Jonathan Steinhauer's MMO Column

Steinhauer’s Opinion: Threshold Restrictions on Equipment


Welcome! In this column, we will look at various hot-button issues of MMOs that cause fierce debate, outrage, annoyance, or perhaps simple vexation. In other words, those issues gamers love to talk about. After all, what fun would an MMO be if there wasn’t something to complain about?

Being an opinion column, no doubt some of my statements will annoy you while some might make you yell “Testify!” and hopefully some will bring a chuckle. But though this is my column, I want to hear from you, too. So I’ve broken each issue into two parts. In the first installment, I’ll state the issue and look at the hows and whys. In the second two weeks later, I’ll pronounce what I believe will fix, or at least improve the situation. I don’t pretend to be all knowing (well, not all the time anyway), so if you’ve got an idea pass it along and I’ll include some of the best ones. If you’ve got a topic you’d like to see, pass that along as well.

We’ll start with a milder issue: threshold limitations on equipment and work our way from there. Expect topics like PK philosophy, character death, guild mechanics and more. But enough introductory blather, let’s get started!

The worg crept toward him, its head low to the earth. A low growl rumbled from deep within its throat. Mesmerized, Gilran couldn’t tear away from the creature’s deep shadowed eyes. The sheer malignancy of the gaze made him tremble as beads of sweat pooled on his forehead. For this work, he knew his notched and rusted blade was worthless. If only he’d remembered to sharpen his sword before he left.

“Elbereth Gilthoniel, help me,” he whispered.

Stumbling backward, he caught the glint of metal in the corner of his eye. Daring to take his eyes from the worg for an instant, Gilran was stunned to see a longsword lying at the base of a rock not a half dozen paces to his right. Without pausing for thought, he turned and leapt the distance even as he heard the monster spring behind him.

His hand reached out, grasping for the blade, but even as his fingers closed about the hilt, the weapon jumped from his grip. Looking back, there wasn’t even time to scream as the worg’s gaping maw filled his vision…

So maybe your experience isn’t quite that grizzly, but the image is a real one. How many weapons have you had in your inventory that you were just aching to use but couldn’t. Or perhaps it’s that fine new suit of magical plate armor gathering dust in your storage trunk while you run around in a ragged set of chain mail you scrounged from the bodies of the fallen. It drives me nuts hanging onto that perfect blade but unable to use it until I hit that magical number. At Level 9 I’m an ignoramus, but I hit Level 10 and instantaneously I possess that wondrous knowledge I didn’t have a second before, allowing me to finally draw that mystical sword from its sheath.

But stepping back from the annoyance, we all know why it’s done. Those pesky restrictions based on level or skill ranking, or some other similar factor exist for one reason: to prevent overpowering low level characters with high level equipment. After all, it would be rather embarrassing to have some Level 1 newbie with his Magic Greatsword of Doom take down the Witchking of Anger himself.

Though different games apply variations to the rule, it pretty much comes down to the same problem. My age old MMO of choice, Asheron’s Call, used skill thresholds: “Your base Spear must be at least 325 to wield this item.” Both World of Warcraft and Lord of the Rings use the same technique, except the limitation is by level. It goes beyond the MMO world too. Neverwinter Nights, for example, also has level limited equipment. Knights of the Old Republic doesn’t have an obvious restriction, instead they limit access to uber-weapons simply by giving them astronomical prices no newbie can afford. Oblivion cleverly restricts access to better equipment simply by having monsters (and monster equipment) grow more powerful only as the PC grows more powerful. Try as you might, at Level 1 you just won’t be able to find a Dremora Valkynaz and its fantastic armor anywhere in the world. But even Oblivion has a few cases where they limit quests (and therefore rewards) with the age old level restriction. Of course, the single player solutions of KOTR and Oblivion won’t work in an MMO where a friendly guild member (or one of your own more powerful characters) can simply hand down vast amounts of wealth or the uber-weapons themselves. Regardless of the technique, however, it’s a mechanics rule and that means it’s just a band-aid fix to a common dilemma.

I say band-aid because it has virtually no comparison in the real world. There are a few exceptions, of course. For example, if someone untrained were to pick up a morning star and use it, there would be even odds as to whether they’d bash their own brains out or their opponents. But morning stars aside, the real life examples are few and far between. Rather, as a general rule, anyone can use most anything, albeit not necessarily well. Take a basic knife, for example. Anyone with half a brain can figure out how to pick one up and understand the basic concept of sticking the pointy end into an enemy. A sword is a little more complex, but the same simple methodology applies. Moving to more modern weaponry, let’s look at the simple pistol. There are far too many tragic stories in the news about some child finding his parent’s pistol under the bed, pulling the trigger, and hurting himself or someone else. Besides, in most cases, we aren’t talking about an archer picking up a halberd and laying waste. Were talking about a swordsman picking up a super sword. If they’re a swordsman, doesn’t it imply they know how to use a sword? Does having some special magical spell on it make it suddenly a foreign object?

But from an epic MMO perspective, the vexing aspect of this mechanic is that it prevents the realization of a classic thread pervasive in the fantasy genre (and pretty much every other genre, for that matter). If this rule had been in place, Arthur would’ve taken one tug at the sword in the stone and moved on in his search. Poor bumbling Bilbo might have found the One Ring, but unable to put it on, would have quickly ended up a tasty Gollum snack (and as a side effect, doomed Lord of the Rings Online to non-existence). Han Solo, unable to turn on Luke’s lightsaber, wouldn’t have been able to cut open the tauntaun on Hoth, fating his friend to become a popsicle rather than a Jedi Knight.

So how do you work around it? How do you maintain player balance while potentially arming newbies with weapons of mass destruction? And for that matter, is the solution even worth the effort? Sometimes a departure from reality is good in a game. Tell me what you think, and I’ll let you know my solution next time.

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