A Lost Love for Levels

After the recent announcement at Blizzcon Syp seems to just be getting a little more cranky at people based on an ideology that is slowly dying, an ideology that never really belonged much in the first place in this genre. Levels and the defined process they make are a required part of mmo’s or so he thinks. Work for it like he did but really, that ship sailed long ago; in fact I think it was more the imposter here than any other sort of system.

I’ve read plenty of posts lately based on how much easier and quicker it is to level now in wow than it has ever been and the whole process keeps getting streamlined, in most mmo’s it seems a mere formality now. No one “earns” those levels, there is little challenge and cooperation involved. It’s a nuisance rather than the rite of passage it used to be, keeping groups and friends from playing together and restricting players from content and playing their own way.

The reason levels almost look required is because the latest generation of mmo’s have clung to the belief that we gamers need to be constantly led and given a very specific and narrow path to traverse. Without this the worry is there that we would get bored, frustrated by facing things we shouldn’t, or just wouldn’t have any direction. This right to an extent only because it is what has been learnt over more than a decade but, like most things it can be unlearnt… and really should be.

This is where I agree with Hiveminded in that forced levels should be done away with entirely. There are far better ways for it to be done that don’t invalidate tremendous amounts of land, content and mechanics. having levels creates a large problem of waste; wasted dev time and resources.

Levels like this are stupid and bad design as all they do is restrict what the player can do and with who the can play with. The amount of times I’ve become frustrated because I’m a level or two behind or ahead and can’t join in is just too many to count and I haven’t even been playing in this genre that long. Then there are those times were a couple quests can make a huge difference like travelling and being attacked by a higher level opponent means you should just assume the position… it would be better to not go there.

I understand the thrill and player purpose that it tries to create but you can still have those types of systems without the needless restraint. You can still have power growth; you can still have skill gain and customisation; you can still have raid, dungeon, and pvp grind. You just need to forsake the silly mechanic of dramatically increasing power just because you killed a certain amount of rats and how content has level requirements. You can even create an environment based around progressing more based on options with the freedom to challenge yourself as you see fit.

If you remove the tiered crafting system as well you can create a far more balanced system wherein you keep a wide range of valuable materials rather than a few high-end useful ones. And environment like this would promote exploration and create a far more open-ended experience.

I just don’t see the point in levels any more. Without you let people play with who they want, when they want and where they want; that’s rather freeing and creates a much more social environment. It also lets people truly play how they want; content becomes more personally meaningful. It could also be designed in a way that is more nuanced than just designated a level; differences in difficulty, mob density and group make-up can all have a place within the open world experience as you don’t just have to create to support a certain silly mechanic.

So yes, when I here about games giving out free high level characters for no effort I’m glad. First because it creates a more open ended experience for the player as all the content is still there for them to explore and enjoy to an extent. And second because maybe, just maybe, it means developers are starting to understand how much of a limitation it is for everyone.

#ArmchairDeveloper #Progression

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16 thoughts on “A Lost Love for Levels

  1. Are you against character levels, the artificial gating that creates or skill levels?

    Sandboxes have no levels for characters but they certainly do for skills. UO is the grand-daddy of this model. GW2 is some Mish mash hybrid that keeps levels but tries to get rid of content gates (in one direction). SWTOR PvP did a decent job, ramping everyone to 50.

    • Yes, this is kind of my follow-up question in this discussion. If you don’t like levels or want to get rid of them, then what do you use to measure progress? Skills? Other progress bars? And aren’t those subject to the same criticisms that you give to player levels?

      In other words, if you have an MMO that has no character levels, then you have to find some other way to measure and compare progress. TSW has the skill wheel and quality levels of gear. Some sandboxes fully rely on a more free-form use of skills, but you still have to level those up.

      So should we just get rid of ALL levels? Should MMOs just be about twitch combat and a utterly equal characters? I’m pointing to the extreme because I’m curious what’s the golden middle there. What do you use to fill in the void of character levels, which have been around since the good ol’ days of pen-and-paper D&D?

      • “So should we just get rid of ALL levels?”

        At this point it’s worth someone actually considering I think. PnP games were much different as there really was not an “end game”, progression was much much slower, had a less steep curve, and playing with the same group each session was more the rule than the exception. MMOs on the other hand have 1 element that really separates them from single player RPGs and makes them shine, and that is people. A steep level range is currently a very large barrier to playing with those people.

