Sunday, January 21, 2018

I Wish I Was A Little Bit Taller : Level Scaling in World of Warcraft

World of Warcraft has always had the reputation of being an easy game but all things are relative. Back in 2004 the wider gaming public, if they thought about MMORPGs at all, considered the genre to be so appallingly slow and grindy that few outside the niche cared to waste time there. WoW changed all that - at a cost.

The journey began with a revelation: you could level up by wandering the world like the Littlest Hobo, blowing into town after town, righting wrongs and solving mysteries. Out went hiding in a corner, chain-killing trash mobs by the tens of thousands, praying you didn't get run over by a train; in came questing 'til your fingers bled while generally debasing yourself before NPCs with punctuation marks for hats.

Over the years the format refined itself into oblivion. By the time a decade or so had passed we had soloists in Heirloom gear one-shotting Elites and tanks pulling entire dungeons while the healer watched Netflix on another screen. Or so they tell me. I only know from hearsay. I missed both the sublime and the ridiculous.

My time in WoW was straight down the middle. The concept of the "quest hub" was already old hat and leveling by doing endless tasks for NPCs too lazy to walk to the corner of the street had become the norm in most MMOs.  There were already murmurs of discontent.

Conversely, I didn't stick around in Azeroth long enough to see it slide into self-parody. I turned up somewhere in the middle of Wrath of the Lich King and left before whatever came next. While I was there the leveling game felt solid enough; occasionally it may even have run a little slow.

But then, I was playing my first character, or at least my first collective of first characters. I never leveled anyone high  enough to benefit from heirlooms and when I returned, off and on, I mostly pottered around the starting zones on a free account.

Eventually even that proved no protection against out-of-control power creep. By the second decade of the 21st century even the very lowest levels were showing the strain. The moment any character I played left the extended tutorial of their racial starting instance it became apparent that "challenge" wasn't what the leveling game was about any more.

Last year Blizzard must have decided the situation was unsustainable. The population had migrated into the canopy of a bloated endgame, the final, meaningful ten levels of the current expansion perched precariously atop the etiolated and rotting trunks of every abandoned expansion and associated "endgame" that came before.

Eying, no doubt, the apparent success other MMOs, particularly Elder Scrolls Online and Guild Wars 2, in keeping much of their older content permanently in play, the decision was made to do something similar for Azeroth. Or to it. The practicalities were ironed out in the Legion expansion, where for the first time it was possible to have the mobs match you level for level, regardless what order you chose to progress through the zones on offer.

That must have gone well because this week that process was rolled out across the game.  As the patch notes to update 7.3.5 put it, it's now A Scaling World:
"Every zone in Kalimdor, Eastern Kingdoms, Outland, Northrend, Pandaria, and Draenor now use the level scaling system introduced in Legion. This new scaling system greatly increases the amount of options you have when deciding where to quest and when to move on to the next zone."
 And for good measure:
"All corresponding dungeons and the rewards therein now scale as well."
I logged in to take a look at this brave new world. There's only so much you can tell when your highest available character is locked at level 20 by the contingencies of not paying a subscription but the difference was immediately apparent all the same.

Waking up in a comfortable dwarven cottage outside Ironforge, the first thing I noticed was that everything in the Dun Morogh foothills conned even or thereabouts. All those leopards and boars in the forest, every elemental around the lake, the whole lot of them. From memory those would normally have been around level eight or nine. Now they came at me in the late teens.

And come at me they did. This formerly safe area for a mighty level twenty was suddenly somewhere I needed to be on my guard while traveling. Not merely because of the inconvenience of being attacked when I would previously have gone unmolested but because every one of these creatures is now capable of putting up a fight.

I wouldn't go so far as to say I was in any real danger but it didn't take me long to realize that if I wanted to get anywhere in a hurry I'd have to avoid drawing agro. True, it only took three or four arrows to bring down a wolf or a boar but every battle whittled a bit off my health or chipped the paintwork on my mechanical rabbit and if there's one way that WoW still feels old school it's in how long it takes to get your health back.

