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The Real Problem with Levels… February 20, 2013

Posted by Wilhelm Arcturus in entertainment, MMO Design.
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…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?

Comments»

1. Tesh - February 20, 2013

The *Ding* of constant progress reinforcement is a very powerful tool to keep people playing. It’s part of why some people play games at all; to feel like they have accomplished something. It’s a bit of a psych hack, but it’s easy. Sort of like combat as conflict resolution rather than *role playing* and finite state machines and the like. Levels are easy to design, easy to understand.

…that’s not to say that they are the epitome of design, just that we’ll probably never completely get away from them.

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2. magnoz - February 20, 2013

Anarchy Online — I think they have 220 levels or something like that.

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3. Helistar - February 20, 2013

FPS games seems to be doing perfectly fine without levels. Planetside 2 has a ton of “upgrades” which are in reality quite minor, with the big advantage that any new player can jump in and just play with the rest of the player base, instead of looking forward to days/weeks/months of “crossing the gap” to be able to play with friends. Getting rid of them will be a step forward in the evolution of MMOs.

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4. wokyr - February 20, 2013

Ryzom, 2004 : 250 levels. able to mix class like on skyrim.
PSOv2, 2001 : 200 levels.
PSO2, 2012 : 30 level at launch, already 55lv now, 6 months later

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5. bhagpuss - February 20, 2013

There are two main reasons I’m still playing mostly GW2 six months down the line; one is the visuals, the other is the levels. It is quite simply the best leveling MMO I have ever played and it is clear to me after many years that no matter how much I might wish it was otherwise, I love levelling.

Six level 80s done, working on my seventh. One more class to do after that. Already considering which classes to duplicate as different races or genders so I can go on levelling indefinitely.

Also GW2 has a nifty mechanic that gets little attention: at 80 the number in front of your name stops going up but you don’t stop gaining “levels”. XP keeps coming in just the same, your XP bar keeps filling up and when it’s full you “Ding” and it empties and starts over. Each time this happens you gain a Skill Point.

It’s basically an AA system, unheralded and easy to miss. I only found out about it on my forth level 80 – I simply hadn’t noticed it before and I only “noticed” it then because I read about on someone’s blog. The Skill Points are a kind of currency you can spend on various things, not just skills. It’s a very clever way of keeping the leveling feeling going beyond the cap.

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6. kiantremayne - February 20, 2013

The thing is, levels are just a way of quantifying a character power curve. If you have a power curve without levels, it’s harder to compare where people are on that curve. People talking about how many skill points they have in EVE, or WoW players comparing Gear Score (because WoW’s power curve keeps going up even after the levels cap out) are trying to compare chgaracter power without explicitly having levels as a way of doing so. The only REAL way to have a game without levels is to have a game without a power curve, where a new character is capable of tackling anything a veteran can. However, “no character progression” doesn’t seem to be a popular idea out there.

For what it’s worth, one of my all time favourite MMO expansions was DAoC’s Shrouded Isles, which offered no new levels, alternate advancement system or anything other than pure side-grades such as new classes and zones for the entire existing level range.

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7. Tenris Anis (@TenrisAnis) - February 20, 2013

You are aware of how levels in guildwars are handled? Just asking …

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8. Wilhelm Arcturus - February 20, 2013

@Tenris – Do I know what you mean when you ask how levels in guildwars are handled? No. I am not even sure if you mean Guild Wars or Guild Wars 2.

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9. Sarzan - February 20, 2013

It’s the ding man, the promise of a new skill or ability that sense of measurable achievement. Even in games today, they reward you with that positive reinforcement aural candy well past the level cap with some other empowering mechanic, AAs etc. We have been trained in some larger Pavlovian experiment on a truly grand scale.

I admit, I’m addicted to it.

I hazard to say, I am lost without it in a MMO if I don’t hear the golden ding. In TSW I have to constantly check my AP/SP as I don’t recall hearing the ding (at one point had near 200 AP saved…). While the story is excellent, perhaps the lack of the ding removes the subconscious reason to keep going.

