Here’s an interesting fact to consider: It took me ages to hit the level cap in Final Fantasy XI. Absolute ages. And no, it’s not because the game was more challenging than modern MMORPGs (because it wasn’t, and there’s a whole column to be written about that some day), nor was it because I played the game less. I just… generally didn’t care and didn’t feel the need to go faster.
This wasn’t actually unique for me or even a lot of people. I know people who never hit the level cap in City of Heroes, and I had a number of characters in the game who were perpetually in the mid-levels. And that was just normal. This was rumbling around in my head and tends to every so often when I think about the way that MMORPGs have changed, usually as people tend to post bad syllogistic arguments about The Way Things Used To Be that don’t really bear much resemblance to reality.
But there is a change. And it involves The Sims and Mega Man X. (Do I get paid more every time I write a column and I get there through some really weird logical leaps? Yes.) [No, but it’s fun. -Bree]
When you fire up Mega Man X, aside from noticing that the game still feels amazingly responsive and fresh despite the fact that it’s 30 years old this December, you know exactly what your goal is. You are trying to find Sigma and shoot him with something until he blows up. There are a number of things that you need to do before that happens, like getting the weapons to shoot him with and the powerups to move through the levels and so forth, but the fundamental goal is pretty straightforward.
By contrast, when you fire up The Sims (or, let’s be real, The Sims 4), your goal is… uh… well, nobody cares. You could make X and Sigma and make them roommates, if you want. (Oh my God, they were roommates.)
Now, on some level this is a problem that a lot of more open and sandboxy games have, which is why The Sims 4 has new “stories” to play through that give you an idea of what your goals can be. But no matter what you do, the fundamental interaction there is the same. There are a lot of goals you can aim for, a lot of things you can try doing, but none of them is the goal.
MMORPGs are neither The Sims 4 nor Mega Man X. That’s right there in the genre name, after all. Even the most focused MMORPG is still going to let you wander off and pick a fight with a boar or whatever, and pretty much every single MMORPG out there has some idea of what your goals should involve. But the games are useful as an illustrative example because they point to something that is, in many ways, a very real split.
Consider, for example, that World of Warcraft’s endgame in the modern era is not actually all that different from WoW Classic’s endgame. In both cases the fundamental flow is that questing leads to dungeons, dungeons lead to raids, and neither one expects you to use automated group-matching except in dire circumstances. The difference is that the former has group-matching, even if it’s seen as a far lesser option, and that it offers a slight twist with the inclusion of Mythic+ making dungeons basically raid in terms of mechanics.
Yet there’s a feel that the latter is definitely different and the base game offered something very different. And a large part of that is that the original game… didn’t really seem to care about your reaching the level cap. It had an endgame, but reaching that felt much more optional in a way that it definitely does not now. For all that people try to claim things like cross-server matching changed WoW, what really changed it was that shift in priorities.
It’s not even necessarily that the middle levels were more fleshed out; it’s more a question of orientation. There was a sense that the endgame is there, that there are things to do there, but if you want to forever stay in the middle levels… well, you’re not really going to get new stuff to do, but the endgame was really just so that people who have finished leveling have stuff to do, too.
And if you weren’t interested in that, “go back and play the game again” was just… kind of what you were expected to do. It was what you expected.
In FFXI, I knew that I did not have a group ready for pushing Dynamis or the like, so there was just… no real push to hit the level cap. I did what I could, leveled where I could, and just existed in the world without any real reason. The amount of time I spent just sitting around not really accomplishing anything is kind of wild to me.
Lest you think that my point here is that one of these is good and the other one is not, that’s the exact opposite of my point. This is not “thing good vs. thing bad” but simply “thing exists.” Final Fantasy XIV is much more about getting to the level cap than just being at whatever level you currently are, but I’ve also frequently cited it as a game which doesn’t really change at level cap. There’s a ton of stuff to do, the basic way you play the game does not change.
What has changed, generally, is a sense of completeness. MMORPGs have generally decided – based on feedback from players, to be clear – that spending ages at level 35 out of 60 just isn’t all that compelling any longer. The endgame is more fun when everyone gets to play in the sandbox, and so while leveling is still a part of the game (and again, there’s another column about why leveling is still important despite this), it’s the stuff you do to get up to the endgame. And this needn’t be a problem if, you know, your game at the level cap resembles the game that people have been enjoying up to the level cap.
However, that also does lead to some of the disconnect. The idea of simply being in a world where the level cap is more of a concept than a goal can be deeply appealing for various reasons. And if you really preferred that, not simply because of necessity but because you deeply enjoyed the freedom to just be in a space without feeling any particular drive to reach the top?
Yeah, something has been lost there over the years.
Is that a bad thing? Insofar as it means there is something that was there before and isn’t there now, yes. It doesn’t really indicate a problem with MMORPGs as a whole, though; as I said, it’s just a thing. It’s a difference in priorities and what the designers want to accomplish. Lots of genres evolve over time; I’m not a fan of bullet hell side-scrolling shooters, but that has become the dominant mold for the genre at this point. Not everything changes in the way you might like.
But I think it’s worth understanding no matter what. That it might be worth considering that the past wasn’t a world where reaching the level cap was harder, just less mandatory and less guided. And that might illustrate why fewer people accomplished it… or felt the need to worry about it in the first place.