A quick visit to the forums showed reaction to be mixed. There are clearly two factions in play: those who like leveling and found the situation over the last few years unbearable and those who were more than happy to be able to one-shot their way to any content that they needed. I have sympathy for both sides.

I love leveling. In any MMORPG where I stick around for a while I level up anything from two or three to twenty or thirty characters. I've complained before about how the sheer speed of leveling in WoW sucks a lot of the entertainment out of the lower levels and I'm very pleased indeed to see that rectified.

On the other hand, it is very possible to have too much of a good thing. The reason I never hit the level cap in WoW on my first run through was that after several months, which is how long it took me to get into the 70s, I was fed up of running errands for NPCs.

According to many angry comments on the forum, questing is now the only viable means of leveling a character other than by buying a $60 level boost in the cash shop (which is exactly what most of those commenters believe is the reason behind Blizzard's changes). Dungeon xp is reported to have been nerfed through the floor, although whether by an actual change to the amount rewarded or simply by the hugely increased difficulty that comes with the scaling effect is a matter of conjecture.

Again by report, quests that require the killing of Elite mobs or the completion of content flagged for groups now actually require a group to complete. Which would be fine if there were groups to be had, but the complaint is that nothing has changed, or is likely to change, about the paucity of population in the leveling game. Content that could happily be soloed last week is now likely to go untouched, or so is the fear.

As an interested but largely uninvolved observer I can afford to sit back and watch how this develops. At worst it will enhance my low-level pottering. I already feel the urge to make a new character and try it out. I have to say, though, that if Daybreak decided to do something like this to EQ or EQ2 I would be incandescent with rage. i am very much not a fan of any "one size fits all" solution to problems that may not even be perceived as problems by everyone.

EQ2 currently enjoys the best of several worlds when it comes to older content. If there are specific quests you need to finish you can keep your own level, blitz through grey cons, getting no agro and one-shotting everything. I prefer to quest that way. The oft-repeated mantra that outleveling a zone means you can never complete the quests there seems completely paradoxical to me. Questing is more fun when you can concentrate on the plot and the dialog and forget about the fighting.

If you disagree with that opinion you're free to mentor down to whatever level gives you the challenge you feel most suits your tastes. If you want to help a friend who's leveling up you can mentor to them or if you want to solo you can visit the Chronomancer and self-mentor.

Mentored characters are more powerful than characters of the "real" equivalent level but if you want to be a real purist as you level you can level-lock your character whenever you feel you might be about to outgrow content you haven't finished. Call or dismiss in your Mercenary for even more granularity.

There are so many ways and means and styles to leveling in EQ2 that I feel spoiled for any other system. I would always opt for a toggle that puts the choice in the hands of the player but that isn't how Blizzard rolls.

I feel this particular change will take a while to shake out. Stargrace already reports changes to the way it affects old raid content. I'm looking forward to reading more bloggers' impressions, like Bhelgast's and Atherne's. For now, I would say my own impression is broadly favorable but I really don't have the perspective to make a meaningful judgment. Maybe when I finally get around to reactivating my account to play through Legion.

It's a big change, though, that's for sure.


  1. Finally a song reference I get easily!

    I'm in no rush to return to WoW - and the experience in EQ2 levelling is so much fun. The pace of new skills and abilities keeps it fresh and exciting. And there is so much to do.

    But much of that is because it is new to me, and WoW is not. I have done that journey too many times already.

    1. Yeah, I should have saved that one for a post about gnomes really but it kind of fits.

  2. Not that i plan to return to WoW. But i think this is a good change, if done properly. My line of thought is from playing ESO since a while.

    At launch it had a traditional leveling system, along with a really annoying instancing system, which seperated players who already killed a boss in a place from those who didn't. It was a mess and drove me in no time. Luckily they did a lot of rework.

    Now you can play together, and thanks to the scaling system, any content always is relevant. No matter which level you are, you can get a good fight, good XP and level specific gear. The same also is true for GW2. (Yes, both have some oddities, but it's easy to live with them, so i guess they are fine. ) This means that no matter which character my wife just uses and which i just use, which level we each are, we can do things together. Nobody feels like sacrificing anything, be it gear or XP, nobody feels like he or she is taking advantage of the other.