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10. HarbingerZero - February 20, 2013

I hate them. I’m not sure why someone hasn’t come along and done a completely level-less MMO. Could it really be all that more difficult to create a rich, full world of content than give people an artificial treadmill that will ultimately fracture your player base and strangle your game to death?

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11. Tesh - February 20, 2013

@HarbingerZero I suspect it’s less about the trouble with designing such a world (which, though present, aren’t terrible, I think), and more about catering to expectations.

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12. Polynices - February 20, 2013

It’s frustrating that the first computer RPGs copied D&D and its levels and then almost every computer game since, including most MUDs and MMOs, have just copied those first games and included levels.

Lots of RPGs that came out right after D&D didn’t include levels and there have always been great RPG systems that don’t use levels. Some of the biggest RPGs haven’t used levels. But hardly anyone copies them. Ugh.

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13. Stropp - February 20, 2013

Players love levels because they are a way to compare virtual penis size with other players.

This is the reason that players keep calling for more, and why games that try to design to minimize levels within their games, end up going the other way. “My ding-a-ling has to be bigger than that guys!”

I wonder how a game would do if it had a cap of 200 or more levels, or didn’t have a cap at all, but heavily flattened the curve so there wasn’t as much difference in power between low and high level characters.

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14. Wilhelm Arcturus - February 20, 2013

@Polynices – The problem with saying something about D&D and bringing up other RPGs is that it is like bringing up WoW and other MMOs. Most people only know the big name.

@Stropp – That sounds too simplistic to me, and it doesn’t really fit the facts. If there were no level cap and you could get levels forever, then there might be some epeen in being highest level. But being at level cap in WoW, for example… *yawn* you and a few million other people.

I lean more towards what Sarzan said above, the Pavlovian training idea… that a constant stream of little rewards in the form of levels, and how that lets us track our advancement, makes levels more appealing than they should be.

Not that things like being first or fastest to level cap are not epeen achievements, but level cap eventually becomes the home to most of the long term population.

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15. Stropp - February 21, 2013

Simple maybe, but there is the thing about Mr. Occam and his razor…

I was being a little facetious there, but yes, there is more to it than simple penis envy. Especially these days as you note about WoW, there’s nothing to the level cap. It’s all about the end game.

Even the Pavlovian response to the ding, flashing lights, and sounds is being diminished even though it is a driver in keeping the one-more-turn effect going.

When I played Asheron’s Call the level cap was 128 I think, but it took a monstrous amount of effort to get there, and I think only one or two had made it at that time. Personally, I’d like to see that kind of leveling return, but with nearly all new games putting their hopes in the end-game, it’s not likely.

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16. Vatec - February 21, 2013

Personally, I like the system in The Secret World: it doesn’t take very long at all to get a viable “leveling” build, and not that much longer to get a decent “endgame” build, but it takes quite a while to tweak those to “perfection,” especially if you want to take on more specialized roles than just DPS.

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17. Matt - February 21, 2013

Levels stick around because they have a lot of upsides and very few downsides. For instance, levels ‘feel’ right…it feels like going and doing things would make you more ‘experienced’ and have tangible benefits. They’re also a good way to break up the game into discrete portions, you can log on and gain a level, or half a level, etc. They’re a common way to reset the gear disparity every expansion. They are a good way to introduce skills slowly so as not to overwhelm players.

Bartle’s reasons for not liking them aren’t very good. There are too many? Well, what is the right number for them to ‘feel special’? Of course you don’t go down in level…what would be the point? The fourth reason isn’t even a problem of levels. They do artificially separate the playerbase–just like every other progression mechanic you can think of.

The biggest problem with levels is that they’re good the first time, not so much the tenth time. That is, they hit diminishing returns pretty fast, and soon seem like an arbitrary barrier to having another alt.

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18. Tenris Anis (@TenrisAnis) - February 21, 2013

@Wilhelm Arcturus Once you have started a character in Guildwars 2 your character has automatically reached level 80 for all pvp.

You create a character, you have access to level 80 pvp content. Your character is upscaled to max level.
In PVE at the other hand your character level will always downscaled to the level of the area.
Levels are not all that important at all in Guild Wars, either of them.

