It’s been a while since I wrote about MMOGs professionally, but that doesn’t stop me having an interest. I have half a dozen MMOGs installed, and was recently ‘comped’ a copy of Star Trek Online and 60 days of game-time. I’ve just hit the equivalent of roughly level 20 (Commander, grade 1), and that set me to thinking.
Once you hit approximately level 20 in an MMOG, you’ve essentially seen all of the gameplay innovation that the game is going to offer, in all of the combinations that it is going to be offered.
Oh, sure, there will be new raids, and new powers, and so forth, but when it comes to game-mechanics, and how those game-mechanics are mixed and remixed into actual missions and gameplay, by level 20 you’ve pretty much seen all the gameplay that the game is going to offer you.
That’s about the point that every new mission, however cleverly constructed, looks like a clone of another mission you’ve already finished with the names changed. At the lower levels there’s an effort to keep the storytelling fresh, and create piquant blends of game-mechanics, but always after about 20 or so levels of doing that, the MMOG essentially settles in for recycling.
Granted, 20 levels is generally a lot of content – though for some MMOGs it is less content than for others – but that’s also the point that an MMOG tends to get a bit ‘grindier’ – the number of experience-points required for subsequent levels rises sharply, and the game has little or nothing new to show you.
About the only exceptions to this are when the game has held back an entire game-system (harvesting or crafting or mounts, for example) – but for actual storytelling purposes, these very rarely actually add anything genuinely new to the game and mission structures themselves.
And perhaps, really, it’s unavoidable. A tremendous amount of work goes into the first 20 levels of gameplay for any MMOG, trying to enhance the engagement and variety and polish. Solving a murder-mystery? Making peace between warring clans? Finding a lost hobbit? Missions in the early game generally get whatever supporting resources and mechanics they need to make them work. After that resources generally get poured on the end-game content.
Crossing the desert of the mid-game, though, after about the level 20 mark to get there? Well, I think I will largely leave that to others.