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Leveling devalues WoW.
by Simon Ludgate on 02/25/14 02:57:00 pm   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


So, Blizzard announces a new expansion to World of Warcraft: Warlods of Draenor. The expansion will take the game from level 90 to level 100. In order to get people up to speed, expansion will give everyone one free character at level 90. This isn't unprecedented, as previous promotions, such as the Scroll of Ressurection "refer a friend back" promo also gave a quick level up to 80 so players could enjoy Cataclysm and Pandaria.

What is unprecedented is that Blizzard will also sell additional level 90 boosts for $60 each. Pay a bit of cash and skip through the original game and four expansions worth of content. I guess Blizzard wants to compete with illicit real-money leveling services, though arguably those offer the better value of giving you a max level character rather than doing just 9/10ths of the job.

Not entirely unexpectedly, people are outraged (aren't they always? about everything?), generally about two things: that the service exists at all, or that the price is so high. If the expansion is $40 (the four prior ones were, but Blizzard hasn't announced WoD's price) and includes a level 90, why should subsequent ones be 50% more expensive?

Blizzard's response: they don't want to devalue leveling by making it too cheap. This despite the fact that Ars Technica's Kyle Orland has already pointed out that leveling is devalued because you get a free 90 when you buy the expansion. So it's really every additional insta-90 that's somehow more valuable than the first?

Value of Leveling?

The basic argument goes that if you spend dozens of hours to accomplish something, that something you have "accomplished" has value. And that if people pay money to go straight to a specific level, then that devalues the efforts put in by the people who do level up.

Case in point: some random commenter says something along the lines of "I leveled and geared up 7 characters to level 90 and I put in so much time and effort I don't want someone else to have the same benefit just by paying money."

So there's this vague sense out there that Time = Money and Money = Value so Time = Value. Or something. Look, I'm not going to argue against the basic premise that Time = Value, as it's something I've actually argued for in my many articles here at Gamasutra. But what I do want to argue is whether or not a high level character in an MMORPG actually has value.

Opportunity Costs in MMORPG Economics

I've argued before that the worth of anything in an MMORPG economy is the time it takes to get it, or the opportunity cost of that thing. If it takes you 10 minutes to get 10 gold or 10 herbs, then 1 herb = 1 gold. But that assumes you want the herb or the gold and that you're spending the time getting that thing. If you spend 10 minutes completing a quest and happen to find 10 herbs along the way, you haven't spent 10 minutes getting herbs: you got free herbs.

So, lets apply the same logic to leveling. If you spend some number of hours playing a game in order to experience fun and entertainment and happen to level up to 90 during that play time, you haven't spent those hours leveling, you spent those hours playing and happened to end up with a free level 90 character.

This is how games are supposed to work. You're supposed to play the game to have fun. This is why I've never even contemplated the concept of buying a max level character in FF7, as much as I've always wanted to unlock the Golden Chocobo.

I've also argued against power leveling in the past, pointing out that you're basically paying for the game, then paying for the priviledge of not actually playing it.

Unless, of course, there's a specific part of the game you want to play, and the designers have set up the game so that you can't really get to that part.

Game vs End-Game

I often see people refer to the game you play at max level as "end-game" like it's a different part of the game. And, really, it is. And that, really, is the problem.

It's like... Imagine if you had to beat the Half-Life single player campaign before you could "unlock" multiplayer mode to play Counter Strike. Then people would be paying "power levelers" to "level" them through Half-Life so they could to play Counter Strike. Pretty absurd, eh?

The real problem with a lot of MMORPGs is that people want to play the "end-game" part and are stuck having to get there. And getting there isn't an accomplishment any more than buying the damn game in the first place is as accomplishment.

Lets face it: leveling in WoW isn't hard. It's a fait accompli. You can't fail at leveling, the way you can fail to beat Half-Life. It's either a fun adventure, or a pure time-wasting grind.

The real problem with WoW is that game mechanics prohibit you from participating in many activities unless you are the maximum level. The entire level grind in WoW is really just a tutorial island you're stuck on and you can't get off until you ding whatever the max happens to be. And we've already slammed tutorial islands for downright sucking.

No More Leveling!

Maybe WoW needs to take a lesson from Elder Scrolls Online on this one, where they took out the tutorial island and made it optional. Maybe WoW should take out level mechanics from end-game content. Maybe everyone should be "level-synced" to the same level when doing things like raiding or PvP. Problem solved. Then you could level at your own pace, have fun with the leveling and the questing, and still be able to participate in the "end-game" whenever you wanted.

