Overview: What does Level Treadmill Mean?
Many online games that have strong socialization components utilize gameplay mechanisms that promote endless or near-endless repetition of simple tasks as a barrier to progression (or "leveling up"). This is often compared to a treadmill, as both involve repetition of a simple task to becoming stronger or better. The primary conceptual distinction is that running on an actual treadmill to improve one's health has tangible reasoning and benefits; one cannot become healthier without putting in effort, but with online games, progression and its prerequisites are arbitrarily defined by the game designer. Game companies can and do shift the requirements for progression often, both up and down, to better encourage addictive behaviors among their target demographic.
Example: World of Warcraft's Level Treadmill
World of Warcraft (WoW) is a highly popular MMORPG. Like most games within its genre, it uses a level treadmill1 to spread out character progression, so that players continue to pay the monthly subscriber fee (or as in the case in some territories, like China, the hourly fee) required for play. The level treadmill within WoW encompasses two features: leveling and equipment (loot).
The primary differentiator of character power within WoW is the character's level. The level of the character is a single number that determines many other attributes on the character, such as strength and agility. Characters start at level 1, and increase their level from experience points earned by killing monsters and finishing quests. Currently, the maximum level cap in WoW is 85. Increasing one's level is referred to as "leveling up."
Initially, leveling up comes quickly, on the order of minutes. However, each successive level requires more and more experience points; these requirements increase more quickly than do the number of experience points yielded by progressively more powerful monsters. Thus, each successive level requires an increasingly great time investment. Eventually, when one is near the level cap, each level may take several hours to reach.
The reasoning behind this mechanism is clear: in a similar fashion to the use of recreational drugs, each "hit" is provided cheaply at first to suck the target in. Once the target player is addicted, further hits require more sustained effort, so that revenue is maximized. The fact that this wastes the time of the player is not considered.
Equipment (loot) is a secondary differentiator of character progression and power within WoW2. Different pieces of equipment are divided into broad, color-coded classes corresponding to their commonality and relative power. Equipment can be looted from slain monsters, gained from successfully completed quests, or won based on participation in player vs player (PvP) battles. Equipment generally has a minimum level required to wear it.
Prior to reaching the level cap, players are generally more focused on leveling up quickly instead of getting better equipment. This is because the fact that different pieces of equipment correspond to different levels means that an exceptionally good item at say, level 30, would be quickly outdated within a few levels. At this stage of the game, players simply go with the best equipment that they happen across while questing and slaying monsters. Once a player reaches the level cap, further leveling up is impossible, and thus the focus of the player switches to getting the best equipment. Getting the better classes of equipment can make a huge difference in player power.
The best pieces of equipment are only available by participation in the "end-game"3 (which refers to what there is do for players once they've hit the level cap). In WoW there are two choices of end-game content; one of these is the aforementioned PvP battles. Good performance and long hours of participation are necessary to earn enough points to purchase the best gear in this method.
The other method is to participate in end-game content called Player vs Environment (PvE) raids. In WoW, a raid is a special type of quest that requires either 10 or 25 players. Raids are long, drawn-out affairs where the primary element is killing one or more bosses; slaying these bosses takes tight coordination and individual skill. It's common for raids to take three or four hours that must be played all at once. Since what loot each boss will drop is random, and since there are a limited number of items relative to the number of players of participating, repeatedly doing the same raids many times is necessary to get all the best gear for one's character. Most high-end guilds require their players to raid multiple times a week, making for a very large time commitment. Raiding is the most common time sink for addicted players, as there is usually social pressure from the guild to participate.
The Level Treadmill in Other Games
A level treadmill very similar to the one described above is used in most of the other popular games within the MMORPG genre. Examples include: Everquest 1 and 2, Final Fantasy XI and XIV, Dark Age of Camelot, City of Heroes/Villains, Warhammer Online, Lord of the Rings Online, and Aion.
A relatively new genre of games is appearing on Facebook and mobile devices: the "social game" genre. Most commonly, these games have a very light core gameplay component that consists of some sort of building and/or maintenance action. For example, FarmVille's core gameplay revolves around managing crops and livestock, and creating new buildings for your farm. Mostly this is done by simple clicks, and then waiting (for example, waiting for crops to grow).
The social component that gives these games their genre namesake is that they give in-game incentives for interacting with other players and inviting other people who currently aren't playing to begin doing so. For example, you may be given in-game money if a friend accepts an invitation to start playing FarmVille. These sorts of rewards incentivize evangelism and playing with friends, thereby integrating social bonds into the game. It is the hope of the game designers that if people are playing with friends, they are more likely to a spend large amounts of time (and money; see the next section) in the game.
As the gameplay itself of these games is not difficult, the primary barrier to progression is time; this sets the stage for the primary source of revenue: microtransactions. There are set amounts of time that certain actions in the game take to complete. Players who want them to take less time can then spend small amounts of real money to speed up the process, or skip it outright. While the amounts are small, the effect of each purchase is also small, and thus the costs can add up quickly. Special items often cost so much in-game money that spending real money is necessary for their acquisition. Without realizing it, players can end up in a loop where they are spending huge amounts of time and real-world money to improve and speed improvement of their character's in-game possessions. From a non-gamer's perspective, this is a completely arbitrary goal in a world where once attention from the gaming world turns to a new fad, all the sunk time and money is completely lost for no gain.
Concerns for Parents
- Both MMORPGs and Social Network Games can suck up large amounts of time. Set limits for when and for how long your child can play. Most popular MMORPGs include parental controls to dictate when playing is allowed.
- Social Games need access to a credit card for microtransactions to take place. This can either be through directly entering in credit card info, or indirectly through an account that is already bound to a credit card; for example, social games on the iPhone where the Apple user account already has credit card info for buying apps. Do not give your child access this credit card info or account password unless you are certain they understand the implications of microtransactions and won't use money beyond whatever limits you set.