Massively Overthinking: Prestige systems in MMORPGs
Last week, an interesting question dropped into our team inbox. It was from a game developer — I don’t know for which game — named Matthew.
“As a developer, I’d be really interested to know what MMO gamers think about the idea of a ‘prestige system’ in an MMO, akin to Call of Duty’s, to encourage players who reach the endgame content to play through the game again from level 1 (with a different approach). Especially in the context of a game that has enough choices and options to make replaying the game interesting. My small studio doesn’t have the resource to produce an expansive endgame, and this seems like it could be a viable option.”
There are a handful of MMORPGs that try this already — Mabinogi is coming to mind — but it’s very rare in the RPG genre in general, and I bet you guys can think up a few reasons why. So let’s tackle the question for this week’s Overthinking: Which games have prestige systems that encourage you to replay your character from level 1, why do you think it’s so rare in MMORPGs, and how would you like to see such a system play out in a genre that prides itself on character development and permanence?
Andrew Ross (@dengarsw): Well, in some ways, SWTOR has one with its legacy system. Maybe WoW has something similar too now, but SWTOR has cutscenes and multiple endings on its side, which I find much more interesting. Mabinogi does the reincarnation, new stats thing, and Wizardry Online had permadeath with your “next of kin” inheriting your stats, but I think the reasons those didn’t take off was due to less of a narrative drive.
As modern MMOs focus on endgame and beating AI, starting over from level 1 goes against the way a lot of people were raised on games. I still remember talking to a developer who talked about wanting to do away with levels in an MMO and a hardcore WoW player asked, “What would you do? What would be the point?”
It’s why I really want Chronicles of Elyria to pull off its promise of hidden narrative quests driving you towards something larger through each generation that socially ties you to or pits you against your fellow player, but I’m not holding my breath. Replaying from level 1 in a level driven game is boring. Having multiple narratives is fun but expensive. Having social systems that encourage multiple playthroughs, though, would be really, really cool.
Brendan Drain (@nyphur): Adding a prestige system to a game feels like a cheap and lazy way to try to cater to hardcore players. Most of today’s MMOs are made very easy and devoid of long-term goals in order to appeal to the widest possible userbase, and allowing players to simply reset their level and gain a prestige rank for it feels like the absolute laziest way to extend the endgame. Players want gameplay that can hold their attention naturally in the long term, and endgame challenge that isn’t as flat as a gentle-sloping level treadmill, but all prestige does is give you a circular treadmill and tell you to walk forever. It’s a hollow and kind of insulting endgame, and I think we deserve better.
That said, there are ways that a prestige type system could improve a game. For example, if a game has any kind of permadeath then you’d probably like to get some recognition for a dead character’s deeds when your new character spawns fresh into the world, even if it’s just a rank marker or a high score chart type system. Star Citizen is reportedly going to use this kind of soft permadeath system by having your new character inherit assets and titles from the old one in some way, so you have a record of what your previous characters achieved. This is more of a way to soften the blow of losing a character by immortalising its achievements and eliminating progress loss, which seems more acceptable than a classic prestige system designed to artificially extend the endgame with repetition.
Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): I think these systems are generally uncommon among MMORPGs that still believe that the “RPG” part still means something, and in very few settings does it make a lot of sense to suddenly lose all of your knowledge and skills and start over as a veritable noob, nor is that particularly fulfilling to the types of people who like the long-term character building of RPGs in the first place.
That said, I respect the MMORPGs that have found ways to put the principle to work while staying true to RPGs, whether they are skill-based sandboxes that let you unlearn skills to learn new ones (Ultima Online, among many others), games that start the whole world over again so everyone begins from scratch (A Tale in the Desert), or games that turn soft-permadeath into a family-centered game mechanic (Chronicles of Elyria). I’d even go so far as to say that games with a strong emphasis on alternate/horizontal advancement or alt characters are finding ways to make prestige systems work without actually asking everyone to go back to being a naked level 1 at the start of every season a la Diablo III, which as Brendan points, is a bit of a crutch for devs.
