Why level so quickly?

I was writing an entirely different post this morning and stumbled upon this rather interesting idea that forced me to stop and think: Why do players always want to level so quickly? If you think about it, that’s really a great question that singlehandedly carries massive influence in a game’s design.

There have been times in the past when I actually wished I could level slower. That seems counter intuitive because we’re conditioned so strongly to want to advance, become more powerful, gain new abilities, and see new locations. We want to chase the carrot. But do we really? I can remember how I felt leaving a dungeon after spending 10 levels there; It’s that pulling feeling attached to that pit in your stomach that longs for you to be able to just stay one more level.

Can MMOs be designed to encourage players to want to slow down? Key there is the ‘want’ since we recently explored ways that developers can force a slower experience. Can there be multiple carrots and the player be allowed to catch one carrot every day and enjoy?

I’m thinking back again to my experiences where I actually didn’t want to level and I think it was because I didn’t want to have to leave what became comfortable and familiar. I like the idea of coming to know a place well and staying there for a period of time. I liked the loot (rare items or currency) and maybe the spot where my group pulled monsters. I think the settings were always nice as well. Perhaps most of all I was scared of moving on. I didn’t know what came next and the comfort I felt was from already having my current situation ‘figured out’.

Old school MMO vets will really ‘get me’ here.  Remember when you leveled in a place and were getting great experience? I can think of a perfect example: Unrest. I stayed there from 16-24. When the moment to grew close and I started thinking about leaving I realized I didn’t know where to go or who I would group with or how quickly I could settle into my new routine. I didn’t want to leave. I wished I could stay there forever. That is the magic.

Moving beyond the ‘feeling’ and psychological side of this discussion, the biggest reason people want to move on so quickly is that MMOs today aren’t designed to really ‘begin’ until the max level. Simple solution: Make the game start at level 1.  Have the game actually be about the leveling. Kids today will probably look at me like I’m trippin on something wack (do kids still say that?). Yep, I’m trippin on the best wack there is: The journey. Leveling should be fun and you should be sad when it ends and want to start a new character or wait until the journey is extended once again.

I’ll continue this discussion in my next entry.

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Michael Whitt - August 13, 2014

I am still working on reaching level cap with my first character in GW2. That being said I play a character of each class so it is going rather slowly. I enjoy games like GW2 that let me play competitively PVP without being at level cap. I finally have my “main” character at level 62 so I still have 18 levels to go before cap but I am just putt-putting along and will get there when I get there.

Evalissa - August 13, 2014

One of the features of EQ2 that I loved was the ability to turn off xp, pretty sure that was the first game to do it, and I often find it a shame that more games don’t allow it, although I guess most games these days only have leveling as focus and don’t provide anything else to do

Balthazar - August 13, 2014

Of all of the MMORPGs I have played, I think EQ had the slowest leveling curve, as I recall. I have actually thought about this quite a bit because I think part of what I miss about EQ was being able to focus more on the journey instead of always looking toward getting to the “end game. ” I didn’t rush around anywhere in EQ. You moved very deliberately into new areas. Admittedly, I thought it would be cool to be max level and raid, etc., and that certainly was a goal in the back of my mind, but, practically speaking, there really was no end game to me in EQ. Honestly, I don’t think I would have really enjoyed it either based on what I have heard.

Although had a lot more time for gaming back then, I still was not near what anyone would consider hardcore. Anytime I thought I was getting close to the finish line of leveling a new expansion would come out and set me back another 10 levels.

I have often thought that it would be really cool to play a game again someday where the end game was so far off as to not really even be a consideration for me on a day to day basis. Like it was in EQ. My attitude was basically, “Hey, maybe someday I will get there. Wouldn’t that be cool? But, I am not too worried about it.” The journey was enough.

One other great side effect of this is that a substantial portion of your population is not at max level. In my opinion, this makes the world much more immersive and vibrant. There are characters of various power levels going about their business in all of the lower to mid-level zones. Lower levels can drool at the insane gear the power gamers have obtained and get hand-me-downs or buffs to help them along, etc.

