When I started playing TorilMUD… or Sojourn MUD as it was known back then… just after their go-live pwipe, the level cap was 50.
Today, a little more than nineteen years later, the cap for players remains at level 50.
A lot of things have changed. The D&D rule set being modeled has moved from 2.0 (THAC0) to 4.0 (D20 simplification). Races have been added. Classes have been reworked and, in some cases, removed. (A moment to remember lost monks, mercenaries, and berserkers.) Zones have been added at a steady rate over time causing the room count to swell over time.
But in all that time they have never added a single level. Level 50 remains the pinnacle.
Which is odd, when you consider that TorilMUD was such a big influence on EverQuest, which must hold some sort of record for the total number of different expansions they have sold (soon to be 19, plus half a dozen different expansion “roll up” packages), many of which included boosts to the level cap (which started at 50 and will soon reside at 100) or added in alternative level progression mechanics (primarily alternate advancement).
And EverQuest itself is the template on which your typical PvE fantasy MMORPG is based. So clearly EverQuest got its expansion mojo from some other source… like a desire for more box sales.
But how has TorilMUD managed this over the last 19 years?
Awkwardly would be my reaction.
TorilMUD was not one of those MUDs where you got special powers or access upon hitting level 50. You were still a just a player and your only real game option was to conquer content and acquire loot. So the staff had to come up with methods to keep people engaged and playing.
Some of that was done in ways you will recognize, in ways that MMOs with many expansions use when they want to do another expansion but not raise the level cap. They have, as noted above, added new races and reworked classes to make them more viable. (Though nothing has ever made rangers really useful for long.) And they have trimmed back some of the less useful classes. (Mercenaries really were just half-assed warriors with a backstab skill.) They have also added new low level areas to make bringing up an alt a different experience.
But primary way of keeping people playing without raising the level cap has been the carrot and stick approach, which was used quite liberally with players sitting at level 50.
The carrot comes in the form of new content. New zones to run, with new monsters, new themes, new gimmicks (including nakedness), and, of course, shiny new loot. Lots and lots of new loot. Getting that one item with the perfect stats for your character and class was something of an obsession in the game.
There was the stick as well. And it wasn’t so much a stick as the infamous Nerf bat and it was wielded with almost gay abandon, much to the dismay of the players.
In order to keep gear inflation in check, equipment with great stats would almost inevitably be downgraded as new gear came in with new zones. One of the problems with taking a break from the game was coming back and finding some of your best items had been beaten into submission by the Nerf bat.
Sometimes particular enchants or stats would come in for special attention. I remember the war on haste. Items began to creep into the game that with that attribute. Haste is a spell mages could cast on melee classes that would give them extra attacks in combat. But it was a very short duration spell. You had to cast it right before a fight and, of course, you had to have a mage with the spell on hand. But if a melee class had an item that gave him haste all the time, well who needs a mage! So haste items like the emerald longsword and the gray suede boots became a requirement for melee classes.
And then out came the Nerf bat and haste was removed and people were left with items that otherwise were generally fair at best. (I remember trading a pair of gray suede boots for a pile of equipment just about a week before the change went in. I got lucky.)
To this day I remember far more old stats for items that have been hit with the Nerf bat than current stats.
All in all it could be a brutal process, like having a semi-continuous gear reset going on around you. Gear advancement became something of a treadmill. If you stopped moving, you would eventually fall off the back.
So I guess I can see why EverQuest, and World of Warcraft in its turn, went with the “increase the level cap” option. Gear resets still happen. All that great gear you got is still trivialized in one fell swoop. But at least you are getting newer and better stuff as opposed to seeing your old stuff literally turned to junk.
Avoiding level cap increases has only been attempted by a couple of otherwise level-based MMORPGs, like Dark Age of Camelot. And while some have praised them for holding the line, it is tough to tell how successful that approach is commercially with a limited sample set.
Games like Vanguard and Warhammer Online haven’t boosted their level caps, but neither of them were apparently successful enough to warrant any sort of expansion, much less one that included new levels.
Guild Wars also stuck with a level cap of 20, but the business model was clearly one of selling boxes since they also went without a subscription. Guild Wars 2 has the same business model, though one of the lessons they seemed to draw from the original was that they needed more levels. I suppose we will see what that really means for expansions when they get their first follow-on box ready for sale.
Meanwhile, DAoC is pretty quiet these days as I understand it, though I am not sure if 8 years of a static level cap is a big factor in that.
And TorilMUD is still going, but my gear is totally out of date.