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Amidst the blizzard of buzz surrounding Battle for Azeroth, the next World of Warcraft expansion, there’s a bit of news trickling out from the alpha that could have serious implications for MMO design.
At the moment, all crafting professions in the alpha are capped at a maximum of 200 skill points, down from 800. Bear in mind that this information is, of course, subject to change. But for the moment, 200 does appear to be the new endgame cap for professions, taking Blizzard’s “stat squish” strategy to a new level.
In a bid to combat mudflation, each successive expansion has seen Blizzard re-budgets the statistics on gear such that we’re not dealing with an endgame where a common chestpiece gives +1.5 billion Stamina, say. Over time, this has the effect of making the gear progression curve more and more flat, but also preventing too much of a stat explosion.
What Blizzard just did with WoW’s professions, however, is a touch bolder. And it raises a compelling question. What if Blizzard decided to squish the biggest stat of all: the experience level?
When Battle for Azeroth launches in August, the level cap will rise to a staggering 120, double the original cap at launch fourteen years ago. The ever rising experience level cap is a kind of death clock for these games and constitutes the outermost design limits of the D&D-inspired system on which they’re based. Even “epic levels” capped out at level 40 in D&D’s third edition--at least, officially. These days, for 5e, even that has been replaced with a feat-based system. There’s only so far you can go with scaling player power until you reach a point of absurdity (indeed, level 40 was considered to be on par with a deity in an old D&D campaign).
"The ever rising experience level cap is a kind of death clock for these games."
Stat-squishing a la Blizzard is a temporary fix at best because eventually you’ll have to worry about lower levels feeling less rewarding to advance through. In most online games the sense that a single level makes all the difference is, perhaps, the single most rewarding feeling to emerge directly from the mechanics. If it stops feeling meaningful to go from level 10 to 11, say, you might just lose people--especially when you have 110(!) more levels to go before you reach the cap.
In short, though most MMOs are based on a classic tabletop roleplaying model, the latter simply wasn’t designed for infinite expansion at scale. You can give players guidelines for scaling levels at their individual gaming table, providing shape to homebrewed rules, but you simply can’t do this for thousands or millions of people at once in an online game. You need consistency and scale, and continual MMO expansion must eventually sacrifice the latter for the former. Providing a fun endgame experience requires you to make your players feel more powerful than they were in the previous expansion, but that must always borrow against the experience of neophyte players levelling their first characters.
Furthermore, even stat squishing can only forestall mudflation for so long. The numbers in WoW have ballooned. My character can crit for over two million damage with one attack, sans buffs. The big endgame mount gold-sink was once 16,000 gold eight years ago. Now it’s over 500k.
This all leaves the nuclear option hinted at by Blizzard’s proposed profession changes. Why not simply hit the reset button and make the new level cap...60 once again?
The challenge here is mainly in the marketing. While in-game profession ranks aren’t top-billeted in advertisements for MMO expansions, a level cap increase is the marquee item. It sells that wonderful feeling that comes from dinging and levelling up. Telling players their level is going down, however carefully the math is managed, is just going to put up a significant psychological hurdle. The compromise may be to bust players down to, say, level 55 when the level cap is adjusted to 60. But for long time players the conversion will feel weird, to say the least.
It may also be the only way to save the game from itself. WoW’s Legion expansion was critically acclaimed, and there’s a decent chance that Battle for Azeroth, with its back-to-basics focus on faction conflict, may get a lot of new people in the door and help the game recover lost subscribers. But retaining them and planning for the next decade remains a concern. WoW can keep going, but what’s a new player to think when they’re looking at a level cap of 160 and a hard core of players who’ve been at it since 2004? The game simply won’t be as inviting as it was to newbies a decade ago.
It’d certainly be a change, but one that the game is already well set-up for. A recent patch saw Blizzard add level scaling throughout the game, ensuring that no matter what zone you’re in (within broad limits) the content will always scale to match your level, freeing you to go pretty much anywhere you want while levelling. By breaking each zone on WoW’s massive map free from previously strict level restrictions, they’ve removed one of the bigger obstacles to lowering the level cap. The idea is to give players “choice” when levelling, so they can go where they like, more or less when they like. Scaling down the level cap would merely widen that sense of choice as there would likely be fewer zones total required for reaching max level. Whole expansions could, in theory, be skipped.
All in all, it’d help make the game less daunting to new players to tell them “you could go here or here,” rather than “you have to go everywhere.” I’m well aware that this is, to a degree, possible in the current system. But scaling the level cap down to a more reasonable level would enhance that sense of choice significantly, while diminishing a critical deterrent for new players.
Declension is an a part of life for MMOs (and, indeed, seems to be the way of the genre itself, at least in the West), but Blizzard is in a unique position to challenge the idea that runaway growth and mudflation is inevitable.
If I wanted to be extra cheeky, I might suggest that the professions change was merely a trial balloon for a larger update along these lines: to see if one can turn back time on the inevitable statistical decay of online games.
Katherine Cross is a Ph.D student in sociology who researches anti-social behavior online, and a gaming critic whose work has appeared in numerous publications.