I guess I’m considered old school now. I played enough pen and paper games when I was younger to see how games have shifted over the years. The aspect of player levels is one that’s undergone the most shift – and with 7.3.5 in WoW coming out, it’s the topic du jour.
First a basic statement. Character levels are simple way to denote increases in ability. They don’t inherently grant some new item. Very few games (until MMOs) ever gated content behind a line that said “you must be level 8 to try this”. There were recommendations, sure. But no hard stops. And the levels themselves were few and far between. I rarely got any D&D character above level 8. I think the first Baldur’s Gate max level was 7.
The point is that the levels themselves were both milestones and not the goal. The goal was the story (content) and the journey taken to live that story.
Video games tweaked that. The old RPGs took it a step further, adding many more levels and modifying content to make it not exactly impossible, but extremely challenging to complete without a certain level attained. I could complete Fallout if I avoided combat, at a very low level.
Online games needed to extend the tail of the game. UO wasn’t the first, but it’s the most notable. It used a skill-based leveling system, where you simply got better at something by doing that something. Intuitive enough. EQ took that model and then added the old D&D leveling, scaled all enemies, added resists, then just added more content and more levels. It added an artificial mechanic that meant that your level gated content – either on inability to perform, or actual “you must be this tall”. The goal of EQ was not to go through the content, it was to “ding”. Significant shift in mentality.
EQ did re-enforce this mentality with significant boosts in power when your reached certain levels. Losing a level meant potentially losing an amazing skill. Losing Clarity or SoW was painful. There’s a reason we called it Evercrack.
WoW took this mindset and removed the negative feedback loops. Vanilla still had skill based content, still had levels, still gated content behind those levels, but the search for a ding was replaced. Few can deny that the first journey through WoW was a pleasant one, and the story / environment / dungeons were refreshing. Many tweaks later, including 2 expansions (TBC and WotLK) took that polish a step further. But at a cost.
Every expansion further polished the leveling experience. It moved away from small bits of story with a lot of fighting (grinding even) to more of an interactive story. Adding new numbers meant additional scaling, where someone at max vertical (character level) and max horizontal (item level) had to have a challenge in the next expansion. Stat inflation. A few may recall that once TBC opened up before level 60, it made no sense to ding 60 in the vanilla content. One item drop provided more stat points in TBC than you would ever see on all gear in vanilla. It trivialized previous content. And so it went.
Each expansion also focused on providing a set amount of content to be consumed during the “leveling process”. This varied a lot, but an average of 20 hours seems about right. (side note, vanilla was many hours longer, until Cataclysm changed that). As expansions continued, the level spread between players grew. Fewer people were in the “sweet spot” for grouping and zone content. Previous top level material was made irrelevant as the newer content had both better rewards and actual players to play it with.
The table below shows the list of gated group content (open world content not included). All told, approximately 87% of content of previous expansions is no longer relevant.
(Contrast this to FF14, where all group content is relevant due to the re-use of dungeons in the group finder tool.)
If you were to take the original leveling path, you’d be alone for ~150 hours of playtime. Not exactly an MMO, or a wait to retain players. So Blizz smoothed it out. Dramatically. Faster experience curves, heirloom items, experience boosts. You could go from vanilla to the start of an expansion in a few hours. It put more and more content at the top level, making every level but the max level, irrelevant. It pushed all the years of effort in previous years to the curb. Then started giving/selling max level boosts (followed by many others).
Not everyone towed that line. FF14 is a clear outlier. It takes just as long today to clear the base game as it did upon launch. Same gates. It sort of works, except for the open world content, where people have moved on. Dungeons are relevant mind you.
FPS games took the leveling approach, but have had issues balancing the concept of power between starter and max level. It’s ironic that someone with 200 hours has not only more skill in the game, but is also provided more power by which to attack weaker players. Most FPS combat this problem by throwing it all away every 1-2 years and starting from scratch. Destiny 2 is a recent example.
This applies to other games as well. Diablo 3 is a really good example of where the leveling game was made useless with their focus on end game activities. Grim Dawn focuses on the story, and Path of Exile does the same (with even more focus on milestones at specific levels).
And that’s not counting for the gamification of everything else. You get magic internet points for everything now. Gaining levels in a fitness app. Reward tiers for credit cards. Comments on a message board. Ranks in the console wars. The number provides little meaning aside from competitive ranks with other people. People complete activities, not because the activity itself is rewarding, but for the points accrued.
And therein lies the problem. The reward of the journey is replaced with the reward of the ever-moving finish line. By continually adding more finish lines (levels), it dilutes the previous ones. The only thing that matters now is the current finish line, and people will speed through everything to get there.
It’s why I try to keep to the older-style RPGs. The story itself is the reward, and the levels are just additional decision points along the journey. I’ve conceded that the race to the carrot is no longer worth the effort. No one ever really catches it, and once you think you have, a new one shows up.