        If you sit in the camp that likes open world questing/leveling then your portion of the game is pretty consistently dumbed down and forgotten about because of end game. With more and more experience this portion of the game should be getting harder and harder, but over the years it has become easier and easier. Because of level range differences and the large power creep the designers are pulling almost everything resembling group content from these portions of the game. Then there is the devs putting in xp bonuses for people who want to get to cap quickly which results in not being able to really finish content without it being even more trivialized. For “xp optimization” the current state of quests is really no better than what they were put into solving which was grinding mobs. Currently most quests expect that you don’t pay attention to them and point you in a direction with an arrow and tell you to go “kill mobs for something or other”.

        If you sit in the camp that likes end game activities then you basically have a 100+ hour slog to contend with before you can do the things you like doing with your friends. No one measures your progress based on if you got to level cap or not. Those days are long gone and now people look at build choices and pvp/raid end game achievements to measure a players status. The power curve at endgame is usually much much smaller so friends can usually participate with each other in group activities and designers can build much more content around that. But there’s that leveling elephant in the room if you want to try something new. In any other single/multiplayer game you could roll up that new class, put the game on “hard” and have a whole new experience perhaps even with friends. In an MMO you get the same 100+ hour quest mode with even more experience under your belt to further trivialize it, and chances are you will be doing it alone.

        I think the GW2 implementation of level scaling was a step in the right direction. I guess we’ll see how it works out with Everquest Next because as far as I can tell they are the only people right now really trying to look at these issues and address them.

      • If by levels you mean Level restrictions and huge power differences than yes.

        Great points you made there and that very much some up the core issues. The open world people only ever have fi items content and the end game crowd have to slog through many hours to get to where they want.

        I honestly believe that Tera should have minimised it’s questing far more.. The good stuff is at the end but many would never see that.

        The power growth is more muted during end game but there are still many restrictions in place like hit, block, resist, and health stats that can make you irrelevant. They still tend to obsolete past content though even when it is small since these raids and such are so tightly tuned for a specific stat balance.

        Gw2 would have been great if the scaling went up as well.. Oh well. It would have been perfect without the level restrictions and just a large world where you slowly gained your weapon skills, utility and worked for gear. A world that is easy in parts but challenging in others

      • Just the bright flashy DING levels in my mind. The ones that mean the next mob over will demolish me if I don’t grind these wolf pelts first, the ones where I can’t even see or accept the quest, or where I can’t even enter a zone or dungeon. Those sort of levels.

        I think character progression is an important part; skill growth and options, new traits and skill paths, changing how they work, or even just a little extra utility. Those are great but it shouldn’t be such a guiding focus on play as it creates an experience far too narrow.

        Yes they’ve been around since pnp days, that’s the original inspiration but it shouldn’t be as there is a huge difference between the game types. Pnp is not bound by the levels in the same way. Each new module or campaign you create can automatically be tailored exactly for the parties power levels, wnough to challenge but not frustrate. You never really run out of content or are restricted based on level (as long as you have a decent dm that is).

        In a way levels are meaningless in PnP and just there for show but they were adopted into mmo’s without being aware and are now primarily based on removing restrictions rather than growth.

    • The artificial gating element and just how it often correlates to huge stat differences. Power growth is fine, even levels in a way just not the modern interpretation of them.

      Yeh, models like us are more what I would like as the give room for growth but don’t ostracize people or obsolete content. Gw2 could have been but they chickened out on pve up leveling, although that system is rather poor anyway as the difference between new and old player is huge

  2. To me, RPGs are at their core about leveling… the whole concept of end-game in my personal world is an MMO-specific premise designed to keep people playing (read: subscribed). Maybe this is why I don’t mind (and even generally enjoy) leveling my 25th toon through zones I’ve played through a dozen or more times before. It’s about the casual journey, not the min-max destination. I play that game, too, but I like the relative downtime offered by leveling, otherwise I’d just be sitting in a city.

    I realize there are tons of players who aren’t in my category so I’d be perfectly fine with 90s-on-demand for them, I’d rather let them play the game they want to play without being forced to play – and apparently, obligated to complain about – the enjoyable part that I consider the core of the base genre. I might even consider buying a few myself if I had a reason to – leveling is faster than ever but it’s not a single-day endeavour, it’s still going to take even a somewhat hardcore leveler a week or two to get to max level, longer if it’s a side project rather than the primary thing to do in-game during that period.