Don’t get me wrong, there is plenty that I think EQ could have improved upon to make me stick around even longer and I definitely think there should have been more carrots along the way. It would just be nice to see another game come along that did not encourage my “keep up with the joneses” disorder that I seem to get in MMOs where “end game” is always less than 7 days played away.

Alexandre ''Zeviking'' Boisvert - August 13, 2014

I too miss the good old slow leveling days. I remember when I leveled my first 2 WoW characters back in Vanilla. Back then, it took around 12 days played to get from 1 to 60. These days, it’s more like 3 to 6 days depending on your leveling knowledge. that is more than half the amount of time, for 30 more levels, this is ridiculous.

Btw, I don’t think the leveling time is the only thing that ruins leveling experience, Looking for group and the lack of group quests. Back then, when I was stuck in The Barrens from level 10 to 20, I could easily find a RFK or WC group because there was a lot of lvl 10-20 people there, it was a huge zone and 10 level was a lot of time. I made friends and could feel the whole ”MMO” aspect of the RPG. Right now, everyone is OP, you queue for a dungeon, get in, run it in 15-20 min with people from other servers and leave.

Other games are similar, any game with a LFG option and fast leveling kinda tell you to fuck off with the social and learning aspect of the game while you level.

The only game I felt was doing it right with leveling is the RIFT expansion(not the whole game). Getting to 50 took around 2-3 days played. Getting from 50 to 60 took pretty much the same time as 1-50. That is a lot of time for 10 levels ! But heh, I made friends while leveling because there is a huge number of dungeons and group quests in the new low number of leveling zones.

pkudude99 - August 13, 2014

I’ve run into this recently in ESO. I’m a completionist, and in doing so would gray out the zones I was in while I was leveling. Now that I’m in the “veteran content” that worry has been removed and I’m actually enjoying myself a lot more.

And yet there’ve been so many complaint that ESO’s veteran levels are “a grind” that ZOS is revamping the whole thing and changing it to a more AA-point like scheme instead. Oh well.

Balthazar - August 13, 2014

@ Alex

Not sure of your perspective on this, but, if I recall correctly, on my EQ dwarf paladin (40% class XP penalty mind you) I recall that at one point I had over 40 days played and was level 45. This was the first of the so-called “hell levels” that required a lot more (maybe double?) XP to get through than other levels and the level cap was 60 at the time. When I switched to DAoC I think it took me around ~32 days played to get to 50 (level cap), which I thought was particularly generous at the time.

Steve Danuser - August 13, 2014

I have fond memories of staying in the basement of Highkeep for level after level. Log in, get in line for a group spot, and hope one of the goblins was wearing bronze so you could roll on it.

But at the same time, whenever I saw someone higher level than me, wearing a drop from a real live dragon, I would feel a burning desire to churn through levels as fast as I could. There was a race to max even then, when there were only a handful of encounters one could legitimately call “end game.” Once Fear and Hate came online, the draw was overpowering.

When Kunark came out, those ten extra levels felt like a barrier to me, separating me from friends and guildmates who had more time to play. I acted indignant toward those guilds that power-leveled a character to max level in the span of a few days of play, while secretly being envious.

Honestly, the closest I’ve come to “enjoying the journey” since those early days was with The Old Republic. Not because of the missions themselves or the level design, which were maddening, but because the storylines felt genuinely interesting. But admittedly, if the story wasn’t important to you then it was just another grindfest.

Feljin - August 13, 2014

Keen, always enjoy your blog! Keep it up!

Your post today got me thinking about why I’ve played RPGs (table-top and online) for so many decades.

The idea of character “advancement” is kind of fundamental to the RPG genre. Create a character, adventure with them, see them advance in their capability into our image of a hero. At some level there is some serious Joseph Campbell, cosmic, heroic journey pattern underlying the genre and why we play in it. When you look how Campbell framed it, that heroic journey in an MMO was what kept us having the fun: the call, the road of trials, meeting allies, confronting ogres, receiving the boon, and return. The “fun” of those journeys is in the trials (challenging levels, interesting stories, great zones), in the discovery of allies (NEEDing to play the game with others), the fighting the ogres (dungeons that needed teaming to beat, not just warm bodies), getting the prize (that you needed to earn) and returning to share that with friends and those who knew us when we started or who are journeying with us along the way.

