Tag Archives: levels

The Alleged Purity of Leveling

More carping about levels and the problems they bring.

Only, this time I think there is some question as to whether or not there is really a problem.  At least in my mind there is a question.

The problem, as laid out, is people leveling up the “wrong” way, be it favoring a specific form of game play or using an exploit in the game or finding special gear.  Sometimes called “twinking,” it makes some people very, very angry.

In this case, as mentioned over at Massively OP, Blizzard has decided to close a loophole in XP gain that allows player to turn off their XP to boost other players with whom they are grouped.  Brought up by Blizzard back in December, a change for this is now in the WoW 8.2 PTR, found by Warcraft Secrets, whose image I am going to use.

Loophole closed, go level up the right way!

Given that we now know that the WoW 8.2 pact drops this coming Tuesday we will probably see an upswing in this behavior over the weekend.  Blizzard Watch even put it on their list of things to get done before the patch drops.

Twinking is as old as online games.  Handing alts gear they couldn’t possibly obtain on their own in order to speed up the leveling process was well established when I stared playing TorilMUD (or Sojourn MUD as it was named at the time) back in 1993.

It carried on in EverQuest, where I can recall low level paladins wandering around with Ghoulbanes to smite undead to hasten their way forward, among other twinks.  It was also popular to get a friendly high level druid or cleric to buff your alt so they could run around and solo mobs that would otherwise be well beyond your capability.

This behavior has always made some people angry, with “fairness” being the general argument.  It isn’t fair that somebody has an advantage in leveling up faster than you.  I remember somebody being angry at me because I leveled up a warrior in TorilMUD from creation to level 40 in just over 8 hours of play time due to twinking him with gear I had collected over time.  They complained about it on the forums.

Over time some things were put in place to stop this sort of thing.  Gear got level requirements and was made bind on equip most places so you couldn’t dump things on your alt for power leveling.

Some games went a little too crazy.  EverQuest II at launch wouldn’t even let you buff people outside of your party and had strict rules about level differentials in a group lest you be trying to help somebody along.  I remember those calculations keeping people out of groups, especially at lower levels where the ratios made the level gaps allowed much smaller.

I have always assumed that this was very much a response to the free and easy twinking available in EverQuest, about which people would howl in the forums.

But should the developers be listening to this sort of thing?  People complain about literally everything in the forums.  Start a thread about people undercutting your sell price on the market and just watch how many people join in on complaining.

Does having some sort of advantage in leveling up hurt anybody else?  Is twinking a problem that needs to be solved?  Should developers be preventing players from leveling up the wrong way?

I am generally of the opinion that the answer to all of that is “no.”

In a game like World of Warcraft where, in the current expansion, the mobs scale with you all the way to level 120, so that one might question why there are levels at all, and where you have things like heirloom gear, it seems debatable that Blizzard should be worried about people leveling up faster than them.  And all the more so when they’re going on about a level squish, though that is another tale altogether.

Sure, there are situations where this might be bad.

I would probably agree that any path that took players out of the visible world is probably bad.  At least if you have something like a world in your game.  In EverQuest II they felt they had to remove exp from the player made dungeons feature largely because the most popular such dungeons were exp generating machines of no obvious merit otherwise.

And any time PvP is involved letting people boost up quickly, or lock levels and build a super-optimum gear set for battlegrounds, is going to end badly.

And, then there was the tale of Warhammer Online, where one theory of the failure of the game lays the blame on battlegrounds, which were the optimum method to level up.  Why would you spend time doing open world PvP content… which was what the game was supposed to be about, and was honestly a lot more fun when it happened… when instanced battleground were ready for you right now?

But that wasn’t really twinking so much as incentivizing the wrong path forward.  But PvP depends on the other side showing up when you’re ready to play, which is the main downfall of open world PvP in every game that hosts it.  Battlegrounds, with their jump in, fight, be done mechanics are not so hampered by that, so they will tend to draw people away from the open world in any case, and when they are replacing the PvP that is supposed to be the core of your game, you have at a minimum incentivized them badly.