I think the need to be max level devalues leveling tremendously. Leveling can be a lot of fun, especially if you don't have that "I must be max NAO so I can raid" pressure looming over you. It's like building a model rather than buying an assembled toy: the building of it can be a lot of fun, so long as there isn't a huge crowd of friends with their built toys waiting on you to finish building yours so you can play with them.

I mean, Blizzard acknowledges this directly with their reason for including a level 90 with the new expansion:

To get everyone straight to the action, when you buy the expansion, it will come with a boost to level 90 for one character on your WoW account.

It's right there. You want to be in the action, you want to be playing the game, but you can't until you get to level 90. So they'll do it once. Once? Shouldn't they just set the base starting level for new characters to 90?

Or, even better, why not give players a drop-down box: whenever you make a new character, it can be any level between 1 and the highest other level character on your account? That way you can level if you want, or end-game if you want.

Problem solved.

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Isaac Knowles
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I don't think I buy your premise. Why can't you be doing two things at the same time? Part of questing is that it gives you opportunities to gather resources. It's precisely your ability to produce both experience and resources that makes questing attractive to many players. As you say, the cost is time. Would you spend your time ONLY questing or ONLY mining? No? Well what if you can do both at the same time? Ah hah!

Similarly, your time spent leveling is time spent both enjoying current content and investing in and opening up additional content. You won't see some content if you don't level. So leveling isn't just a side effect. It's a goal. It may not be a very good goal. Designers may be able to come up with better goals. But it's a goal. And accomplishing that goal has real value (access to more content).

So if the portion of the value of the time a player spends leveling just to access more content is greater than $60, then a $60 immediate level-up to 90 in WoW will indeed be quite valuable to her.

Edit: typos.

Simon Ludgate
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I think you have some good points, and it reading them makes me want to revise my original blog to better address them. But I'd point out that accessing content isn't really a concern here, because you already get 1 free 90 just for having the expansion. So you already have the access. It seems the real problem has to do with having a certain class for end-game content. You might have had a fun time leveling up as a hunter, but when you get to end-game you want to play a priest. What do you do? Re-do the leveling portion in a non-fun way so you can start doing end-game in a fun way? Perhaps the real disconnect is between the class system, the need for alts, and the differences between "game" and "end-game" play.

Isaac Knowles
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Well you don't really get one free 90 just for having the expansion, do you? It's just that it's bundled into the xpac, so your first one is cheaper than your second one. You're still paying for it.

This payment for content access with either your wallet or your time is endemic in games, regardless of design or business model. You mentioned FFVII, saying it would be absurd to think about buying a max level character for it. And I agree: Never once did I think I would buy a version of the game with a higher level character. But I DID buy the strategy guide for $20, which helped me go faster through the game and see more content. Game companies have been cashing in on speed-ups at least since the first issue of Nintendo Power. And it's precisely because content access requires a costly time investment that they can do so.

Simon Ludgate
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I would argue that it's "free" in so far as you get it with the xpac and you can't level past 90 without the xpac. So you can't play the game without getting at least one level 90 character, which makes it as "free" as anything else you get "bundled in" with the xpac, like all the content.

So, yeah, maybe "free" isn't the right word. Everyone will have one 90 forced upon them by virtue of continuing to play the game which involves the occasional paid expansion.

I think strategy guides and faster leveling are inherently different things, much in the same way that a tourist map with all the good points to visit on a road trip towards a destination is different from buying a plane ticket that flies you straight there.

Justin Kovac
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Its interesting to see that Diablo 3 2.0 introduced monster level scaling like in Elder Scrolls. Monsters scale to your level and their difficulty is now dependent on which one you pick. Normal, Hard, Expert, Master, Torment I-VI.

Blizzard recently has been putting more and more into this scaling technology in WoW, starting with the Flex raids, which is becoming the standard for all raid difficulties but Mystic (20 man only). I would love to see this expanded to leveling content by choice. Right now the exp curve is so low that you outlevel each zone by the time you are half way through it, ending up with quests that give a smaller or no exp reward. Make all zones scale to your level along with quest item rewards. Then much like in Diablo now, you can choose which zones you want to level up in. I would still restrict it by expansion level ranges, but it would be great to quest in the newer Catacyslm 1-60 zones while at the level of the content.

