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MMO rants

I like to blog about things that I've found bothersome in current MMOs. So expect a lot posts about things I dislike and about how I feel they should be changed.

Author: beregar

Tiered vs Level Based

Posted by beregar Wednesday October 6 2010 at 3:39AM
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In my very first entry I pondered about levels and their necessity in MMOs. Both of these posts originally appeared on the forums.

As a short summary: I feel there should be character levels that give your character new toys to play with. Character levels handle the numerical progress, and give that nice fuzzy feeling when you hear a "ding". They give you new skills and abilities to expand your toolbox. Traits that modify existing skills are a good example.

Areas, enemies and equipment however are without levels, and scale to your character's level. What these items have are what I like to call "tiers" but really, they could be called "difficulty levels", "prestige levels" or whatever.

Why tiers?

My main problem since the day of MUDs (started around 1996) is that a level doesn't really mean anything. It doesn't matter if your character is level 1 with a rusty sword and battered armor or level 50 with a uber sword of doom and leet armor. Not if they both are humbled by a single weak enemy. I like to use spiders as an example but it might as well be an orc.

Levels are not utilized to give actual sense of power, and only visual changes happen to your equipment. Foes remain same which is really strange considering slaying enemies and questing are in the core MMO experience. Even worse is knowing that a level 60 spider could beat a level 1 dragon.

Based on my experience I dare to say that regular players are mostly reward driven. You have to reach maximum level, you have to have the best uber gear - you have to be unique.

Instead of assigning level to enemies, equipment and other rewards, you assign a tier to them. Tier indicates how difficult an enemy is, how prestigious the item is, how difficult some area is to complete.

Tiers and enemies

A dragon will be always more powerful than a spider. It just doesn't matter that much if it's a group of level 1 players facing that dragon or a group of level 60 players. It adjust its abilities and tactics for the level of the group.

Some games prefer numerical scaling. I prefer skill scaling. Higher level players obviously have more tools at their disposal than lower level characters so an elite foe like dragon might also adjust to this. It would get new abilities, attacks and strategies when facing higher level foes. This is specifically true to elite and "raid" mobs, and shouldn't apply to regular foes against which higher level characters are situationally more powerful.

Tiers allow developers to group enemies based on how easy they are to defeat. Tier1 enemies are your regular giant spiders, orcs, harpies and what not. Tier2 enemies are elementals, minotaurs, wurms. Creatures that are a serious threat but not world shattering. Tier3 enemies are dragons, giants, demons - and perhaps even gods. Singular enemies that no player can defeat on their own.

Tiers and rewards

What is currently the difference between level1 rusty sword and level 60 uber sword of doom? To me it looks like the only difference are numbers and skin. Then why not assign tier to equipment. Basically a "prestige level". Equipment stats would again scale to character level but this "prestige level" affects how "cool" the reward itself is.

Tier1 rewards are mundane but still useful: an iron sword, a health potion, a drop of common material

Tier2 rewards become more prestigious: a flaming sword, rare material drop etc

Tier3 rewards are unique: named items with unique skins, item sets etc

Again it doesn't matter if it's a level 1 or level 60 party defeating a dragon. If they can defeat the dragon they should get the rewards. Nothing is worse than slaying a mighty foe and then getting 100 gold, a common crafting material and an iron sword for it. No matter what your level is.

Tiers and areas

Areas are nowadays level gated in a sense that they are split into content levels. Your level 5 character is expected to do level 1-5 content. Perhaps level 6-10 if they are really good. This is wasted design time in my opinion.

When rewards and enemies adjust to character level you don't need to level gate anything. All areas are available for all character levels. This doesn't necessarily mean that all areas and all foes are available to all charcters however.


Currently most MMOs use levels for unlock. You have to be a certain level to use an equipment, you have to be a certain level to enter an area etc. This is in a way funny because then developers go through hurdles to provide a "sidekicking" system that allows lower level characters to team with higher level friends.

I'd rather use actual content for unlock. Essentially instead of having to grind to level 60 to face that elite dragon and experience "end game", you have to unlock the foe through a chain of quests. Whether this is account based unlock or character based unlock is up to developers.

Unlocking can be used to spawn enemies to an area where they are not normally available, or they can open entirely new area for the character's to experience.

Character levels

Maximum level should be a goal but not viewed as necessity to experience "real" content. Character levels are best used to give players new toys to play with, to enhance existing skills and abilities, and for numerical growth. A level 60 character does not need to be *significantly* more powerful than level 1 character. It's enough that there's an illusion of power and growth.

The real difference between level 1 and 60 characters should be how experienced the player is, and the size of their toolbox. Situationally more powerful but not numerically so. 


Why level gate things when you don't need to? Why level gate things and then try to design ways to get around these gates - or force players to find ones (sidekicking, transfer of equipment stats to new skin, higher level players giving money to lower level ones, shared banks, power leveling etc)?

Are levels necessary in MMOs?

Posted by beregar Wednesday October 6 2010 at 3:33AM
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This is a question that has been bothering me for a long time and I've tried to find an answer to it. What sparked this post are the recent Guild Wars 2 articles about equipment and rewards. ArenaNet seems to go through a lot of trouble to ensure you can't outlevel your equipment (the way how they handle sets, transfer of skins) yet they still level gate areas and enemies.

This leads to a few standard MMO problems:

  • the only reason to go back to lower level areas is nostalgia as the rewards are of no use to high level player
  • a few years into game's life lower level areas are devoid of people since most players have reached max level
  • area design inevitably focuses on end game content meaning that there will be limited paths to go through the content which is problematic if you are like me and enjoy having multiple characters
  • players breeze through initial areas and then complain there is no enough end game content

Here are a few of my thoughts on the subject. The question is are levels necessary in MMOs?

Yes in a sense that the key benefit of a leveling system is that it gives a sense of progress. Max level is a goal and each level is a nice little milestone while leveling up.

No in a sense that I feel it is completelly unnecessary to level gate enemies, equipment, and areas because I've yet to see a mmo where this amounts to actual progress.


Let's look at enemies first. Can anyone name a game where there really is a difference between level 1 and maximum level enemies? Traditionally games have been about slaying cute woodland critters to progress through the game. Does it really matter if it's level 1 spider or level 60 spider if the only difference is reskin? Even if this is not the case and you slay dragons at level 1 then what exactly is the diference slaying a dragon at level 60?


Similarly in most games the only difference between level 1 equipment and level 60 equipment is skin of the item and multiplier to stats. So at level 1 your warrior wields iron sword with +3 to str, +2 to dex and +5 to stamina and at level 60 the same warrior wields ubersword of slaying with +300 to str, +200 to dex and +500 to stamina.


Enemy and equipment levels force game designers to desginate level range for areas. There are level 1-5 areas, level 6-10 areas etc. The end result is that a few years in game's life, when everyone is max level, these lower level areas are devoid of people. Start a new character? Sure, but do you really want to go through same 1-3 paths to max level with every new character? This also means that there are initially less content to be explored once you hit maximum level because designers have to guarantee there's enough content to actually get you to maximum level.


I ask again? Why level gate areas, equipment and enemies if the end result is that there really isn't real difference between the low level and the high level content, and that there is less leveling paths and eventually obsolete content for players to experience?