Playing a dungeon with guys at level 28, 40, 50, 70 and 80? No big deal. It “only” limits your choice in dungeons, not really in your ability to have a decent experience in the available dungeons as all players will be downscaled to a level that is appropriated for the dungeon.

Same for outdoor areas, bosses and events.

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19. Brian 'Psychochild' Green - February 21, 2013

Anyone accusing MUDs of copying D&D really need to read more of Richard Bartle’s blog. He’s been pretty clear about MUDs not just copying D&D. Levels were used not because it was in D&D, but because they accomplished specific design goals.

Richard cross-posts to Google+, and this post spawned an interesting discussion: https://plus.google.com/u/0/117691940114975364878/posts/N5Q7d9b7NZP

I’ve already written a blog post about replacing levels, so you probably know where my heart lies in this discussion. :)

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20. Bernard - February 21, 2013

@Psychochild
“Anyone accusing MUDs of copying D&D really need to read more of Richard Bartle’s blog.”

From a presentation on the blog [re:MUD1]:

“I eventually settled on Levels, which I had seen from D&D gave
intermediate goals, were easy to understand, did not preclude
rewards for varied activities, and gave players an immediate
sense of their current place in the social order.”

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21. Damon - February 21, 2013

Magnoz,
Anarchy Online has 200 levels (base), 20 add’l levels for Shadowlands expansion (each SL level = @ 10 base levels), 30 Alien Invasion levels (expansion content), and 70 levels of Research (another expansion).

Getting to 220/30/70 is quite a challenge, especially given the low subscriber population for the game.

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22. Mooftak - February 21, 2013

GW2 doesn’t penalize people for grouping up. It’s one of the reasons I love it. I can play with my friends who log in once every 10 days and not only do we both get xp for leveling (I’m not even close to cap yet), but in addition to xp, I also get level appropriate drops. That’s almost turned negative since I can’t give them to my friend yet, but on the other hand, gear isn’t such a big deal that he’s even complained about gear. So I salvage what I can’t use and get crafting mats appropriate to the level of my drop. I win again (first win was xp that keeps advancing my toon).

In fact, the new world events in GW2 are in zones that are reachable to me even though my character isn’t very far. I started 7 alts in January and after an hour or two of play, they were able to complete the events that most mmo’s either make you need to be max level for (see the new Gree dailies in SWTOR) or make trivial (see any game where max level toons aren’t downleveled to low level quests). I’m fighting alongside level 7-80′s and we’re all getting xp which can be used for skill points (for 80′s to turn in for whatnots, as posted above) or used just to level (and get more skill points :) ).

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23. Mooftak - February 21, 2013

Forgot to mention, WvWvW, the server v server pvp, bolsters my lowbies and lets me contribute to the zerg in GW2. I’ve also run along side (not grouped) with a level 80 and we took over some supply camps by just same targeting. I’ve contributed to my server’s progress, gotten xp and loot (including the end game wvw tokens used to purchase items), and had fun. As a level 11-25 character. Sure my stats aren’t as good as the folks in exotic+ armor at level 80, but unless I’m ambushed by uneven numbers or a thief who plays smart with a glass cannon build, I can stand enough on my own to feel like my skill matters.

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24. Rieth Mhide - February 21, 2013

small correction: in the modern games (wow, etc) the addition of new levels usually comes hand-in-hand with a modification of XP gained at lower levels so the zero-to-max level journey should more or less take the same amount of time regardless of it being lvl60 in vanilla or 90(?) in pandaland

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25. Genda - February 21, 2013

I said this back when I was blogging, so it had to be 4 or 5 years ago. While I believe that there are lessons to be learned from Bartle, and he has much wisdom about gaming and the MMO space, his insight is largely irrelevant in today’s market.

Posts like this remind me of Wolfshead, lamenting the loss of the EQ model to the modern MMO. While he doesn’t specifically call out WoW as Wolfie does, it’s the same basic rhetoric.

Here’s the thing; there are many more people playing and enjoying MMO’s today than there have ever been. The new design aesthetic has proven to grow the market while the old one it replaced seemed capped out in it’s niche. WoW removed from the equation doesn’t change that. There would still be more players playing more often than when the model he espouses was “popular.”