Too many MMOs are rushing us through that journey, taking out the challenge and the risk which are inherently the catalysts that create the hero. Too many MMOs have taken away any meaningful reason to “meet allies.” Sure it’s “massively multiplayer but we’re not really meeting allies and guardians along the journey. We are using ‘grouping’ tools to hop us into a dungeon to race through content as fast as we can, as often as we can.

Hamster wheel grind, not heroic journey.

I long for MMOs that bring that journey back for me. That believe that the Journey is, in fact, more important than the destination.

Zen and the Art of MMORPGs.


Yotor - August 13, 2014

I’ve always loved exploring new locations. Old UO will probably be one of my favorites. In games like vanilla WoW there was a good yet slow pace, but I learned something about playing those games. The lower level I am the more locations were gated, so it makes sense to just quest. So that I can explore more of the world faster, but then I run into the fact that burning through the content so fast it doesn’t make sense it makes me not want to experience that content further. Wow also drilled into my head that everything you do at levels 1-‘max-1’ means nothing, because the game starts at max level.
I took that approach to Wildstar, and I was instantly reminded of why I no longer like the current generation of the MMOs. It simply doesn’t matter how much content you put into your questing, or your story lines. If the goal is to get to Max level why should I waste time trying to live in that lower level moment when in 3 levels all the gear i got will be replaced.

I look at games like P99 now and all I see is a slow grinding treadmill, like something someone built out of paint cans and old leather jackets that has been stitched together. I look at Wildstar and I see a new fancy treadmill, with adjustable inclines and LCD display. One may be fancier than the other, and one might make your joints hurt trying to slog through, but they are the same game.

All I want now is some dice and a solid group to play DnD with.

Aenar - August 13, 2014

I honestly don’t understand what you are talking about. Spending 8 long levels killing the same few mobs in the same place sounds the furthest away from a journey you can get in my book. Rather, it sounds like a prison where you have to pay your time doing forced labor before you can resume your journey. There’s no wonder there, no new hill to crest, no new horizons to explore. Just a long mindless grind barely mitigated by the fact you had to do it with others.

Wanting to skip everything to get to the end-game as fast as possible may be a problem, but I don’t think it’s related to the speed of levelling, but rather the very concept of levels as a gating mechanism. If you place desirable content behind an activity that requires time, there will be people that enjoy that activity and don’t care for the goal at the end, and people who don’t really like it but endure it for the sake of getting to the other kind of content, as well as everything in between.

I’d rather do away with levels and character power growth entirely, perhaps with the exception of a short tutorial phase to learn the basics of play, and give players absolute freedom to play how they want. Solo play, open world group content, instanced content, … they are all valid options and you shouldn’t be forced to play through one you don’t like to unlock the one you really look forward to. Character progression would have to come in the way of cosmetic upgrades and broadening options of play, like learning new skills that while not overall more powerful offer different synergies than you basic skill set, in line with what Guild Wars 1 attempted. The question is if gamers would accept such a game or the lure of constantly gaining power is too strong for it to succeed.

Gali - August 13, 2014

Why are we still talking about levels like they should even exist at all?

You can earn new skills with a “fill up the bar” mechanic that doesn’t require you to progressively design a gameworld to be 90% useless, and player itemization to be 90% useless by the time the majority population reaches endgame. Get players to explore the world? Achievements do that just fine without me having to consider whether I should tackle a wolf that’s arbitrarily more or less powerful than myself. I should be deciding to tackle that wolf because my class and/or skillset give me the ability to do so effectively or not. Use the minor, regular, veteran, elite, boss, major-boss mob system to dictate what parts of the world are more dangerous than others.

Everytime I play a game (and a game as recent as Destiny is guilty of this) where I can’t even cause a single point of damage to a mob because their level is “too high” compared to mine, I get pretty annoyed.

