Whenever I want to switch MMOs, be it because I'm 'done' with the game or just want a change of scenery, I always run into the levels. I know why levels are there, but the whole idea of "Get through the leveling, the game starts at [insert max level here]." just turns me off. Lately I´ve been thinking on levels and possible alternatives, but haven´t really gotten that far. Nonetheless I´ll try to sum up my ideas anyway.
The definition of leveling: Gaining arbitrary experience to gain certain benefits, like unlocking content and skills, by doing either exploration, crafting, quests or killing monsters and players, with the ultimate goal of reaching a maximum level and do the hardest content the game has, the endgame (be it PvE or PvP).
First of all I asked myself (and others) why leveling was there. There were a lot of answers, all coming to basically the same conclusion: The endgame content is aimed at players who have learned to play well and have enough stat/skill points. Basically the game is gated in a way that you first have to put in an arbitrairy amount of time (the minimum time to level as implemented by developers) through mostly very easy content with badly designed quests often accompanied by a story that ranges from bad (general quests) to average/good (the overarching (zone) story quests).
Eventually I narrowed it down to a few questions I wanted answered, so here they are:
- What is the reason for levels to be implemented?
- What are the alternatives?
- What are the downfalls of either having levels and having an alternative way of progression?
The reasons for implementing levels as far as I have figured out are quite apparent. Leveling is the most well-known way of character progression and as one levels one can venture further into the world, overcome harder challenges and know that your avatar has become stronger. It's also something that keeps the player in the game. Reaching level 30 can be your goal today, tomorrow it might be 32 or even 33, and so on. I believe this mindset leads to people wanting to reach the maximum level and once there starting to enjoy the game. I know there's a lot of people that also enjoy the leveling, but there's always the 'endgame' lurking around the corner of every new level gained.
So what alternatives can there be? Are there alternatives that lead to people being able to enter something like a raid zone and do something, but maybe not as good or efficient as someone who has been playing longer or is more skilled. Alternatives which I thought might be viable, either alone or in combination with other progression mdoels, are the following:
- Gear level progression. Something recently seen in GW2 (play more with a weapon to unlock all its skills) and in the future to be seen in TESO (play more with a certain armour/weapon type to become better with those). At times this might feel grindy, but if it's this kind of system without the classic leveling there will at least be no gated content. Sure, you might be better or even be able to do something at all once you invested time to progress your character enough with a certain armour/weapon time, but there's nothing stopping you from trying and possibly even doing things the creators of the game deemed impossible. Also do note that I'm not talking about stats here, but about skill levels in using certain gear types.
- Stat progression. Something often used in the endgame, mainly you get new items every time and they have the possibility of having better stats, often depending on where you find them and the difficulty of the place you found it in. Seen a lot in hack and slash games the likes of Diablo and Torchlight. A huge pro to this is your character feels more powerful with every stat increase.
- Skill progression. Something that came to me when thinking of Guild Wars, the first one. Basically it means with more time played/time invested to complete certain challenges, people get new skills. Your character might not even become stronger by having those, but they will get something. Especially when a game has a lot of skills that can be mixed and matched at will for different purposes you will get a lot of theorycrafting. Imagine all skills in World of Warcraft, but no class restrictions and you can get them all by completing certain challenges. That'd give endless possibilities, especially when there's a limit to the amount you can use during a fight (a la TSW, 8 active and 8 passive if I recall correctly). Just keep in mind the limit might be higher/lower depending on design.
Those are all I could think of that can in any way be viable whilst playing long-term and with the possibility of adding content.
So what are the downfalls of each of those systems?
- Classic leveling locks away a lot of content and always gives the idea of having to move forward, not really letting you enjoy the game and the content currently progressing through. Also it makes a lot of the content irrelevant once reaching a certain level. We're seeing some initiative to tackle the problem (GW2 downleveling, RIFT mentoring, I'm sure there are others), but it still makes a lot of the content useless.
- Gear level progression gives a system that might be unforgiving for newer players when exploring the world, as there might not be clear indicators on which challenges are doable, which are easy and which are very hard. Also people with more time spent into the game have more options and for a new person to come in and wanting to be competitive they would probably have to focus on one set of gear and not on different sets. This of course doesn't matter if it's about casual players. Also character progression might not be as noticeable.
- Stat progressions really adds another gear-grind and locks away content behind arbitrary barriers of needing certain stats. It basically has the same problems as leveling, but leaves it open for players to attempt content that might not be totally impossible because of a slider that's further to the right for certain monsters. It would probably also lead to huge stat differences between people, which is bad for PvP (imbalance/gear-based) and PvE (limiting potential grouping playerbase to those who have comparable gear)
- Skill progression has as a downfall that it will be hard to balance a huge amount of skills as well as being highly sensitive to Flavour of the Month builds, where everyone competitive runs the same build until something better is found. Then again this might not even be the worst.
Those are my thoughts on the subject. What do you think? Any new insights? Is the classic leveling really dated or is it just me wanting to enjoy the full game immediately (and is that bad)? It turned out to be a lot longer than intended.
TL;DR: Is leveling as we know it a dated design? What are viable alternatives?