It’s a fact, he’s irrelevant in today’s market, and the calls for the “good old days” are as likely to be answered as you are to hook back up with your first real girlfriend. Those memories are great but do you really want to live that experience again? You probably don’t remember why she’s your “ex” if you do.

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26. Wilhelm Arcturus - February 21, 2013

@Matt – But you used to go down in levels, back in the day. That used to be part of the death penalty, loss of experience. And if you lost enough to lose a level, you went down a level. The point would be to make death more meaningful. You would be unlikely to litter the ground with corpses in an attempt at something if you might fall a level or two in the process.

It also made the level cap less secure. You might have to go out and exp for a while after a raid night gone wrong.

As for too many levels… that is clearly subjective. EQII doesn’t feel like it has too many levels for player characters I guess. I can never get myself past level 60 before giving up in boredom, but there are lots of people at level cap, so it might just be me.

But guild levels, which I will admit are different, but which I use here as an example, there are too many of those in my opinion. SOE decided there should be as many guild levels as player levels, but rewards for guild levels are few and far between, so having 90 of them seems like a waste. I would rather have fewer, harder levels, each with a reward, than have to go 10 levels between rewards.

@Tenris – Yes, and if you read my post, you will have seen the part where I reference such “leveling down” gimmicks (which pre-date GW2 by years), and how they are inevitably flawed because the higher level person who levels down tends to be much more powerful than somebody who is actually at a given level.

Are you trying to tell me that this is not a problem in GW2, that there is no discernible difference between level 1 and level 80 characters when they mix? I would be surprised to find that to be the case.

Or is it just that levels in GW2 have no real meaning and were put in there as a ploy to appeal to achievers?

@Reith Mhide – I am not sure what you are correcting and cannot agree that what you are saying is really true in any sort of consistent, across the industry way.

For example, I would guess, given my limited experience in the game recently, that it actually takes less time to go from 1-90 in pandaland than it took to go from 1-60 in vanilla. Meanwhile, while LOTRO has adjusted exp tables in their own awkward way a few times, they do not do so along with every expansion.

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27. roguekishRoguekish - February 21, 2013

Personally I love leveling but I’ve had a similar discussion with my “better half” on why levels should be removed. Though it grieves me to say it I think removing levels is the way to go. Levels for one narrow down content the more you progress.

When you start the game you have literally the world at your feet but once you are at level cap you only have the narrow space of end game to be content with. And that to me seems counter intuitive if you want a lot of players to play your game (after reaching level cap). Having no levels would also not mean not having character progression, which is what I think I love about levels, apart from just seeing the world. In fact having no levels would make me be able to explore the world more at my ease.

Yet there is something that nags at me still with all these good sides. For one how am I going to feel more accomplished the more I play the game? It’s not an obvious part for me to want to feel accomplished, but doing a task for a very long time with no progression is sysiphean at best. So we will end up with some kinds of levels. They might be skill points like in EVE or Anima points in TSW but they fill the void of levels. So whatever you do you can still say monster/ area X is harder than Y, because I can’t think a progressionless game (any game) to be very enticing. The best thing to do here would be to say you can go to area X but it will need more skill from you as a player to overcome it than Y. If you feel like you do not have the skill to do it, progress your character further.

I guess if we are talking about taking levels away we need to make sure that we also use it’s advantage of allowing everybody, whether you have played for 1 hour or 100 to do things together. A lot of MMOs also focus only on updating the end game (new races and such aside). A level less MMO should therefore focus on adding things across the board. There should be new things coming for people that are tailored for the 10 hours mark as well as new things for the 50 and 100 hours mark. This is the only way that I can think of that we can deemphasize levels being a linear path towards the omega point. Instead we manage to only gauge character power through their skill points. One could argue that those would be the new levels but if you do not design new content with skill cap in mind you should be able to make clear that skill points are only there for custmization and your feel of progress. They arenot what the game is about.

Anyway I have rambled on for too long. Thanks for a Great post

/a Lurker

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28. Matt - February 21, 2013

But you used to go down in levels, back in the day.

