Massively Multiple Online games have been out for a while, and for the most part they follow a simple formula - kill stuff, do stuff, get stuff, and most of all, gain levels. But, we need to rethink this concept. What does having character level gain and cost us in our world of MMOs?
Congratulations, you have won life! Roll credits
The greatest defense for putting levels into a game is that it gives the player a goal to reach - something to strive for that keeps the player logging in. Its the challenge of conquering that goal that makes the game interesting. However, no matter how many levels you put into a game, chances are that there are players who will reach it (providing that your game doesn't put people off before they reach it). So, as a creator of an MMO, you need to provide content that the players will find entertaining at that point. Of course you can use raids, PvP, and getting uber loots. Can you make your game such that players are entertained at max level? Can you continue to provide them with goals that will keep them interested? If so, then you didn't really need to have levels, did you? If fact, what you have done is split your companies focus onto 2 games - the game of "Get the max level" and the game of "Do stuff at max level". By splitting your attention between 2 goals your crippling your ability to perform either exceptionally. Stay focused - do one thing really really well!
Things to do, people to kill
When developing an MMO, the creators spend an incredible amount of time creating the vast amount of content for the game. This includes the quests, the dungeons, the boss creatures, etc. However, all that content has to be split into levels. You need to have enough content at each level to keep the player entertained until they've leveled enough to move on to the next content. A player at any level will only have a small fraction of the game available to them at any time. When the player is a lower level they have to stay in an area that they can survive in. When they are at the max level, fighting in lower level areas is fruitless and boring. When the game has matured and most people are at the max level, most of the lower level content sits empty of players.
This also presents another problem - how do you encourage players to explore all available content for their level? For instance, an dungeon that requires a full group of level 20's would require that a player who is the correct level must find a full group of people that are the same level, who are available, and who want to join you in that dungeon. When the game is new and there are a large number of players who are lower level, there are plenty of lower levels to join you, but as the game matures you many rarely find another player looking to join you on the dungeon attack, let alone finding 4 or 5 others.
An important part of any MMO is the feeling of belonging with your fellow players. However, levels make this difficult on many fronts. First off, if you enjoyed questing with someone and you look up that person a week later, he may be too far ahead/behind in levels to be able to join you again. If you're trying to maintain a guild of players this can be a major problem when trying to form parties or raids. If you try to bring a friend (or spouse in my case) into the game you're faced with having to start over so that you can be in the level range of her. Even when you do this, you need to be careful that one of you doesn't play unless the other is also playing or else you risk having a level skew. Starting over for a friend can result in your main character falling behind your other friends or guildies. To sum up, levels tear apart friends and guildies. This is the last thing that an MMO should ever do!
When creating an overall back story for an MMO, it is inspiring to the players to have creatures of great power that require entire guilds to take down. Examples of this are the dragons Lady Vox and Nafigan from Everquest or Onyxia from World of Warcraft. The problem with this is that by having character levels, you will have higher players who can kill these great creatures using a group or even by themselves. The simplest solution to this (and most used one) is to make the creature tough enough that even at the max level a full guild is needed to kill the creature. The problem is that expansions will come, and level caps will grow, and the dragons will fall. Everquest tried to protect the dignity of these dragons by teleporting players away when they attacked these dragons if they were higher than a certain level (the orginal max level). Warcraft didn't even bother to do that. As a result, the creatures of lore and legend, the great creatures that inspire us to do our best become nothing. All that great content, so well developed, tested, and balanced, gone to waste. It's not just the dragons, or the gods, but even something as simple as head of a small dungeon or even the big spiders that roam the deserts become commonplace and boring. An additional consequence of this is that it breaks game immersion. One day you fear that great creature of evil that kills you in one hit, the next day he's a wimp that can't touch you. Confusing and annoying, and entirely caused by levels.
Welcome to ganksville, population YOU!
Ganking is the process of killing another player who is much lower level than yourself. You can think of it as imagining an NFL football player running onto the field of 5 year old s playing football, slamming a kid to the ground, then gloating to the whole world how incredibly awesome he is because he took someone down. It's not a honorable victory if your opponent can't fight back, but ganking is very pervasive in MMOs. It's yet another result of having the incredibly artificial mechanism of levels.
