MMO Mechanics: Enhancing MMORPGs with experiential learning mechanics

Ever since I considered the responses to a Massively Overthinking article in which a developer asked if a prestige system to encourage replaying an MMO from level 1 would be a viable design approach, I’ve been mulling over the sorts of mechanics that developers can use to reward players for experiential learning in a game’s world. I love to consider ways in which playing in and learning about a game world can be rewarded without necessarily stacking on more levels or unlocking more skill points, so this question prompted a good deal of thought.

In this edition of MMO Mechanics, I’ll explore some well-established mechanics that reward in-game learning and will also suggest some that could perhaps be employed that come from other game genres. Also up for consideration will be the importance of learning-based development in MMOs and why I find it so interesting in the first place.

eq1The argument for experiential reward

Upon logging into a new MMORPG, a seasoned player will already expect to face an all-too-familiar drill: Grind up the levels, reach endgame content, and finally have the real game begin. I’ve written about horizontal and vertical progression before for MMO Mechanics, so you might already be familiar with the problems faced by the barebones horizontal format. It’s no wonder, then, that so many titles seek to enhance the basic advancement mechanics by adding in offerings that more directly and intuitively reward the effort and learning put into the game: Grinding levels in the same designated area to the point of ugly yawn-induced tears isn’t all that intuitive or engaging, after all.

I remember crafting one of my first MMO Mechanics articles and pointing out that killing ten rats can be fun and useful in terms of adequately rewarding players. In that article, I argued that context, earning one’s stripes in a new area to build up notoriety, and helping players get to grips with the abilities of their characters all come together to make the seemingly mundane kill quest mechanically useful, partly because such quests allow a developer to quite accurately gauge just how long a player needs to spend in any given zone to reach its level cap. Building on this, I argue that learning systems that are designed to further reward players for experiencing what a virtual world has to offer can add even more incentive to the player to go forth and save all those barns from slightly different breeds of rats, creating a desire to complete more than the minimum required of the average player to hit the level cap.

gw2-master-systemWhat does a learning mechanic look like?

Experiential mechanics vary in form, but to explore some credible examples we can go as far back as EverQuest and its Alternate Advancement system. In that system, XP could be filtered off after a certain level towards earning AA points, and these points would improve your character in various ways depending on its class. Layered on top of the traditional levelling system, it served to allow players to more thoughtfully hone their characters with meaningful bonuses that directly related to the content they had experienced and sought to experience. Some degree of the experiences of your characters’ formative development would craft their future development, which is impressively deep for such an early MMO.

In more recent years, learning mechanics have taken on similar roles in modern MMOs and provide a much-needed whack of realistic, expressive character development to the traditional level or gear grind. Guild Wars 2‘s mastery system appeals to me because it also turns your excess experience into useful character-developing abilities that go hand-in-hand with the game’s story and zone exploration at endgame, enhancing the newest maps while also providing me with abilities that have strong relevance to the journey my characters have taken so far.

There is such a great amount of scope in discovery mechanics and crafting systems that I simply can’t see an argument for a developer to ignore mechanised learning as a viable form of progression. Language learning, freeform crafting, and gaining bonuses from random discoveries are all well-explored techniques that deserve a special mention here, and I’m sure that plenty of other examples could be added to the pile too. I would love to see more mechanics that merge my real-world learning into the game environment, perhaps requiring me to solve procedurally generated puzzles based on environmental clues I should have become familiar with through my exploration, or maybe a system in which I can increase my character’s notoriety and reputation with civilizations I encounter by observing the peoples he or she interacts with and suitably conforming to that society’s norms and cultures.

mortalThe risks to consider when creating learning mechanics

The main problem with how learning mechanics have been implemented so far is that many of them make the endgame bell curve too severely splayed due to a lack of any maximum capping or sensible scaling being employed to prevent the gap between newly minted characters and veterans becoming too great. This was certainly true in EverQuest, where some groups would require a player to have earned thousands of AA points before engaging in endgame activities, so I would urge developers to think carefully about how such offputting power creep and discriminatory elitism can be prevented while still making the system meaningful and adequately challenging.

The most obvious fix to prevent a wide chasm between newbies and veterans is to cap the benefits of the employed learning mechanics, but having such a cap could make a more metric, straightforward system quickly become another tick-list grind on top of the level cap, which is the case for the GW2 mastery system right now, unfortunately. Another control measure that could be employed is to make the learned bonuses nice to have but not at all mandatory, but this may only serve to devalue the mechanics and make the effort inhibitive for the perceived reward it provides.

If I wished to implement such mechanics myself, I would instead opt to avoid or obfuscate any numeric benefits the rewards have to prevent direct comparisons and min/maxxing behaviours and would instead arrange for a system with a wide range of obtainable perks that extend further than capping certain stats and gaining a power level of over 9000. I’m a pen-and-paper RPG fan who’s noticed a similar shift away from strictly comparable stats for much of a character’s periphery abilities there, and I appreciate that picking from a range of contextual backgrounds that come with certain perks or pitfalls might be preferable to selecting abilities that modify numbers in easily manipulated ways.

Perhaps taking the scope of the AA system and the contextual perks of the mastery system and blending them with the intuitive, experiential development of all non-core skills in a realistic fashion (nodding to great crafting mechanics and discovery systems) would make for a system that encourages freeform experimentation without wiping achievement periodically to even out the playing field, tacking on more numbers for people to chase when they’re bored of sitting on the cap, or simply allowing an insurmountable power gap to exist.

Over to you!

I’ve kept my observations quite theoretical and deliberately kept it light on examples to allow for a more conceptual exploration of the topic to emerge. If you had to design your own MMORPG, how would you go about it? Would you opt for experiential learning rewards, or do you have something else in mind? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.

MMOs are composed of many moving parts, but Massively’s Tina Lauro is willing to risk industrial injury so that you can enjoy her mechanical musings. MMO Mechanics explores the various workings behind our beloved MMOs. If there’s a specific topic you’d like to see dissected, drop Tina a comment or send an email to
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