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A New Paradigm for Levels

by Phinehas

I have read a number of recent articles and comments which decry the use of levels in massively multi player online role playing games (henceforth MMORPGs). Opinions on the topic seem to range from the banal to the religiously fervent, but in general, it seems there is growing consensus that especially disparate levels can be damaging to the sense of community that most MMORPGs strive to attain. Additionally, it has been proposed that the hierarchical nature of current advancement structures can bring shame and a sense of inferiority to those misfortunate enough to comprise the lower rungs of the virtual social ladder. I tend to agree with both of these views. So why am I about to propose a character advancement system that includes hierarchical levels? Because I believe that achievement is a very important goal for many players (the commercial success of Verant's EverQuest is adequate testimony to this), and I am not convinced that it is impossible for achievement and community to coexist in an MMORPG in which advancement is designed around a new paradigm for levels.
Calvary Church in the US somewhere

Call in the Calvary.

Consider the following possible design for advancement.

A game world has some number of kingdoms. Each kingdom is ruled by a king. For the sake of this example, assume empire building is supported by the game engine and is a chief goal of the elder players. Now, what if hierarchies or levels were set up in each kingdom. The military of the kingdom will be the easiest to describe, since militaries are hierarchical by nature. The lowest level would be a footman. A squad of footmen would be led by a sergeant. Four squads and their sergeants would form a platoon, headed by a lieutenant. Three to four platoons would have a captain as their regimental commander. Some number of regiments would answer to a colonel, who would in turn report to the general of the armed forces, who is accountable to the king.

To make this more interesting, you could have special units with a higher entry point. For instance, the basic cavalry horseman could be at the third (lieutenant) level, answering to a captain, while the entry level archer might be at the second (sergeant) level. This would mean that a sergeant could choose a path as a platoon leader, or move into the cavalry (although getting an appointment to the cavalry might require a good horse and riding skills, in addition to a stellar career as a sergeant), and a footman might choose to be either a sergeant or an archer.

Although not as straightforward, areas other than the military could be mapped out for levels as well. An apprentice smith may answer to a journeyman smith who answers to a master smith who answers to a grand master who reports to his profession's guild master who is accountable to the chancellor who reports to the king.

In general, there are seven levels, with the king at level seven and the peon at level one. Now, typically with such hierarchies, we tend to think that the game will be great if you are a king and not so great if you are a peon, but does this have to be so? What if the king really is not all that different from the peon? What if our concept of level is totally uncoupled from things like hit-points, skill, and the various other powers typically associated. What if a character's level only indicated responsibility and authority, but not personal power? What if the peon could take the king in a fair fight? In fact, what if the peon had all of the power and abilities of the king, except one: the ability to promote.

Specifically, the king would be the only person with the power to promote someone to level six. The chancellor, the general, and others at level six would all owe their position to an appointment by the king. Likewise, those at level six would have the power to promote others to level five, and so on. Because of this power to promote, the overriding principle for levels is that each person will be responsible to satisfy the needs of his position as outlined by his superior in order to be promoted to the next level.

Promotion to the next level will not depend on skills, but on accomplishments. However, greater skills may naturally lead to greater accomplishments. Promotion requires only two things: First, a position must be open (either new, or currently filled by an non player character) and second, your superior must recommend you for the promotion. Your superior will be motivated to recommend the most qualified individual by his own desire for personal gain (since higher qualifications on the part of the promotee will likely lead to the promoter being able to more easily accomplish his own missions and objectives as assigned by his superior), however, to keep him honest, the game engine should have some form of "public opinion" on promotions. It would not be a good idea to give the public the impression that your recommendations are colored by prejudice or that you are promoting friends over those who are qualified.

Of course, it is the public opinion which will probably be the most difficult and most important concept to implement, but I see it working in this manner.

Talking to NPCs who have a good opinion of you (depending on your conversation skills) might give you insight into whom they favor and whom they dislike. This would reflect the game engine's public opinion. The promoter would not have to sway to public opinion, but his decisions will affect the public's opinion of him, which in turn could impact whether or not he gets promoted to the next available position above him.