Or ditch levels and make it all gear based. Want to do a zone? Get a certain iLevel. This is how the end game content works now.

Rattlecat Mandelbrott
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"Maybe everyone should be "level-synced" to the same level when doing things like raiding or PvP. Problem solved. Then you could level at your own pace, have fun with the leveling and the questing, and still be able to participate in the "end-game" whenever you wanted."

I really love this concept, however, as a WoW player and someone who spent about 6 months playing Guild Wars 2, one of the major issues I see here is pretty much the issue that overall plagues WoW leveling. If we sync characters for raiding or PVP, that leaves the question of their items.

Items have individual leveling stats. If you start a level 1 character, and you pull a level sync system, then the person would never have to level. They just hop in and go for the loot. To combat this, you'd want to re-think the items mechanics. Can you use the loot you gain after a raid? Or are you then required to level to said level in order to use that loot? If that's the case, that already happens in WoW, where in a dungeon you can pick up items 5-6 levels ahead of you and they just take up space until you reach that level. But in the case of a Level 1 syncing to a Level 80 raid? That tells the user they just ran the raid for that loot that they couldn't use until they get to 80 -anyway-. Unless those items were specced to only be used during raid/dungeon content, in which case the items are worth getting, but to what end? If you can be a level 1 and acquire max level items, the only place you can use them is end-game content. I'd like to think that when you level to a max character, you do so to enter end-game content, for the purpose of grabbing the loot and gear needed to level the NEXT expansion's content, to enter that expansion's end game content, and so on and so on.

On the opposite side, this devalues the entire concept of leveling entirely, wouldn't it? Let's say you do get to level 90. No, you didn't spend it grinding to 90 since you're now leveling for fun and time wasting entertainment in general, but when you hit level 90, what happens socially when you see everyone else using level 1s to hit the raid, thereby decreasing the chances of you being able to get the loot? Higher level players will still feel like they're getting shunned out of the value they put into the game because they worked their asses off, although having fun to get here, but at any point in time someone who just started the game or barely puts any effort into the game can acquire the same loot, even if they can't use it. It's still earned, but at a much less time-consuming rate than someone who did take the full level route.

One of the things I didn't like in Guild Wars 2 was how I would be de-leveled in certain areas after accomplishing them, solely so that I could equally engage with others in the events, to prevent One Hit KOs in those areas, or, in the case of PVP, just ganking players. One of the things that was entertaining in WoW was being able to go to lower levels and either cause some havoc or help other players accomplish their goals. We sacrificed the experience they gained materialistically when killing with a higher level, but that value is compensated by just hanging out together and in general making it easier for someone else playing the game that may have, just before you arrived, found the game an unnecessary grind.

The goal in WoW is End-Game, which is why many people level so much on alts or grind in general to reach it. The reward is entirely at the end, which brings to light the whole issue to begin with where insta-leveling is disappointing to those who did take the time to grind. Death Knights suffered a similar incident when we heard you started them at level 55, but that anger seemed to decrease for both parties when you realized that you could only make a DK when you had already achieved level 55 on another character prior.

But then that makes you wonder if folks consider the entire game of WoW as un-entertaining and solely, as you said, a tutorial island and devalues the leveling experience overall. But even though that may be the case, there is clearly something insanely worthwhile at that End-game, because a couple million players have maxed out not just one character, but MANY characters in order to be at that End-Game status. Like Simon had pointed out in his comment, it seems to be an issue of "I need this class for end-game content, but I have fun playing this class via leveling."

I really love your idea of the drop down menu, since it heralds back to the Death Knight idea (Except instead of just being DK, you could do it for any character). I think it presents an ideal to where folks can jump back in on the action for their highest level, and it doesn't devalue the effort other folks have put into leveling. It comes off as a reward because you HAVE reached that milestone already once. It'll only devalue those who have maxed multiple characters from level 1.

Personally, I'm in between and I do want WoW to find that medium. I LOVE grinding levels, I love playing WoW for the grind, I love speed leveling. When I start a new server, I want to grind from 1 to max level, and that's mostly so I can re-engage with the world after being absent for a few days to months, but it's also to re-train my ability to play the character. I feel lost if I come into a new expansion, jerk up a level 90 and my options are endless. Sure, I may know how to play a Hunter or a Druid completely, but if its at the start of a new expansion and the talent trees or the movesets of characters have changed drastically, I want to start a level 1 so that I can re-learn how to use that character, and how to use that class to the best of its ability. Others are able to jump in, see the change and immediately understand what it means, but those I feel can be a case of just those players playing much more often at end-game than I do, or they have way more time than I can give to play the game so frequently that I remember how to calculate everything correctly when changes implement.

