To Level, or not to Level

All the talk recently about questing and general game design consequences has gotten me thinking a lot about what leveling means to an MMO. Leveling has been there since well before MMORPGs and the morphing of it from a system of character development into a character restriction mechanism has, I believe, ultimately undermined the enjoyment that could be gotten from many games.

In Dungeons & Dragons your characters are always put into a level-appropriate campaign, they go off on their adventure and occasionally they will level up- adding many small bonuses to their characters skills, statistics, and set of abilities (feats/spells). The focus of the game is tailored to each individual group, but generally speaking people played to enjoy being the heroes and heroins of their very own story while slaying dragons, interacting in a plethora of ways with local NPCs, rescuing villagers from the clutches of evil, and looting the humble (or ridiculously extravagant) abodes of every evil bad guy you can imagine. There was no “end-game” like we see in MMO’s- the point of playing was just that, to play. Leveling up was exciting, your character became more powerful and more skillful, but it was always secondary to getting to roll the dice to see how much you crit that ogre for, or for how much the guard trusts that you’re his replacement for watch duty tonight even though you’re wearing nothing but pants- whatever your style.

Quite simply, the fun was in the dice. You could take just about any character (depending on your preference) on just about any adventure and have a good time sitting around a table and enjoying a game together. There was nothing else to it- get together and have a good time. Notice the lack of levels being mentioned here. You could sometimes go many sessions without leveling your characters but it was still a grand old time. Leveling doesn’t matter except to help your progress through the campaign, and if you want to you can experience an entire campaign without gaining a single level. Leveling was a system of character development because it meant something to your character and their potential, but had no real bearing on what adventures your character could take part in- You can very easily alter campaigns to fit a certain level range at a whim(e.g. you could take a level 15-20 campaign and make it a level 1-5 campaign). Essentially all content is available to any player at any time, regardless of how new/experienced they are.

Breaking the mould we have MMOs with rigid designs that keep us focused on leveling and loot, on “getting things,” instead of enjoying ourselves while playing. Leveling become a character restriction when you no longer are capable of doing certain types of adventuring in certain places based solely on the fact that you are the incorrect level. If you enjoy playing through a specific set of instances in your MMO of choice then you can have fun while you’re in the appropriate level range (as long as you can find a group) but before then you will be too weak to compete with the mobs, and after then you will be too powerful to enjoy any sort of a challenge. In this way leveling forces you into certain areas of content- some of which you may have no desire to experience.

Once your character is forced into that area of content there is no going back. EQ2 has an intriguing mentoring system that scales down your stats (health/mana/damage) to the level of an ally in your group so you can help them level, but you remain far more powerful than you really were when you used to be that level. To re-experience fighting off orcs in your favorite dungeon once you’ve leveled past the appropriate range you must create another character, and then you can only enjoy that experience until that character is also past the appropriate level range.

In this way of segmenting off different parts of the population into different areas of content you limit who your characters are capable of interacting with. Helping out lower level characters is one way to breach this level-induced restriction, but that action reveals the disintegration of the enjoyment of the lower levels- If you’re having fun then why would you want someone far too powerful for the encounter to come destroy it for you? I can only think of two answers: To get free (no work required) loot, or To get free experience (ascend the levels quicker). Another consequence of what I’m going to call “level segmentation” is that loot in a higher segment is more or less required to be able to participate in that level of content. If you are level 40 and have level 10 gear then more likely than not you will find yourself having a far more difficult time than more well-geared players your level.

I would like to bring us back to D&D for a moment. The encounter was always contained, you never saw characters of significantly different levels or with far better loot. MMO’s open up the world to everyone so we can see the level 60’s running around with awe-inspiring sets of gear and this breeds a feeling of superiority in the higher-leveled characters and inferiority in the lower-leveled characters because level/gear is worn like a badge saying “I have done more than you” (in a game with a healthy PvP system (Think WoW, not PvMP like in LOTRO) this becomes “I could kill you without thinking”).

But I digress- by becoming the maximum level all content in the game becomes either level-appropriate or trivial to you. There is no further to climb, you are now free to experience content at your leisure without feeling that there is something at a higher level that you could be missing out on. In this way the low-level content of an MMO may become trivialized because its value is reduced to almost nothing when any player at the max level can run through and crush everything in sight without blinking.

Please, share your thoughts on the issue. I’m very eager to know what other people think about this, and how viable you all think a game without levels could be. Should we opt for a new system or try to fix the one we’ve got? Is it even as broken as I suggest?

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11 Responses to “To Level, or not to Level”

  1. Tesh Says:

    Interestingly, game design is usually such that “level appropriate” content doesn’t significantly change over the whole game experience. In other words, if you’re three-shotting level 10 mobs when you’re at level 10, you’re also three-shotting level 50 mobs when you’re at level 50.

    So why level? There are some variances as you enter non-level appropriate areas, and some people like that, whether it’s a challenge or a cakewalk. Also, higher levels usually have new abilities that make combat more interesting.

    Thing is, a truly level-less system could provide the same things without fragmenting the population. You could have challenging areas, cakewalk areas, and “standard” areas for mob fighting. (And make them geographic, building a sense of world, or roaming, for storytelling.) You could have characters learn new abilities as quest or exploration rewards. You could have the best rewards behind the toughest challenges, and never have to worry about grindy players wrecking game balance.

