Something I was thinking about in a longer post I was working on, is that modern games often are designed in a way that makes lots of gameplay feel like a time sink, whether it is or not, and then can weaponize that in service of (usually) monetization.
Even my favorite games do it – World of Warcraft and Final Fantasy XIV both use level boosts to present an alternate path through leveling, both have paid means by which to change the race and customization of your character, and FFXIV also has paid retainers as a subscription service means to expand your inventory space.
Many modern AAA titles use in-game currencies, which can be purchased with real money, in varying amounts with an inverted value scale. The idea of this is that you can purchase a variety of things in game, either through hours of sidequests and additional gameplay, or through a credit card transaction.
I often think about it in the context of MMOs, where leveling used to be a core part of the experience, and now is often a thing that you get through to enjoy the “real” game.
It relates quite heavily to the recent WoW-centric phenomenon of Classic, and to many MMOs having progression or retro servers. The most succinct part of the experience you can compare is the leveling experience – modern WoW is streamlined, contained but also freeform, and tries to offer most players the means to speed through it rapidly, with repeat playthroughs getting faster.
Classic is open, more so than the modern game, because you can go anywhere and do all the quests available, but it also has firmer restrictions – level requirements, travel limitations, and time spent in transit. The thing about Classic is that endgame was not as fleshed out as modern WoW, and while WoW was definitely the leader of a wave of MMOs that made endgame the main attraction, over all else, vanilla was not quite as clear on that as the modern game, and it took a fair amount of development through vanilla before it became hyper-obvious that the endgame was 100% where the game was going.
WoW also has done something interesting, which Bhagpuss recently touched on, which is that WoW reinvents itself nearly every expansion. The game changes so much from expansion to expansion that I think it’s not even the same game at this point. I feel like it describes a local mall here, where the original mall which still is the name of the plot is a desolate, empty husk, and the remaining shops are actually all new buildings bolted onto the shell that remains. Sure, you can call going to the Staples there “Shopper’s Square” but you don’t have to enter the original building, park in the original spaces, or even use the same entrances. WoW has the trappings of the old world, even the post-Cataclysm world, but it is fundamentally different, and Blizzard emphasizes this by nearly never using it in a meaningful way. You graduate from old content, never to return. They’ll probably never add a new endgame dungeon with an entrance in Stranglethorn Vale. Hell, look at the content added – not counting new dungeons added for level cap expansion, they have not added a new dungeon that exists solely for leveling since…Maraudon? Not counting level cap extensions, I feel safe to say that Maraudon or Dire Maul are likely the last time they added a dungeon below the current level cap.
What this means is that the content in WoW is always targeted and weighted for the current top end player. This is fine, in a way, but it further creates a perception of the game being about the endgame – a true perception, mind you, but I think that a part of the allure of Classic is manufactured, likely not intentionally, by Blizzard, by making the game focus on what comes much further down the path. The talk around a level squish is much the same – compressing level ranges makes that journey feel shorter, but it doesn’t fundamentally address the issue.
What is that issue, in both WoW and FFXIV? The journey is no longer the point. Leveling feels like a chore, and it is, because the game offers minimal content to pad out that journey and rarely has added content. The tricky thing is that Cataclysm serves as a proof of concept that adding lower level content is seen as a bad shift of priorities, but I think the groundwork is laid in both games for this.
FFXIV has scaling for roulettes, so that, in many cases, players at the level cap can be used to pad out dungeon queues for new players. Offering a new leveling dungeon would still be reachable in that way. Likewise, the party sync features coming in 8.2.5 for WoW should allow the same thing. For both games, they have scaling difficulty mechanics that could repurpose a dungeon to also be for endgame, WoW with Heroic/Mythic and FFXIV could offer a Hard Mode version, which is typically a redesigned dungeon that is different, but doesn’t necessarily have to be.
The perception problem I see is that these games use their worlds as a selling point, and yet, the world is largely static. When new conflicts emerge, they happen in these new places, and the older zones don’t have meaningful changes or any real progression to reflect the conflict’s changing shape. In that way, Cataclysm was actually rather groundbreaking(ha!) in a way – it used the lore element of the endgame content to also change old content, which was a great concept!
I think one of the coolest things an RPG can do is make its full world feel a part of the experience, and to build an environment where the next conflict, the next new piece of content, can be anywhere! The thing I often find disappointing about these worlds is that they just don’t do it – it was a big deal in Legion when Blizzard made artifact acquisition happen all over the world, even though those quests were done in instanced versions of the areas.
I want to see a world, and even in a world of peace, things change. Leveling areas should not be fossils or artifacts of bygone eras.
(I realize, at the end of writing this, that I invoked the AAA currency issue and then didn’t visit it in any real detail. That is probably a topic for another time!)