The level 20 rule


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.

10 thoughts on “The level 20 rule”

  1. Yep.

    You know, I think that’s why I loved Guild Wars though. There’s nothing to it except 20 levels. The time it takes to get those 20 levels is comparable to “actual” MMOs for those that don’t believe Guild Wars counts. The whole leveling thing cuts off right around the time the mid-level trudge would normally begin. Guild Wars derived its longevity from renewing that simple 1 – 20 leveling experience over and over again.

    Its been awhile since I’ve committed to an MMO. Probably the last I played in earnest was Age of Conan which wrote the book on pouring a disproportionate amount of quality into the first 20 levels before tossing one into trudging along mid-levels.

    Not sure if I’ll be getting into one heavily again.

  2. Didn’t think you would play a bald female character.

    Anywho, for you it’s at level 20 is when you decide the “fun factor” of the game, but I personally pick that up very very soon, even at the first or second level. Most MMOs games has gotten too similar and boring. It has slowly turning me into a typical closed-minded person to pick out a game that come with online experience that I want to share with other people there.

    To put it this way, I am completely sick of MMOs games. :/

  3. There is a rather long conversation that could be had here about the nature of game development as a whole, but just from the gist of this post, I am inferring that during the life of a game that has, say, 50 levels… you simply would like game developers to come up with a set of mechanics and stretch out the implementation of them across the entire experience of those levels, rather than fitting them all in the earlier levels, then filling the rest of the story with content and experiences based on those mechanics?

    1. I’m not suggesting that I’d prefer game developers to do anything at all. Just making an observation about how it works out in practice. I’m not sure any other model would necessarily be better (or worse) than what it is now.

  4. I’ve not done much of this sort of stuff since Doom, but that was a fairly limited number of levels. I wonder how many people even persist to the 20th level anyway?

  5. Interesting I play exactly the same way. For years every MMO it has been the same for me. Get to 20 and I am done. Thats when things start to slow down and I have seen most of the world.

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