    Maybe i am an oddity. Even in the blogsphere here am aware of quite many people who rarely or never are in guilds and only very rarely, if ever, play in group. But for me, who appreciates the multiplayer component of MMOs, not having some mechanics working against having fun in multiplayer is a big thing.

    And considering that one of my biggest gripes in WoW in the three months i played also was that i had to juggle characters to have them in "useable range" to play with different friends, it's really just unfortunately "a few" (e.g. 13) years too late.

    1. Unfortunately, it's nothing at all like ESO's system. See my comment below.

    2. The problem with WoW's scaling, at least from what I read, is that it isn't particularly flexible so many of the "playing with friends" issues may still exist, while at the same time there is no critical mass of players leveling up to allow for the spontaneous creation of pick-up groups as needed. ESO, GW2 and EQ2 have all found successful solutions to these problems so it seems a pity Blizzard wasn't more radical. Then again, "radical" is the last word I'd associate with Blizzard. They may well make more changes over time that will smooth the rough corners off the current experience. Let's hope so.

  3. Hm, that's something I hadn't considered - with all of the old world scaling from 10-60 now, you could quest through both of the base continents with a starter account locked at level 20 if you wanted...

    1. No, sadly, you can't. Minimum level requirements for zones are still in place e.g. zone that was in 25-30 bracket now scales in 25-60 bracket.

    2. This is something I wasn't really clear about. Hard to see from level 20. Thanks for clearing it up.

  4. ESO and SWTOR have converted me to the idea that level-scaling is the way of the future. I think it's a hugely positive thing, which is why I'm so disappointed in how unambitious Blizzard has been with it.

    Despite the headlines, they haven't really added level-scaling to WoW. Not in any meaningful way. They've just slightly extended the level range of each zone. Older content is still completely trivial and pointless from the perspective of high level characters, and the minimum levels of zones are completely unchanged (so Shintar's suggestion above of playing through all the classic zones on a starter account is not possible).

    It could have been so much more. At least you can skip Outland now. That's something.

    As far as difficulty and speed, I haven't played since the changes, so I can't comment from personal experience. An increase in difficulty is likely to be positive, though knowing the WoW community I expect it's a lot smaller than reported.

    As for leveling speed, though? That's probably a no win scenario, I expect. Before, it was so breakneck at low levels you'd outlevel a zone before even finishing the main story, and that's without heirlooms. It was a mess.

    But even at that speed you were looking at potentially weeks to reach max level unless you employed some power-leveling shenanigans. And now it's going to be even longer? I'm not sure how many people will have the patience for that.

    The fact is 110 (soon to be 120) levels is a crazy amount, no matter how you tune it. I like leveling, but even I'm not sure I'll ever level another WoW character to cap, especially now that I have every class at or near max level.

    1. From what I can see, they've done rather more than just extend the level range of the zone. Everything now seems to match the exact level of your character to within a level or two. I've played two characters, level 20 in Dun Morogh and level 14 in Darkshire, and I have yet to see a single mob that wasn't 18-20 in the first or 13-15 in the second. Until, that is, my level 14 dinged 15, whereupon the next mob in sight, which had previously conned as 14, conned 15 instead. If the zones were simply in 10 or 20 level bands i'd expect to see mobs fall below my level as I leveled up but they just seem to keep pace. I need more experimental evidence though, especially at higher levels, to be certain of how it's working.

      I'm fine with a lot of levels. In fact, as I've said before, I'd like infinite levels. I'd happily take an xp bar that just filled and emptied with a ding at the end forever, as used actually happens in GW2 if you don't buy either of the expansions. i'm very easily pleased like that! Having to keep leveling to get to level-locked content, though, is another matter. I love the journey probably more than the next player but even I want to know there's a destination at the end that I might eventually reach.

    2. What I mean is that in practical terms, extending the level range of each zone is all this update really accomplishes. Mobs only match your level within a relatively narrow band of levels. It's still possible to over or under-level zones.