However, short some specific situations where the path being used to level up is taking people out of the game, I am not sure that twinking is something to get all that worked up about.  I thought we’re long past the age of draconian responses to people not playing the game correctly.  But that Blizzard has now decreed that if you group with somebody who has XP turned off your own XP gain will now be “vastly reduced,” I guess I am wrong.

Three Problems MMORPGs are Never Going to Solve

Three things that fans of the genre complain about all the time, and even the developers acknowledge as issued now and then, which are just never going to be “solved” in any acceptable way.

Levels

World of Warcraft has been getting some heat for this one of late, both because the level scaling in Battle for Azeroth practically punishes you for leveling up and because they gave us access to a whole bunch of allied races which, if you want to play them, you have to level up. (Or pay for a race change for a current character, or pay for a level boost I guess.)

The moment hits at last

The problem is that levels are an easy solution to issues like gating content and giving characters a sense of progression, the latter being critical for an MMORPG.  The alternatives, like skill based systems, just don’t cover things as well or as obviously.

In fact, levels are so sublime that even systems that ostensibly do not have levels end up effectively having levels.  Take EVE Online, once an outlier with its skill learning system.  Your skills level up, even when you are offline, something viewed as a boon.  Skills gated content, in that you needed the skills to use various ships and equipment.   But skills continued on at the same pace, offline or on, with no way to speed them up, which many people found frustrating.  Flying a titan, for example, was just going to take you a couple of years.

And then skill injectors came along and suddenly the in-game currency, ISK, always something of a success measure, effectively became levels.  With enough ISK you can unlock all the content.  65 skill injectors gets you a titan pilot.  With enough ISK you can “win” EVE Online almost immediately.

They had all the skills… and lots of ISK… before they were banned

Meanwhile, back in level based gamed like WoW and EverQuest, the developers found ways to add another layer of levels.  Item levels gates content in Azeroth and stand as the thing for players to obsess about, while over in Norrath a whole vast and complex Alternate Advancement tree exists to absorb your experience once you’ve hit level cap, if not before.

The main problem with levels is that they reach a point of absurdity if you’re not careful and act as a deterrent to new players.  It doesn’t matter how easy the climb to level cap is… and it is arguably worse if it is too easy… if a new player sees they are level one and the cap is a three digit number.  And once you’ve arrive at that point there is no easy way out.  A level squish is madness, but so is carrying on as before.

But getting to a point where too many levels is a problem is generally a sign that you’ve succeeded so far, so how do you quit them once they’ve built your empire?

Grind

It is fun to listen to somebody complain about grind one day then wax poetically about the good old days of experience groups in EverQuest.  It helps settle in your mind that grind has no realistic definition.

Grind is basically something you don’t like doing at that moment.  The problem is that what is grind for one person is fun for another and the same person may enjoy something one day and feel like it is grind the next.

Some days just reading the quest tracker feels like a grind

I cannot name an MMORPG where things do not eventually feel like a grind if you do them often enough.

In EVE Online missions are one of the basic PvE activities and people complain about them being grindy and boring all the time.  People are always asking CCP to add more missions or to make them more interesting.  However, CCP said at some point last year that there are over 4,000 missions in the game, so it feels like the “adding more” check box has been checked repeatedly.  And when CCP adds missions that are more interesting, like burner missions, people complain that they are too hard if they get blown up or that they are a grind once the player solves the mission and getting blown up is removed as a risk.

So CCP added abyssal deadspace missions, which have a random element to them, which appealed to some people, but which drove the risk averse away.

Somebody… maybe Scott Jennings… wrote once that there is a fine line to making a quest or event interesting.  It cannot be too easy, lest it feel like no gain at all, but it also cannot be too difficult, or it will drive people away who fail at it.  A quest has to be both easy enough to knock off and hard enough to feel like you’ve accomplished something, otherwise it can feel like a grind.  And even a mission or quest that is perfectly tuned for your skill and level can feel like a grind if you’re not in the mood or you’ve done it many times before.

