MMO Rant #10: The Mid Game

I’ve played a lot of massively multiplayer games. I think my MMORPG play count is somewhere in the mid dozens at this point, ever creeping toward triple digits. Back in the day, I was willing and able to max characters out–I had the time and dedication to do so. I was willing to get through all of the mid levels and soldier to the end game. But, you know what? At this point in my life, I’m only playing through those levels if they don’t suck.

I haven’t reached the max level in an MMO for years. I’ve been playing MMOs for more than a decade now (holy crap, can you believe it?), and have maxed out in a number of them, but for the past couple years, I have not capped out in any game legitimately.

Why? Mostly, because the mid game is crap. That’s the time between the “newbie” levels during which you learn how to play the game and your character matures and the “end game,” where the game tends to change to something completely different (read: endless raids or PvP in some games).

Now, the fact that by some mid level my character and game experience are essentially complete is only part of the problem. It does truly suck that I don’t actually have anything new to do between level 20 and 49 in a game that caps out at 50. It does suck that it is endlessly repetitious and boring for days on end while I soldier on toward the end game, where the game becomes completely different.

Okay, I think that’s actually about 75% of the reason I never get to the end. The game doesn’t change! I get slightly different abilities as I advance, but the challenges are all essentially identical. There are no new mechanics thrown in to make it truly interesting. A mount that makes me go a little faster when out of combat is only so interesting, and if it comes too late in the game I get so underwhelmed by it, I become more likely to quit.

Throw some freaking wrenches into my spokes. Make mobs do things that I wouldn’t expect, thus revealing some hidden usefulness of abilities I already have. Add in jump puzzles to some of the zones that actually require me to be good at playing the game to get through (of course, you must not require these to advance or you’ll lose the people who aren’t good at playing games). Give me SOMETHING to look forward to.

In most games, all I have to look forward to is cooler looking equipment and different looking zones. When everything plays identically, that isn’t going to draw me any further into the game. It’s not going to get me to continue playing, because there’s no point. Yes, I AM tired of killing bears and boars that have the same tactics they did when they were half their current level.

I only said that was 75% of the reason I don’t play through the mid game. The other 25% is polish and, more encompassing, attention not given. Developers work really hard at polishing the hell out of the early levels to get players into the game. They like to make great first impressions so players will really like the game. Unfortunately for them, I’m not willing to forgive future stupidity based solely on good first impressions.

They only ever make the beginning and end of the game super polished, and they only ever really update the end game. Give me some new options in the mid game so the second or third or eighth time I play it, I can take another path or at least see or do something different. Make the world more dynamic so things at least change a little bit, even if you don’t give me an entirely new zone.

Someday, the mid game will not suck. Someday, I’ll get new mechanics and new content types and new stuff along the way that will keep me playing. Someday the end game will not mean “different game,” and I might actually care about getting there. Someday the mid game will be as polished as the newbie experience and will have the variety and change of the end game. Someday, I’ll get through the mid game again, and I will max out a character in another MMO.

19 Responses to "MMO Rant #10: The Mid Game"

  1. Been there. In a lot of games it’s real easy to get bogged down in the mid-levels, because really the only thing you have to look forward to other than potentially a new place to explore from time to time is spending time grinding your way up to high levels and raiding, or the equivalent.

    I personally enjoy the hell out of mid-levels in most games, but that’s because I’m a content whore. It doesn’t bother me so much that the gameplay is exactly the same, as long as I have an interesting story to chase. But it would definitely make things more fun and more interesting if new abilities got introduced that redefined the way my character played from time to time.

    Maybe as a goal for a level-based game, a new ability line should be granted every 3-5 levels?

    Maybe more scripted encounters, AoEs, and other assorted “raid” tricks should be leveraged in mid-level content to start teaching raiding tactics?

    Just some thoughts.

  2. Saxony

    I think that part of what you are referring to is perception rather then poor design. For example in World of Warcraft mobs are using new abilities throughout all of the levels and the player gets new abilities as well. The problem stems from the fact that any group content that you do can have varying levels and if any one member of your group is equal to the highest lvl boss or higher in level then the whole instance becomes a tank and spank rather then using tactics. A lot of times people will say that Such-And-Such instance is designed for ## levels, but these generalizations are based off of doing the instance mindlessly rather then using tactics. If you want to make the game interesting you can do instances with a balanced group of good players at a level lower then what the general populace believes is pristine.

    Another factor is the generality of the quests, the collect quest, the kill quest. Every now and then you get an original quest but with the 1,000 quests in the game there are only so many original ideas and so the majority of the quests follow under some of the standard formats. If you’re doing quests solo it should be a slightly different play experience as you level up and acquire new abilities. Granted you only acquire new abilities every 4th or 6th level after about level 20, but there are still new mechanics available. In World of Warcraft they were able to create new mechanics for quests in the expansion that were never seen previously. Which shows that they had not exhausted all of their potential creativity, but at the same time they designed the environment in the expansion with different mechanics and rules and so some new things became possible.