      I'm plenty fond of infinite leveling in games that have been designed with it in mind. Again, TSW had my favourite progression system of any game to date. But when you've got a specific level cap, and all of the developers' and players' attention is focused on it, it's probably best to let people reach it in something approaching a reasonable time frame.

  5. I went in just now with a level 21 Rogue in Darkshire and a 30 Feral Druid in Strangle thorn to see how things went for them. The Rogue had no trouble with up to three mobs, while the Druid lost about half her health in equal level mob fights. The druid has multiple heals, so she's not going to be in trouble. As you say, watch what you aggro. Running more dungeons at various levels might be the real point of interest.

    1. Looking at the forums (rarely a reliable guide to anything, I know) it does seem that dungeons are one of the problems. Dungeons long ago ceased to be places to adventure in WoW; they've been a leveling mechanic for so long I wonder how many people currently playing even think of them as anything else? Slower runs with proper pulling and crowd control would work for me but I'm not the target audience.

    2. I took a level 38 Paladin into Dire Maul Warpwood Quarter after my comment. The tank was super careful pulling and nobody died. I’m not anyone’s target audience, but I love dungeons. The changes have made them even more appealing. Can’t wait to try more.

  6. I've never been much of a fan of level scaling in games. If I made my way to level cap, I really shouldn't be getting aggro from things in the newbie zone. It just takes away some of the feeling of progression, power and achievement that I'm still being attacked by the smallest rabbit or rat, despite all the time and effort involved in leveling.

    I also hate the fact there's never a peaceful and safe location in the world if everything aggros. It makes exploring a pain. GW2 was built around level scaling, and the most frustrating thing about the game is constantly having to dodge everything when moving through a zone since everything scales.

    I think that FFXIV's FATE system had a good idea. You can outlevel a zone, but if you want to come back and do the in-world events in a lower level area, you must level sync down to participate. It's kinda the best of both worlds.

    On the other hand, it sounded like leveling in WoW went way too far the other direction. It's been a long time since I've played WoW, but I remember leveling my little Monk. I was surprised at how I outleveled areas quickly as I quested (and I only quested because that's what I was there to do), and how easily thing died.

    Something needed to be done, I agree. But I'm not sure that full on level scaling was the answer. I'm not a WoW player, though, so I don't have a dog in this race. I doubt I'd go back to try the game again, though, knowing about the level scaling change.

    1. I'm ambivalent about it myself, as is probably apparent from the post. I would always opt for putting the choice in the hands of the player, as you describe FFXIV's FATEs doing and as EQ2 does.

      GW2 is an interesting case. Although the world nominally scales you to the level of the map (downwards only) in the original game (Core Tyria) that still leaves most characters wildly overpowered in any map more than a few levels below their full level. Not to the extent EQ2's mentoring does but still enough to make most open world content significantly easier than it was when you met it on the way up.

      That advantage vanishes from Orr onwards and I think it's one of the big reasons both Orr and HoT were so unpopular with a lot of people. I still can't figure out why PoF got a pass on the same issue when it's as bad (and often a lot worse) than either Orr or HoT for the sheer irritation of endless attacks by aggressive wildlife and undead.

  7. One of the problems with the scaling they introduced is that they only somewhat-tested it for the earliest levels, where the bumped XP rates from the past made you Grey out zones very early on while still needing to do a lot of the quests, be it for the story or the zone’s blue gear reward (which as a result was often utterly pointless, and elites etc. were easily soloable even without all the NPC’s helping you out.

    Now, those early zones are in better sync but those NPC’s haven’t been scaled to the new realities, having puny heals especially - which isn’t too much of an issue in those early zones. But (everybody has one) the problems start with Outland and further, as they simply bumped up healthpools there too - without taking into consideration that every Expansion already bumped its mobs heath. By the time you reach Pandaria (now level 80-90, I’d advise doing that as you seem to have similar taste in zones) let alone Draenor (still 90-100, without a single change in minimum level...) the scaling is completely out of whack and you need to twink out your character (or play the usual suspects, Hunter and DK) to get quests done.

