The esteemed Richard Bartle (of MUD1 and Bartle Classification system fame) lobbed a little hand grenade on a design issue into the waters at TerraNova, and created a really juicy thread of comments to pick through.  (He is really quite good at that.  Gotta admire the man.)

His post titled Pointless Killing asks a deceptively simple question: do we really need “experience points”?  The “end-game” of many games already implement a situation where activities are rewarded in ways other than XP, simply because the character has reached the level cap.  He asks if it wouldn’t be possible to simply do that from the very beginning of play.

Of course, the discussion itself moved way beyond that, and into lots of equally interesting territory… but for this little screed, I’m going to stick to providing my perspective on the initial question.

First off, I should probably mention that I have yet to ever make it to the “end game” of any recent MMO.  Generally about half-way is as far as I get: I think the best I’ve done is a couple characters in the low 40s in CoH, which borders on incredible for me.  A combination of limited play time, anti-social tendencies, and terminal alt-itis are the reasons for this.  I’m not complaining, just explaining that I have only second hand experience with the entire “end-game” experience to start with, so I may not fully appreciate all the nuances of the situation.

Now, the very first comment in the discussion thread asks “What’s the difference?  Experience, money, equipment, it’s all the same”  The next makes the potentially valid point that we are discussing”Points replaced by objects which are really just points.” 

However, from my perspective, there is a subtle difference, tied fairly directly to the fact that XP were originally designed to be an abstraction of a host of advancement concepts. 

To illustrate: if I need 10000 XP to gain some ability, I probably have a number of options to achieve that goal.  I can go hunt easily-defeated foozlewhatsits for 10 XP per kill.  I can do some fedex quests for 20 XP per delivery.  I can join a group running an instance, and get a few thousand XP for each successful run over a couple hours of time.  Eventually I amass the requisite 10000 XP, possibly through a combination of all those methods, and receive the desired reward.

Now, lets change to a system where that ability is tied to a piece of equipment, as is the case in many end-games.  Depending upon the circumstances which makes the item available, I may have to perform one specific task to achieve my goal.  I may have to hunt foozlewhatsits exclusively, or run fedex quests exclusively, or run a specific instance exclusively, and in many cases, I will not even have any idea how many times I will need to perform the task before I receive the item that is my goal.

To me, these two scenarios are two ends of a spectrum of possibilities.  Both are on the same basic spectrum, but vastly different in how they inform and motivate the player.  XP, as a “generic” measure, essentially has many of the same advantages (and disadvantages) that “currency” has over barter on the alternative spectrum of measuring economic advancement.

So which would I prefer?  My preference is for something which sits between the two “extremes” outlined above.  Not quite so generic and bland as XP, but not quite so uncertain or random as equipment drops.  A simple example is a quest where for defeating 50 foozlewhatsits your contact gives you the Cloak of Disease Resistance you were looking for.

Of course, not everyone would (or even should) agree…