Experience: what is it and why is it?

Today I read an interesting thread on the Vanguard: Saga of Heroes game design forums entitled “Increased XP based on time in zone”. The original poster had an idea to encourage players to move to new areas where mobs would give experience bonuses for staying unkilled. The proposal is basically this: the longer a mob stays unkilled the more experience it would give to the player who kills it. This is a great idea as it would force players to move to new areas. In my reply I urged game designers to re-examine the current MMORPG experience model.


I think this is a great idea. Let me go one step further: the online gaming industry really needs to re-examine the concept of experience–what it means, why it’s awarded, who gets it, etc. Experience is really an abstract idea when you stop and think about it. You can’t feel it, you can’t touch it, etc. It’s really an artificial device created by game designers to reward behavior and quantify accomplishments. Obviously we need some kind of mechanism like experience which in essence is the *currency* of all character advancement in online games.

Too often we tend to view experience derived from combat as a transaction. In EQ I recall many players myself included would log on for a few hours to “grind” much like a miller grinding wheat and barley at a millstone. We knew full well that we would be spending the next few hours harvesting “exp” from mobs and we knew it would be of dubious challenge yet we did it anyway. Some of us even knew exactly where to go for the most amount of experience for the least amount of work. This kind of number crunching led to EQ becoming more about grinding and farming less about questing and adventuring. Somehow we all got off track as online gaming became a numbers game.

So what should experience earned in combat really be a measure of?

In my opinion, experience should be something that rewards players who experience new challenges and overcome them. It’s a well known fact that in the world of tennis that one becomes a better player by playing with opponents who are more skilled as it forces them to adapt and learn. Those that play with an opponent of similiar skill are far less likely to improve then they would if they were playing a more superior opponent.

It strikes me as silly that a player should be awarded the same experience each time he kills a level 20 orc regardless if it’s the 1st orc he’s ever killed or the 1000th orc. Clearly after killing 1000’s of orcs that player is no longer facing a challenge and should not be rewarded with the currency we call experience. The player is already being compensated for killing in volume by the loot that drops from the mob. That should be compensation enough much like a hunter that kills to feed his family and supply his village.

I believe experience gained from killing a certain type of mob in a certain location should decay over time till it reaches zero or at the very least a greatly reduced experience penalty over a period of 24 game hours or an acceptable amount of time to be determined. This would force farmers and campers to leave areas by creating an incentive to find “fresh” experience in other areas. It would encourage players to embrace new challenges and find new mobs to fight. The problem with players is they min/max and find mobs in experience sweet spots and avoid moving to new hunting grounds so they can keep their safe, cushy camps. When this happens, it’s no longer an adventure game rather it becomes a transactional exercise where players earn a safe rate of return for their time invested. This is why and how grinding became acceptable then popular in Everquest. Online games should be about excitement and adventure not financial cost benefit computations that would make Wall Street proud.

Something is amiss in online gaming today. I belive that notions of how experience is earned have become too hard-coded into the pysche of game designers. Sadly the concept of adventuring, hunting and challenge has been lost in this obsession for experience. The players have basically become junkies and yes victims of an antiquated experience system faciliated by unimaginative thinking on the part of game devs. Here’s hoping Vanguard will be pushing the envelope and perhaps re-thinking this area of MMORPGs.