MMOs and Levels – A Poor Combination

Yesterday, Belghast was taking about “Blizzard Bux”, and happened to make a comment about mentoring systems. That prompted a comment from me about how mentoring is just a band-aid over the real problem – level ups. The discussion then got going with Rowan chiming in with a few points, then wondering how much demand there is for a level-free MMO.

I don’t know how much demand there would be for something so different than what people are used to, but I do know why the level system is bad.

Most Games End

Levels as a progression mechanic are extremely frequent in games, and in most games I like them. They work great in tabletop RPGs (Dungeons & Dragons), single player RPGs (Final Fantasy and a million others), and even some multiplayer ones (Diablo 3’s Paragon Levels don’t really interfere with playing with friends but do offer extra progression). They also work in MMOs… for a while.

What most of these games have in common is that they have an end. D&D campaigns typically end, but epic levels exist for people who want to keep playing past the normal level cap. Single Player RPGs sometimes offer open world or side things to do, but they also all end.

That’s the key thing with these games. Level progression keeps going for the duration of the entire game, and then the game is over. The expectation is that you’ll either start a new playthrough, or go play something else at some point. Games have typically been designed without the goal of making you play the same progression cycle forever, and it’s that environment that levels were designed for and where they work.

MMO’s Don’t End

The problem with MMOs is that they don’t end. Once you reach the level cap, you get to the “endgame”. At this point, levels are gone. So long as you’re doing current content, levels might as well not exist. They do nothing. Progression becomes based on something else, which is typically gear. An awful lot of players spend most of their time at the level cap, where levels don’t do anything whatsoever because there aren’t any.

This creates all kinds of problems:

  1. If you’re a player who was playing for the levelling journey, the game just ended. Endgame is a very, very different game in most MMOs (like WoW).
  2. By outlevelling old content, it’s been rendered trivially easy and both not rewarding and mind numbingly boring to do.
  3. You can’t play with friends who are playing more slowly because you’ll outlevel them and the game just doesn’t work well in that circumstance.
  4. Your friends can’t play with you if they join a game late, because they’re miles behind.

The original comment that started this discussion was about mentoring systems, which some games add to let you lower your level to try and correct #3. Wildstar also lets you scale down to dungeon level to correct #2, but it’s far from a perfect fix. Sure I can become level 15 again to do a dungeon, but I don’t go back to level 15 skills only, and I have ones I don’t have. Thus my Engineer tank had a far easier time doing the level 15 content as a scaled down level 30 than as an actual level 15, due to the game not giving me my real tanking skill set until after level 20.

Mentoring systems are a nice band-aid to try and cope with a problem, but wouldn’t it be better to just not have the problem in the first place?

As for #4, Blizzard tried to correct that by introducing an auto-level boost to 90 with Warlords of Draenor, so you can get to the new content faster. That just totally obsoletes all the old content and illustrates my point perfectly – if levels are really a good idea in a MMO, why did they have to resort to letting you skip almost all of them?


I understand that some levels can be useful, as a way introduce people to skills gradually and let people learn how to play without being overwhelmed. They also let you grow in the world, to a point. What I’d like to see is a much flatter leveling curve, and to throw out the idea that an expansion requires more levels. If the point of the game is largely what you’re doing at the end game anyway, don’t waste people’s time by making them get a bunch more levels to reach the new normal, and splitting up friends from playing with each other by putting a level wall in the way.

Keep in mind that endgame is already based around level-less progression. There is no reason why the rest of the game can’t be made the same way. As an added bonus, since gear is all based on stat formulae, it’s much easier to scale down for content than removing levels is.

You can also simply learn skills in another way entirely, such as given by gear as you do things, which Belghast mentioned in today’s follow up post (looks like we were writing at the same time!).

WoW even did something different with Death Knights – starting them at level 50 and handing out talents & skills from quests, rather than making people replay those 50 levels. There are quite a lot of ways to skin this cat, I’d just like to see developers acknowledge that a system designed for campaigns & storylines that have a defined end isn’t suited to a genre that is meant to not end, and work to come up with better things. Band-aid fixes really don’t solve the problem.

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