MMOPRG games for the most part follow a very traditional player progression system of leveling your character up via Experience points. Often a game will segregate or recommend certain areas of the game map for players of a certain level range. This design is intended to ensure that Mobs and NPCs are around the same level of any player in that area. For the most part this system works out just fine in directing a player where to go next, but it has one very huge side effect on the game world, dead Zones.
Virtual Ghost Towns
When Wrath of the Lich King was the hot new expansion for World of Warcraft, Dalaran was one happening place to be. Every where you went people were milling about conducting their daily whatever and interacting, the city felt alive. Go pay a visit there today and see if you get the same reaction. Dalaran was a vibrant area to be in and visiting it now feels depressing. Come to think of it the whole Northrend area seems depressing nowadays. Outlands was the same way after Wrath and today is even more depressing than Northrend, imagine if you will that you’re a new player to the game and you have to go through these zones on your climb upward. Do you think it would feel the same as those players that went there when it was new and fresh and full of people?
There is nothing more depressing when starting a game that is intended to be a MMORPG to find yourself alone and wandering a land bereft of kinsman and filled with bored and lonely monsters. Perfect example is the difference in atmosphere while leveling in Outlands from when it was new content to when I was leveling an alt during Wrath. It is amazing how much a game can change when you remove other players. Shattrath city is a giant bloated joke when it’s filled with nothing more than forgotten NPCs milling about desperately and trying to get a little interaction with a handful of adventures rushing through their lands as fast as possible.
When you add these ghost towns or lands to the concept of segregated territories things really start to lose their realism. Yes I know this is for game purposes and its fantasy after all, but I never could wrap my brain around the concept of level segregation in what is supposed to be an immersive experience. I mean what is stopping that higher level mob from traversing the 25 feet necessary to enter a new land. Some added game environments like rivers and mountain ranges can help in dispelling this division, but overall it just never felt right to me.
Once again level based zones really hinder an environment that was established to support large amounts of visitors, but now barely seem alive when the turnstiles stop turning, admitting only the occasional wanderer. A solo adventurer can be both hindered and aided by a zone bereft of others and can find some quests easier to complete while others can become impossible since they were originally designed for groups.
A Desolate and Barren Tatooine
From everything I’ve seen and read about the upcoming SW: TOR game, BioWare is following the traditional game design and segregating its zones (Planets) by level. I think it will be a great injustice if certain planets are left void of life. Player activity can make a world like Tatooine and Mos Eisley seem wondrous and exciting, while a lack of players will give the impression it’s nothing more than a barren wasteland…well I know it is but…well you get the point. I really hope they find away to keep these areas populated once everyone moves on.
Ultimately leveling zone game design also helps to create another side effect I am not fond of, Linear Questing. When you design a game intended to be played from one place to the next it generates a linear gaming experience where previous content no longer holds any value to you. Having a World(s) based game designed with rails that direct a player along often defeats the purpose of having a World in the first place. Why not just generate maps for players to complete quests on and interject cut scenes in between to break up the concept of traveling.
I intended to include in this post some possible alternatives to this game design philosophy, but it started to run a little long. So I will make a future post discussing ways to keep game zones relative for the length of play.
Update - Here is part two
Update - Here is part two