Leveling needs help.
Ion Hazzikostas, Blizzard Twitch Stream
Levels can be both boon and bane for MMORPGs.
On the boon side, they are an easy way to dole new skills at a reasonable pace, they are useful for gating content, and they give players both a sense of progress as they level up as well as a benchmark for where they stand in the game.
Hitting level cap is still an achievement
The downside is that when a game is a success and the company wants to sell more content to players, the go-to approach has been to simply add more levels. If some levels are good, then more levels must be better! But after a few rounds that leads to the huge gap between new players starting out and the main mass of players, which is usually concentrated in the current high level content. That can discourage new players and make alt creation a chore.
That has led to some of the work around to which we have become accustomed. There is the simply expedient of reducing the level curve, allowing players to zip up in levels and through content quickly. When that isn’t enough, there is the insta-levels plan, where you give out and/or sell level boost that bring you into the current content. That has become fairly common as some core MMORPGs have passed the level 100 mark.
There have been some attempts in the past to find alternatives to character levels. EverQuest introduced Alternative Advancement as an option back in 2001 with the The Shadows of Luclin expansion. (Proving that this is hardly a new issue I guess.) But even with that, EverQuest has crept up in levels, and plans to continue to do so according to a recent quote:
Every three years we do a level increase, and we have changed the way some things work.
Increasing the level cap is just in the DNA of the genre it seems.
And then there is World of Warcraft, which is as locked into levels as any of the genre, but which has also been trying all the options to try and break the curse of the intimidating level cap, which currently stands at 120 after seven expansions. (EverQuest is still only at 110 after 25 expansions, but there is another tale in that.)
Over the years Blizzard has reduced the experience curve for leveling, added classes that start levels into the game (Death Knight and Demon Hunter), offered level boosts, and played with level scaling in older zones in order to make the climb to the level cap less of a barrier.
Last week Blizzard held one of their regular info broadcasts about WoW, and among the items discussed during that broadcast was the possibility of a “level squish.”
That seemed radical enough that I went to go listen to the broadcast over at Twitch, just to make sure I heard exactly what was said. The question that brought it up is at the 53 minute mark of the replay. This link should bring you right to it.
The question that brought this up
With that teeing things up, Ion Hazzikostas and Josh Allen went into a brief but serious talk on the problems with levels in the game. 120 is a very big number. With the current talent system you no longer earn points for your spec tree every level like you used to in the past, so that most level up moments don’t bring much to the player. And this is especially true in the current Battle for Azeroth content where everything in the zone levels up with you, so you don’t feel any more powerful and, in some cases, weaker. That situation led me to ask why they bothered with levels in this expansion.
So I suppose it is unsurprising to hear that the WoW dev team has seriously considered a level squish.
The idea sketched out was to take the current 120 levels and squish them back down to the original 60, thus setting the new player just half the distance from the level cap that they were before. With the work they have done to make zones scale over a broader range of levels, and the stat and ilevel squishes they have done before, the climb to 60 could be quite viable.
Well, technically feasible anyway.
But it would be strange. Going to Outland at level 30, Northrend at 35, Pandaria at… 42.5 I guess… and so on. And I guess your fresh death knight would be a level 28 character now? At what level can I go back and solo old raid now? In a year when they are releasing WoW Classic I have to imagine they realize the nostalgia impact of certain level ranges.
That is only where the issues begin. The optics are bad, with everybody losing half their levels… even if levels are meaningless taking things away from players is always a bad draw… and all of the data on the internet about the game being made irrelevant… or at least incorrect… in a flash.
And, of course, the real blocker to my mind is that it doesn’t actually solve the problem. Not by itself anyway. The problem is that most of the player base is at the level cap and new players have to walk a long path to get there. Changing how you measure that path doesn’t actually change the distance one needs to travel.
I get that, in the scope of the talk, they were speaking of more than just a level squish. This would be a full redesign with probably yet another skill spec plan so that individual levels would feel more meaningful. That is a noble idea, and I expect we’ll get many more class overhauls and specialization reworks over the years.
But what happens with the next expansion? And there will always be a next expansion coming, at least every other year for some time to come. Unless Blizz has something in mind for an alternate advancement path ala EverQuest, they are going to slap 5 or 10 more levels on top of and we’re back to climbing the level ladder again. With that expansion will have to come a new insta-level booster as well as a further reduction in the experience curve needed to get new characters more quickly into the latest content.
Oh, and by tradition, the next expansion has to break, invalidate, or trivialize the previous content anyway. New spec changes, new gear, new stats, new whatever… it is just what happens when you heap a pile of new content on top of the old.
All of which is why I was on that no good expansions thing a while back. We love expansions, because we love the game and just want more of it. But they inevitable stretch the game out beyond reasonable dimensions and lead to a focus on the new over the past.
Still, I appreciate Blizzard talking about this sort of thing in a frank way and letting us know that they are as aware of the problem as we are and have been exploring even some rather radical solutions. In the end, however, they are stuck with the system they went with and there are no easy solutions. If there were, we would have heard about them by now.
Of course, that won’t stop the Monday morning quarterbacks from throwing stones. Calling Blizzard lazy and stupid for not having a magic solution to a problem that nobody else has solved is the norm. This is why I am a bit surprised about Blizzard being this frank at times. We want the company to give us more info, then turn into petulant children when they do, expressing mock outrage as though Blizzard has just now realized that this might be an issue.
In any case, we won’t see a level squish. It just changes too much for too little benefit. But I am glad to see they are serious enough about the issue that they would discuss that level of change. I suspect, in the end, we’ll see focus on making each level in the next expansion seem more meaningful. But reworking everything… be it 60 or 120 levels… to make each and every one meaningful seems unlikely.
Addendum: A Related post from about five years ago. This has been a thing for a while.