I'm sorry, but you must be this high to use this item
Most MMOs recycle their art multiple times because producing that art is expensive and time consuming. Artificial Intelligence is even more so, and so it is even more reused. So, what is the incentive for gaining higher levels when the creatures that your fighting look the same, and act the same. The reason is that they drop better items and more gold. So, as you level you can feel richer and greatly more powerful than those lower level players who can only kill the lower level creatures. However, this imbalance results in some game breaking issues - twinking and gold sellers. Twinking is the process of giving a lower level character an item that he normally wouldn't be able or likely to get. This may be because it drops of a higher level creature or may cost more then he would be able to afford. However, if you have a higher level character these barriers are non-issues. As a result, you see high level characters slaughtering their way though lower-level dungeons 'farming' equipment so that their lower level characters can have the best equipment available. Since that great item or piles of golds represent a large investment of time and energy for a lower level player, there is a great deal of people selling in-game gold or items for real world cash. Despite the greatest efforts of the developers of MMOs, this persists today.
In World of Warcraft, twinking has had major implications on PvP at lower levels. Typically you will see the level 10-19 battlegrounds filled with level 19 rogues with the best equipment slaughtering all the players who are trying battlegrounds to see what they're like. Quite often you'll seem then 'one-shoting' other players and even sitting and laughing at other players who can swing, cast and shot for several minutes without even making a scratch on the twinked player. Some say that this is ok since it's an even playing field- after all, anyone could buy the gear with real-life money or level a character to 70 and transfer massive amounts of wealth to their lower level character. But in truth, it just ruins the game for normal (sane) players. When I was a kid and someone challenged me to a race to the end of the block, I'd assume that we'd both be running. I wouldn't expect that 3 thugs would be wrestling me to ground and beating me while the other kid was rushed into a bullet proof hum-vee and driven to the end of the block at top speed.
What is old becomes new again
As you gain levels in games, in addition to having more hitpoints and mana points, you quite often gain new spells or abilities. Most of these are the same as your old spells and abilities, yet scaled for the new amount of hitpoints and mana that you have. So, although they're new, they're really the same old thing. First of all, it is really disappointing to work hard to gain levels just to get what you already had. Secondly, your creating a system of discrete jumps in abilities followed by long periods of stagnation. You may go for many levels without a new healing spell, during that time your healing abilities worsen relative to the pools of hitpoints that you or other players may have. This results in players being poorly equipped for a task one moment, then overly prepared the next. When this is mixed with twinked gear, the results can be unbalancing.
We're all made equally, give or take
Most MMO's have a fixed set of classes, each of which having a set of skills or spells that are specific to that class. Trying to make those classes different yet equal is a difficult task that often takes an incredible amount of time and energy from the developers, and is the source of a lot of complaints from players. You must also make sure that the equipment for players scales them equally. Players with poor quality gear should be equal to other players in poor quality gear and the same for great gear. This makes the task monumental. When you add levels to the mix you multiply the problem by the number of levels in the game. It's not enough for players to be balanced at the max level, they have to be balanced at all levels. This compounds the difficulty of balancing your game, especially when you take into consideration twinking and new spells.
If playing your character won't gain you levels, then what would replace it? The endgame of Everquest has a good solution to the issue, which they call Alternative Advancement. As you gain experience you receive AA points instead of levels. These AA points are then spent on minor (some major) upgrades to the character. For instance, you can spend 1 AA to increase your STA by 1. After doing this a couple of times the cost of more STA points is 5 AAs, and even then there is a cap. Some of the major improvements cost up to 18 points - for instance, allowing rangers to recoup their arrows and thus allowing them to use the expensive arrows rather than disposable ones. These AA points could be used to buy spells that are usually just given to the player as they level. There is no shortage of nice upgrades that a person wants for his characters.
A major advantage to this system is that is provides customization that allows players to be unique. The player can concentrate developing those aspects of their character that they are most enamored with. A ranger could become a master at tracking and pulling, or at ranged or melee dps, snaring, doting, or the special ranger buffs.
The upgrades gained by AA's should never be so power as to make the player out of touch with the content or with new players. A wise dev once pointed out that if a player can get even a 1% advantage over other players he will do whatever it takes to get that advantage, and these upgrades on par with that. Although this would give the character power than a new character, it wouldn't be so much so that they couldn't group and play together. Although they would be able to defeat a new character, the fight wouldn't be so imbalanced that the other player wouldn't have a chance.
In addition to rewarding players with AA's for experience, they could be given as incentives for completing a chain of quests, or for the first time you are part of taking down a major boss.