Like Simon had pointed out in his comment, it seems to be an issue of "I need this class for end-game content, but I have fun playing this class via leveling." This has always been a pet peeve of mine. I can find joy in leveling hundreds of Druids but a Paladin aggravates me to no end. It turns it into work rather than fun, even though what I was doing prior doesn't seem like fun either to anyone else. But the bigger pet peeve of this issue is that if you want multiple folks to have multiple classes, but they don't want to level a certain class, it is appealing to them to just insta-90 one of the classes they don't have fun leveling. But this also means they never get the real opportunity to learn the class through leveling like others have, which may either put them at a disadvantage (if it doesn't wind up making people hate them because they have no clue how to play their class, thus kicking them from raids). What's the point of reaching end-game if you don't know how to play the character and therefore no one finds you valueable enough to raid with, thus diminishing the entire reason for insta-leveling? Which is probably why even though I would be tempted to insta-level the classes I don't enjoy leveling with, I would still never do it. If I can't enjoy leveling with them, I can't see myself enjoying the end-game perks of that class either.

But either way, WoW does need to find a good medium that benefits all players. There's always going to be folks angry at any change, because in their perspective it somehow underminds whatever goal they had going, but I think a medium CAN be found.

This was an excellent article! <3 Keep up the great work!

Daniel Gutierrez
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In Guild Wars 2, you can make a new character for PvP only, which is fully competetive (level equalized, all skills unlocked, completely separate set of items than the main game) and play to your heart's content. It seems silly to have to go through 100+ hours of grinding on another class just because you want to use them in PvP.

In contrast, WoW has a long legacy of being fully focused around that PvE character. Buying a fully leveled character feels like trying to do Guild Wars' PvP... but charging for it. I think it would've been less offensive to their core community to see an something like like "$10 to make a new character that matches your highest level character". This would've kept the value in leveling to a more concrete extent.

The example you gave of people who did 7 chars to max level would still feel short-handed... but I think the standard player with 1 to 3 maxed chars would be pretty stoked to get to try out other races/classes in end-game without having to redo the early game again. I know personally I've quit games after maxing one char. I would've stuck around a lot longer if I could do end-game PvP and similar with other classes (which GW2 let me do), but going back to killing basic slimes after defeating world-eating gods is a complete show stopper.

Kevin Maxon
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I don't accept the assumption that leveling is a side-effect of playing WoW. Much of the enjoyment of playing WoW comes from the feeling of a job well done, of getting something you worked for in a way that feels much more fair than the real world. This is why devaluing the levels by providing them through easier means detracts from many players' satisfaction. They worked for that thing, and feel fulfilled having finally gotten it, and then Blizzard devalues it, and by extension their work.

Providing free level-ups would de-emphasize the leveling portion of the game, and put much more weight on the end-game. This is fine. Many designers think the job-well-done kind of game is manipulative/bad/a waste of time. But WoW would have to really soul-search, and find new ways to provide satisfaction to its players. It's already done some of this as it's reworked quests to make them more interesting, tried to make dungeons more streamlined, etc. It's not there yet, though. Without leveling, WoW just isn't as compelling a game as most of the other options out there.

Tony Dormanesh
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Cool article. I like your idea. Some people don't want the "adventure" of leveling up. Those people are ones who would pay to be max level. But with your idea of getting rid of leveling in wow, those players buy the game, jump on and go to some epic raid and level sync, but still have level 1 gear. They still would want to buy a max level character. There would have to be something else than just level sync.

Also in Econ "opportunity cost" isn't the time it takes to get something, it's the value of something you give up. In your example, taking 10 minutes to run around and get herbs, the opportunity cost is the value of the other shit you could've got in those 10 minutes. Like all the xp you could've got by killing mobs.

Michael Joseph
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The hazards of not playing a true game. I'm not suggesting that WoW is inferior to a true game like Starcraft2. I'm just saying that with a true game, your level is your actual skill. Nothing concrete is being devalued by boosting avatar levels in a MMO because those levels don't really signify anything. They just act like keys to a gate.

