Life Without Levels

One of the unique aspects of progression in The Secret World is that there are no levels. I’ve heard of this approach in MMOs before but I’ve never played a level-less MMO. Honestly I always thought removing levels was a bad idea because I like the feeling of “dinging” another level and growing in power. However now that I’ve had the chance to try a game that focuses on skill points rather than levels, I have to say I’m sold on the idea so long as it’s done well.

When I was in high school during my freshman year I was paranoid about being late. I would obsessively check my watch as I maneuvered through the student-congested halls of our large school building fearing that I wouldn’t make it to my next class on time. Finally I had had enough and got rid of the watch. There was a freedom in having no idea what time it was that helped me overcome the fear of being late.

Playing an MMO without levels is like that. One of the obvious advantages I’ve found is that I now gage progression by completing all the missions in a zone rather than by my level. Since I never feel like I’ve “outleveled” a zone by becoming too powerful, I’m much more content to stick around and complete every mission in the area. Sure, it’s possible to do this in games with levels and I’ve tried but it never lasts long. Eventually I get tired of being so overpowered in a zone or start to feel the pressure of reaching the end where the “real game” begins and skip ahead to stay at level and progress more quickly.

The pacing has to be done correctly for this to work. I still want to see growth in my character and in this I think TSW does a good job. I earn AP and SP frequently enough to add a new active or passive skill that I feel rewarded for completing a mission. If it happens too slowly the lack of levels will be noticed more because in MMOs like World of Warcraft levels function as arbitrary benchmarks, giving you a sense of reward between new talents or skills. The Elder Scrolls Online is a good example of pacing that is too slow. It has both levels and skill points but I think the game would be much better if the levels were removed completely and the skill points (at least at the lower levels) were given out more frequently.

So I’m enjoying the different style of progression that a level-less game like The Secret World provides. As a result I’ve seen far more of what the world has to offer and I don’t feel the usual rush to reach the end. As long as I keep getting the AP and SP at a rewarding rate, I’ll continue to be a happy little vampire slayer in this new life without levels.

WoW Clones and the Point of Divergence

Labeling an MMO as a “WoW Clone” is generally meant as an insult. Such games were developed to match the features and mechanics of World of Warcraft in order to duplicate its success but in actuality the popularity of WoW has been a singular event in the history of the genre. To some extent the criticism is warranted. Foregoing creativity and risk in hopes of making a quick buck is hardly a development tactic to be applauded however two of these games have been in continued development for 3-4 years and warrant a second look. Both Rift and Star Wars: The Old Republic began by closely approximating the gameplay of WoW but since their launch have diverged along their own path offering players a “WoW that was” or a “WoW as it could have been”.

As someone who enjoyed World of Warcraft for several years, I am biased toward games of similar mechanics and feature lists. I enjoy storytelling on rails, instanced group play, and traditional combat but I haven’t always agreed with the development decisions Blizzard has made over the last 12-18 months or the features they have neglected to improve in favor of others. Garrisons for example are an interesting addition but the transmogrification system is grossly outdated. At a time when nearly every other MMO is improving cosmetic customization for player gear this is a significant oversight. And so I find myself enjoying the type of MMO WoW represents but not the game itself in its current state.

However when I take a look at both Rift and SWTOR I see games similar to WoW that have developed along very different paths. Looking at their evolution over the last 3-4 years is like catching a glimpse of two possible alternatives to the current iteration of WoW, a multi-verse of MMO development as it were. Each game features many similarities to the MMO they were developed to mimic but since their creation both games have changed systems, mechanics, and feature lists independent of WoW’s own development cycle.

Consider talent trees for example. In early 2012 all of these games featured three branching skill trees for each class and a pool of skill points for players to use in order to customize their characters. From the beginning Rift brought an interesting twist to this system by allowing each class to choose three options from a broader selection of skill trees called “Souls” and the game continues to maintain this approach. WoW on the other hand has eradicate the branching trees in favor of three talent choices offered every fifteen levels and relative freedom in adjusting those choices on the fly. SWTOR held out on traditional talent trees up until the end of last year at which point Bioware adopted a talent system of their own featuring three tiers of seven choices of which players could choose seven total across all tiers by level 60. There are limitations in place that prevent overpowered combinations (like players choosing all seven in the highest tier) but overall the system offers more choices than the one in WoW.

Did you prefer the branching skill trees that World of Warcraft offered prior to the launch of Mists of Pandaria? Rift provides you with that choice and from the start has doubled down on the character building freedom that the system offers. Or have you liked the stream lined talent choices MoP introduced but wish for a little more flexibility in choice amongst the tiers? Then you may want to try SWTOR’s implementation of talents in their discipline paths. The point is not that one design choice is inherently superior to the others, but rather that for those of us who enjoy the MMO model presented by Blizzard in World of Warcraft, we now have alternatives with slight variations. Sure Rift, SWTOR, and many other titles may have been clones of WoW at their point of launch but since then they have developed independently. For my preferences these two games offer features and mechanics that I enjoy more than those present in their parent MMO. If you enjoy World of Warcraft but haven’t sampled either of these “clones” in the last two years I’d highly recommend you do so. They may have been replicas at the start, but since that point of divergence both Rift and Star Wars: The Old Republic have matured into MMOs reminiscent of World of Warcraft but refreshingly distinct.