Grind is just the dark side of advancement/progression, and advancement is the reward drip that keeps us going.  Basically, if you want some form of progression you’re probably going to feel like you’re grinding at some point.

Which isn’t to say that some quests… or some game designs… don’t just suck.  But you can find grind in your most favorite game ever if you hang around long enough.

Login Problems at Launch

Unlike the first two, this is one that a game company probably could fix.  They just won’t.

Just last week at the WoW Classic stress test

If you’ve played a popular MMORPG you’ve probably run into login and server queues at launch or when expansions land or when updates hit or when they launch a special server or at some other time.

Just keep waiting, just keep waiting…

You want to log in and play but so do a lot of other people, so the login server is struggling and the game server if full and you’ve been put in a line outside and given a number that may or may not dynamically update as time passes.

Even LOTRO had a queue for Legendary

This makes people angry.  Very angry at times.  You’ve paid to play this game.  You want to play this game.  And here it is, peak game playing time for you and you are being prevented from playing the game.

Back in March, during the 20 year EverQuest anniversary, I saw somebody on Twitter raging about Daybreak having had two decades to fix they game and that it was completely unacceptable that they should have to wait in a queue.  Daybreak had failed completely.

Leaving aside the whole “20 year old game launches a new server and is popular enough to attract a queue,” the team at Daybreak has actually spent quite a bit of time working on its server capacity.  The servers hold more people.  They now have the ability to spawn multiple versions of zones to alleviate crowding.  They even have a server queue, which wasn’t a thing… or even a thing they felt they needed… until a couple of years back.  Daybreak, relative to its size, has actually done considerable work on this front.

Likewise, last week… and the week before… Blizzard held WoW Classic beta stress tests to simulate the loading that the WoW Classic servers will likely see when the launch in August.  Blizzard has a whole new layering system for the launch of WoW Classic that one hopes will keep down the total number of servers… or half the people you know will end up on different servers… while keeping the crowding and queuing problem from getting out of control.

And yet I expect that there will be queues, even horrendous queues, at the launch of WoW Classic.  I expect the first night to be a rush to get in.  People will want to get started, do server firsts, and whatever else.  It will be a spectacle, and people who play the live game will try to log in, even if they don’t plan on playing.

There will be queues, we should expect it, and Blizzard shouldn’t spend a bunch of time or money trying to fix that.

Why?

Because it is a temporary problem.  We have seen it in the past.  LOTRO Legendary, EverQuest progression servers, any give WoW expansion launch, the queues are minimal in a few days and gone in a couple of weeks.  It just isn’t worth the investment for such a transitory issue.

Yes, there are always those few WoW servers that have a queue six months after an expansion launches.  But that is a different problem.  When there is a long list of low population servers available Blizzard should be offering free transfers for people to move.  That is the fix.  Use the capacity that already exists.

I am sure there are other things that won’t get fixed… I had “old content” scratched in my notes for this, but forgot what I was going to say… but these three, we will be complaining about them for years to come because they won’t ever go away.

Why are there Levels in Battle for Azeroth?

This is one of those question that I am pretty sure I know the answer to, but I want to ask it out loud just to see what else might shake loose.  What am I not considering in this mix?

It is here…

I am playing through the Alliance side of the expansion right now.  My paladin is already through the Tiragarde Sound zone on Kul Tiras and I am enjoying the new content.  The environments are beautiful, the quests are good, varied, and plentiful, and the various side tasks and ventures change things up.

But, as I write this (ten days before the post went live because I kept pushing it off to post something else), my pally is already past level 116 and I expect will hit level 120, the level cap, long before I am finished running him through the base content.

Not that I will suddenly stop when I get there.  But I will spend most of my time in this expansion… call it two years less the three weeks at most it will take me to meander to level 120…at the level cap.

So why bother having levels at all at this point?

The zones scale with you so gaining a level confers no special benefit.  In fact, there is a downside to it.  All the gear you get along the way is set for the level you at which you acquired it, so you have to keep replacing gear for ten levels to keep it abreast of your progress… after which you can then work on replacing gear to boost your item level.  And, as we found out, collecting gear upgrades actually makes getting through the new zones more difficult.  You are better off keeping your item level low, a seriously messed up situation that Blizzard seems just fine with.  I mean, I was afraid of what ilevel scaling was going to do when they introduced it in Legion, but this goes well beyond what I would have imagined.