Levels, and leveling systems, are utterly pointless and outdated.

romble - August 13, 2014

Keen i dont think most players want to level up quickly. I think people in your circle of friends, or readers of the blog or hardcore gamers want to level up quickly. So many players who dont read blogs, who are casual, who play intermittently don’t give crap about levels. They are roleplayers, they like to just use it as a chat room, they like to craft, they like to alt around etc.

I think in this world(blog life and those of us here) are not a good representation of the entire population even the ones who are in guild which you run would not be a good representation. Like minded people stick with their own. So the people who flock to you or you flock to them have the same goals. One of those goals is advancement.

Well that is my take on it.

Ald Shot First - August 13, 2014

I think it has mostly to do with the fact that many players have been there done that. Leveling now is boring, linear, and completely hand held with little to no room for exploration or variation.

I miss finding hidden exp spots that no one quite knows about yet and getting my group to go there through tons and tons of danger along the way.

People simply don’t have time for that anymore and it’s unfortunate. It’s a poor excuse for not giving the players the options to do so though.

solarbear - August 13, 2014

TBH I think there are a lot of Asian grindfests that fit what you just described.

I don’t really need levels. I think having a huge pool of skills of which you could equip say 12-15 of them would be the way to go. You could spend your time acquiring new skills, improving each skill, gathering the gear to make them work better, and creating new builds with them.

The other issue is that something cool has to be happening in the world. Usually, there is nothing happening that is worthwhile.

Gankatron - August 13, 2014

“Keen i dont think most players want to level up quickly. I think people in your circle of friends, or readers of the blog or hardcore gamers want to level up quickly.”

Well that is an interesting point that I completely disagree with depending upon one’s definition of “hardcore gamers”.

The population that best fits that description are the most fervent PvP crowd that want the latest MMO to be a FPS; for them any point below cap is a PvP handicap. These types of players were the one’s complaining that their progression was hindered by having to level through the storyline in SWTOR, a MMORPG (please appreciate the irony).

My perception of old school gaming blog players is one where they fondly remember how difficult it was to acquire 1 gp in vanilla WoW, so much so that players saved would proudly post this achievement in global chat. These days one can accomplish this within a few hours of starting a new character.

I think the new players have been taught that cap is the goal and it should take ~3 weeks to achieve.

Caldazar - August 14, 2014

I personally like no levels in a game (or like gw1, where they were irrelevant 99% of the time)

I am not sure ‘wanting to stay the same level due to fear of the unknown’ has anything to do with gamedesign, more with personal preference.
Personally I always wanted to move forward to see new sights and new places, and explore more.

Ghiest - August 14, 2014

Having played EQ since the original beta, I am still in love with the idea not the reality of the game. I played it exclusively for years of my life and as a Brit playing on US servers I even had to keep very odd hours to play at prime time (until they eventually released the EU servers … that’s another story though).

It was a different game for a different time. Todays culture of quick hit, low common denominator, hand held game play has taken over completely – relegated to niche games. As much as I loved camping (or grinding as people would now call it) for decent exp and loot, slower paced leveling arc and more in depth cooperation dynamic between players I just don’t think the masses want it now.

You can chart the downfall of this type of game play and patches/additions to said games over the years since EQ’s release, mainly of which is WoW fault (again which i played for a ‘long’ time). People don’t want to be social (when I say people, the majority of mmo gamers I see now) they want their quick fix, their easy guided leveling, the instant tool to get a dungeon going for 10-15 minutes and then off again.

John - August 14, 2014

Why do I want to level quickly? For many reasons but mostly because the developers put 95% of their energy to the so called “endgame” and create a boring/mindnubling leveling experience.

-linear questing sucks
-questing itself have lost the magic for me after so many years…
-because friends are already at max level and waiting for me to play together

If you ask me I would rather remove the whole leveling part of the games and add another progression system, like EVE and Age of Wushu. have your skills que for the next level and in the meantime enjoy the virtual world. Mobs in the world will be there for crafting materials and faction reputations. You will need 5+ years to reach the max rank of all your skills.

