon the Levelling Treadmill, they will leave the comprehensive piece of the Upward Spiral behind: Accumulation.
The Levelling Treadmill itself can be called the accumulation of levels, and I’m thinking here about the accumulation of levels, skills, gold, and equipment.
Powergamers want more levels, higher skills, more gold, and better equipment. These things all support each other (higher levels and skills makes it easier to get more gold, more gold makes it easier to get better equipment, better equipment makes it easier to get more levels and skills, etc). This presents a worldview to a powergamer… these are what comprise gameplay along with the strategic element of how best to attain these things in the shortest amount of time.
What creates this gameplay? How do game designers go about creating this gameplay?
Levels and Skills are created and the method of achieving higher levels and skills is repetition. Sometimes mindless repetition with macros, othertimes a general shaping of gameplay around level and skill-increasing actions.
Gold and equipment, as physical objects, are always stored in a place. Often in VSOGs they are stored on the body of a mobile. The mobiles are created as infinitely reincarnated beings meant to be killed (killing them is the most valuable way to treat them, per design). The amount of gold and equipment they carry is usually related to their strength (which is directly related to the degree of power it takes for a player to kill them and thus gain their possessions).
VSOGs often reduce to a single gameplay action. Kill mobiles and gain the four powergaming elements… Levels, Skills, Gold, and Equipment. The strategic element again is present in the question of how best to kill mobiles and which mobiles to kill.
A problem with all of this is the simplicity and the lack of depth. A VSOG is theoretically a WORLD… since when does a world reduce to a single gameplay action? When 4000 players get together in a world, is the best a designer can do to say “All of you who want to excel… play this game in the same way!”
Of course a player can do other things… he can talk to other players, he can join a guild and talk to guildmembers or play politics, he can explore… but these are things easily found in other kinds of games (except for guild politics), and they also don’t let you excel to the extent of the “kill mobiles” model. A VSOG should focus its gameplay on what cannot be provided by other games. It should take advantage of the large concurrent playerbase.
As a theoretical concept, Shadowbane was exciting. Since mobiles are one-dimensional and boring, it took the stance of presenting a player vs. player world. Good move. It also focused on global politics and city sieges, both things that can only be found in VSOGs. Very good move.
But it still had the levelling treadmill (to a lesser extent), and still very much had the upward spiral. Shadowbane is a halfway game. A game which moves toward the “next step” in VSOGs.
A Tale in the Desert is exciting since it denies the Killing standard which typecasted VSOGs. It also offers many elements that take advantage of the large playerbase like community-built constructs and global politics. But once again it keeps the upward spiral… it just replaces “killing” with “building”.
Yohoho! Puzzle Pirates once again keeps the upward spiral. Like ATITD it does away with killing and like Planetside http://planetside.station.sony.com/ , Shattered Galaxy, and Jumpgate it moves toward a player-skill and away from a character-skill system.
Second Life http://secondlife.com/ will perhaps be the first VSOG to deny the Upward Spiral (though Planetside has mostly denied it I think). It takes the ATITD approach of building as gameplay. The problem I see is that building (and politics to an extent) seems to be the only powergaming thing to do in the game. Thus it (like ATITD) simply replaces killing with building.
Can there be a VSOG created that not only denies the upward spiral, but also offers a variety of gameplay elements? Can building and killing live together?
Here are some design solutions to enable this kind of game…
I’ve outlined my idea for player-controlled, player-governed cities. Games should not merely be comprised of cities, however. Lesser populated towns would have different mechanics, and outside areas would be largely different. As players create their own laws in populated areas and expand their governing through war, different areas of the gameworld differentiate with respect to gameplay. A mining community would develop with certain laws different from a cosmopolitan trading community, for example. Right now the idea of multiple communities within a VSOG is only served by Guilds, and those are weak with respect to gameplay since they are mainly a grouping and political agent.
#2: A Robust Economy
Different cities need different things, as determined by demand and supply (in a global economic model) and by the demands of the governing body. Resources should be obtainable from many sources… the idea of resources gained mostly through mobile corpses is the very idea that prevents varied gameplay. The gameplay of Powergaming is dependent solely on the most effective manner of gaining power. THUS, there must be several balanced methods of gaining resources with different gameplay types in order to ensure variety. A supply/demand economic model will solve this issue. If “too many” players are out killing things, looting weapons and equipment off them, the value they receive for sold weapons and equipment will fall, and the few players that are mining or woodcutting will sell their resources for a large sum, which they can then use to buy those very weapons and equipment.
#3: Enabling Intelligence and the Epic
Strategy is already enabled in VSOGs. Find a good hunting ground not overpopulated and you have “won”. Strike a deal with a player armormaker and you get cheap armor. Choose skills and spells to best defeat enemies. Etc. Now here’s how to enable intelligence and the epic…
In a Closed System, all resources are created realistically. No more infinitely reincarnating mobiles. No more “horny hydrogen babes” spawning orcs out of thin air. Kill the last orc and orcs are extinct (barring a scientist creating some from DNA extracted, anyway).
And those weapons that orcs carry? They must be getting them from somewhere, right? How about a raid on an orc foundry? Destroy the foundry and the orcs in the area won’t be getting any more weapons, unless they attack you for them!
A closed system enables for the first time true intelligence from players, a truly dynamic world. And for the first time an Epic world begins to be glimpsed. In such a world, variety of gameplay is a necessity. Someone (a warrior lord) may have a vision of eradicating the orc race and someone else (a scientist) may have a vision of creating and studying orcs.
Or would you rather be killing orc #11675 with standard equipment #46210 which you know will be respawned 10 minutes later? Is this the kind of place where the Epic can thrive?