Leveling Isn’t Necessary

Just like PvP, leveling isn’t necessary. In fact, I think leveling and designing leveling is not only a waste of time for developers, and as a result a direct waste of money, but its also detrimental to game design when it isn’t necessary but included anyway.

In World of Warcraft, I find most  of my enjoyment comes from lowbie/newbie quests, exploring new areas, and occasionally some dungeons. Almost every time I play I come to the conclusion that the leveling just gets in the way and stands between me and what I’d rather be doing.  I’m positive that the arena junkies want to be max level immediately, and the raiders probably don’t care one bit about leveling.  In fact, I know for a fact that most of these two groups (who account for a huge portion of the long-term players) find every way possible to blow through leveling.

This evening I logged about four hours in Neverwinter.  My cleric is growing on me, and a friend of mine jumped in to join me which makes playing about 2x more fun.  We both came to the conclusion that we want to do the dungeons and PvP, but we need to be higher level to enjoy them most.  The quest grind is so dull that we’re doing Foundry quests designed to make leveling quicker.  Some of them are blatant EXP grind boxes where players stand on top of a box with spikes in it and AoE down ogres.  We’d rather look awesome, have lots of fun abilities, and do the content than be stuck as boring newbies facing a quest grind between us and the real fun.  Leveling isn’t necessary in Neverwinter.

If something stands between players and the fun, don’t include it.  Nothing these days should be immune to that philosophy. Even if its leveling; just remove it.  Let players be ‘max level’ (so to speak) and simply have a form of progression which allows characters to develop in some way once doing the fun stuff from the start.  There are too many others things to worry about, especially in a game like Neverwinter which doesn’t need leveling to keep people playing.

  • Err… and what happens when someone sees the leveling as fun?

    Suppose you were playing a game without levels. Is there better gear to collect? Do you need to earn skill points? Do you unlock abilities by playing? All of these things are indistinguishable from “levels” – a level is just the most grokkable form of progression in RPGs.

  • @Azuriel: Leveling is a not a 100% must have for a MMORPG. That doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be in any games. That doesn’t mean it’s bad. It means that leveling is not necessary. In some games, like Neverwinter, leveling just gets in the way. I think some games are better, or would be better, because they don’t require players to level up.

    If leveling gets in the way of the fun, get rid of it. That’s obviously not something that gets changed after a game is released — it’s a decision made during development.

    And to clarify, leveling isn’t synonymous with progression or character development. RPG’s should have those things, but they don’t have to be tied to or gated by levels.

    Personally, I like levels. I liked leveling in EQ more than end-game — heck, in my opinion EQ ended when you reached the max level. But I am 100% against leveling when it’s just not right or done well. What I”m getting at is that leveling doesn’t have to be forced into a game if it’s going to be getting a square through a round hole.

  • Back in the days, leveling to max level was a huge accomplishment by itself. These days is just dull. I ll bring 2 examples of games.

    Game A: Player must use all his abilities during leveling to kill difficult foes and lot of times he need to group up with other people for difficult group quests that reward gear necessary for the next difficult areas. The world is huge, seamless and immerse. The game is focus on server community rather than have x-realm activities or a megaserver with many instances.

    Game B: Player can level up by just using the 20% of his abilities. No group is required ever, he can solo level to the end and there is no reason to group because things can not be more easy as it is. The game focus on endgame activities that include many servers and it does not focus on specific server community. Gear during leveling doesn’t matter, you can just level with quest rewards from solo activities.

    In my opinion, in Game A leveling is required as it will help players build comfort with their class and the community, build friendships and reputation among the server. In game B, leveling is dull, is just an un-necessary activity that keep player from the actual fun of the game.

  • Not only I completely agree, I posted something pretty similar on my blog some time ago (coincidentally the last thing I did post, months ago), but about GW2, because I think that it was a major lost opportunity there once they had all the mechanics to make leveling irrelevant.

    On GW2, if you power level a char to the level cap with crafting, for instance, by the time you get to level 80 you will have all the content on the game available for you to play on whatever order you desire.

    You will still have your personal story to provide you with some direction, should you desire, and the down-leveling system will keep the content from being absolutely trivial. You’ll still gain experience, which will continue to provide you with skill points every time you complete a bar. Even better, you won’t be facing abstract barriers of monster level that stop you from exploring the world. There’s really no downside.

    So if the game works so well once you don’t have to worry about levels… why have them to start with? Why not design the game without any levels? And yeah, why not make that the new industry standard? GW2’s endgame downlevel mechanics prove that you can design an entire world without level constraints, and still provide means for character progression, so what is the benefit of having levels anyway?