    Finally, in WoW there is also games apart from the level grind. Such as pvp instances at 19, 29, 51, and 70. The fishing competition at 40. The darkmoon faire at 60, or to just kill time. Not everyone purchases the game to kill time doing these things, but it is an option if you’re incredibly bored with the quests.

    To Summarize, a lot of the repetition comes from perception and preference of play rather then poor game design. You could sit and try instances at the earliest possible level and have all the pain of failure coupled with the satisfaction of completing it, or you could go out and grind an extra level or 2 and then come back and do a tank and spank without even using any tactics or brain power but at the same time without any set backs, wipes, etc… Most PUGs aren’t going to provide you with the skill of player necessary to pull it off without the tank and spank set up. Likewise you are going to get original quests and abilities periodically but not every single quest can be original unless you drastically reduce the number of quests available. I think it’s not the MMO’s that have changed but rather your perceptions of them. If you don’t alter them or change them back I foresee that the trend of not maxxing out your characters is going to continue no matter what MMO’s are created, unless they make it so ridiculously easy to max out your character that they can’t maintain a cycle of creating new content fast enough to keep up with people maxxing out their characters.

  3. Daven

    Only current game I play that has nothing interesting midgame is EQ2. Vanguard is fun midgame and so was EQ1. Can’t comment on WoW since it does not appeal to me.
    Mid and Endgame should get more attention than they do. Your newbie days last what 1 week?

  4. RickR

    I enjoy SWG in it’s current form (mostly because I have a stable of level-capped players) but the mid-game is where it falls down the worst.. there isn’t one. At all. Nothing. For combat characters, there is one big long quest chain called “Legacy” that will take you from character creation to about level 50. It doesn’t end, it just stops, leaving the player hanging, and to go grind out 20 levels, until level 70 when they can effectively do the quests from the Kashyyyk expansion and from there, the quests from the Mustafar expansion, which will take them to the level cap of 90. Almost all mid-level abilities are simply slightly better versions of abilities you already have. There is no mid-level PvP, as there is no mechanic for matching up PvP’ers of similar level. The vast majority of PvP’ers are level 90, players less than 87 or 88 don’t stand a chance. There are no mid-level groups as there is no effective LFG system other than putting an “LFG” tag over your head and pray to see someone else with the same tag.

    It’s worse for crafters. They get 4 or 5 quests right after character creation, then left to grind it out until 90. Nobody wants crafted items made by less than a Master. leaving players to consume millions of units of hard-won resources just to get to a level where they can begin to compete in a market with highly-entrenched crafters sitting on dragons’ hoards of high-quality resources.

    I understand SOE’s reasoning behind not allocating dev resources to the mid-game right now — because typically players grind through them so quickly that there are other more pressing concerns. However, it’s a vicious circle: Players grind through it quick because it’s less painful that way, they want to get to the point where they can start playing the game again.

  5. Fidtz

    What is interesting to me is why the mid game is there at all. Why do games companies do a great job on the first 20-30% of a game and then, instead of thinking “lets not do a bunch of other boring repetetive bits” they just go and add them anyway. Why not take the really good content, scale the levels so instead of ending up at level 20 which sounds low, you end at level 60 (or 100, whatever) and add the raiding/endgame after that? I assume there are a lot of people who actually like the grind. I also assume these people have not done it before :)

  6. Thundaarr

    The funny thing is that lvl’s don’t equal content. There are so many filler lvl’s because it seems that MMO’s feel the need to have such and such a number of lvl’s at the start, in these large increments. In theory, you could have a lvl cap of 5, and make each lvl incredibly long and difficult to get, and cut down on the feeling of filler lvls. I do think eq2 does a fairly good job of handling the mid lvl’s, as you do get some unique and more poweful abilities as you lvl up.

  7. Token

    You want your time sink to be more fun. Other than wasting developers time on mid game content it’s up to you to either play with friends to make things more interesting or vote with your wallet. I can’t wait for these grind games to go out of business.

  8. EQ2 used to have a more interesting mid-game, when you had to do access quests to get into the midlevel zones. Each new zone was hard-fought — but you could skip the quests by leveling past the point where they were required if you just didn’t want to do them.

    Also, when EQ2 first started, people did those city raids for guild status at amazingly young levels — I did my first one at level 15 within a week or two of EQ2’s opening. Plus the various mini-raids for the Greater Lightstone, Shiny Brass Shield and Short Sword of the Ykesha heritages, and the occasional low level contested raid mob. For a long time, you didn’t need to get to max level to enjoy challenging content.

