Alright, today I'm digging into levels! Not as in set pieces or sections of story, but as the relative term of power.
Levels, the best and worst mechanic of the MMO at the same time. Levels can be applied to anything, characters, enemies, skills, gear and even environments. The ultimate guidance of character growth and travel.
Some games focus on the story. A linear path through set environments where your character may grow in power to provide options. In this context, after enough experience is gained, you earn a level and with it, a skill point. Choices on how to spend this skill point are separated into trees or paths that follow a particular theme. More often then not, these can be 'Melee', 'Stealth' and 'Magic' options, but that changes per game. I usually like this kind of progression. Leveling is second to playing through the main story and serves as a reward where you further refine your personal play style. Stealth characters start sneaking up on enemies, avoid traps easier, perhaps even avoid enemies all together. Melee characters gain more health, stand toe to toe with more enemies at once, block more damage with shields and wade through enemies like mud. Magic characters sometimes get to choose their flavor of magic, and use it to burn down everything in their path. That bandit is burnt to his boots before he even saw you, and his friends turned to char before even getting into melee range.
I love it, it adds replay value. It adds personalization. It makes fun discussion with friends on how everyone approached things differently. Games in this category include Might & Magic Dark Messiah, Farcry 3 and the Mass Effect series. (Wasn't Mass Effect 1 great?)
Let's open the world some more. No longer focused on a completely linear story, we'll open up to a more sandbox environment. The Elder Scrolls, Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas fall into this and again I tend to love it. A story if you want, side missions if you want. The focus of the game shifts from the story to your character and what you do. Some will ignore the side stuff and just shoot through the main story. This style of play resembles the previous grouping of games but still fits the bill. Some will ignore the main story and wander from town to town helping NPCs. Some will ignore towns and just wander the map investigating any ruin or cave they find. Some will stay in towns but just try to steal anything and everything allowed. Some will try to be the terror and slay each and every person on the map, including townsfolk. All the while gaining experience and skill points that they will spend as they see fit.
We are not yet at the problem in the system. Levels are serving their purpose.
Now we're going to make the game MULTIPLAYER. Now we're going to start encountering problems.
Borderlands 2. I hate it.
It started well enough, we all made a character and started the journey together. After playing a few hours and gaining some levels we finished for the night and went to bed. Flash forward to our next chance to all play together, some have had more free time then others. Our characters, once of equal power and level are now within a 20 level spread. So we try having the 2 higher ups come into the lower areas. They demolish everything in a few hits, the lower level characters can barely do anything except move forward to keep up as even a boss battle is done in seconds. Not very fun for either side. So we try switching to playing in the higher areas. The higher ups have fun because things are finally a bit of a match for them. But the lower levels can barely take a step before they die near instantly. Headshotting an enemy with a sniper rifle barely moves the health bar. It still wasn't much fun.
Easy enough to fix, just have a character we only play when all 4 of us are around. Different days have different combinations of us available to play. We're each playing at least 5 different characters and some take that better then others. Perhaps I'm a minority in this sentiment, but I find it infuriatingly needless.
This is just one example of such a game. Quite a few have this problem. Wednesday, I'll dive into how I would personally solve the problem in Borderlands 2. Not everyone sees it as such, but I find it odd a game about playing with friends so blatantly gates you from meaningfully doing so.
After that, the murky water of the MMO...