Sunday, June 23, 2019

On The Level

There's been a lot of talk about levels of late. Blizzard began it with the suggestion that World of Warcraft has too many. Something ought to be done about it, they said.

Yes, but what? If anyone knew the answer to that, surely they'd have piped up long ago. How long have we had levels, now? I make it... hang on, let me think... oh, yes... forever!

Online gaming was an entirely new concept for me when I stepped onto the precarious platforms of Kelethin back in 1999 but I'd known what a "level" was since the early 1980s. Even then I was late to the party.

I first saw Dungeons and Dragons played at University, where the people playing it confirmed every prejudice about the practice I might have had, had I had any, which I didn't, because I'd barely even heard of it. Nothing about the game or its players convinced me to give it a second glance but circumstances will conspire. A year or two after I graduated I found myself spending almost every Sunday for five years, from midday to midnight, rolling weird-shaped dice and improvising, cast against type and loving it.

We started out playing Advanced Dungeons and Dragons. It was the first edition ruleset, which we just called AD&D, because no-one imagined there'd ever be another. Of all the myriad arcane rules and systems in the many books, by far the most prominent were levels.

Levels ruled all. A lot about your character could change during the course of a regular play session but when the number next to your name on the character sheet incremented, everything changed. Well, so long as you weren't a Fighter.

Levels didn't merely make you more powerful by increasing your stats and giving you more hit points. They gave you entirely new abilities, put new spells in your spellbook, allowed you to do things you could never have done at all before you leveled up.

Perhaps yet more significantly, as your level changed, so did the world and that change was as marked as any real-world shift from childhood to maturity. Claw and fang scraps with kobolds the size of dogs faded into memory as concerns turned to giants, dragons and other-planar powers.

That's the part I didn't like. I loved levelling, sure, but I wasn't keen on where the level curve was taking me. It was all very well gaining new powers and skills but having to use them on demons and demi-gods stretched my personal envelope of disbelief to breaking point.

The rest of the gaming group tended to agree. We got to around Level eight or nine then re-rolled to start a completely fresh campaign from Level one. When we got back to where we'd been, we dropped AD&D altogether and spent the next few years running through various RPG systems, always moving on when our characters threatened to become too godlike.

EverQuest in 1999 felt both familiar and strange. I'd played a few video RPGs in the eighties and nineties, several either based on D&D or using the genre tropes that megafranchise established. EQ had classes and races and stats and spells and magic items. And it had levels.

When I started, about seven or eight months after launch, it had fifty and lots of people had done them all. I came to a game that already knew all about endgame ennui. There was plenty of talk of "bored fifties".

To hear people waxing nostalgic about the golden days of "Classic" EverQuest, you might be fooled into thinking everyone was happy to live in that pre-lapsarian world. They weren't. The atmosphere I recall, both in game and on the forums, was an uncomfortable melange of hyperactive excitement coming from the ever-growing flood of new players like myself and an increasingly uncomfortable and cynical impatience that seemed to be settling over those who'd done their six months.

It must have been plain to the developers back then that something would have to change if the numbers were going to carry on heading in the right direction. The game was opening new servers regularly to meet the growing demand but how many of those players would stick around once they hit fifty?

The solution to the problem was already baked into the structure of the game, of course. More levels. Sony Online Entertainment set out on a course they and their successor, Daybreak Games, has followed unerringly ever since: expand the game, don't change it.

"Expansion", in this context, was a concept entirely new to me. I was familiar with Campaigns and Adventures but the idea that you might "expand" the entire game by adding more of what was already there around the edges seemed astonishing.

From the very start EverQuest expansions included a lifting of the level cap. The first, Ruins of Kunark, added ten, taking the total to sixty. That turned out to be a huge change. RoK was so vast  and those extra ten levels made such a difference to what was possible, it felt like a different game altogether.

From then onwards levels were doled out more sparingly. The next step up had to wait until 2002's Planes of Power, the game's fourth expansion and even then the cap rose by only five levels, to sixty-five, setting a pattern that has persisted ever since, with several expansions passing before another five levels are doled out.

The unnamed, twenty-sixth expansion this autumn will add the ritual five, bringing the grand total to 115. In terms of power, a Level 115 character will be to a Level 50 as a supernova is to a birthday candle. This brings problems.

