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The term 'leveling treadmill' is used to describe a design in massively multiplayer online role-playing games that promotes the advancement of the characters' level and strength above anything else. Traditionally, gaining levels in such a game just involves killing monsters of increasing difficulty, until the character has reached the maximum level. The significance of gaining levels has long existed in MUDs and other role-playing games - however, due to the fact that MMORPGs are capable of providing much more than simple hunting (and because people pay to play), the leveling treadmill is considered bad design.

The Leveling Treadmill System
  1. Kill things.
  2. Grab items (loot) from the corpses.
  3. Go to town and sell the items for money.
  4. Kill things; level.
  5. Advance your skills/spells.
  6. Go find better armor and stronger monsters.
  7. Repeat.
Elements of a Leveling Treadmill Game
  • Leveling zones - Areas in the game where there is guaranteed to be monsters to kill, along with good loot. Players stay at a particular leveling zone until they are high enough level; then, they move on to the next leveling zone.
  • Phat Loot - The experience points given by monsters is complemented by the items they leave in their corpses; the player gains a sense of achievement by amassing items and money (through selling the items).
  • High-Level Content - Do you want to go kill other players in a PvP battle? Do you want to join your comrades in bringing down a difficult boss? It's impossible, because you're too weak.
  • Lack of Other Content - Do you want to play an instrument? Do you want to make a living being a miner? Too bad; the developers didn't make that possible, because they were busy adding new monsters and leveling zones.
  • Flawed Economy System - After a while, when many players have finished the treadmill and are at the top of the food chain, they no longer pay to get better and stronger items. The economy must balance itself by adding items that are rare, or more often, unique.
Why Leveling Treadmills are a Bad Thing
It's plain boring.
Everquest is notorious for its leveling treadmill and its numerous leveling zones. Unfortunately, people are addicted to its simple system and vast amount of loot/monsters.

It forces developers to focus on the high-end content.
Once the game is released, the developers must consider what high-level players will want. The players who take their time (or simply do not have enough time) to level are left with what they started with - no new content.

It forces developers to focus on the phat loot content.
Developers are forced to add new items and zones to please the players, as opposed to creating new, unique content and systems - more on that in the next section.

Alternatives to the Leveling Treadmill
  • Interactive Content - Asheron's Call revolutionized the MMORPG industry by providing monthly updates that followed a massive story arc. In its monthly events, players of all levels were able to participate in quests, as particular dungeons were restricted to particular levels.
  • Unique Events - Quench the players' desire for items by providing unique, GM-run events such as trivia and scavenger hunts. (This is the one flaw in MMORPGs - difficult to control and manage a large number of players at once)
  • Player Killing with Benefits - While playerkilling is not favored by many gamers, some games do it right. Anarchy Online has a system that restricts player-killing to certain level brackets, and at the same time, gives benefits to players for controlling areas of land.
  • Trade Skills - Games such as Everquest and Anarchy Online tie in trade skills (the art of making things) with levels. Ultima Online did it right - most of the trade skills, such as mining and tailoring, required only expertise in the skills, as opposed to high levels and lots of money.
Status Report
Star Wars Galaxies was released just recently, and proved to be just another Everquest clone (in space), lacking in content. The leveling treadmill is clearly present - at least in lower levels, where rat-killing is prevalent.

Planetside is a unique game, in which players compete as a squad and attempt to control pieces of land for their faction. This is probably one of the more unique systems in place in MMORPGs today.

Upcoming MMORPGs include Blizzard Entertainment's Worlds of Warcraft, Squaresoft's Final Fantasy XI Online, and Microsoft's Mythica. It is still not clear which, if any, will revolutionize the MMORPG design.

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