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An Earthbound Perspective

Practical perspective on MMO play and practice.

Author: Dengar

Do we still need to level?

Posted by Dengar Saturday September 10 2011 at 9:07PM
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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?

Tioanbeast writes:

I agree we don't need leveling, but I don't like Time Skilling, something about not being in control bugs me.

Sat Sep 10 2011 10:43PM Report
Griffihn writes:

actually, the lvl grind is what makes most ppl quit games, be it via a built-in bot or or you having to do it all yourself. mainly 'cause in order to get that cool looking outfit or to afford a certain mount, u need to be a high lvl which kind of takes the fun out of things. but yea, i agree: leveling is something the MMOs should start discarding these days and instead focus on the social aspect more... so i guess the answer to your last question would be "yes! they're on to something good actually".

Sun Sep 11 2011 5:35AM Report
Arzacane writes:

Doing a skill based system (and I don't mean skill tree) similar to UO or Runescape wouldn't be bad. I really haven't seen many games like that. Not saying they aren't there, I just haven't seen them. I'd lean more towards UO where if you don't use them after a while, they start to degrade and have a set number of maximum skills.

Sun Sep 11 2011 12:41PM Report
Dengar writes:

The "time skilling" and "UO skill" systems don't solve the problem so much imo, since I addressed the numbers game several times in the article. It can still turn into a RL skill-less time sink. It's why I used RTS and FPS games as an example- if you aren't used to aiming or micro-management, you have to learn how to do it IRL, not have the game do dice rolls for you. 

But, maybe, though, you guys are coming from a crafting perspective, which can still do without the numbers game. I mean, really, do we need to make 100 "potion of lesser healing" in order to know how to make "potion of healing"? Couldn't we, instead, have labs (maybe even instanced to reduce lag) with a mini-game of adding ingredients of various qualities at the right time in order to make the quality of item we want? If anyone's played "Monster Hunter Tri," this would be like cooking meat, or you could do it like WoW's Argent Crusade daily quest in LK where you ran around the lab picking up ingredients (which, perhaps, you may need to stock yourself in some sort of housing) and adding them to a cauldron or something? I know if I don't do those for awhile, I fail more often, not because of the game's mechanics but because it's a skill I've actually had atrophy. This makes crafters people with actual skill rather than people with a ton of time on their hands. In addition, the people who normally have a lot of time on their hands can focus on easier lines of work, such as gathering resources or making gold (or whatever currency your game uses).

Sun Sep 11 2011 12:58PM Report
toljar writes:

We need more games like Asheron's Call with level cap at 126 (original) or 275 (now days). You could get your skills at any level but how efficient you were with them was based on how much exp you put into it. (Crazy right you used exp that you gained from leveling to put into skills!)

Sun Sep 11 2011 3:39PM Report
moosecatlol writes:

I wouldn't say TOR's pvp is bad, they have nice concepts for different pvp modes, the problem in my opinion is the combat, it holds everything back.

The more complex the combat system, the more complex pve and pvp you are allowed.


To attempt to be on topic, I'd agree and say that levels offer no depth or value into any mmo.


All of a sudden... NOSTALGIA, and now I miss Pre-CU SWG.


Although in some military games "ranks" act as levels, though at the same time ranks sort of make sense.

Sat Sep 17 2011 10:30AM Report
Painlezz writes:

Google "Minecraft Review" and watch the view from Zero Punctuation...

He describes exactly why the "grind" is important.

If you hand someone a super awesome mound because they "think" they're good at something they'll play with it for a few minutes and throw it away.  If you force them to work for it, they'll enjoy it that much more.

Sat Sep 17 2011 3:34PM Report
Dengar writes:

Oh no, I completely agree with you there, Painlezz. I've yet to play Minecraft, but from my understanding, you don't craft 100 blocks made of sand in order to learn how to make a bar of gold. You can make a bar of gold because you have gold and the real world understanding of the way making a bar of gold works within Minecraft (as opposed to how to make a bar of gold IRL). Grinding's part of an MMO and there's just no way I can see around it for those of us who want to play a video game with some sense of continuity and persistence. 

However, I am agruing against the grind mechanic being arbitrary levels and statistics. In Minecraft, you gather resources to create something and then you can do it again. "End game," which one might describe as building a castle, has not drastically changed. If you decided 1/2 way through the project that you wanted to make a small house instead, it's a viable option.

In a level based game, you grind XP until you hit a cap. Hitting the cap is it- the end. Unlike in Minecraft where you can go back to getting resources to, say, make a wall around your castle. With levels, you either make a new character or hit "end game" which is a far, far cry from leveling. Leveling rarely teaches you anything, especially if you don't lose xp on death (and no one likes that). So while the Minecraft's person's grinding gives them options for their "end game," the xp grinder's single option is to hit the cap and wait for it to be lifted in 1-2 years, or play the game in a way that is wholly unlike the leveling experience.

That is why I argue against the statistic approach. I'd much rather mindlessly hit rocks with friends and build a castle than raid in most games, simply because preparing to raid is very different from actually raiding, and because being raid ready only allows me to raid- I can't then turn around with raiding gear and say, "I wanna pvp!" My ability doesn't stop the latter, but little numbers I have little to no power of controlling do. At least with bricks I can choose how to use them.

Sun Sep 18 2011 3:22PM Report writes:
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