Alternate Advancement Points

So say a mythical MMO existed (and sadly, today it\’e2\’80\’99s quite mythical) that has a very flat player ability advancement curve.

By this I mean, assuming the milieu is modern-day wartime, the player starts as a trained soldier. They can shoot, they can run around, they are a competent team member. Players might be able to train up some skills, such as medic or sniper, but if you take a brand new character into your fire team, he\’e2\’80\’99ll be able to contribute something no matter what, even if it\’e2\’80\’99s just random sprays of lead.

Now, this goes against everything we know about reward structures for character building in MMOs, but based on the madcap race of almost all but the complete newbie to the post-max game, I\’e2\’80\’99m willing to bet that everything we know is pretty flawed to begin with. Take it as read for now, anyway. That being said. What reward structures COULD we use? Three off the top of my head:

– Money. Money is used for the exchange of goods and services, as Homer Simpson has taught us in the immortal \’e2\’80\’9cone dollar buys many peanuts\’e2\’80\’9d lesson. Money drives a large part of our advancement in real life.

– Influence. Call it \’e2\’80\’9cfaction\’e2\’80\’9d or \’e2\’80\’9crank\’e2\’80\’9d or whatever. The political juice you have in the game world with whatever given NPCs, measured numerically. More influence, you get more stuff.

– Knowledge. Maybe unlocking key features of the game world. I\’e2\’80\’99m not sure this is a workable model given the one-to-many nature of MMO play and the fact that every \’e2\’80\’9cmystery\’e2\’80\’9d is posted to the web shortly after release.

The problem with most of these is that they\’e2\’80\’99re pretty ephermal and self defeating. If we use money as an advancement scheme, either we have powerful items that players buy (which makes the game item-centric instead of skill-centric and just introduces a money grind instead of an experience grind) or we have a useless measure of achievement. There\’e2\’80\’99s not much room for middle ground there. Using influence as a gate to the game\’e2\’80\’99s content just means that people will mindlessly grind out whatever \’e2\’80\’9cfaction quests\’e2\’80\’9d are easiest to get to the cheese.

The problem is that not only are the developers enamored of the D&D kill-things-get-points model, so are the players. If we allow for ANY character building, it will become the mark of the player who achieves the most that draws the new baseline that everyone chases after. But swing the pendulum too far the other way and you will have complaints that the game has no \’e2\’80\’9cpurpose\’e2\’80\’9d, because people see their heroic journey in MMOs as going from Zero to Hero in 60 days /played. Diverge from that model at your quite significant financial peril.

So how do we find advancement that works in a flat character development model? How do we simulate character development, and get the same stickiness from it that\’e2\’80\’99s proven to keep the game attractive, without making it an advertisement for obsessive compulsive disorder?

For PVP games, ladders are good. They help measure where everyone is among everyone else, and give a purpose to the most competitive. But that\’e2\’80\’99s not enough – not every game is PvP (although its adherents beg to differ) and not everyone is fascinated by ladders. But it\’e2\’80\’99s a start. You could use the ladder model in new ways; say you have an opportunity for player creativity – maybe stories published in game or in-game plays using scripting tools. You could have Nielsen-style ratings for how popular they were. Entertainment ladders, as they were (perhaps even tied to advertisers willing to reward in other advancement schemes, like money). You still have the problem, though of limited rungs on the ladder. In any list there\’e2\’80\’99s always only the top 25, no matter how large the list.

We say we\’e2\’80\’99re sick of the current grind; but what are the alternatives? For the \’e2\’80\’9cplayer skill\’e2\’80\’9d mantra – what are you rewarding? What, really, IS the point? And does there need to be one?