    I have a similar attitude toward new players, if someone is brought into the game specifically to play with a friend at end-game, I support having a boost to 90 option for that player out of the gate, their friend should be expected to introduce them to core gameplay elements and act as their guide. If I’m inviting someone into the game casually, though, I’m recommending that they level their first toon, not boost it. Even for someone who insta-boosts a toon, they should also consider casually leveling a different toon to explore that part of the game as well. I expect that someone not already well versed in MMO end-game conventions would find being dropped right into end-game to be a baffling mess of “why am I doing this?” There’s a brain-training method to progression that’s implicit in leveling… slowly growing power, minor gear improvements, introduction to group play and instanced content, the concept of the various specs/roles, running into a challenge and having to request help (moreso in the days of olde), progressing to new regions for expansions and the rapid gear inflation between expansions, etc… by the time a brand new MMO player gets to end-game they’ll actually be kind of ready for it.

    I was an experienced computer RPG player when I first started playing WoW and I couldn’t have handled being dropped into end-game. I wanted and expected character progression through levels and personal power, not gear. I don’t think I would have been happy with a primarily RNG-heavy gear-based progression method. Levels are power that’s intuitive and obvious in a way that gear isn’t. Keep levels, keep leveling, but let those who don’t enjoy that aspect of the game avoid it in some way.

    • I don’t think they are, that’s just an incorporated ideal. As I replied to Syp, the levels in PnP are meaningless and that’s the inspiration here but unfortunately for mmo’s they are not meaningless.. They are the everything

      But that’s exactly it, without those levels it can just be about the journey, adventuring through the world.
      From what your saying about up leveling people why have levels in that scenario as well. The levelers mainly enjoy the open world experience and the end game crowd want to skip that. You can still have the content that builds up to end game those predatory activities just not the level slog… Without a focus on levels everyone gets what they want. Without the needless filler content

      It’s definitely a hard sell as levels seem to be intrinsically a part of the genre now and he gamer psychology. We expect it and the absence is unsettling at first.

  3. Amen! I think replacing leveling a wide variety of horizontal progression is just what we need. I am talking factions, I am talking gear, I am talking questing for ABILITIES as rewards.

    MMOs are largely about putting in the time and effort to get somewhere, so there will always be a natural gating between new players and established friends. However, forcing them to slog through a meaningless and uninspired grind, which often forces developers to structure fantasy worlds in ways which completely invalidate their necessity after a proper period of leveling is absurd.

    If the point of a MMO is the end game, then the end game should just be THE game. If the point of a MMO is the leveling, then the leveling should be THE game. Time to stop half-assing both.

    • Exactly! And that’s what I was thinking. It allows for more of an emphasis to be put on meaningful horizontal progression.

      I think there still can be raiding, and should be. I love the whole working through a challenge with a group thing. You could probably even gate it by one seasons worth of raids to keep it exclusive in a way and earned. A new raid comes out, the last loses enough that you can enjoy without the previous raid being done.

  4. The day MMOs give up entirely on levels would likely be the day I’d have to find something else to spend my money and my time on instead. For all the talk of exploring and just living in the world, it’s character growth that keeps me logging in.

    Sure, you could replace “levels” with any number of other means of keeping score, but without something akin to levels you’re left with the kind of gameplay you get in FPS games, sandboxes or construction sets, none of which interest me very much.

    I’d be up for a game with infinite levels and no end game. In fact I’d put my long tenure in GW2 largely down to the fact that the level bar keeps ticking over even after you hit max level. I don’t really need the levels to DO anything – I just like the number to change.

    • Haha… That is definitely not me. Understand the appeal in terms of theory but not in any form of interest.
      It just seems so artificial and pointless rather than something I earned.

      If I ever make an mmo I’ll put in the ding just for you =p

  5. Each skill to have a separate tracker (ala UO or Mabinogi) is still the best for me. Even better if you begin to ignore practicing them they deteriorate on their own over time.

    • Very much so, I think that’s the best way to go in terms of power/stat progression as long as it’s supplemented in other ways like skill acquisition and change.

  6. Pingback: On the Removal of Leveling | Endgame Viable

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