Jenks - August 14, 2014

Great post and some great comments

I would like to see an Eve like system in a fantasy MMO. Even if you remove the offline leveling, just cap the amount of xp/skill gain you can get in a day. This would de-emphasize ‘grinding’ and and make people play the game for enjoyment rather than advancement (compulsion).

Rawblin - August 14, 2014

I prefer a skill progression system. Not in the line of EvE though. What EvE has works wonderfully for that game, but I think it would fall short in a fantasy setting.

I want a skill progression system that works on a sliding scale. To break it down to the most basic; Using a bow increases said bow skill. Over time there is a cap you can hit with said skill. Say 100 for ease of numbers. Each character can only ever have 3000 or whatever skillpoints (This would give you 30 absolutely maxed skill lines, in a game where I envision probably around 300 or more total skills).

Now the absolutely critical part needed to make this system work, is skill alteration via character play. What I mean by this, is that said Bow master one day decides to be a Sword master instead. So he starts swinging a sword instead of plinkyplinky the arrows. As his sword skill points increase toward 100, his bow DECREASES accordingly. To make this work properly, I think skills would need to be a part of “schools” or whatever. So that bow is in the ranged weapon category, and sword is in the melee weapon category. That way someone wanting to specialize in ranged combat can do so effectively, by maxing bow and say… sling or javelin or whatever. And only if they started using melee weapons would their ranged skills start to decline. Obviously this would need tons of though and careful planning to be successful. But the basic idea is sound. No one can ever be THE BEST at every single thing. You basically end up respec’ing your character yourself if you want to, instead of paying an NPC to instantly do it.

Skillpoints can also be invested into stat areas, so that someone wanting to be tanky could get beat on(?) or something a lot, and develop additional health pool. Or mages casting and researching spells increase their intelligence, and therefore mana pool or spell damage or both or whatever. I think you get the idea.

This results in a game world where you can ignore “level” completely, and just have mobs of varying difficulty based on THEIR skillpoint allocation. This opens literally the entire game world up to every player all the time. Sure, some areas may have more mobs in close proximity, creating the need for allies of your own. And if people really need that “ohmygod” moment every once in a while, you can have a random world spawn of some kind of boss that differs from a normal mob only in appearance and perhaps a slightly higher hardcap on skillpoints. (Like say 400 total instead of the 300 of players and all other mobs). Do you see how amazing that would be though? The entire world is relevant the entire time, forever. Six expansions down the road, all they have added is additional area to explore and adventure. Meanwhile, the original launch world is still valid.

And my one super huge secret desire: Developers that actually interact with the game. Not just on forums, or in AMAs or whatever. That random world boss I talked about earlier? Imagine if that was controlled by an actual human being. Not a stupid script heralded as “Artificial Intelligence”. An actual, living, thinking being controlling some monstrosity hell bent on actually BEATING those pesky heroes that keep coming along to try and kill him.

This is a fraction of my ideal MMORPG. The rest is various and deep and whatnot, ranging from Hard caps on character stats to an absolutely player driven economy and crafting system to quests actually being an epic journey instead of mindless tasks assigned by a joe schmoe that needs help gathering soap for his laundry (A truly heroic endeavor!). And yes, PvP as well. (Factions, not stupid FFA that degrades into ganking noobs at spawn). All of this would be incredibly hard to create. Much harder to do than what we see game companies doing these days. It would actually take thought and dedication. And would it be AAA in terms of subscriptions? Probably not. But a niche game doesn’t mean a FAILED game. I’d be fine with making $120,000 a year for having designed this, instead of the $12 zillion a year or whatever for creating WoW. A niche game should have a niche income.

So bring it on.

Gankatron - August 14, 2014

“And my one super huge secret desire: Developers that actually interact with the game. Not just on forums, or in AMAs or whatever. That random world boss I talked about earlier? Imagine if that was controlled by an actual human being.”

Yes, this is one of the DM-like roles I would like to see also. Imagine how fun that would be, as well as unpredictable. A post-event round-up with the DM/NPC player over chat would be a blast.

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