    Add in the general sloppiness (starting with Pandaria they use instanced scenarios for their quests but they haven’t updated those so while you can pick up all of the quests at 84 now you cant actually do them till 90, to name a glaring example) and it gets very frustrating as all the scaling also brought standarised rewards - meaning that where before going to a specific dungeon or quest had meaning, now every instance basically drops the same stuff and mobing to another zone has little purpose if you already know the stories.

    Furthermore, they have removed many of the XP buffs while increasing the XP needed except for one - the 60 euro level boost. Where before people had more choice, now options are reduced to either start at level 1 or at 100 (the level of the boost). The intermediate levels are now wading in mud, with all the things that made levelling fun - class quests, new gear options, talent trees getting a point - having been removed years ago already.
    Note that at level 20 you can now do the whole of Ashenvale, Duskwood, Wetlands and Stonetalon Mountains (especially the later is...interesting on Horde, though it also reveals why many players hated the writing since Cataclysm, as Lore really went out if the window). Wetlands is Dwarves and Gnomes (and the obligatory Elves since Cata).

    1. Thanks for that - it's really helpful and informative. I've been reading the forums and people's experiences seem to be all over the place, which from what you describe is entirely to be expected.

      I thought Blizzard's whole raison d'etre was supposed to be polish so it seems odd they should have released this in such a haphazard, unfinished fashion. I still have my Legion expansion to play and I have a couple of weeks off work in February and March so I might re-sub to see how the higher levels are. I have a Warlock in the 60s and a Hunter at 95.

      Other than that it really seems the big beneficiaries are going to be people playing on the Endless Free Trial, as I am now. I notice that my xp bar at 20 doesn't move at all so in theory I could do all the zones you list to enjoy the content and the stories if I wanted to. The only problem would be having to destroy all the loot because I'm at the gold cap already and vendors won't buy from me!

    2. Glad to have been of help.

      I may have come off as sounding too negative but it is just that from all signs it is clear that they haven’t fully tested how scaling would actually pan out. Draenor for example is said to have become basically unplayable for most classes, all due to the blanket changes they did without looking at the details, and that matches my own experiences. As you have a Hunter at that level range you should be fine, but the original WoD endcontent - Tanaan Jungle - you probably should avoid as it was already high tuned in WoD - I shudder to think how it must be now.

      There is a trick to stowing away the ample amount of gold a Capped Starter Account gets (because XP is converted to gold at max level, which is 20 for a Starter Account), namely buying Ethereum Thread from Tailoring Vendors. As a Crafting Reagent it nowadays stacks to 200, and it costs and vendors for gold. You’ll lose in the conversion of course but it beats throwing away things.

      Note that they have slightly altered the game in that you can’t Vendor items to get over 10 gold as a Starter, doing a Daily Quest or Random Dungeon will max you easily enough again.

      Also, they supposedly have tinkered with XP for Starters, in the sense that now the XP is supposedly banked till you change that account to a Full account, causing you to level up if you log in on the 20 - which in turn means that if you let your account lapse (Veteran status, in common parlance) the character may be above level 20 and hence no longer available for free.

      There is a XP Blocker in Stormwind and Orgrimmar (costs 10 Gold either way) located near the old warmasters (before Wrath you had to use those to enter battlegrounds iirc) but AFAIK Starter accounts can no longer Block XP (though with all the general bugginess that may have changed). Nowadays a XP Lock will create a visual Buff on your character (Red Bandana) but it won’t ‘stick’ on characters that have reached the account level cap.

      So while you could Upgrade an account, get playtime, expand any and all Bank slots (including the 100 gold Reagents Bank and, if you are really looking for space, 100 + 10/deposit Void Storage), get a bunch of big bags, Lock XP at 20, and then let it all lapse, the opportunities for this have been lessened.

      But yes, paradoxically they made it more attractive to ‘F2P’ WoW than to actually level characters from start to bottom. Funny how that goes.

    3. Thanks for those tips too. I did do a bit of that last time I had my account subbed but I haven't paid any attention to what may have changed. I think I will go buy some Ethereum Thread anyway.

      There's a good chance I'll re-sub for a month in February or March so it will be interesting to see what happens to my Gnome Hunter then - she's the one whose xp bar has stopped moving at 20.


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