As many MMORPG developers have discovered, even success can be problematic. By any measure, an online video game that can still maintain a population sufficiently large to justify the production of new, paid-for content twenty years on has to be taken for a success. But a success for whom?

Most long-running MMORPGs rely in very large part on continual growth, creating a sprawling confusion of continents and alt-planes, a palimpsest of contradictory systems and a plethora of arcane mechanics, all of which put up barriers to entry for potential new players. Those barriers can climb to impossible heights and the level cap represents the most insurmountable of all.

A new player may be willing to overlook the aging graphics. They can certainly learn the necessary systems and mechanics. Wikis and fan sites do a good job of cutting through the clutter, opening up the essentials to the light of knowledge.

All of that is manageable. Levels, as originally conceived, are not.

Even back at the turn of the millennium being Level 60 in EverQuest didn't make you seventeen per cent stronger than a Level 50. It added an order of magnitude  - at least. For that to make sense in gameplay terms, the lands those higher characters were exploring had to grow as well.

The mobs needed to be strong enough to put up a fight. The items they dropped needed to be powerful enough to provide a reward. The further the level cap receded, the more irrelevant the rest of the gameworld became.

A level 60 might not have been able to wander Lower Guk alone with impunity but a Level 65 most certainly could. By the time 2006's The Serpent's Spine expansion raised the cap to 75, Mrs Bhagpuss and I were able, gleefully, to duo through the Elemental Planes, leaving nothing standing where once, at cap, we'd cowered in corners with a full group, praying the puller wouldn't bring more than one.

I love that about levels. As a solo or duo player, an ever-increasing cap consistently expands horizons. When a new expansion arrives it's filled with places I can't see and mobs I can't kill. But all I need to do is wait.

In time a new expansion will appear and another and over time my number will float up. I'll pick away at what I can, take my xp where it comes and one day what was impossible will become possible, then easy, then trivial. It's the circle of life.

Or it used to be. Unfortunately, trivializing older content can be problematic in itself.

Veteran players often enjoy re-visiting old challenges and breezing through them without breaking a sweat, especially if there are still rewards there to grab. Some games facilitate that behavior or even make a feature of it, adding achievements and cosmetics that bypass level-based gameplay. It's an approach that works well with instanced dungeons, where over-levelled characters can monty haul at no risk without offending anyone. To the developers chagrin it's a solution that doesn't work at all in the open world.

Allowing high levels to operate freely with low in the same environment causes any number of issues. If there are targets of opportunity the high levels will monopolize them. If there's nothing of interest to the bubble of players sitting at cap in an aging game, that zone will be all but empty. Anything that relies on co-operation better have strong incentives for the capped players or it will fail.

In most older MMORPGs I've played, after a while there's been a call to re-purpose old content. It's not being used, say the players who aren't using it. Let's revamp the lot. Make all the mobs our level, give them the loot we want. So what if a few new players won't get to do what we did? When did you last see a "new" player, anyway?

Game designers are surprisingly resistant to such demands, luckily. There's the economic argument. Revamping content costs. Also someone created all this stuff and chances are they're still there, somewhere, caring about it. And, as Cataclysm showed us, players don't always take kindly to having their memories erased.

In latter years a compromise solution has appeared: level scaling. The world reflects the level of your character. Wherever you travel, in new content or old, the mobs will give you a tussle and the gear they drop will fit. It's a solution ArenaNet incorporated from the outset for Guild Wars 2 and which many other games, from Elder Scrolls Online to WoW itself, have adapted for retrofit.

And yet all those MMORPGs still have levels. GW2 has 80. ESO has 50. WoW has 120. And many games not only have levels but multiple level-like systems, carrying on way past the cap, with the direct intent of mimicing the same mechanics. Indeed, as I think about it, just about every MMORPG I can think of has levels, except for those few that replace them with "Skills", another, very similar discussion of its own.

Only yesterday I started playing Secret Worlds Legends again. SWL is the revamped version of  the excellent but under-performing MMORPG The Secret World, one of the very few games of its genre that chose not to use levels. When Funcom rebadged and remarketed the game in an attempt to appeal to a larger, more mainstream audience, one of the changes they made was to remedy that omission. I did three levels in SWL yesterday evening.

Players complain about levels all the time. Levels cause any number of problems, only a very, very few of which I've mentioned in this lengthy post. Almost every mature game nowadays includes multiple ways to speed up or skip over the painful process of leveling: instant max levels, xp boosts, heirloom items. Scaling content attempts to render levels all but irrelevant. And yet, here they still are.