  • @Kemwer GW2 indeed does not need leveling at all, but from the other hand I don’t like the “downleveling” mechanic too. I want to feel more power as time goes. But this can be achieved without levels, as levels only gate the content from you. A system like EVE or Age of wushu of progression would be fine, or at least a gear progression.

    I want to be able to defeat very difficult foes that maybe will take months to succeed it but at the same time I also like to go back and “farm” old dungeons/raids/content since I got more powerful..

  • I know it’s your blog and your opinion, but you’re taking an awful lot of liberty in assuming things about other players. Including what they find fun 🙂 Leveling only gets in the way for people who perceive they want something else. But for many players, it’s the best part of the game. So there’s no way to “eliminate if it sucks” because it by no means sucks for everyone.

    I have never once looked at my level in a game as anything but a mark of where I am and my progression through the world. I just play the game. If I am enjoying the game, and I gain levels as doing so, then there’s nothing wrong with it. If players are not, however, enjoying the game… then they should stop anyway.

  • @John: I agree with you here – if leveling is just going through the motions and repeating what everyone else is easily doing then it becomes a nuissance. If it is difficult and an actual accomplishment, keep it in.

  • @Lethality: Note that I did say in comment #2 that I like leveling. I’m not assuming anything about players — at all. I’m talking purely about games in development and decision developers make about what to add into their games.

    If leveling simply doesn’t fit the game, if it’s just going through the motions, if it’s just sitting there in the way of players, then don’t include it.

    Even players who like leveling (like me) don’t want something standing between them and the real fun, or the real game.

    @Argorius: Exactly my point.

  • It’s so confusing. I both strongly agree and strongly disagree.

    I love leveling, like you do. Like you, I thought Everquest was “over” when I reached max level. I also found that in WoW most of my enjoyment came from lowbie/newbie quests, exploring new areas, and occasionally some dungeons. I could apply these observations to most MMOs I’ve ever played.

    I’ve known many players who felt completely the opposite and wanted nothing more than to click a button and be max level with all the trimmings so they could just get to the FUN. I never understood what that fun might be but I would be more than happy for them to have that button, just so long as I didn’t have to press it too.

    I have 7 level 80s in GW2, the game Kemwer says doesn’t need and should never have had levels. I’m leveling up two more characters concurrently, both in their late 30s now, and before too long I will have 9 level 80s. I doubt I’ll stop there. If I could have ranged far and wide across Tyria, doing Timberline in the first week and Cursed Shore the next then coming back to do Plains of Ashford after that, would I have gone on playing for month after month, making new characters over and over? How the hell do I know?

    If you’d spent five years and a hundred million dollars making an MMO that was already veering dangerously from the norm, would you have risked taking away one of the only strong structural underpinnings your potential customers would be likely to recognize? It was hard enough convincing them they didn’t need the Trinity (and even though you really don’t the players’ preference is still to try and create a new “trinity” of their own).

    Leveling up is such a defining trope of the part of the group of MMOs we usually focus on that I’m not sure a game that didn’t have it would even qualify as a member of that group. There may well be MMOs out there that don’t use levels at all but are they ones we pay any attention to?

    I’d love to see someone try making a recognizable, mainstream AAA MMORPG with no levels. I’d certainly give it a go. I find it quite hard to imagine how it would work, though.

  • I think the primary takeaway here is that leveling isn’t inherently broken, and there’s no reason to get rid of it if it works for the game, but if leveling makes the game less fun then toss it aside. If leveling is a poitnless exercise included just because someone thinks every game needs leveling, then toss it.

    One alternative to levels is a skill system. Skill systems lend themselves to a sandbox model. SWG and UO were this way. This is where some people might say “isn’t earning skill points like leveling up?” I’d point you to the freedom in both of those games to go anywhere and do anything regardless of your skill. The skills just let you do more without hard-blocking you from the game.

  • Well, thematically, I’d say leveling is a requirement in a D&D-based game; if you go completely skill-based, what was the point of the branding?

    But as to your point, I am still a little confused. As far as I can tell from Googling, Neverwinter lets you start doing PvP at level 10, and scales player level upwards in actual combat. Is that not the case? Now, WAR and GW2 did the same thing and the up-scaling was not all that useful insofar as max-level characters will likely wipe the floor with you, at least gear-wise. That said, you can assume the same would be true even in Skill Point-based games – if your opponent has more skills or their skills have better damage/range/etc, then it’s probably the equivalent of a level 10 fighting a level 20.

    Neverwinter’s leveling system could be badly tuned (takes too long) and/or the PvE content could be boring. I’m not disputing that. But those issues would still persist in a skill-point-based game.

  • @Azuriel: Oh I agree with you there. Leveling is true to D&D…. but so little in Neverwinter is that I wonder if it matters.

    The scaling in Neverwinter is like the scaling in every other game which you described.