However if in SC2 players could purchase levels, the ranking system would lose all meaning because it would no longer be backed by player skill.

Levels in WoW are like the accumulation of so many gold stars during your stint at K-5. You did the work, or maybe you gamed the system, maybe you cheated. Whatever the case, only you really care.

SD Marlow
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I got the gist of it and stopped reading because I have a huge problem with this culture of wanting it all. It SHOULD be about game play, but too many people just want to have "that cool character" or "most badass of mechs." For them, it's less about playing and more about collecting. I get it. It's part of that immersive experience. The problem is that it has gone from a trend to a primary source of monetization.

Two examples. The first is MechWarrior Online. You can go into "the lab" and custom build (load-out) a mech. Most of the time the mechs are all basically the same because they are used in the same basic way (same run-n-gun, frag-fest style that ruins every FPS because they treat it like tournament play with no respect for lore and in-world/in-character play...). The problem is that in classic battletech (pre-3050), mechs are old, and while you might be able to make a few minor changes or upgrades, it's unrealistic to replace a mechs entire frame with something lighter, or cover it in rare armor. People are paying to slap-on different weapons systems like they are ordering a pizza, and despite just being a single pilot, they may "own" a dozen or more mechs.

The other example is Star Citizen. I know it's "early" in the development process, and I'm biased against it for separate reasons, but it's the poster child example for buying something cool that is completely removed from actually playing the game and earning it. Most people hate flying and would never go thru the trouble of getting a pilots licence even if the cost of owning a small plane was within reason. But owning a spaceship, even a digital one, appeals to just about every sci-fi fan in the world.

I wonder if we even need traditional games any more. It seems like building an open, detailed world for your custom knight, mech, starship, or whatever is all you really need these days. I used to build model planes and ships when I was younger, but they never looked "movie quality." But today, anyone can build an entire virtual world, create those "poster/wallpaper" shots, and even walk around in fully animated digital diorama. Screw all that questing stuff. I just want the hero moment.

edit: the end of this comment would suggest a view that is 180 degrees from how it started, but it was meant to suggest the source of the "pay rather than play" attitude. Mods and other forms of custom gameplay reinforce the idea of seeing what you want to see vs whatever the games original intent. Regardless of the intent behind paying to level-up, it's a clash between story-driven gameplay and open-world play IN THE SAME SANDBOX. I'm all for having both, but as a separate experience.

Ricky Bankemper
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That is a reactionary conclusion in my opinion. The reasoning for wanting "that cool character" is born from restrictions. Those restrictions, from personal experience, can have a couple cause.

1. Playing with friends

I think everyone has had this experience in some form or another. You and your friend are not close enough in level range to play together. So what usually happens in this scenario? The higher level players creates a new character to level up with the new player or the higher level player power levels the new player. I have seen some games scale the higher level player down to the level of the new player (like Everquest 2 or Guild Wars 2). However, it is usually just used as another form of power leveling (aside from GW2 which doesn't really have a point to power level).

I am sure there are other solutions players have come up with, those are the most common I see. Regardless, it is distracting the players from their goals. The higher level players is looking to keep doing what he is doing, just with his friend. The new player wants to join in what his friend has been talking about and have fun in this new world. However, the game isn't designed to handle this.

You are suppose to "earn" your way to content and apparently joining your friends.

I can recall a time a group of my friends wanted me to play Everquest with them. They talked about it all the time when we were all together and I always felt left out. When I decided to try to join them, the game was extremely top heavy in terms of levels. I was often the only person in a zone or level range for that matter. It was incredibly boring, lonely, and also a much different experience than they had. They started around the time the game released. So they leveled up together and with other new players at the time.

I totally wanted to earn my "badass" character, but it is completely lame that a number called level restricted me from joining my friends while they were developing their badass characters.

2. Experience with the Genre

At a certain point, the mmorpg genre is established enough to the point of tedium. Being low level is extremely boring and predictable. You can slap any sort of flavor onto your fetch quests, but it is still a fetch quest and not a Boss fight. Where is it stated that you must earn your right to challenge a boss only after completely enough fetch quests as deemed worthy?

This was okay in early days of Everquest and World of Warcraft, as the game and genre was very new. The mechanics such as crafting, questing, pvp, guilds, classes, and dungeons that have become staples of the genre were still being learned and explored.

