Are Level Cap Increases an Aberration?

One of the things I like about doing the predictions post every year is that I try to come up with some random items or take some minor event and run it to its extreme conclusion.  Then I start to think about if what I came up with was even possible.

Such was the case with companies selling jumps up to the current content.  That was a thing in 2013, with SOE offering to sell people a level 85 character in EverQuest II, Turbine experimenting with selling boosts to level 50 in Lord of the Rings Online, and Blizzard offering a character boost to level 90 with the Warlords of Draenor expansion.

In a very short span of time the idea of buying into a high level character went from a subject of theoretical debate to a reality, with three key companies appearing to opt in on the idea.

With those three offers out there, I figured I would declare 2014 to be the year of such offers, with the floodgates opening and MMOs everywhere racing to match these deals.  I even started to make a list of games that I expected to offer insta-levels for cash.

Which ended up being a pretty short list.

The thing is, in my world view, such insta-level offers make sense only in a specific set of circumstances.  You have to have an MMO that was popular/successful enough to have sold expansions that raised the level cap so that there is a large mid-level gulf in the player base between the old hands in the latest (and presumably best) content.  I would call this the classic EverQuest scenario of MMO success.

However, using that scenario as a measure of success doesn’t leave very many successful MMOs.  Listing them out from memory I got:

  • EverQuest – starts the trend
  • EverQuest II – assumed the pattern set by EQ
  • World of Warcraft – refines the EQ pattern, at least in timing
  • Lord of the Rings Online – sets out on the now established path
  • Rift – follows WoW in this as in so many things

These are the games that are, in my mind, the norm for MMORPGs.  (Who else has had expansions with level cap increases?  I am sure I have missed someone there.)

In reality though, that list is not at all the norm for MMOs.  Those five represent a very small fraction of the population of MMORPG titles and certainly are not the only successful titles in the history of the genre.  Leaving aside the Asian imports and browser games, the list of MMOs that were both successful… a disputed term, I know… and have had no level cap increase is substantial.  You can tick off Ultima Online, Dark Age of Camelot, Asheron’s Call, Star Wars: Galaxies, City of Heroes, Guild Wars (close enough to an MMO for this discussion) and EVE Online (or does EVE even fit in this picture?) pretty quickly before getting to titles like Vanguard, Age of Conan, or Star Wars: The Old Republic, that probably did not or will not get EverQuest-like expansions because they were not successful enough.

Which is what brought me around to the title of this post.  Are level cap increases… especially expansion related increases… an aberration that were just part of the genre in its infancy, but which is unlikely to carry on going forward?  Even EverQuest’s direct predecessor, TorilMUD, hasn’t had a level cap increase since launch.

And, as a follow on to that, in a market where the level cap at launch is likely to be the level cap for the lifetime of the game, does the insta-level option have a future?  Or do level cap increases enter into that equation when most of your population ends up crowded at the top of the ladder over time no matter what?  What is pay for a level boost needed?

16 thoughts on “Are Level Cap Increases an Aberration?

  1. Soge

    To a certain extent, WoW has been doing this since Burning Crusade. Every expansion has had with it a massive crush of the leveling time for the levels of the previous expansions. This simply makes the process more expedient.


  2. Wilhelm Arcturus Post author

    @Soge – Indeed, and it hasn’t been just WoW doing this. EQII has a much less onerous exp curve up to level 50 now than it did back in 2004, and I have had several characters level up in LOTRO when logging in after an expansion has dropped.

    All three games have done some things to try and help narrow the gap for new players. But getting in and selling a boost in levels with no effort beyond the payment page crosses a line, as it allows the player to opt out of a certain amount of content.

    It doesn’t bother me, in as much as it doesn’t impact me, but as somebody who sees leveling up as the primary aspect of such games, it also isn’t all that attractive to me either.

    But my real question on this front is that, in the absence of level cap increase, does selling leveled up characters or easing up the leveling curve make sense? Would a game like SWTOR benefit in the long term from selling level 40 or 50 characters?


  3. Jenks

    Final Fantasy 11 has had level cap increases, although you do exclude Asian imports. It seems mainstream enough to mention, though.

    I’d put Eve on the list of games with cap increases without a doubt. It had 80~ skills at release. They’re not levels, but in this case they’re effectively the same thing – people would have capped out many years ago if they didn’t continually add more skills.


  4. Wilhelm Arcturus Post author

    @Jenks – I think FF XI is probably mainstream enough, just outside my area of knowledge.

    On EVE, I can go both ways. As you point out, they have added skills, so the effective level cap has be raised.

    On the other hand, nobody is at that level cap yet and while skill points impact what ships you can fly, they do not inherently separate you from people with more skill points the way levels do in WoW or LOTRO. For example, CFC sub-cap fleet doctrines always have new player fits so that people just coming into the game can join in and play with the high SP players.

    In hindsight, EVE probably shouldn’t have been on my list there, as it is too different from the topic at hand.


  5. Wilhelm Arcturus Post author

    @Carson63000 – True as well, though the philosophical argument as to whether that is the same thing as buying an insta-leveled character from Blizz, Turbine, or SOE is too much for me to start in on right now.


