The “Catch Up” Mentality

Was listening to a podcast today, and the subject came up regarding “catching up” to other players in an MMO, and questioning whether it was worth playing the game since everyone else had gone on to the higher levels.  I believe the quote was something like “the game had passed them by” and so they would probably not give the game a try.  I remember this same feeling as a latecomer to World of Warcraft; the game had been out for years – two expansions were already out, and I was just figuring out the game at first level.  Thankfully, my brother, a longtime gamer took pity on me and rolled up a low-level character to show me the ropes.  Over the following days, I realized how much patience he had to have to come to those early stages of the game; I was learning everything – how to play my toon, to the trinity, to how dungeons worked, grinding.  It was fun at first, but over time, I could see he wanted to get back to his primary character, and eventually, I ended up leveling on my own.

At the same time, I must admit I am not very crazy about being “walked through” content by a higher level player.  In fact, I hate it.  I’m not crazy about hand-me-down donated gear either; I want to earn my keep.  I feel that as I progress through a game, that the content should be challenging, and yes even difficult.  So when I do actually overcome whatever the obstacle may be, there is a sense of accomplishment, and the reward should come with that success.  I’d hope that a more experienced player grouping up with me would actually have fun with the lower-level challenge as well, but I do understand why someone who has already experienced that content may not want it to be difficult the 3rd or 5th or 20th time through the game.

MMOs are strange beasts: players who roll “alts” (new characters) are looking for a new experience with that character.  Some of that new experience is taken care of with new abilities and races – playing a warrior is much different than playing a healer, and starting as a dwarf is different questing path than starting a human, since you being the game in a different part of the world.  In a game like Warcraft, which has many different  races and starting zones, allows a different starting experience at least if you start in a different place on the map.  Eventually, as you progress, all the different quest paths start to flow into a single route as you reach the mid-levels, and everyone finds themselves doing the same quests.

Fast forward to 2012, and Guild Wars 2 introduces a sidekicking system, which allows higher level characters to bump down to lower levels so that they can play with starting characters and still be rewarded experience.  This is a great feature, especially in a genre where friends don’t always start in the game at the same time, and where there are so many MMOs that it’s not necessarily easy for everyone to be in a game at the same level at the same time.  That said, it’s a bit strange when you have been taking on demons or dragons or high difficulty baddies for awhile, and suddenly you find yourself being challenged by wild boars.

The “level-free” The Secret World handles this a little differently in that your character’s base health never really changes, but equipping better gear increases health and a host of other stats.  This way, there’s no need to roll a new character at all; to pair up with friends just starting out is just a matter of swapping out and equipping a lower quality gear set.  Since rewards are in standard skill points and ability points that can be used on a common pool at any stage of the game, veteran players are not penalized by playing in a starter zone.

These systems, however, still don’t address the source of the problem, though; there’s still little incentive to return to a starter zone other than to “help out” a new player or friend.  You’ve already done the quests, so even though you’ll be getting suitable rewards for doing them, you are still repeating content.  The new player may or may not feel like a burden to the veteran player, and will still feel pressure to “catch up” with the rest of the gang, possibly speeding through content he or she might actually enjoy, especially if they are new to the game.  Or worse, foregoing the game altogether, since everyone has “passed them by.”  Since MMORPGs are supposed to be group experiences, the game has failed to promote grouping, actually building in disincentives to pair newbies with veterans, and perhaps even play the game.

So what’s to be done?

My thought is that we need stop designating zones as starter, middle tier, and high level, and instead thought of in multiple stacked layers.  So within a single zone, there are multiple layers of difficulty, and multiple layers of content.  Instead of a starter zone having a single quest chain, there are multiple quest chains available depending on your level or where you are in the game.  You might even be able to select starting level quests that differ on the 2nd or 3rd time through, or even allow players to select which chain to go through.  So a player joining his friend could agree to follow go through a different chain so that both the veteran and the newbie get new content together.  This kind of design would also allow veteran players to return to zones and experience high difficulty content.   I love the idea of the nostalgia of returning to zones you loved in the early days of the game, but having new challenges that only veteran players can take on.  The Secret World is doing a bit of this as well, by including high difficulty farming and lair content in all the zones (new players occasionally wander in and get squished, wondering what the heck happened).

This design also allows games to be built for longevity; while it’s always great to have new zones and explorable areas added to a game, preventing older zones from becoming obsolete to veteran players is a huge win.  Added to that, the ability for more people to group and form community might make the difference between a game being passed by and living on for years.

Other thoughts?  What other ways are there to overcome the catch up mentality?

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7 thoughts on “The “Catch Up” Mentality

  1. Oh, I’ve spent days, weeks, months and even years fighting that mentality in myself. I have finally gotten to the point that I am just plugging along doing what I want to do when I want too. Sure, there is some competition drive there for me personally, however, I have learned that if I just go out there, do what I enjoy, eventually I’ll “catch up” if there is a need too.

    I have played World of Warcraft for many years and the constant gear grind, the raiding and the whole “group” thing just about burned me out. There is nothing more demeaning to a player than to be told that “no, you can’t come because your gear isn’t good enough” to go with your group. So, I became a party of “one” with a group of alts that I play with wild abandon. So what if I’m not the best of the best, I’m having fun in my own way. Oh yes, I’ll group with people when the need arises, however, the game is pretty much a solo thing in a lot of the zones yet.