Whatever.  If people complain enough Blizz will grudgingly fix it eventually.  Back to levels.

Traditionally levels have been used to gate content, and Blizzard does do some of that.  As you hit certain levels things are unlocked for you.  But with ten fast moving levels players will still be unlocking content after they hit 120 via various other means.  I don’t have to look much farther than the achievements to know that there will be plenty to do past hitting the level cap.  There will be world quests to unlock, new content to enjoy, faction to grind, and the groundwork to unlocking flying to start in on.

EverQuest, the king of MMO expansions, is almost six years older than World of Warcraft, has released 24 expansions so far, and has a level cap of 110 last I checked.  If you look down the list of expansions you will see that not every one raised the level cap.  You can see streaks of two or three expansions in a row with the same cap.

Then again, they do keep raising the level cap in Norrath every so often, so levels have their draw.  But it clearly isn’t a necessity.  SOE found alternate methods.

The downside is that levels are intimidating and/or silly after a certain point.  That the level cap is 120 with Battle for Azeroth has to work against it somewhat.  Purists like to say that you need to play through the whole thing, but when you are trying to collect new players, the starting proposition that you must play through 110 levels in order to get to the new/good stuff is a losing one.  Just having 120 levels can be seen as a pretty big barrier to entry.

So why have more levels when it is pretty clear you can do without them?

The answer, to my mind, is because people expect them.

Blizzard is a very conservative company when it comes to their successful properties, and none of them is more successful nor a bigger money maker than WoW.  When you have the goose that keeps on laying golden checks every month… and when you have made changes in the past they haven’t necessarily turned out well… you do all you can to maintain it with screwing things up.  Launching an expansion with a boost in the level cap… and a 10 level boost because 5 level expansions were not as popular…  is just part of the recipe for success to which Blizz feels they need to adhere.

Basically this is the way they’ve always done it and it works, so why change?

Addendum: There is a closely related post over at GamingSF this morning as well.  Armagon Live also has a post about that as well.

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?

Twenty-Two in Trestlebridge

I managed to get to 21 in the Lone Lands between the Foresaken Inn and Ost Guruth on Saturday afternoon, running down most of the remaining quests that were at or below my level.  I still have to find that orc messenger on the quest chain that leads to Retaking Weathertop, but otherwise I am at the point where the quests suddenly jump up a few levels.

That meant it was time to move to the North Downs, to travel to Trestlebridge.

I hate those first few quests out of Trestlebridge.  This will be my fourth time through them and, though they are marked as solo quests, they can be tough to crack by yourself at level.  Several of them require picking up items that are located in Orc camps with three or four orcs about, plus the usual crows around the periphery and a patrolling orc or two.

With care, patience, and a bit of luck, you can keep the fights down to battling two level 20-22 enemies.  But don’t loiter between battles.  The respawn rate is quick enough that taking a long breather can send your plans down the drain.

Still, it was better to face those quests than to try to go after some of the level 23-25 quests that awaited around Ost Guruth.  Plus, at 21 I got to upgrade some of my armor.  Gaff had gotten a critical event when making a chest piece for me, so I had something extra nice to put on.

tistannwca

It is nice to get something that good from crafting in a game.

I took advantage of the quest from Ost Guruth that sends you straight to Trestlebridge, and headed out.

Luck seemed to be with me.  Or, rather, my timing was correct.  Rather than running around at off-peak hours I was playing on Saturday night.  And even LOTRO gets pretty active on a Saturday night.

There seemed to be quite a few people working on the same set of quests, including one full group from the guild Sons of Durin who was cutting a swathe through the orc camps that let all us solo players follow behind and collect the needed pieces.

That was enough to get Tistann over the hump in the North Downs.  After that the quests tend to become more manageable for a while.