I know, and it was terrible design that was rightly abandoned. The usual idea is that there has to be a penalty for dying, but I’m not sure where we acquired the idea that everyone in e.g. WoW is just corpse-running their way up to 90 because there is no penalty for dying. There are penalties for dying. It wastes time, it makes you feel like an idiot, it has a repair cost penalty. I’d never heard of where you could actually downlevel from max level because of raid wipes…can you imagine? Jeff stands in the fire twice and everyone has to go relevel themselves?

Sometimes progress really is progress.

I hadn’t thought of guild levels either, which I don’t like. In the WoW case, they come with ‘perks’, which means no one wants to join a non-max-level guild. But even without the perks, what is the point of them? Guilds, to me anyway, are a social thing and the things that guild levels would signify should be left to the normal social forces to allocate.

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29. Wilhelm Arcturus - February 22, 2013

@Matt – I do not hold your self-assured attitude that exp or level loss on death is necessarily bad design. It would not be appropriate for WoW, which has gone very far down the “easy mode” path. But designing an MMO where that would be part of the death penalty isn’t beyond the pale. It would be a niche game likely, and I am not sure *I* would want to play it. But it would be doable.

Meanwhile, the death penalty in WoW… and in most like MMOs… is pretty trivial. Nobody is “just corpse-running their way up to 90″ because the content is so easy for the most part, not because the death penalty has any teeth.

I can pull up any number of posts where we went a did something and just corpsed our way ahead because death… who cares? I offer up a post about our run into Orgrimmar back in the pre-Dungeon Finder days as an example.

Sometimes that light death penalty is a good thing. We’re happy enough to figure out boss fights on our own because if we die a bunch of times it is really no big deal. But that isn’t the only way the world can be, and saying “bad design” seems a bit closed minded to me.

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30. Red - February 22, 2013

Leveling people in early wow was about training them to play most of the basic game mechanics well. Once people become experienced it becomes redundant.

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31. Rieth Mhide - February 22, 2013

@Wilhelm Arcturus
as I said a “small” correction just to the half thought in the post that it would take longer to reach max level with each expansion – it does not
based on your reply your experience in wow is way more recent than mine so not gonna argue with that:)

“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.”

given that it takes the same (or less according to your experience) to hit max level this is not necessarily true
also I absolutely hate your commenting interface once you’re past 2 sentences…

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32. Wilhelm Arcturus - February 22, 2013

@Reith Mhide – Ah, I see. Actually, I was more focused on the artificial gear inflation required to put an expansion in that would be worthwhile to people who raid and therefore have gear well beyond that of the average player. New greens > old purples. That is the gap I meant, not the actual time to level.

It isn’t a big deal, and it is clear why it has to be done. Part of that reason is to make people run the new content to gear up, all of which is an artifact of a levels based system. It just bugs me for no good reason.

On time to level, I base my estimate on a comment Draxxus made on an old post, where he said it takes him about a 1/3 the time to get to level 85 than it used to take him to get to level 60.

And I think the commenting field varies in usability with the browser you have. It usually works pretty well for me here using Firefox. (Though it seems to get messed up when I leave a long comment on SynCaine’s site, so who knows.)

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33. Tenris Anis (@TenrisAnis) - February 24, 2013

“Or is it just that levels in GW2 have no real meaning and were put in there as a ploy to appeal to achievers?”

More or less just this. Levels are as well used as guideline for pve content. Makes designing progressive content easier if you can be “certain” that your players actually have played easier parts of the game first. Guild Wars 2 does a splendid job in teaching its players how everything works and how to get better.

Though the “less” part if interesting as well. Gear scales up and down as well, and so it is possible for a level 30 character in realm vs realm to have better overall stats than a level 80 character.

Possible still does not mean likely, a level 80 character has far more ways to get access to high quality gear, furthermore a character that does not have max level will keep leveling up and decrease the value of his old gear this way. A good motivation to get new gear.