    But EQ2 has progressively catered to the WoW crowd and in the process eliminated a lot of the midgame… sadly.

    And I do miss it.

  9. Teljair

    Isn’t everything you just mentioned still in EQ2 except for the access quests? They were so easy anyway and took no time at all to do, I wouldn’t consider them anything that added hardness/fun to the game. I think the reason you think this way is because you can’t find the people anymore to do the stuff, everyone just wants to go grind and hit level 70. Of course thats all I care to do to, hit level 70 asap. But not because EQ2 mid-game is boring, its actually very fun in my opinion, there are a lot of great mid-level dungeons, HQs, etc..

  10. This is an area I also dread in most MMO games as well. For me it is more of the fact that each character is of mine is being asked to do the same exact things as the characters before him. I will normally play a Paladin first (Dwarf if the game has them). I will normally level this character up near the end game (a place I despise as currently developed). Then I will start to look at taking on other characters and see how they play and what I can and can’t do with them in battle. Because I don’t race in level with my main, I am normally pretty alone in the noobie world at this point and have to tread the world solo, which is boring to say the least.

    But when I re-start the game and Fizzlecog still needs someone to find his sprocket that was lost or Amdir (LOTRO) still guides me through the same instances, the world looses a lot of it appeal. Persistent Worlds are not fun, in that we are not using the word persistent to mean a world that is always online, but a world that is always persistent in that nothing changes from them. I’ve recently gone back in to EverQuest II after playing a few other games (World of Warcraft, Lord of the Rings Online and Beta Testing some others), and while they’ve made some changes to the newbie zones, and added in Neriak and Faydwer. There still is not much fun to be found for me in a game that is primarily designed to be soloed till you reach the end game or get beyond the mind levels. Yes there are dungeons and Heroic Quests, but when the ‘lower’ population is scarce these are not things I get to look forwards to doing ‘again’ in the game.

    Also with the alternates, there is the trade-skilling that you could create alternate toons to trade-skill the items you need as you level up. I mean I get 6 slots for characters and for your main character or for an alternate character that you’re leveling up at this time. You’ll also have access to a greater deal of wealth to buy items from the brokers (player market) should you want to make life even easier and at the same time more dull in leveling. It tends to become a greater rat race to higher levels as you seek to find other players at your level range to group with and communicate with, should you not choose to get involved in all the /ooc chatter about topics that are pretty immature most of the time.

    Ryan does bring up a key point in that there needs to be more avenues at the mid-game for players to partake in. While I don’t want to be told to me to start a Human in EQII and then betray to Faydwer just to get this new path, these paths should have been put in from the get go. One ideal that I talk about was epic quests starting from the very early levels such as the noobie level and then progressing to the end game. But this would not be a system where there was just one epic quest line per race class combination. I am talking about 5 in the first generation of this design and then progressing to 31 in later generations. To where it would depend on which day you created your character or a random generation at character creation would select your epic story. This would help break up the game and help players not feel like they are doing the same mouse maze over and over.

    Another thing I miss from games gone by is the need to group. While I understand why we’ve gone away from this mechanic (because its easy, and we’ll get less hate mail from players). I know I for one loose a lot of motivation to go out fishing while waiting or when taking a break from the grind in EQII, since I can’t sell the fish to merchants for some small amount of coin. In EQII, all harvestable items are not merchant sellable, since they are overly common in the world, even at the ‘end game’ harvested items are common. In EverQuest II they’ve given us the Gibbler (spelling), who will run a video poker like system for 10sp per play. While not a bad ideal, for those whom don’t have a lot of coin to start with, this usually will give us a few play before we need to move on to find other places to make money or advance our characters.

    Remove the linear paths of advancement through the world, when we play games today, we are not asked to tread through zones with much higher content than our own. They horde us through the game like a bunch of cattle being rounded up for slaughter at the end game where ‘good’ and ‘evil’ has long been irrelevant in the player base or to the guilds that are created. Heck, I think the good vs. evil loose a lot of its relevance in the transition from design document and concept to beta. Only World of Warcraft has done a ‘decent’ job in this area.

    There was talk about the crafters and giving them meaningful things to do. EverQuest II added in writs for the trade-skill sphere of game play. Vanguard did the same, but in Vanguard a few of us asked to have these work orders be given from the NPC’s of the cities and outlying areas. Why shouldn’t crafters feel more apart of the cities they inhabit, and why should the NPC’s (citizens) of the city also seek out crafted items for them homes (deleted items from game). Why are games created from the onset to have buildings that need to be finished or built that crafters can help take part in. There are a lot of things we can give the crafters of the world to do in these games, but since crafting has always been treated as a secondary profession to adventuring, we get systems that are not geared towards the purest.