I can predict the experience now. In any new mmorpg, I will be in a starting area until roughly level 10-15. Then the first dungeon will open up and the final quest of the starter zone will lead me to the major city of the game. I will explore the city, get basic quests to guide me to the pvp, crafting, banker, and guild master. After that it is quest hub to quest hub.

This experience, it largely uninteresting to me at this point. However, raiding and completing content with a group of friends is still appealing.

#2 could be fixed with a return to actual world depth (like early Everquest)

Sorry, this was a bit of a ramble

SD Marlow
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Extra Credits just posted part 1 of a video specific too your 2nd point.

I understand your first point, and have also felt like the odd man out when *finally* joining-in on a game, but both arguments focus on the players ease at playing any kind of RPG. The leveling system lowers the leaning curve for those that need it, and games should absolutely support a shallow end of the pool section that is separate from the core of the game.

None of that negates my "reactionary" comment about digital collectability.

Ricky Bankemper
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Nice Link, I really miss that about EverQuest. "reactionary" was probably not the word I was looking for, but I do genuinely believe the majority of players want to earn their characters.

I would like to challenge the need to ease players into a RPG, or any game for that matter. When you look at the MOBA genre, it has an extremely brutal entry point and learning curve and yet are the most popular genre in gaming. They only ease into the game that is provided to you is being matched with bots (which are really frustrating to play with) or lower skilled players (possibly that is, could still be higher skilled players on new accounts).

Maybe MOBAs would be even more popular with a friendly entry point, but I find it interesting how it can be so brutal and have such popularity. When all industry standards would suggest you shouldn't do.

I just find myself sick of all these shallow "epic" experiences being provided. I would rather just skip it all and get to the interesting aspect of the game( these days anyway, while Everquest was boring until I caught up. It was still a magical world that I wished to enjoy... just no one around until later to do so)

1-90 in Wow ultimately doesn't mean what 1-60 did in Everquest, or 1-60 in vanilla Wow. Leveling isn't really the journey or achievement it use to be. I would like to see games focus on a return to that.

Mmo talk brings out the ramble in me. It is hard to condense my thoughts on them.

Steve Lieb
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I'd only comment that part of the problem lies in the inherent contradictions of a game trying to address both PVE play and PVP play. I honestly don't understand from whence game the paradigm that these things have to be unified in this style of game.

PVE is a fundamentally cooperative game concept where leveling and gear drops are both a mark of progress and a method to gate content to players who have a commensurate level of skill/experience. Players compete against the game systems, the environment, timers, etc to accomplish goals in a generally cooperative fashion.

PVP is a naturally competitive, red-in-tooth-and-claw zero-sum game approach.

Both systems are of course about playing a character and deploying their abilities optimally, but (I'd argue) that PVE is more cerebral and PVP more visceral. Certainly elements cross over - no matter how carefully you've planned-through that boss-encounter, you still have to execute 'not standing in fire', but PVP is almost completely about reaction, with little opportunity to plan aside from prioritization, etc.

Is it just a matter of trying to lump these things together where so many games fail?

I always liked the Age of Conan development concept (I don't know whether it ever was actually functional) that PVP was a bar-brawl, where EVERYONE was equalized at the same level, gear didn't matter, and it was purely about using the basic abilities of the class vs other people doing the same.

Bob Johnson
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I would make characters have a limited lifespan. And yes add wear and tear. End the endless leveling treadmill.

I would get rid of raiding as some sort of "separate" activity. I didn't like the raiding in that what's the point of getting all this new stuff if the next expansion makes it all pointless? And I never liked the warping to this or that separate space although I know it was about logistics and limits of tech as much as anything.

And I would let players affect the world. I would create systems rather canned experiences. The world wouldn't be static. And no 2 servers would be alike. Random worlds. Terrain that can be changed. Buildings and weapons that can be constructed and quests and lore that changes over time. ...with the players behind it all.

That's the next real cool mmo.

SD Marlow
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Actually, aging and wear-n-tear make for the perfect de-leveling mechanic, but I think it's an idea that is only now being taken seriously, so don't expect much for the next year or two.

Robert Hand
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MUDs have been using aging, wear-and-tear, and level loss for decades. The effect is an actual reason for the XP/Level mechanic existing. It makes level a Rating rather than an Odometer, and leads towards a very competitive and compelling experience.