    What I have done to overcome the “catch up” mentality is to stop and realize that it is a game, it doesn’t benefit me in RL and shouldn’t attain a high level of priority other than just a hobby and fun.

    I hope what I said here makes sense, it’s still kind of early and my mind is a bit befuddled yet without it’s usual dosage of caffeine. :D

    • gpili says:

      Thanks for your comments!

      I think the way we we handled it was in our guild — we did solo stuff primarily on our own time, and then had a scheduled day for dungeons where we agreed to group no matter what — we didn’t even look at each other’s gear.

      I almost think it’s best to play MMOs with a group of friends you know in real life — that way you can get together outside of game as well and chat about your excellent victories. :) I’m really interested to see if more of these group co-op style games (Shroud of the Avatar) will play out. We really played WoW the same way we played Diablo 2 — with just our own group and pretty much “ignoring the masses.”

      • Yes, that’s a good way to deal with some of it, however, in my particular case, I do end up forcing myself to Pug a lot – not many of the people I know in my age group are into video gaming. Hehe, so, I’ll have to see what I can do for making contacts in-game.

  2. gretch05 says:

    Yes, a group game should allow for myriads of options to increase the fun for all. So, a linear approach to the game will tend to “string out” the group. At present, it seems that board games are better for group play.

    Or, if you want to start out fresh every time, try chess. ;->

    • gpili says:

      When it comes down to it, today’s MMOs are really trying to be single player games as much as or more than multiplayer games. I think that’s to accommodate people’s busy lives and schedules.

      A pure multiplayer game is much more difficult to coordinate, but there are certainly bonuses in being able to play with friends. We are living in a more computerized world with people spread out geographically — I love a good board game with friends, but darn if it isn’t hard these days to get a free day when everyone is available. The MMO is great for that, but it misses that personal feeling of being physically present.

  3. Ben Warmus says:

    I’ve played Maple Story off and on for a while. They’ve done a good job of going back through the game and adding new content at the lower levels so that anyone who wants to start over has a fresh game to play. With so many quests to do though, it’s very easy to speed through the levels so quickly that I feel I’m missing out on the game. 10 years ago, you had to wander all over the map for months seeking out the right places to get this drop or that just to make it to lvl 30 where your final level of skills opened up. The last time I played, maybe 2 years ago, it took about a week to get to lvl 30 and I saw about 10% of the map I did before. In addition to feeling like I was missing out, there was no sense of accomplishment.

    Your idea of unlocking some of this content for advanced players ‘playing down’ would probably help here, but a large part of questing with friends is being on the same quest together. Having quest tracks like you mentioned could help with this, but it adds a potential barrier to new players meeting up and questing together since they may have chosen different tracks. It’s also one more choice to thrust on a new player who, if they don’t have an experienced player to play with, probably feels trapped into making a choice with insufficient info.

    I came up with an idea a long time ago to do away with zones altogether and just let everyone roam the map regardless of level. Different areas of the map still had different creatures, some being harder than others, but none were completely above/below the level of the person playing. Instead, I had worked into the storyline a reason for the monsters to lvl periodically to keep pace with the player. Monsters would get easier as the player advanced, then suddenly catch up to the player (game balance was tricky, but not impossible). This was intended as a one player game, but you could do the same things in an MMO. Just let people see different things. Two payers grouped together see the same monster, but one does 100-200 damage to the monster at a time and takes similar, while the other does 10-20. They are playing on different screens, so you just translate the scale of what they are doing so that each sees what they expect and all are challenged. The math behind the scenes is easy enough to work out with health and weapon damages just expressed in % and a scaler attached to the player that’s applied when displaying the info.

  4. gpili says:

    I will have to check out Maple Story! So many MMOs these days, it’s tough to keep up with them all, especially when you factor in the free ones. :)

    Yeah, we ran into a similar issue recently with The Secret World, where my brother and I were questing together, but certain instanced quests were either meant to be done solo and we couldn’t do together, or where I needed to gear down to the difficulty of the zone. It’s a bit better in that respect, in that any player can basically become a newbie by simply equipping different gear and abilities.

    I guess the thing that always seemed strange to me about scaling (I see how it works in GW2 as well), is that a veteran player having trouble killing a boar or kobold seems strange, I guess it can be explained as being in “training mode” and it certainly does allow vets and newbies to group up.

    It may actually be two different issues — one is to breathe new life into zones as a vet, and the other is to allow vets and new players to do things together,

    With the questing, the it seems there is a need to remove barriers between the quest tracks, instances and phases — easier said than done! Either you allow any player to shift to a different quest track at any time and at any phase, or you simply don’t erect those barriers in the first place as you are suggesting. Which may be the best solution. Why not allow a newbie to take on a hugely difficult quest, as long he is grouped with some vets? I’d almost prefer being allowed to take any quest or storyline at anytime and suffer the consequences of being underpowered (knowing what I am getting myself into) than to have it hidden or blocked from me completely.

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