    Neverwinter’s leveling is boring to the point that players are making content to speed through it via the Foundry. Even if the content in a skill point system games was boring, players wouldn’t be stuck having to go through it in order to level.

  • If Everquest had a Foundry like option back in the day, I am fairly confident that people would have created content in order to speed through it to get to endgame as well. I know when playing DAOC if I had an option to blast through the levels I absolutely would have used that option.

  • @Imem: Without a doubt. There will always be this inherent desire for people to create shortcuts.

    In DAoC I loved my first 2-3 times from 1-50. After that, I looked for every opportunity to skip the levels and get my alts to RvR; then I realized I loved battlegrounds and I could level up while doing RvR. Best feature ever.

  • John: “I want to feel more power as time goes. But this can be achieved without levels, as levels only gate the content from you.”

    I disagree. A lvl 80, down-leveled character on GW2 with full exotic armor and weapons is noticeably stronger than a “naked” character. If you have two characters with the same gear, but one with no traits set, and another with a full build, the second will also be clearly stronger. So progression can be achieved without levels, and without the inevitable triviality that occurs when you out-level an area on level-based games without a down-leveling mechanic.

    It’s one thing to get stronger and be able to more easily overcome creatures that used to be challenging, but it’s another completely different to be able to one-hit creatures that once were of epic difficulty. Having levels without a down-level mechanic makes it so low level content becomes laughably easy.

    On the other hand, making the entire game work like your character is level 80 on GW2, but still acquiring new skills, trait points and gear as a new character would makes all content of the game valuable at all stages of character progress.

  • WoW’s influence and those trying to emulate it have created somewhat of a monster here I think. I had never even heard of “endgame” in an RPG before playing WoW. It really seems to be a huge focus of that game to the point where most people just blast through the leveling process as fast as they possibly can even if they are not going to participate in endgame activities. To boot over the years they have sped up the leveling curve to be faster and faster and removed almost ALL group focused content from the experience. It’s at the point where even if you like leveling it feels like a chore as you overlevel a zone before you’re even half way through the quests. Also good luck trying to find other players to play with during this process as staying in synch with each other is a nightmare.

    While I think GW2’s system is a lot saner than most MMOs I also very much agree with Kemwer on GW2’s missed opportunity. Supposedly they did have a bunch of meetings where they talked about getting rid of levels all together and decided they needed to keep in the level progression system to keep things familiar for people. What I think is funny is that GW2’s best content and arguably their focus is their open world which most people would associate with “leveling” content. What’s interesting is, had they eschewed the idea of levels all together, there would have been less of a feeling from many people of getting to 80 and feeling “done” with the game. It is easier for people to swallow revisiting a zone if it’s just another zone rather than a “level x” zone. Having a number tied to it just tends to make you feel done with it especially if your number is higher.

  • You’re raising a good issue but about the wrong (most wrong ever!) game. I actually really like the quests in Neverwinter, I think they’ve tied the lore in well so far. If you don’t like leveling in Neverwinter and are using XP-piñata Foundry dungeons to skip past it then isn’t it simply the wrong game for you? What’s going to change at ‘end-game’, especially since D&D doesn’t have an ‘end-game’?

  • Most of the commenters above seem to like levelling in the games you’ve given as examples.

    “If something stands between players and the fun, don’t include it.”

    Well yes. Unless it’s part of your monetisation model… 😉
    But I can understand why developers might think that players like levels, so they should consider putting them in their games.

  • For me, I agree with the person who said leveling to max used to be a huge accomplishment in an of itself. It went on for most people for a half a year or longer, and some games even threw in “hell levels” along the way to make it even more difficult. It was similar to he guy standing around town with a rare item of raid loot. People used to look at him/her and say “Wow there’s a level 50!”.

    Now most games have dumbed down the leveling process so much, that everybody is level 50 in a month, and nobody cares what the hell your level is in a game like that. So yeah it is pointless now. It didn’t used to be, and I hope we can get those days back.

  • @Sanz: I don’t know, while you can argue that getting to level cap has become too easy, playing a long time isn’t an accomplishment that deserves to be highlighted, IMHO. I would prefer having more things that require effort and skill to be used as metrics of how good a player is.

    Did you play vanilla WoW? Sure, getting to lvl 60 took a long time back then, but given enough of it, all players could achieve it so I never really saw that as an memorable accomplishment. You know what I thought was a big deal then? A Hunter packing Rhok’delar, Longbow of the Ancient Keepers, or a Priest with Anathema/Benediction. Those were items that required a lot of work, and actual skill on the specifics on each class.

    More than making leveling take longer, I would like to see games that value this type of achievements, things that you can’t beat just by playing 24/7 for months, or by farming non-stop. Skill based achievements, those are something I value.