Todd Boyd
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The original Guild Wars was awesome in this respect. Max level was 20, and that never increased with expansions. Depending on where you started, you could reach that very quickly. However, it was your SKILLS (of which you can only carry 8, 1 potentially being an Elite skill) that set you apart from other players. Equipment mattered to a degree, but nowhere near as much as it matters in WoW and other gear-grinding games... it was mostly about the aesthetics and some very slight bonuses they gave you (though, depending on your build, those slight bonuses were the difference between being able to pull off the build and the build being seriously hampered [or completely unworkable]).

Skills could be captured from monsters you kill, or purchased. (Even Elite skills could be purchased if they had already been unlocked by any of your other characters.) However, you couldn't just run around all at once and capture tons of skills; you had to buy a sort of "placeholder" skill (a Signet of Capture, I think) that took up a skill slot and was replaced with the captured skill after the fact. Want to capture two skills? Well, your skill bar now has 6 usable skills and 2 that do nothing until you use them to capture new skills. Want to capture one at a time? Fine, but you have to port back to town, get a new capture, and then walk your happy ass back to where you needed to get in order to find the monster that possessed the skill you were looking for.

PVP players started at lv20 automatically, and their skills could be purchased independently from your PVE characters. They even used to have pre-built skillsets you could start a PVP character with, including elites, so that you could get rolling right away with at least a workable build. PVE characters could PVP, but not the other way around.

Steve Lieb
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I have to admit that I was astonished that ArenaNet decided to forego this essential characteristic that made GW different than every other game, for GW2.
Oh certainly, I read all the post-facto rationalizations about it being 'harder to balance' and that everything devolved to a FotM anyway but the fact is that tic-tac-toe and checkers ARE "perfectly balanced" - I also don't see a lot of mmo's based on them.

Jack Kerras
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There are two big things I liked about this article.

One, the 'all your friends have a complete toy but they have to wait for you to finish building your model' deal. That's absolutely a big problem leveling.

Two, the 'you are stuck on a tutorial island until you can hit max level' concept. It's true. You cannot take part in the lion's share of the game's content until you have fully completed the leveling process.

Here's the deal: I've been playing MMORPGs for many, many years. More than I want to go back and count, now. In the early days, MMO systems varied pretty wildly, so the fact that you had to level through the entire game and figure your shit out made a lot of sense.

At this point, MMOs are pretty stabilized. Save for a few notable examples (EVE, GW2, etc.), you talk to an NPC, kill things/find things/go place, and talk to the NPC again in order to get your XP.

The fact that some folks regard the above repeated hundreds and often thousands of times as 'an adventure' or 'content' or 'a story' is fucking staggering.

I've been doing this for a long, long time. I understand that in order to maintain a playerbase, you cannot kill your players over and over and over again as they learn the ropes, and that as games like World of Warcraft have begun to become a more mainstream part of gaming culture (and gaming itself a more ubiquitous part of our culture in a larger sense), we have gained an awful, awful lot of people who don't really understand how games are played.

I launch an MMORPG and immediately know how to play it. It takes me no time at all. I notice differences from the usual and absorb them and understand the ramifications of these divergences quickly because I have lots of experience, but that's because I've been doing the same shit for the past fifteen years.

I realize that not everyone does that. I know that not everyone wants challenges that will kill them and their friends over and over and over again until you can finally, finally overcome a those challenges. A lot of people want strike dude -> get loot, and very little else. That's pretty much the universal rule for early-game content in MMOs; it's easy and that's all. It's not going to kill you unless you seriously fuck it up, and this is a good thing because it keeps people who aren't hugely experienced playing the game through to the end.

I don't fucking need that.

I play these games specifically to do difficult instances and learn crazy bossfights with lots of mechanics and figure out how to haul through it the fastest and maximize gear progression. I like to do things that are hard. I like one-healing a fight that usually takes two healers, or killing a boss so fast it just misses a whole phase, or doing other crazy shit that ninety percent of playerbases wouldn't even conceive of.

You know what a level 90 in WoW would be worth to me, if I were invested in playing WoW? Hours of my life. I make $60 at my job in no time flat, and I'd absolutely, positively pay $60 to get anywhere from thirty to a hundred hours of my life back. That shit is a no-brainer. Yeah, I'll usually play through the whole game once and see some content and get my bearings.

But I hear about games like Wildstar, whose devs insist that it's important for me to spend anywhere from 180-200 hours in a leveling curve, and it drives me up the wall.