  6. bhagpuss

    Vanguard did have a level increase, despite never having had an expansion. The original level cap was 50 but it was increased to 55. Doesn’t sound like much but if you try and solo it 50 – 55 will almost certainly take you longer than 1 – 50. I gave up at around 50.2.

    FFXI had at least one level cap increase and suffers appallingly from the “empty mid-game” problem , at least fromwhat I’ve heard.

    Allods raised the cap from 42 to 47 with an expansion or quasi-expansion update.

    Like you, I kind of see leveling as the point of these things. Take that away and I’m not sure how interested I am. Doesn’t mean I wouldn’t welcome some short-cuts on my sixth or sixteenth run through though…


  7. C. T. Murphy

    It is a complicated issue.

    If the point of a Massively Multiplayer game is to play with a large amount of people, then an experience that doesn’t have you playing with other’s until the last level (due to population imbalances), makes for a terrible barrier of entry and an overall bad Massively Multiplayer game.

    If the point of an Online Role Playing Game is to level through an always-online world which may or may not feature others, then a game like The Old Republic (with its unique stories for each class) seems completely undercut by quick leveling options.

    While adding levels may be an aberration, it is one that some of the most popular and influential MMOs have embraced. We have to think that for a large portion of the MMO audience, there is an expectation of new levels as a form of new content in new expansions.

    Personally, I think selling insta-leveled characters is a fairly necessary stopgap to get around what is otherwise really poor game design.

    Once you remove the necessity to group your way to the top, the easily soloed level experience became nothing more than a stretched out form of filler. Some games manage to make it more palatable, enough that I’d argue they are worth leveling through at least once simply for their content. Most other games I have played however just use it because they are expected to, and to them, that’s what a MMORPG is now.

    In other words, if level cap increases do continue, then I hope that the leveling becomes worthwhile again.


  8. Mekhios

    Selling level to cap seems to be yet another move by MMO’s to monetize every aspect of the game. It also brings back that age old question – why do we play MMO’s? Is it not to experience the virtual world each step of the way level by level or to experience the joys of progression with friends?

    I am not saying it is good or bad. I know many fellow MMO friends who love MMO’s but hate the levelling aspect and would rather have a max level character as soon as they start playing the game.


  9. Shintar

    SWTOR actually increased the level cap by five with Rise of the Hutt Cartel. Not that it changed the overall game very much, but it was done. (I do fear you might be right about your prediction that future updates to the game are more like to feature mini games instead of more levelling content though…)


  10. Korvus

    Anarchy Online has been around for quite a long time. Im not sure if they are still subscription or f2p, but I do remember they’ve had several level increases; above 100-200 the last I was there.

    Speaking of that game, maybe Ill take a peak back at it since it seems Darkfall is going to shit (or so Im told)


  11. Rieth Mhide


    Happy New Year :)

    NOT answering your question, but somewhat related:
    there’s actually a scenario where insta-lvled characters can be good:
    alts for players who are actively engaged in endgame raid content

    just in my own experience, back in the day I had all 4 healer classes raidgeared in WoW
    of course I had my main but it was a busy guild, my shammy was often (well, always:D) locked in heroic 10/25s, and I was more than welcomed to bring another toon along for easier, non hc or even slightly outdated raids that were specifically organised to bring new top lvl players/characters up gearwise
    (yea I used to raid a lot back then)

    insta top levelin this case is a blessing

    regarding the possible argument that you end up with a character that you know nothing about (mechanics, spells etc)

    well, the lower level, solo playstyle is very,very different from end game raiding, you will have to learn the latter from scratch anyways

    on each of my chars I spent hours and hours on Elitist Jerks and such sites to learn about the class mechanics, you would never even get close to that kind of knowledge by solo questing in Azshara
    (just think of your druid, did you ever, i mean EVER used treeform unless you were grouped?
    or my minnie in lotro is always in warspeech since i play that game solo, she is max lvl but I wouldn’t know the first thing about what she’s supposed to do in a raid)

    if u look at it this way, levleing up is a waste of time (on a 3rd, 4th etc character i mean!)

    I know my example is pretty specific, but there IS a market for this feature and I think it is actually a smart move from the devs


  12. roguekish

    Joining in a bit late, but I don’t think upping the level cap in games like WoW that rely on level-gated content is going away. I mean what would distinguish a patch from an expansion then? Even Rift has had patches that added entire swaths of new land to the game so it can’t be “well here is a new continent”. Of course you could put in new abilities but new abilities and talents have always before been ted to levels. It is ofc possible but somehow the system these games are built on would need to change a lot first.

    Best shot you’ll have with abolishing level cap iiincreases is abolishing level gated content. The only problem is that the crowd that plays MMO’s is very efficiency focused (for good reasons) and levels are a very good tool for that.

    Anyway long stroy short, without and over all change in the system of games like WoW my answer is no.


  13. Pingback: Soloability is Unsustainable; Another Rant on MMO Leveling | Murf vs Internet

Comments are closed.