On Wednesday @Stargrace posted about the frowny-face she makes when she sees that a game has level-locked content. Levels are the ages-old mechanism by which a game tells you that while your skill at playing the game might stay flat or only incrementally improve over time, your dedication to the game is rewarded with progression of a sort.
The idea of a level-based content drip is the game industry’s version of “time is nature’s way of preventing everything from happening at once”. If you got everything the game had to offer the moment you logged in, what’s the point in playing? Level based content comes in many forms: gear, zones, fluff features, dungeons, and raids.
I know it’s kind of a subtle difference, but level-locking content feels like the design is offering the content as a “reward” when in my opinion, it should be designed as more of a “goal”. Take housing in Wildstar. You don’t get access to it until level 14. Housing was a major selling point for people, and I’m sure many were disappointed that they had to “slog” through 14 levels of other stuff just to start with housing. As @Stargrace wisely indicates, Everquest II allows you to get housing from the get go, making it more attractive to those who are really interested in that system (and many people do play these games just for those kinds of systems…designers).
It’s true that knowing housing is a level locked feature makes working towards level 14 a “goal” of sorts, but consider the extent of what we get in other games, and how we get it. Notice how in some games you get a new ability every other level? That was a reward: You don’t have to wish for it, or plan for it, you just have to keep on playing.
One way to substitute level-locking is money-locking. In EQII, while you can get a house from the start, it’s pretty empty. You need to either build, buy, or earn furnishings for your house. Having more than one avenue for acquiring these aspects turns it into more of a “goal” game than a “reward” game. With so many money sinks, players need to prioritize their finances so they spend the money in respect to their goals. Buy one four poster bed now, or save up and buy a whole bedroom set? Buy furniture now, or save up a nest egg so you can also buy a mount and pay repair costs? You can also complete missions to give furnishings, or work on your crafting and unlock a whole range of building opportunities.
To me, the goal method is more engaging because it’s putting the player in the driver’s seat, whereas the reward method is simply holding back content until a player has played for a sufficient amount of time. It’s kind of sleazy in a way, since I’m sure that withholding perks based on levels is a tactic designed to keep players playing if they know something they really want is on the (eventual) horizon, but personally I’d stick with a game that starts me off with the initial bundle, and then allows me to prioritize other aspects of the game to get in line with what I want to achieve with my game time.