One thing that occurs to me in my main-play MMOs is that leveling has become an afterthought.
Not to suggest that it is completely gone or dead, but leveling seems to be mostly a nuisance we endure to get to the content we want. Sandbox MMOs handle this very differently, but my core experience is with theme park styled games in WoW and FFXIV, so that is the perspective I am addressing here today.
Leveling has its roots deep in the history of role playing games, with Dungeons and Dragons and nearly every other RPG, regardless of format, offering progression of power through player level. It was the chief way to design campaigns and challenges for players, as level progression would often enforce boundaries on content until you could power through the roadblock in your way. It especially mattered in the early age of RPGs because gear options tied directly to character level and stats. Having more Strength as a warrior is not to afford yourself more attack damage directly, but rather to allow you to equip larger, heavier weapons, which then strike for more damage.
In early MMOs, the quest design often didn’t facilitate leveling through quests – you had to complete what quests there were and then engage in grinding, killing piles of enemies as best you were able in order to get the missing experience points needed to bring more power. You also had to contend with de-leveling, and being forced to reacquire the lost experience.
WoW changed the game on that design by being really quest-focused, to a high degree. It still had some rough patches in Vanilla where you’d often need to grind a little bit, or maybe go to another zone and do a few quests, but it largely centered experience acquisition as a component of questing, using quests to drive gameplay and discovery of the world.
It has since kept largely to that design over 7 expansions, in fact doubling-down on questing as the core of the experience, to the point that in Legion, the zones of that expansion scaled to match player level in both enemy difficulty and reward, and in Battle for Azeroth, that has expanded to the full world, with brackets for zones to allow a zone to cap so that high level players are still far more powerful than say, a feral worgen in Duskwood.
There is another approach, as seen with FFXIV. The main means of questing through that game is focused on the Main Scenario Quest, or MSQ, which is basically what would be the main game portion of it if the game were a standard, mainline Final Fantasy game. While the MSQ does not offer the full amount of experience needed to level from 1-cap, it offers most of it for your first job, and only occasionally requires that you split off to do other content – dungeon roulettes with experience bonuses, FATEs (think world quests but dynamic and with only exp/currency rewards), and side quests that are available. The model works really well in that it offers guardrails for the experience – dungeons are slowly added via story quests, which the game then has you do for the first time and provides additional cutscenes that bookend the dungeon to provide story justification, and other features like Primal fights are slowly woven in. Along with that, the story itself builds and ramps up over time – which is both good and bad. The early story can be dreadfully slow and uninteresting, but it establishes the world well and builds up characters that become core to the story later on.
Now, the key reason leveling remains a feature of MMOs is that an enforced level cap allows players to re-acclimate after an expansion launch and relearn their characters. In WoW in particular, your class and spec may feel completely different, and leveling gives a low-stress, low-importance place to learn the changes. Level scaling in WoW works because each zone is a self-contained story anyways, and so there’s not a reason to force players to a fixed zone order – tackle whatever you want, and the world adjusts in real time to support you wherever you are. This forced leveling can be bad, however. If you are playing a class that hasn’t changed, then it is 10 levels of tedium. When you look at BfA, this is definitely the case – many classes maintain their fundamental gameplay plus or minus a few abilities, and you learn nothing new from 110-120, so leveling is literally just a roadblock to gearing and endgame content.
But the thought occurs to me – what if we got rid of leveling?
The idea of reforming leveling has been discussed out loud by Blizzard before. At Blizzcon 2018, someone asked if Blizzard had considered doing a level squish, similar to the item squishes they’ve done twice so far in WoW’s life, and the idea is one that makes a lot of sense. Currently, we’re 120 because of arbitrary power creep, but nothing says that we couldn’t wake up to patch 9.0 and be level 60 instead. Balanced correctly, the number itself doesn’t matter from a pure statistical standpoint – if the gameplay is balanced to it, it will work. It could enable further flattening of stats – at level 60 or 70, a 1% increase in power per item level is much smaller than the same change at 120 or 140.
