Leveling is a core mechanic of most MMOs. Sometimes they're baked into "skills," arbitrary numbers that represent how good you do something, such as in Darkfall Online, but for the most part, it's the same thing. We've got mechanics to increase level speed, to increase a low level character's power, to decrease a high level player's power, to cap level, increase levels... but what if we just get rid of the levels?
Let's think about it for a moment. Levels define what you can and can't do for the most part. It separates us from our friends and dicatates where we can and can't go. If we level too fast, a game with story feels awkward (we'll be seeing how that effects you, Star Wars: The Old Republic). If we don't have a story, or don't care about it, it's simply a mechanic that makes veterans automatically better than new players before taking player skill into the equation (like Darkfall).
The current system puts us in a rather obvious grind. Yes, TOR's trying to mask it better with story. Let's say that, in a worst case scenario, TOR only has story- the raiding is lame, the pvp is dull, the economy sucks. It's just a game with story. My question is, why do you need levels for that?
Let's jump forward a bit more. Why do you need levels for pvp? FPS games and RTS games traditionally have no artificial levels and they allow for some rather interesting gameplay. What about raiding? We've all played with max level people who didn't know their class.
At best, leveling provides time for people to learn their character and moves, right? It's an understandable excuse if games are very different or you're new to the genre, but when every game is called a clone of another, do we really need a glorified tutorial that lasts us months before we get access to the real game?
At worse, leveling is exactly what people dislike about RPGs- a game who's difficulty is judged purely based on increasing stats rather than player skill. In an MMO, this takes a turn for the worst when you're judged by these numbers rather than your ability to play the game. While being able to press a button at the right time does take some skill, the leveling process very rarely works to train players to function correctly. Quite literally, anyone can level.
Removing levels and the, in all honesty, rather dull content associated with them, gives developers the opportunity the focus on what really matters: tutorials for increasing player skill, creation of fun content, and a focus on creating conent that furthers the social nature of MMOs.
WoW's Cataclysm is a perfect example of a wasted opportunity. A large amount of effort was put into the leveling experience, rather than new game mechanics and social interaction. The game's "story," told through mainly "kill 10 rats, gather 6 mushrooms" types of "quests," is a massive waste of resources. Several of my guildies went through the content and were satisfied, but the end result was the same as when you finish a single player game: "Boy that was fun! Let's try a new game!"
Those who didn't level a new character or several alts tried the new "content" and were done in a month or two. Those of us still around mainly make our own content or, in some cases, raid, which is less about levels and more about player skill, but the main part is that we're around for each other, not necessarily the game. In essence, the leveling path in and of itself, unless a terrible grind, is a bit of a dead end. The multi-player aspects are what keep people hooked and paying monthly fees, not the leveling grind.
While 1000 variations of "kill 10 rats, gather 6 mushrooms" are easier to create than real content, it's also easier for competitors too. What this also allows for is creating games with more social mechanics. I personally love it when a game requires aiming, but when players are more equal in power, you can also make social skills, like the creation of alliances, a larger part of gameplay. This helps to eliminate some of the power play seen in purely skill based games (like many FPS and RTS games) that make others avoid those genres, and makes it so that the skilled players can contribute in other ways.
What do we get in exchange from our levels? Is there a benefit we're still getting? Or are games like Firefall and The Secret World onto something?