Eliot Lefebvre (@Eliot_Lefebvre, blog): There are more than a few MMOs at this point that use similar ideas on the account level – World of Warcraft’s expansive collections on the account level, for example, or Star Wars: The Old Republic’s Legacy system – and WoW itself has embraced the idea with its new PvP system. But it’s definitely not something done very often in MMOs, and I think a great deal of that comes down to a sense of permanence and when you’re “finished” with something.
Allow me to pull a non-MMO example here with Disgaea. In pretty much every installment of the franchise, you can take a leveled character and kick them back down to level 1, complete with long-term stat boosts that affect overall growth. You can also play back through the entire game again if you want; the original game alone has a huge swath of content for you to take on that’s almost certain to require a few playthroughs. But in both cases, there’s a lot of stuff that you’re expected to have done in the first place. When you can slowly work everyone’s stats to nigh-perfect level, the game starts being built around the idea that you will work your characters up to that level.
In the case of MMOs, once you reach the level cap, if you can bring benefits back down to the lowest level, will those benefits extend upward? If so, people are going to see those benefits as more or less mandatory at the top end. It’s also going to make leveling a bit more obnoxious simply from the standpoint of not really being “done” the first time through; you know full well you’re going to have to reset and start again, after all. It takes a gentle hand to make starting over something that’s at once desirable and yet not mandatory; Final Fantasy XIV allows you to swap between a variety of classes, and yet it has to strike a balance between the people who will happily play just one class until the end of time and the people who want to level everything; avoiding making the latter mandatory while also making it desirable on some level.
There’s also the fact that leveling again on a different path is the sort of thing that’s often more rewarding when you enjoyed the journey the first time. If I didn’t find the climb compelling the first time, I certainly don’t want to take it again. And you’re going to have the trouble of hitting mid-game doldrums on your second time through, feeling like you’re going back through the motions, and so forth.
All of this is not to say that it’s a bad idea; it’s the sort of system that I’d love to see in more games myself, as someone who generally has more alts than good sense. I like going back through familiar parts of a game with new perspective. But problems still exist, and I think it’s a delicate balancing act to make a diverse enough game that this sort of “endgame” can work out in the long run. It’s why account-level rewards work so well, ultimately; they allow that feeling of contributing to a unified set of abilities without requiring it. Sure, I don’t get a direct power boost on my new Paladin in WoW, but I also don’t have to work on her reputations just for mounts, and I can level her up that much faster with heirlooms. It’s not a perfect solution, but it sure helps.
Justin Olivetti (@Sypster, blog): I’m really for the idea of prestige systems, particularly if a game is built around them (versus being tacked on later). If the grind/advancement is sped up and there’s reason to keep rerolling — such as new classes, bonuses, and so on — it can be pretty compelling. Best of both worlds if you like leveling and alts, really. Kingdom of Loathing has a pretty neat ascension system, and DDO has attempted to give its players incentives to reroll. Chronicles of Elyria is looking at a related system with its limited lifespans and lineage trees.
Again, it needs to be done smartly and have as much repeatable content as possible be varied and unpredictable so that the 15th time raising a character won’t be wrote but will be its own adventure and reward. Allowing characters to pass down a “legacy” in the form of gear, housing, and bonuses can keep some measure of progression and permanence in an otherwise fluid process.
Larry Everett (@Shaddoe, blog): I am probably only speaking for myself here. I’m an altoholic. I actually enjoy playing through different class stories multiple times, but what I like most is being able to create a new character to run through the story again. A prestige system kind of undermines that. Elder Scrolls Online sort of had a prestige system with its Veteran Ranks. Not only did I despise Veteran Ranks because of its requirement for endgame, but it also forced me to stick with one character whose story already felt complete. I know that I don’t speak for everyone, but if a prestige system were to be introduced into an MMORPG, that would be my reason for my aversion.