jump to navigation

The Real Problem with Levels… February 20, 2013

Posted by Wilhelm Arcturus in entertainment, MMO Design.
37 comments

…is that we seem to like them.

Or at least somebody believes we like them, because we follow along willingly.

I can pull from memory a whole series of games and their level cap at launch.

  • TorilMUD, 1993 – 50 levels
  • EverQuest, 1999 – 50 levels
  • Dark Age of Camelot, 2001 – 50 levels
  • EverQuest II, 2004 – 50 levels
  • World of Warcraft, 2004 – 60 levels
  • Guild Wars, 2005 – 20 levels
  • Lord of the Rings Online, 2007 – 50 levels
  • Warhammer Online, 2008 – 50 levels
  • Rift, 2011 – 50 levels
  • Star Wars: The Old Republic, 2011 – 50 levels
  • Guild Wars 2, 2012 – 80 levels

Levels are part of the mix.  The level climb is an essential part of the game.

I think that the last one on that list is the most interesting.  After the success of the original Guild Wars, which only had 20 levels and was very focused on other means of progressions, one of the lessons that ArenaNet took away was apparently, “Must have more levels!”

I found that an astonishing conclusion for them to reach.

Richard Bartle posted a series of things he dislikes about the level-focused structure. (Which got me to finish up this post, as it had been sitting as a draft since GW2 launched.)  He covers a couple that I have groused about here in the past along with a few I hadn’t considered.  He didn’t go into my favorite hobby horse, which is that expansions seem to require a level cap increase, which requires a jump in gear stats and just makes the whole level structure a bigger gap between new players and old hands.

And solutions to the level gap problem haven’t been all I could wish. I have yet to see a system like mentoring that allows players of different levels to play together than really worked well.  The higher level player dropping down is inevitably over-powered because the algorithm has to take into account a wide range of possible scenarios.  Dropping down to level 20, the level 48 player in quest reward green gear has to be viable, but then so does the level 50 in raid gear.  And both end up at level 20 with more skills and bonuses than a character who is actually level 20.

The only enduring solution over time seems to be to just make the levels easier so that everybody is at the level cap.  Except, of course, then the level game is gone, and that is what keeps a lot of people playing.

So, levels are bad.  They create an artificial and unsustainable gap in your player base.  And what do they even mean?

Except, of course, people keep making level based games like this.  Are they mad?  Do they hate us?

The thing with levels is that they are simple.  They are easy to create and explain.  They are usually visible to other players, so everybody knows about where you stand in the game.  While there are many ways to gate content… factions, quests, or currency could all be implemented quite easily as gates… nothing is quite as simple or as visible as that level number attached to your character.

Despite the fact that gaining any individual level is a pretty minor event… you get a stat boost and a few more hit points… maybe a skill point of some sort… it does provide the illusion of progress.  When you level up, you are one level better!

And the level cap provides a very tangible goal.  For a lot of people, their primary experience is the journey to level cap.  That trip is part and parcel of the package.

And even the level cap provides a benefit, being both a goal and a point of equalization.  When you have made your way to the level cap, you are now equal with all those who went before you.  Nobody is a level ahead of you any more.  You have “won” in as much as you can “win” in an MMO.

Compare this to EVE Online.  A common reason people bring up about EVE is that they don’t want to start because they could never “catch up” when it comes to skill points.

Players who have been around for years, like myself at this point, can easily have 100 million skill points, while a new player starts out with a few thousand in some basic skills.  There is no skill point cap, no way any new player can join that group of players, as once they get to 100 million skill points, that group will have 200 million.

But levels always seem to contain the seeds of their own destruction.  You launch a game with 50 levels, and the level climb becomes an essential part of the game.  While a few people race through, a lot more take their time in getting to the cap.

Eventually, though, most of your player base is there at the pinnacle.  So you create an expansion.  But how many more levels do you add?  It is risky to add no levels, because you made the level climb a core part of your game.  But adding another 50 levels on top of your game… a new version of the level climb… is a huge investment and puts new players at the bottom of a huge hill.  Being able to “catch up” is important to some people.  There is something to be said for making the level cap attainable.  And how many “dead” mid-level zones do you end up with if you do that?

So you add 10 levels… that gives the level cap characters something to do… and a maybe a new class or a new race with a new starter area to promote the creation of alts and to encourage people to play through your old level content again.

A couple of expansions in and then the system starts to show its flaws even more so.  High levels caps, empty zones, end game content that is no longer at the end of the game, and the inevitable declining player base.  You can only keep people interested in your levels for so long.  Eventually your core players will tire, either from facing the same old thing or from changes to the game that they don’t like.  It is practically a no-win situation.

And yet they are so easy and so tangible and work so well when your game first launches, so long as nothing else kills your game.

What do you think about levels?