I was very, very excited about Wildstar.

I will absolutely not buy it if I have to spend a work month and a half playing the game before I can experience content which is allowed to challenge me. That shit is ridiculous, not to mention the fact that every MMO in existence (save WoW, which is a statistical anomaly in the breadth of its sheer financial success) has a -tiny- sub-max playerbase six weeks in.

You know what's huge fun? Queueing for a low-level dungeon as a DPS in FFXIV.

Because you can queue for that, and then you can go out shooting or see a movie or cook a four-course meal, and then come home and take a nap, and then play a game on a handheld or read a book for a few hours before you go to bed properly. Then, when you wake up, you'll STILL BE IN QUEUE. And that's a successful MMO.

All those leveling dungeons mean nothing weeks into the game, since you'll never find a group for them. All that group content almost immediately becomes inaccessible to regular folks. Then, they get to spend literally hundreds of hours grinding the same bullshit quests that have been in MMOs since the Dawn of MMOs before they can actually meet up with their friends.

The fact that leveling exists in its current form drives me crazy. It is an enormous hurdle to leap over if you want to play with your friends. Enormous. Call of Duty and Battlefield wouldn't -dare- require that you grind levels against bots for two hundred hours before letting you loose in The Real Game. They don't even require that you play just a few hours of single-player to learn game mechanics first, because lots and lots of people just wouldn't care enough to get over the hump.

Jack Kerras
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I had to add this, apologies for the double-post (and the huge textwall):

MMOs are bad at delivering stories.

I had to spend many, many hours fetching random things and killing stuff in The Old Republic, and despite the fact that the 'story' in TOR is purportedly one of the best MMO stories out there, I'm still just killing things and fetching things for hours and hours of my life.

In the same time as it took me to level a character in TOR, I read Shadow of the Torturer, Claw of the Conciliator, Sword of the Lictor, Citadel of the Autarch, and The Urth of the New Sun.

The sheer amount of density in content I pulled out of that same number of hours spent reading could never, -ever- hope to be fit into a video game. No one can write an interesting 200-hour story. IT's uncommon to manage an interesting 15-hour story! And if they could, then animating it all and making it fully voiced and giving the player something to contribute in every sense without big sacrifices in either player agency or story integrity -is fucking impossible-.

You know what's a great way to spend a few hours absorbing a wonderful story? Reading the Hyperion Cantos.

You know what's a great way to waste a shitload of time chopping wood and carrying water with a veil of story stretched so thinly over the top that you can barely tell it's there? Leveling in an MMO.

The best examples of stories I've seen in games lately were in STALKER: Shadow of Chernobyl and Dark Souls. You know why? They didn't lead me to the story by the nose. It's largely ambient. It's easy to miss. If you pay attention, there's a depth of richness there that no amount of MMO quest-exposition could hope to match, and THAT is something I would call rewarding to find.

Hitting 90 isn't a rewarding adventure. It's a pile of time I spent doing shit I've done over and over again for years. $60 is a few hours' work; I'd rather Blizzard took that than 60 hours of my life. By a lot.

I love playing MMOs, but I hate leveling. I wish I could hate it straight out of existence.

Ricky Bankemper
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I give you bonus points for mentioning Dark Soul's excellent story.

I agre mostly with everything you have said when looking at the current model for mmos today. The worlds are bullshit and no body cares. As players, we have no meaningful interaction with the world.

I believe I could come to love the leveling experience with more risk in the world. I don't believe in holding players hands. MOBA games such as Dota 2 give a basic tutorial and then you are getting your ass handed to you for months while you try to learn. I would have likely stuck with more mmos if it was possible to fail.

A friend and I used a Wow 7 day return trial when MoP came out. We were dueling each other as the Tank and Healer during boss fights in Uldaman and defeating the bosses. I could literally go afk for 5 mins and only be at half health when I returned.

The point of leveling is progression. What progress I'm I seeing if my character is always godly? I would pull half the instance and only then would I require healing (but my healer's mana wouldn't even move, he tried to go OOM but couldn't)

I am not sure who finds that experience fun. MMO worlds use to require thought which would help you progress. Too much has been put into convenience which has slaughtered the genre.

Where I differ is that I would rather enjoy the full experience of a game. If I deem a portion of a game a waste of time, I don't want to pay to get past that part of it. I would rather it be improved or removed.