Public opinion will also be affected greatly by how you treat subordinates. For instance, in the military, whether or not you bring your troops home alive will have tremendous impact on how you are viewed by the public. They tend to dislike those who sacrifice their sons and daughters to war. Each person will have to balance the public's opinion against meeting the objectives of their superiors. This will motivate each officer to spend time training and equipping his troops so that he can lead them up the hill that he is assigned to take by his superiors, while not sacrificing lives. In special cases, depending upon the success and danger of your mission, your unit's actions may be considered heroic even though many lives are lost. If your squad holds off an assault by 50 orcs, but you lose half of your squad, it may be a good idea to submit the names of the dead for medals or even a memorial. If the public agrees with the recognition, the dead will be remembered as heroes and instead of being thought incompetent, you will likely be seen in a more favorable light. In any case, if you can satisfy your superior's objectives while keeping public opinion high, your superior will likely recommend you at his first opportunity. Not only will you have proven yourself competent, but his decision to recommend you will win him further favor with the people.

How you dress, your charisma, and other factors may also play a role in how you are perceived by others. Reactions may vary from one individual to the next, but all would have the potential to react to some degree, and adjust their approval accordingly. This should add interest to the manufacture and sale of clothing, jewelry, and other items of charm, both magical and ordinary.

non player character's will not be the only ones who register opinions. Other player characters who interact with you should have an opportunity to register their approval or disapproval. This will provide some flexibility in those situations where the engine is not really capable of discernment. It will also provide an opportunity for slander and other political shenanigans, but it would be important to have this balanced with adequate input on actual accomplishments. (In other forums, I have discussed some ideas for a reputation system which incorporates this, but for the sake of brevity, I merely allude to it here.)

There may well be many accomplishments that are not understood or recognized by the game engine. These accomplishments, however, will be noted by player characters who may adjust their approval accordingly. The most important person to impress with your accomplishments will always be your direct superior, since he will have the final say in whether or not you are recommended for promotion. You should also do your best to make sure that his superior is pleased with the job he is doing. If he is promoted to the next level as a result of your actions, then his position will be open and he will be likely to fill it with the person who was responsible for his success.

If you are the king, your life will likely revolve around public opinion issues. Prosperity, employment, success in battle, low taxes, and an expanding empire must all be balanced to ensure that you are loved by your people. If your approval rating falls too low, you may become vulnerable to having your position usurped by an ambitious lord. Of course, there could be options available to you, both political and surreptitious, to ensure that ambitious lords never get the chance to overthrow you, but these same options will be available to them as well.

The pursuit of a favorable public opinion will cause the king to set up goals that then flow down from above. The king will wish to increase his power, his realm, and his approval rating. He may believe that it is critical to have access to wood from special trees known only to exist far to the east in the elven realm. He may believe that the wood would increase the range of his archers and allow his ship builders to construct stronger, faster ships. He may ask the chancellor to ensure that the elves allow him access to the forest at a fair price. (He could just order the army to march in and take it, but that would obviously have a negative effect on his relationship with the elves.) The chancellor may task an ambassador to travel as an emissary to the elves. He may set a price that he believes is fair, an amount that he believes is needed, and even a time frame for completing the negotiation as dictated to him by the king. The ambassador may need to request an escort from the army, or hire mercenaries to ensure that he arrives safely. And so on.

In general, achievement is important to many players of MMORPGs, but often, the power disparity between players is detrimental to community. Hierarchies are also typically not a good thing, but in this paradigm, hierarchies can be seen as a method for organizing goals and game effort in a community instead of simply a crude caste system. If participation in the hierarchy is completely voluntary, and if the power wielded by those at a higher level is subtler, then I think the issue of inferiority or shame can be mitigated if not avoided altogether. Since the king does not really have any powers not available to the peon, he cannot force the peon to do anything. The peon must volunteer to do the king's bidding. He is motivated to do so if he wishes to be promoted, but if promotion is not required to become skilled or proficient, and if the game has other pursuits which interest him, perhaps he will decide otherwise. He is not precluded from living the life of an adventurer or explorer; perhaps a disinterested spectator of what he may consider a rat race for social prestige. In a sense, he cannot be a peon unless he chooses to be one. And even then, he can always tell himself that the king is a pansy whom he could take in a sword fight on any given day.