Furthermore high level characters have access to traits and extra-skills in pve that low level chars may lack. For the highest tier of skills you need to be at least level 30, which is as well the point when the game tries to get you into dungeons. If you have a higher level you are more likely to have a decent set of skills and more options to optimize your build.
All these factors are helping that you still feel more powerful in pve content when you leveled and and visit some lower level areas. Still the benefits can be very small and are mostly ignored for pvp all together. Imho it is nicely balanced and makes playing together regardless of level very easy and enjoyable.

Still it is one of the most criticized points in Guild Wars 2 as many players feel that leveling is pointless and just as many think that even those small benefits are to much and think their characters are to strong when visiting low level areas. The later comes imho from differences in gear quality and not really from difference in level. Some of my well equipped alts had a real blast when leveling up and felt much more powerful than even my max level characters.

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34. Jeromai - February 26, 2013

A Tale in the Desert: Started with no levels, ended up introducing them in Tale 3, I believe. Found it helped player retention by at least a few months. Gave them an easy goal to work towards at all times and a sense of progress, whereas without levels, players would just sample everything and leave.

On the other hand, levels are drastically different in that it’s nearly impossible to reach the max cap of 70, most achievement-focused veterans hover around 40-60 (I think) and obtaining most skills and technologies only require one to be around level 28 or thereabouts, so other players can also pause there and be just as effective.

The Secret World: Ostensibly no levels, but everyone uses Gear Quality Level as a means of comparison between players and requirement for dungeons, and accumulating AP and SP serves some of the achievement progression need.

Fallen London: Also ostensibly no levels, but content is broken up into skill ranges, eg. Watchful 10-20, Shadowy 30-40, etc. The increasing skill number offers achievement and progression. Repeated grinding is often necessary to shove oneself into the next “level” range, and the mechanic no doubt serves to retain players too.

Spiral Knights: No character levels, gear is broken up into five tier levels of increasingly better, and the goal is to progress as deep as possible into dungeon “levels” that get harder and require good gear.

On the one hand, I don’t think we’re ever going to get away from the main concept of “levels” providing player focus for achievement, easily quantified goals, a measuring yardstick and overall progression. Call it whatever you want by any other name, level is just an easy shorthand, immediately comprehensible by those familiar with the genre.

On the other hand, there have been so many unique spins and riffs on levels (GW2 is an example of this, plus see above) that Bartle’s rant doesn’t bear replying to, it’s oversimplified, outdated and irrelevant. Play more games, people have already gone past the standard WoW take on levels.

Not to mention, this is a primarily Eve blog we’re replying on, and Eve doesn’t use standard levels either, so the irony is delicious.

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35. Wilhelm Arcturus - February 26, 2013

@Jeromai – “Not to mention, this is a primarily Eve blog we’re replying on, and Eve doesn’t use standard levels either, so the irony is delicious”

Primarily an EVE blog? That is news to me. I was once kicked out of the EVE Blog Pack for not being an EVE blog. And the reference to irony eludes me. Am I not allowed to talk about levels because I play EVE?

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36. Kaliy - February 28, 2013

Many MUDs have decoupled levelling and skill gains – Avalon and the IRE games are a good example of systems where skill progression is tied into a different concept, like lessons you earn over time or from buying them with gold earned in game. You could, in theory, sit at level 1 and earn all the skills in the game. Levels still exist as a form of progressive strength (for example, grind out some mobs, earn a level, get an increase in max hitpoints), but the skill mechanisms aren’t tied to them. Levels serve their purpose very clearly in a stripped down system like this – people who like dinging sit and grind out virtual mobs (and there are players who like this), while those who want to focus on other aspects of the game dive into that.

Many roleplay MOOs and MUSHes have even fewer ties (or none at all) to levels, so there definitely is a long history of there being games offering progression without (or with few) levels. However, these games are much more freeform and fluid than many MMOs out there, and their gameplay is often drastically different. For MMO content like raiding and battlegrounds, levels (or skill points or gear score or etc) provides a relatively easy way to sort people into fair brackets, as well as offer a sense of progression. A MMO, today, would have to radically redesign how it approached its entire structure – and deal with all of the acclimation issues that would cause in new players – if it were to create a game without benchmarks like levels.

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37. Wilhelm Arcturus - February 28, 2013

@Kaliy – Second Life

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