Over at City of Heroes, the developers have recently added the ability to “respec” a character, meaning, to take the character’s accumulated experience and choose a different set of powers and abilities, to rescind previous choices. In City of Heroes, respeccing is difficult to do, and the number of times you can do it limited to three.
MMOG developers historically have implemented the capability to respec with great evident reluctance and caution. Some players also strongly oppose respec features. The major question I have is, “Why”?
In any massively-multiplayer online game (MMOG) where players have substantial branching choices in character development after their initial choices, it only takes a matter of a week or two after the game launches for players to ask for the ability to respec. Sometimes this is because a power or ability the player has chosen gets changed in subsequent patches, but it’s also because experimental choices can turn out to be costly if the player chooses something which is poorly implemented in the current game or not implemented at all. Players fear “gimping” themselves by failing to choose the powers most needed later in the game, or even merely by choosing them in the wrong order or sequence. A gimped character might improve some day, of course. My main character in City of Heroes is a “scrapper”, a martial artist with “special reflexes”. I think it would be fair to say that until mid-September, this was a choice that most avid players regarded as being mildly perverse. Now that’s changed, and I’ve gone from being the recipient of pity to the target of envy. Still, I’ve made a couple of useless choices over time, and I’d love to undo them.
The City of Heroes developers haven’t made that easy, however—respeccing requires doing a very long and difficult mission in a single setting with at least three other players (though the difficulty was eased somewhat with a recent hotfix). This is typical of most MMOG development teams. No one goes live with a respec feature (with the exception of Ultima Online and Star Wars: Galaxies, which allow players to relinquish skills and gain new ones, but these are not true respecs, as you have to gain the necessary experience all over again. It’s roughly the same as partially erasing the character and starting over). You can only respec three times total in City of Heroes, and after that, you’re done for good. You have to choose the same fundamental character type again when reallocating your skill choices, so my character will always be a martial artist with special reflexes.
With developers, one reason for approaching adding respec very cautiously is that a respec feature can make the work of balancing a game enormously more difficult. If players are able to instantly and casually redesign their characters to match flavor-of-the-month templates that are believed to have disproportionate advantages or even favorable bugs or exploits associated with them, developers have to lurch frantically from nerf to nerf of a player monoculture, rather than more methodically and gradually tweaking a richly diverse ecosystem of characters.
The players (and following the logic of their arguments, some developers) who oppose it, in my experience, tend to be drawn from opposite ideological ends of the MMOG world: they’re either extreme powergamers or extreme roleplayers. This points to the more interesting problem with respecs. Both powergamers and roleplayers make crucial investments in the linear temporality and persistence of MMOGs.
Powergamers derive their hierarchical status from strongly linear temporality—they can play longer and more efficiently than other players. They can explore all the branches of a character development system, chart the entire “possibility space” of a game, and then select the optimal pathway. Essentially they subsume the respec function into their own philosophy of gameplay. If there is a nerf (or a empowerment) of a particular template, they simply start over and hit its optimal point quickly. A respec destabilizes their source of distinction.
For roleplayers, the linearity of a gameworld’s time is the linearity of narrative and of life. To undo in an instant what time has done to a character is to violate immersion in the gameworld. (Though City of Heroes has tried to integrate its respec into the mythography of comic books and superheroes—your character gets exposed to strange energies and so his powers change, which is in fact a pretty established trope in superhero stories).
In a way, the debate reminds me of a very old and nearly theological discussion with single-player videogames: whether it is a sin to allow players to save a game at any point. There were and probably still are a few people who felt it was aesthetically wrong to break the temporality of a game with overly permissive saving—and for roughly the same binary reason as with MMOGs. Some think that makes a game too easy; some think it makes a game less immersive.
Now in my case, I have found that having to replay a particular sequence many, many times in order to progress forward in a single-player game is roughly as much fun as a root canal. More to the point, it unfavorably introduces the time of the world into the time of the game—it reminds me of the amount of time I am wasting on an exercise in futility. The same is roughly true for me in a MMOG. Having to junk an established character, of whom I may have become quite fond, simply because at high levels he’s almost completely useless or because I optimistically chose a power or skill which the developer neglected to implement, also reminds me the fruitlessly unproductive and ungenerative labor-time lost to a game. With single-player games, my desires, which map games into my own life primarily as entertainment or leisure rather than sociality, have long since ruled the roost as they are shared by a large fraction of the game-playing audience—a current game which comes out with limited save-points now gets brutally attacked by gamers.
With MMOGs, the respec is still something of an exotic and constrained feature. Should it remain so? Is this the place where MMOGs differ from anything else by virtue of their persistence and the nature of their gameworld temporality? Do developers have good practical reasons for constraining and fearing easy or quick respeccing?