    For me though, a big let down in the middle game is the fact the world really does not remember me too well. Unless I talk to the same NPC’s that does not have a quest icon above their head, which they will tell me thanks for doing this or doing that for them.

    Another aspect is the loss of multiple cities to explore. As the games progressed (in generations) we are loosing more and more things each generation or game that is released. EverQuest had like 9 starting cities, to where World of Warcraft had 3, and EverQuest II had 2, when the games were released.

    There is also talk of dynamic worlds, and while I am still doing some research on a why this could be done with ‘little’ developer resources after launch, it is an area that would be nice to see. But there are some major questions that would need to be solved… who gets to be the one to change the political or populations (wilderness) of the world. Do we still create a game where Heroes can have 24,000 or more deaths in less than 3 years of game play? Do we allow guild who basically exploit lack of hard coded game rules to run or dictate the servers changes (All Race / All Class) guilds that take on both good and evil characters for the sake of gaining mass numbers and getting the best race/class combo’s to help take away some of the challenges the designers tried to create in the first place.

    Access quests in EverQuest II when I played it at release time were great, but I would often find myself either out leveling them when I got to the quest that needed access or I was too far under them and needed to grind some levels in order to do them. Then there was the fact that a higher level could come in group with the party and get them in to the area, and also mentor them, taking away all and any need to do them. This came from the fact that EverQuest II had too many quests most of the time in given areas, and since Questing is such a great advantage to leveling, you wanted and tried to do as many as you could. Then with the quest journal (your personal PDA in a medieval setting), you could and most likely would go in to an area and gathered as many as you could (looking for icons above heads) and then set out in to the world to complete them. I am not just picking in EverQuest II here, there are many games that fall in to these traps, and quests area marketing tool for the magazine or banner ads, we have x,xxx quests or we’ve added xxx quests since launch. I don’t feel quests should give such a boost to advancement that they loose much of their aspects of storytelling. Quests should not be so harvestable as our trade-skill items in the world.

    These games are fun and can remain fun if you find a group of people who ‘LIKE’ playing with each other so much then forget the grind and keep around the same levels as those they ‘LIKE’ playing with so they can continue to group with each other. This is often only found with real-life friends. Since almost everyone who plays MMO’s these days know that the best gear and money are at the end game, which is where players want to be from day one. Since developers pretty much hand players the end game (fast leveling rates), player grind to it. There is zero to only a handful of items to be found in the mid game that will last you through or even past the end game, there is little to no need to pay attention to the middle game.

  11. This has been a really interesting read. Thanks.

    WoW was my first and only MMO, and I quit once I got to lvl 40, because I was so sick of kill & collect quests. I didn’t play often enough to get a consistent group of players – I would play with someone and the next time I logged in they would be ten levels above me. The knowledge that what I mainly had left to look forward to was raiding, I figured it was all a bit pointless…

  12. City of Heroes gives some of the most interesting abilities in the mid-game, giving folks a motive to keep going. Primary power sets get their last powers at 32, which include things like blaster nukes, controller pets, two new powers for every mastermind pet, or tankers’ two minutes of god mode. 38 is your last secondary power. 20 is a critical level, letting you finish out pools, and it usually is a pretty cool secondary power level as well.

    The last thing I did in City of Villains was a project named Brutal Speed. Everyone took one of a small pool of possible characters, so forming groups was always “5 from group B, 3 from group C.” Everyone was really excited about level 20, because all the corruptors got Speed Boost: endless speed and recovery. The 40s are notoriously grindy for City of Heroes/Villains, but Brutal Speed was really looking forward to it because all the corruptors got Fulcrum Shift at 38: endless damage. You could complain fairly that the players had to engineer the big shift, but for us the game changed quite a bit as we hit certain milestones in character development.

  13. “Heck, I think the good vs. evil loose a lot of its relevance in the transition from design document and concept to beta. Only World of Warcraft has done a ‘decent’ job in this area.”

    This is actually quite an ironic statement, given that Blizzard explicitly attempted to avoid players classifying Alliance as “good” and Horde as “evil.” According to their story, neither is actually good or evil, they just have different views and opposing goals.

  14. …made even more so by the fact that horde and alliance now 1) live together and b) are battling on the same side against a common evil.

  15. Also my use of assorted bullet point markers is a clear indication that I need more sleep…. :???:

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  17. […] Shwayder touched on this a while ago in his MMO Rant #10:  The Mid Game. In that article, Ryan points out that: “[Developers] only ever make the beginning and end of […]

  18. soru

    Screw the midgame. You need a tutorial, you need an end-game. Any development effort spent on the pointless dead-space in between is pretty much a waste.

    Just drop it. Make it so that once you are fully out of the tutorial you are starting the end-game, and even if the only thing your devs do instead is drink cappucino, you still have a net win.

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