This could have been a comment in the discussion thread of the Autopilot Character Development post, but I thought it merited enough attention to separate it out. It might also be a good idea to check out my Replayability and Keeplayability article, since this is a natural extention of both discussions.
I keep revisiting the idea of a classless MMO design, with the ability to respec at will, changing anything from basic character attributes to skills to “class”, should that be part of the system. I think that offering that sort of freedom is a great way to give players the ability to keep playing your game.
In my mind, MMOs should be designed to be keeplayable more than replayable, or rather, it would be ideal to have both. Replay value in MMOs is typically generated by offering the ability to make “alt” characters to experiment with other classes. Keeplay value, on the other hand, the ability for players to keep playing with characters they have become invested in, is largely found in the “endgame” of modern MMO design. (It could be argued, as I have tried to to before, that having the “endgame” style of play throughout the game would make for more sustainable design, but that’s yet another tangent.)
The trouble comes when someone reaches the endgame with their character, and wants to try that bit of content with a new class. The only present option in most MMOs is to create a new character and level them through to the endgame. That is an onerous, obnoxious task if all the player wants to do is play the endgame. (Even Blizzard recognizes that, and made the Refer-a-Friend promotion that wound up a dual boxer’s delight, and they now have account-bound Heirloom items, accessible to any character on the account, that speed up the alt’s journey even more. SOE might be catching on with their new EQ2 51/50 server, brought to my attention by Tipa.) That decision point, where the player realizes that he/she has to play through dozens of hours of content they have little or no interest in to get to the “good stuff”, is a huge exit point for that player. I don’t have numbers, obviously, but I suspect that many players who reach that point just stop playing, or maybe take a sabbatical from the game.
These players no longer keep playing, in other words, and the game has lost keeplayability for them. The game has lost their revenue stream.
It is those players that are a key demographic for my notion of offering complete character rebuilding. If they were given the ability to change the way their character played, all the way down to attributes and “class”, they may well try on some different hats and keep playing with the character they are so invested in. They don’t need to get a new alt up to speed, reforming guild ties and friend lists and whatever else a new alt needs to do. They can just change their one “main” character and keep playing.
Now I’m wondering what the retention rates are on something like EVE, UO or even FFXI are compared to WoW. I suspect that the greater ownership that those former games offer, complete with open skillsets and character building flexibility, leads to higher retention rates. I wish I had numbers, but if my suspicion is correct, and retention is a desirable aspect of a business plan, character flexibility leading directly to keeplayability and retention is a Good Thing.
Of course, the point to remember, and what I’ve tried to hammer home in the Autopilot article, is that such respec options are just that; options. People could still create alts if they wanted to (since respeccing isn’t the only reason for alts). Those who want to keep playing with their favorite character, though, would be able to, and I can’t help but think that would be a valuable thing to offer to customers. Smart MMO providers really should provide replayability and keeplayability, and not confuse the two.