However, I find myself thinking a different thought. At this point in time, leveling is largely symbolic and doesn’t mean that much. What it does offer (guidelines for skill acquisition, talent points, stat increases, etc) could be tied to other events just as easily.
So, then – what would my ideal non-leveling progression experience look like?
To begin with, it would be most workable in a story-heavy environment. At present, most of the major theme-park MMOs are driven by a central story quest or zone stories, during which you are projected or expected to gain a certain number of levels. If you built the story in chapters, such that completing a chapter is roughly equivalent to a level, than that offers a few gameplay twists. Firstly, it functions as a means by which to ensure players get the full story, rather than speeding through to a level cap, or being stuck doing excess story quests at cap because they got a lot of experience outside of the main story. This could also be a downside for alts, though, in that you might not have a means by which to speed through it, other than the natural acquisition of experience in dealing with the challenges along your level-up journey. Secondly, even more than scaling experience gain, this would allow a designer to build an expectation of story completion into things. Right now, the incentive to finish the story of expansion content in WoW is limited to achievements and availability of some quests/dungeons. With a story, you could gate the endgame content behind it – which is both a good thing (players are all on the same footing with lore) and a bad thing (forcing players to a full completion scenario to allow them to see the content). The idea of forcing story completion wouldn’t even be new – FFXIV already does this – but in the context of a game currently without it, it would be very weird.
However, I still like the idea of story progression. Complete chapters to gain access to stat boosts, abilities, and forward progression, and complete the full story to unlock your endgame content. For alts, what would you do?
Well, I could see a few scenarios – perhaps you can purchase skip items to skip a chapter and gain the powerups anyways. Perhaps the game could have a recap of the early quest chains in a chapter of content, and then move on to the finale quests and you’d have to run an alt through those. Maybe there is even an alt-character progression path, like a New Game + or even a completely new story for alts to run through that treats the original content as canon. Maybe the story content would be class-centric, so you’d have a Priest path on your main and a Monk path on your alt. This is one where I get tripped up as an armchair game designer – my temptation is to say “alts start maxed out” but the point of going to story-centered progression gameplay is to give a different pacing to ability acquisition and the like, which starting maxed would defeat the purpose of.
The Psychology of Levels – Maybe We Think They Are Important, Even When We Know They Aren’t Really
The other challenge I’ve avoided touching on to this point is more of a gamefeel thing, but still vitally important to our understanding of why levels just work – the investment in a goal. Sure, we could cite an example like WoW’s 110-120, a tedious path forward with no new skills, talents, or passives outside of Azerite, which itself is not an inbuilt part of the progression and will likely be gone in 1.5 years anyways, but overall, leveling feels like advancement. Watching the number on your character sheet tick ever higher, having a sense of scale in the world and knowing how you match up with it – these are important things that are worth maintaining, to some degree. Even a level squish would degrade this – older players would, in the example I gave way back up top, relate level 60 as “classic” and not “BfA content after 9.0.” Level gives a sense of time and location – when someone talks about the level they were doing certain content, it gives it a meaning and a sense of time and temporal belonging.
No matter how mundane (or non-existent) the rewards for leveling are, the principle behind leveling is fundamentally sound – increasing that number feels good, and taking that from players for something more arcane might make good gameplay sense, but it also robs players of that association of progress. Sure, you could put progression bars on story quests and give players a similar sense of advancement, but it will never be quite the same, for the simple fact that leveling systems give players agency.
In a current, experience point-based system, I can choose to grind my levels, if I so desire. It is silly and more difficult than it needs to be, but I can make that choice. I can choose to progress solely through dungeon content and avoid most story quests, although if the game places high value on the story, that choice may bite me in the ass (FFXIV makes you unlock dungeons via story quests, so you cannot simply queue up once you hit the appropriate level). Maybe you are a PvPer and you want to do PvP content to level – that would likely not be a supported choice in a story system.
This is a fixable problem as well – you could offer story paths for dungeoneering, PvP content, or even for grinding! However, the question that raises is this – how many different story paths can a team maintain and have them all feel meaningful, interesting, and fun? I don’t know the answer to that one, to be honest. It would be a tough challenge for even a seasoned design and development team to tackle.