Before the night was over Tistann hit 22 and even got a new cloak from one of the quests.

Who is that cloaked stranger?

Who is that cloaked stranger?

It isn’t the best cloak in the game, but at least it hides my goofy helmet.

My First Northrend Level

While I have been impressed with life in Northrend and how things are going with Wrath of the Lich King, I have not been playing a lot.  Non instance group nights have been mostly spent in EverQuest II, exploring Norrath from the Freeport perspective.

Still, I do find myself in Azeroth now and again, chasing down quests that do have a bit more spark and flair than your average “kill 10 foozles” routine.  Among other things I’ve been bombing pirates from a captured horde airship and out hunting with a train falcon.

And, amongst the fun, I found my hunter, Tistann, suddenly level 71.

tistann71

Of course, a few minutes later I ran into a level 80 death knight.  There was somebody who managed 25 levels in the time I did one.

It isn’t a race, however… well, not since all the server first achievements got finished up.  I’m just enjoying the time I spend in Northrend.

Ula Ascendant

Saturday night found us short a gnome (that line is never not funny) as Bung apparently had some sort of torches and pitchforks event to attend on the far side of Bedrock in a town so small that not only do they not have wireless internet or cell phone but they still find carbon paper a magical modern convenience.

One of the local potentates there appeared to have been caught with his hand in the seed corn, which could have either been the literal truth or some sort of provincial euphemism, and the whole village was coming out to see justice done on a Saturday night like the final scene from The Wicker Man, though sans the goat, PETA entanglements being something we’d all rather avoid.

None of which directly explained why Bung had to be there, but off he went, leaving us with a group of four.

Not quite enough to go try Durnholde Keep again, especially since Bung was one of those who missed the quest update last week, so we would have to go run it again.

So we headed back to Shadowmoon Valley with our group for the evening:

69 Mage – Ula
70 Paladin – Vikund
70 Priest – Skronk
70 Warrior – Earlthecat

Our goal: Get Ula to level 70!

Which meant running through some quests.

We picked up some quests, eventually settling in with a series that ran through Legion Hold and the Death Forge.  After a while Earl called it a night but Skronk, Ula, and Vikund pressed on.

We ended up doing one of those really fun WoW quests.  The staple of quest lines may be deliver this, talk to so and so, and slay a certain number of creatures, but once in a while Blizzard actually comes up with way to make these things really fun.

Boy, doesn’t that sound like a condemnation of the genre?  Once in a while we do something fun!

Anyway, this one, called “The Fel and the Furious” involved using controls to take over a fel reaver guardian then going on a rampage with it to destroy sixty Deathforge Infernals.  But you have to manage that before the guardian takes too much damage and you lose control of it.

Really, it was fun, whimsical, and it was a lot easier to destroy 60 infernals than you might imagine.

And, at the end of the quest, when we turned it in, we hit the magic moment:

Ula hit level 70!

And then WoW promptly locked up on her.

Actually, Quest Helper appeared to be the culprit, as Skronk also locked up at the same point with errors from that add on.  Vikund was not running it, so was spared and could take the screen shot.

The whole team was finally level 70.

Once Quest Helper was disabled and everybody was back online, we had to get back to Wildhammer Outpost to turn in the quest line.  Then Ula had to train and buy her flying mount.

Then it was flying lessons.

We all took off, then began to follow one another off and on, flying in formation for a bit, then peeling off to check something out.

Trail Formation

Trail Formation

Everything went fine until Ula went in to land at the horde outpost with Skronk and Vikund in tow.  Skronk got blown out of the air by one of the horde flying patrols while Ula and I made our escape.

We regrouped at one of the peaks overlooking the zone.

Parked Up High

Parked Up High

Being able to fly, even slowly (though Vikund gets a 20% speed bonus for himself and the group with the crusader aura) is really a lot of fun, eclipsing even the joy of fae glide in EverQuest II.

Earl was a bit short on gold when he hit 70, but we’re close to being the airmobile permenant floating saturday night instance group.

And next week, perhaps, we can finish up with Durnholde Keep at last.