Blizzard, worried about the ever-growing number next to the name on your character sheet, wants to squish it. But no-one's talking about making it go away completely. Whatever problems levels may bring, it seems not having them is worse.

There's more to say about all this and more will be said. Levels aren't going anywhere and neither are the problems they bring. For now, though, I'm going to pass the conch. I'm sure it'll come back around again soon enough.

Just like my next level cap increase.


  1. Y'know, I enjoy levels and leveling. I'm the antithesis of the "Game starts at level cap" contingent. Often when I hit level cap is when I move on to another game. I dunno what it is, just scaling that mountain of levels feels satisfying to me. Maybe because it isn't random? I can see my progress and know that if I keep working I will get that next 'ding.' But once I hit cap it's "go do dungeons and hope the RNG gods smile on you and give you the gear you want/need."

    1. For years I used to see the final level as a "game over" screen, for the character if not for the game. What changed wasn't so much my attitude as the games themselves. Once EQ added AAs there was no reason to stop - you swapped focus and started working on those instead. Last time I looked I think you could earn around 8000 AA points to spend on several hundred AAs.

      I also like the predictability. I spend enough time wandering around in MMOs without much of a plan - it's nice at least to have one solid mechanic to give the whole thing structure.

  2. To paraphrase Churchill, levels are the worst progress mechanic except for all the other ones that have been tried.

    Part of my saying levels are a problem that will never be solved (which got quoted at MOP today) is that they are so easy and intuitive that even when a game like EQ realized they are getting absurd, their answer is just another type of levels in the form of AAs.

    Roll on levels.

    1. I saw the link at MOP!

      Yes, I have to agree. They cause a huge number of problems but not having them or something functionally identical causes even more. I do think, as Pete says, it has a lot to do with predictability. In the end, no matter how long it takes and how grindy it is, you know you *are* going to get that next level. So much else in MMORPGs is a lot more elusive than that, at least it gives you something to hang on to.

  3. To vastly over-simplify a very complex issue, I think that levels for players are a good thing, but levels for the world and its monsters are not. By that I mean that leveling should be strictly about unlocking new abilities and new options for your character, not becoming vertically more powerful.

    As someone who loves leveling but hates out-leveling things and having worlds with reams of useless content, I feel like this solves most problems. And probably adds a few new ones, but I think it's still a net gain.

    1. I could get a whole post out of your comment and I very well might. When I was writing the above piece I felt like I was working on the 5000 word introduction to a 20000 word essay. Levels and leveling are so integral to the structure and form of the genre that examining how they succeed or fail opens up avenues to the core of the hobby.

      One of the dozens of aspects I mentioned but didn't have the space to explore in depth was the way Levels signpost changes to what your character can do, what your character can be. I wanted to bring in my favorite example, the way some EverQuest classes, particularly Enchanters, acquired key spells in the original game. These spells weren't available until the Level next to your name changed but all that did was allow you to use them. First you had to go out into the world and find them and that was where the adventures came in.

      Getting pet spells became a right of passage. I'm not going to go into it in a comment but it was the kind of thing EQ did so well, the way in which that game made memories that have stayed with thousands of people for decades. You don't need levels to create those experiences but tying the possibility that they will happen to a specific, numbered, directly-achievable game mechanic that remains at all times under the direct control of the player is fundemental to the trick those early MMORPGs pulled off repeatedly - making what you did in a video game feel like something you had lived through.

      Anyway, too long for a comment. I'll put it in the "pending post" file. Or I would id I had one!

  4. Well, here's another plug for my 'EverQuest II Completist' concept, which was in no small way inspired by yourself.

    I, for one, am having a *blast* going through the entire game 'at level.' It's taking ages, but it's cracking fun!

    1. Wow! Thanks for letting me know about your project. It looks amazing. Also it's nice to know someone's reading the EQ2 stuff!

      You're going to end up doing more than I ever did because one thing I have never really given due attention to is Heritage Quests. I did some right back at the start but they were quite difficult than and I never really went back to them.

      Good luck with it - it's going to take you a looong time but there's a lot of really entertaining stuff in the expansion storylines - you'll never get bored!

    2. Yup - going to take a long time, but then again... the journey's half the fun! :-)

      Thanks for the inspiration!


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