What’s My Take on Leveling?
This is where I get personal – I am not a big fan of leveling as an experience. I get the learning purpose, and it serves that purpose well. However, ultimately, I find the idea of leveling something I endure to get to the things I enjoy, rather than the process itself being enjoyable. The thing I most like about Final Fantasy XIV, relative to other MMO mainstays, is that the first job you level, you get a full story for. Sure, at points in the older content, you’ll have to break away from the story to grind a bit for enough experience to unlock the next quest, but the main scenario quest gives the game a distinctly Final Fantasy feel. While the early portion of the story is fairly dull, it sets up a lot of interesting events that pay off very well later on, and the central story always feels like the most important thing happening, and all of the main content of the game extends outwards from this central plotline.
WoW’s story is, to me, less engaging, as it often focuses on zones over a cohesive central narrative, and once you have done a zone once, you lose a lot of the appeal of doing it again later. The overall lore of an expansion is usually pretty good, but I often have a hard time squaring the story with the in-game content, as it feels a lot like the game is made devoid of lore and then populated with a story after the fact, rather than being really strongly and centrally defined by the lore. The retrofit often works wonderfully, as the game has a lot of great moments where it feels like endgame quests and content have been made for the lore, but that leveling content just feels like world-building exposition. That’s not something I’m opposed to, either, but it often feels like we spend a lot of time in each expansion trying really hard to befriend the locals, learning about their customs and traditions before ultimately moving on, and at endgame, all of a sudden, the central plot threads come back into focus and stitch things together – sometimes well, and sometimes…not so much. When those rough edges come in for Blizzard, they often stick out sharply, and I have a feeling that the move to Old Gods in this expansion is going to be a bit rough – at least at first.
But to the topic of leveling itself, I ultimately find it a bit of a chore. Sure, I can zone out and hit buttons while watching YouTube videos or listening to podcasts. Sure, there are options like Heirlooms and rest experience in WoW or Armory bonus, well fed, rest, and various buff items in FFXIV, but these simply minimize the pain felt, rather than remove it. One of the things I like about the implementation of scaling zones in WoW at present is that I can do the zones I’ve never done before, getting new content out of the process, but once those quests are done, I often return to content I’ve done literally a dozen times before, and it starts to feel a bit too grindy for my tastes.
My alt leveling in WoW was done in a very useful, but expensive, way. I leveled most of my alts using dual-boxing with recruit a friend, basically playing with myself (I’m sure that verbiage won’t be misinterpreted at all…) and leveling two characters at once, with full heirlooms and the RaF bonuses. Once they reached the RaF cap of 80 (I did most of this in Cataclysm), I would transfer the toon from the extra account to my main account to consolidate and level separately, but before doing so, would use the level grant option to confer the bonus levels from RaF to a third character. Basically, I could level 2 characters at once, and then 2 others, and then use level grants to take a 5th character up to 80, and get 5 level 80s out of only two leveling playthroughs. I ended up leveling a few classes multiple times en-route to a full stable of 85s on my main account, where they have been individually leveled through expansion content ever since. On the night Mists of Pandaria launched, I got my warlock to 85 and marked the first expansion I entered with fully-leveled alts. Since then, I’ve completed the process sooner (I had my rogue leveled to 90 within a month of WoD launch, and had a full slate of 100s about halfway into WoD, then getting a full set of 110s about halfway into Legion). WoD marked the first time I had Horde alts near or at level cap, as I used boost to 90 on a Tauren priest, and then boost to 100 on a Blood Elf Paladin.
My point through all of this can basically be distilled thusly: I dislike leveling, and while I understand that the sense of constant progress is motivating to many, I think alternate progression paths could be more satisfying and offer more to a story-centric game. Having said that, there are a lot of challenges to overcome – designing the progression paths for player skills and abilities, dealing with alt characters and classes, offering player choice and options, and ensuring the sense of growth and attachment remains similarly engaging.
It is a hard challenge to tackle, for sure. But I want to see someone give it a try.