Reposted on new blog at http://dynamitochondria.blogspot.com/2010/01/january-challenge-2-mmo-design-ding.html.
There are lots of things I don't like about modern MMO character advancement schemes; single-metric experience progression, narrowly defined sets of activities worth experience, level-gated restriction of options resulting in optimized "cookie cutter" builds... I could go on and on, and I will in future posts.
Today, I'm going to whine piteously about Trainers.
The current implementation of Trainers is a symptom of a bigger problem of Shared World design, the challenge of balancing the need to make the story more about the player's character with the fact that there are 999,999 other players to make the story about. But where designers and writers have made greater or lesser strides in quest design to address this problem, absolutely no progress has been made in the "story" of leveling up.
Every population cluster of a certain size or other importance has some guy who knows the same bag of tricks as the next schmuck in the next podunk junction up the road. The tricks of the trade for every professional specialization are so well established that every trainer knows them all, but the player characters, the guys and gals where the hammer meets the anvil, in the trenches battling evil, using these skills to pay the bills, have to trek back through the wilderness to improve Instep Stomp 3 to Instep Stomp 4.
Are we telling the story of the hero growing in power and wisdom to face his ultimate nemesis, or are we telling the story of institutionalized industrial education, where every teacher and every student is nothing but a replacable cog in a factory that produces warrior drones for the war effort?
(Actually that second option sounds kinda interesting, if the rest of the game were also designed to support the story.)
Yeah, I get the idea of training under a master of a given skill. That's classic Campbell. Visit the wise/ancient/magical/divine man/woman/mentor/spirit/master to learn an epic/magical/chi/secret ability/skill/spell/stunt unavailable to the average mortal in order to overcome the challenges ahead of you. Studying the master's works is likewise part and parcel of the adventure genre.
"You are using Bonetti's Defense against me, ah?"
"I thought it fitting considering the rocky terrain."
"Naturally, you must suspect me to attack with Capa Ferro?"
"Naturally... but I find that Thibault cancels out Capa Ferro. Don't you?"
"Unless the enemy has studied his Agrippa... which I have."
- Westley and Inigo, The Princess Bride
But that's not what we're getting here. Fred the Fighter Trainer and Alexa the Arcane Trainer know the same abilities taught by Freda the Fighter Trainer and Alex the Arcane Trainer the next town over. Yawn.
But my big gripe, the one it really comes down to, is that all this means that the player characters will forever be playing second fiddle. And they're not just playing second fiddle to a great hero with an epic backstory and a cool name that players can't emulate. (I'm looking at you, Blizzard. I want a surname.) No, they're playing second fiddle to faceless cogs in a stupidly boring simulation of production-line education.
No matter how epic I ever become, I will never be the one pushing the boundaries of what's possible in my vocation. I can never master the complexities of Cloud of Retch Gas 16 without a tutor, no mater how many times I cast Cloud of Retch Gas 15 or how many dire troglodytes are left helplessly puking by my arcane might.
Complaining without offering a solution is a waste of tears, and I have a proposal. It's a rough proposal that would take a lot hammering to make even remotely workable, but nothing worth doing is easy. Tune in tomorrow.