Why are MMORPGs so Linear?

Posted by on March 27, 2012 - 3 Comments »

When entering into a virtual world, one has certain expectations about what their journey through it will be. For me, one of those expectations is that the world is open ended, allowing me to travel where ever I want, whenever I want. However, I don’t believe I’ve ever played a MMORPG that has allowed me to do this realistically.

Today’s MMORPGs seem to place the player on a well defined path, lined with NPCs pointing the way from start to end. Over the last few years, this has become more apparent with entire zones dedicated to certain levels, as the players travels in a linear line from zone to zone.

This becomes no more clearer than in BioWare’s Star Wars: The Old Republic, who’s zones are entire planets. SWTOR allows the player to access any planet, but to no purpose, as any player not meeting the level requirements, or at least close to them, will find they are unable to do anything on that planet by themselves. In the other direction, once you out-level a planet, there’s  almost no reason to ever return to it.

This linear system is not unique to SWTOR, as most MMORPGs today follow the same system. Shouldn’t zones have more of a mix in terms of the level players are within them? Why are developers so keen on trying to keep players separated based on level?

This brings me back to my days playing single-player games like Metroid and Zelda, where you would learn a new skill or ability, then travel back to old locations. You’d remember there was an area you couldn’t access before, but now with your new ability you can. This sort of system is lost in today’s MMORPG. Players follow a linear path up to the level-cap, then once there, they’re left with only a few zones to game in as everything else is way beneath them.

This linear system forces developers to continue the linear line, by creating new zones for players and constantly upping the level-cap. New content isn’t necessarily bad in a MMORPG, but it should not happen as often as it does.  Development should be pushing new features and systems, not content. I don’t mind an expansion every two years or so, but no new content in-between. The game itself should be engaging enough to keep players without new content ever few months.

Some MMO games do try to intermingle players at different levels, but most of the time it’s just by placing a high-level dungeon in a low level zone. The high-level players then just end up sitting in-front of the entrance forming groups and ignoring everything else in the zone.

What I’d like to see are higher level mobs, all the way to max level,  scattered throughout the entire game, with areas dedicated to players of all levels.

Apart from just being more realistic, it would create more dynamic grouping as high-level players would be more likely to group with low-level players. For instance, lets say a level 45 player is attempting a dungeon that should be done by 2-3 level 45 players. There happen to be 3-4 level 20 players there completing a quest, so they team up. The level 45 helps them with their quest, they in turn attempt to go deeper into the dungeon to help him and get some nice rewards for their effort.

I always feel like I’m trying to grind through the quests as quickly as possible so I can move on to the next area. However if there were no zones to get to and the entire world was just a mish-mash of everything, I’d probably spend a lot more time exploring areas. What ever happened to exploring anyway?

It’s like Merovingian said in the Matrix “Choice is an illusion created between those with power and those without.” With the developer having the power and the players being without. There really is no choice in today’s MMORPGs as we all end up at the same ending in nearly the same manner.