Rewarding the Character vs Rewarding the Player

It’s hardly possible to move these days in an MMO without tripping over a slew of new rewards. Emblems, xp, gear, badges, pets, titles, gold, cosmetic clothes, house decorations, mounts, achievements, quest unlocks, and so on – and with every patch, the list gets longer.

And yet, not all rewards are equal. There’s been a slow and ongoing trend in MMOs to reward the player rather than the character. I’ll give some examples of what I mean by this.

Rewarding the character means that you get something that will help with character progression. When you are levelling, almost all the rewards you get in game are to do with character progression. The xp, the new gear, new abilities, talent points to spend, being high enough level to travel to more interesting places and unlock new quests, for example. All of these things are about character progression and your character’s story.

Rewarding the player is a different kettle of fish. Rewards may add extra gameplay options, or more ways to interact with other players. They might simply be avenues through which players can compare achievements or satisfy those collection itches. So achievements, cosmetic pets and clothing, fluff, fun, and anything that doesn’t really operate in the same sphere as character progression falls in here.

So far, so good. Older games also included many of these player rewards, but they tried harder to tie everything to character progression also. So for example, in City of Heroes, if you get the right set of titles, your character gets some stat bonuses. Moving away from that era is a very distinctive and definite shift in approach. And it solves a lot of problems. Because if players could be gotten to concentrate more on player rewards than character rewards, then character progression could slow right down.

The problem of character progression

Character progression has been an albatross around the neck of MMO devs back since the MUD days. It’s not an issue with single player games, but there are specific problems with multi-player games. For example:

  • How do you pace progression so that the hardcore and casual players can all be satisfied?
  • How can players interact with each other when they are at different levels of progression?
  • How can a new player cope if they come into the game a couple of years after the start? Will they be too far behind to catch up?

Interestingly, we didn’t have this problem to quite such an extent in MUSHes. But that was because they were such social games, and your character’s power level wasn’t as important as who your friends and contacts were. And that’s worth remembering, because it is one solution to progression that hasn’t really been explored.

The other problem with character progression is that players adore it.

Many many games, not just RPGs or MMOs, are based on the idea that a character starts off weak and defenceless and gradually gains more power, knowledge, and tools over time until they can defeat some kind of final challenge. Character progression is a powerful story tool, and it’s also the most basic, the most primal story in the world. It is the story of life. We are born weak, we grow up, we gain knowledge and power, we make friends and relationships. (And then grow old and die but games don’t explore that side of the story very deeply, which is a shame.)

Character progression in MMOs is painfully basic. The story is mostly killing monsters, getting loot, selling said loot on the auction house, maybe learning a tradeskill, and interacting lightly with the same quests as everyone else. And once you have finished levelling, the progression has nowhere much to go. It’s because our character’s stories are so weak that we treat the rewards as so much candy. Another day, another piece of gear. Ho hum.

So at endgame, it isn’t surprising if devs want to shift to player based rewards. Creating more character progression is hard, and although tentative steps have been made towards player driven character progression in games like EVE (I’m thinking of proper virtual politics and the player council) , that’s not really how game developers have been thinking.

The great advantage of player rewards is that they don’t affect game balance or do anything mechanically to put up extra barriers to prevent character interaction. They also foster a different type of social dynamic, and one that is potentially less character based.  And yet … yet those pesky players adore their characters and their character progression. They want to tell more stories about those characters, not just the endless ‘I did instance X 13 times last week’ or ‘I ground out Y points in battleground Z’.

So it makes perfect sense for devs to try to move away from character progression. The problem of endgame might not exist if the rest of the game wasn’t all about levelling and progression. The question is, will better designed player rewards help to dissociate players from their characters?

And next year Bioware will debut Star Wars: The Old Republic, with their emphasis on story as the fourth pillar of gameplay. Will they be able to find a way to keep telling stories after the levelling period is over? Or will their game also dissolve into a mass of achievements, cosmetic pets, and random fluff?