    • jedioftheshire Says:

      “Interestingly, game design is usually such that “level appropriate” content doesn’t significantly change over the whole game experience”

      I wholeheartedly agree with you. That’s what I was trying to get at in the post above. Playing a dungeon at level 10 (maybe level 20, most classes don’t have all of their base skills ’til around level 20, so a dungeon at level 10 would have to be extremely simple- but this is just semantics) and level 50 is quite often an identical experience, but at level 50 you have more skills. In this way we actually see that gear is made trivial as you level because its worth is always relative to your character level, and in such a manner that it will soon be completely devalued if you continue to “progress” through content.

      The only problem is that gear and abilities would need to become fairly trivial in the sense that every ability/piece of gear is only better/worse than any other ability/piece of gear in very small increments. You would end up with a segmented population all the same if you made gear/ability requirements for more challenging content. Therefore the challenge of the content would need to be based primarily in elements of gameplay that are not involved, or at least so minimally involved that they would not significantly effect the challenge level, with gear/leveling/abilities. Sure, we want to reward the guy who’s fought many hours every weekend in the same location to drive the undefeatable horde of orcs back to their homeland, but we don’t want to do it by raising him above other players in a way that will change the level of content that he is able to access, and cut him off from the content “beneath” him.

  2. Ysharros Says:

    (Link-hopped from Muckbeast’s place!)

    I’m a little brain-dead for smart commenting right now, but I most certainly DO agree — and my tabletop RPG experiences were very much like yours. Oddly enough, MMOs seem to have kept the bits of RPGs I didn’t care about so much (loot & item fixation) and dumped the bits I did like — such as having fun. 😉

  3. Tesh Says:

    Jedi, non-gear rewards are a huge key, methinketh.

    Puzzle Pirates does a lot of things well, one of them being a very low dependency on gear. Player skill is huge there. Prestige and cosmetic achievements are significant to the community. If that player pushing back the orcs were memorialized in the game somehow, how much would that add?

    …do we need rewards beyond playing the game and the satisfaction of a job well done? Probably…

  4. Ysharros Says:

    @ Tesh — yes, because rewards are a measurable result of progress/effort, however you define *those* particular terms. It’s part of why we play games — roll the dice, land on the Boardwalk if you’re lucky, and you get to buy the property. Etc etc. Even Scrabble has that kind of reward built in.

    That doesn’t mean rewards ALWAYS have to be gear, which is the sad trend. /yawn

  5. Wolfshead Says:

    Good article!

    The main problem as I see it is that leveling has become a means to an end. The end being the “end-game” and/or the level cap. This notion that leveling is something that needs to be done as fast as humanly possible is obscene. It’s almost as if leveling is seen as “work” or as some kind of necessary evil within a MMO.

    And it gets worse…as this notion has been fostered by MMO devs. They purposely load up the lots of content at the endgame — epic dungeons with epic gear and more. They constantly dangle these carrots to those that reach the level cap — their easy to reach level cap I may add.

    So now these devs are reaping what they have sown. By making leveling trivial (to attract casual gamers and make millions of dollars) and by emphasizing the endgame content in the process they have demeaned and devalued all of the non-endgame content.

    The problem is not leveling, rather it’s the shortsighted mentality behind those that find it a chore and a hardship. Playing a MMO should be fun, challenging and rewarding at all levels — just as D&D campaigns were.

    We have an entire e-book industry now devoted to fast leveling. We have mods like Questhelper in WoW that’s only purpose is to get you leveled up in the minimum amount of time.

    The folly of current MMO development is that there is that there is the idea of a *destination* (the “endgame”) which propels all aspects of MMO creation from the main plot, quests and the dungeon content (see the Wrath of the Lich King for a prime example).

    By doing this MMO devs have shortchanged the *journey* in favor of the destination. The journey — the daily experience of adventuring, exploring and socializing in a MMO — is the bread and butter gameplay that most players experience. Sadly it has been reduced to toil and drudgery by the notion that it must be completed as fast as possible to get to the “good stuff”.

    This is where we are in 2009 and it’s not a good place to be for the future of MMOs and virtual worlds.

  6. Longasc Says:

    I think the key feature of levels is >Progression>horizontal progression<< – get more powerful through getting more spells, abilities and gear, to be better prepared for various challenges ahead. But you would never ever dominate the world because you out-levelled it.

    Ultima Online and its 700.0 point / 100 max in one skill system and Guild Wars, to name a more recent game, are examples of horizontal progression. UO also did not have classes, you had to specialize, but it was open-ended and not pidgeonholing players into classes.

  7. Longasc Says:

    Oh my god, the blog cut everything I wrote behind progression. I blame the >>> 😦

  8. Longasc Says:

    vertical progression is basically better stats, better items, more abilities. horizontal progression, the new buzzword, would give you just more abilities to deal better with the situation at hand, but you would never out-level the content so that you 20 levels higher char can single-handedly defeat a dragon like raid-boss Onyxia.

    loot lust and older content becoming quickly obsolete are results of vertical progression, the whole world of warcraft is useless and outdated except the latest raid and heroic dungeons, actually. Besides the few useful ore spots for the latest crafting recipes.

  9. Longasc Says:

    Oh my god… I forgot the most crucial thing I was talking about:

    Levels work in D&D campaigns. The game ENDS, you start a new one. This is not true for MMOs that always grow further. Tesh got the idea of chars dying and MMOs resetting after some time.

    The problem is basically that our chars constantly grow, now even faster than ever, and content can never keep up with that.

  10. jedioftheshire Says:

    “Levels work in D&D campaigns. The game ENDS, you start a new one. This is not true for MMOs that always grow further.”

    For certain. We either need to treat MMOs as a different genre entirely or address this difference in the trend differently.

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