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Matthew Miller Posted:
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We live in an interesting age in MMOs. For the most part, we are stuck with the traditional “leveling” scheme that has been in role-playing games since the days where Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson first converted the Chainmail rules into something resembling what we traditionally know as role-playing games today. Your character does things, they gain experience points, and when they accumulate enough of these points, they gain a level.

The “level cap” of an MMO is an important statistic to many people. These people will judge an MMO using just this bullet point. When Dungeons and Dragons Online launched with “10 levels”, a vast majority of players wrote it off as not having enough content. The fact that each “level” was subdivided with bonuses and perks for each partial level achieved was something that they wouldn’t even know unless they played the game (or had someone tell them, as I did trying to convince my friends to play).

As the launch date for City of Heroes approached, we ended up shaving off 10 levels from the cap, from 50 to 40, in an effort to save us development time. Our mistake was putting the final 10 levels into the very first, free, expansion to the game a couple months later... and then never adding any more levels. It was a mistake we repeated verbatim with City of Villains. It wasn’t until Going Rogue that we were able to “stretch” the level cap, or at least expand on what being level 50 meant.

"It was a mistake we repeated verbatim with City of Villains."

You see, in the years after CoH and CoV’s launches, I learned other things from other games. I learned that hitting the level cap didn’t mean “done” it meant “your level stat will no longer become a bigger number. But here are a whole bunch of OTHER numbers that you can make bigger with enough effort.” Numbers like Hit Points and Damage. Really important numbers in the grand scheme of things.

How did one go about increasing those numbers? In most MMO’s it was the same way they increased as you leveled, with better gear than what you were using before, however now we were at a point where everyone was the minimum level for the better gear (that being the max level of the game). So acquiring the gear itself becomes the gameplay. Either running a raid enough times or gaining enough reputation, or simply farming enough “end-game currency” would be what was required to get a better piece of gear that made your character better, stronger, faster.

It was the exact same things you were doing to make your XP bar fill up, only now that bar was static and maybe there was a reputation bar instead, or some other time sink. All in all, as you acquired each new piece of gear you were essentially leveling without the benefit of seeing your character’s level stat get bigger. And this is very satisfying to players!

So this begs the question. If getting gear and increasing stats can replace leveling in a game, why bother with levels at all? This is a question I have pondered ever since we brainstormed ideas for what City of Heroes 2 would look like. It is theoretically possible to make a “level-less” game and still have everything that players enjoy about leveling (large numbers getting larger), but is that something players want?

If you look at how World of Warcraft’s Cataclysm handled leveling it is very black and white: leveling is done solo. End-game is done in groups. It’s not as clear cut as that (there’s opportunities for both play styles on either end), but it’s very evident that was a design philosophy when remaking the world of Azeroth. This was progressive thinking but still anchored in the past with the entire idea of levels in the first place.

"We as MMO gamers need to get past the concept of levels = content."

We as MMO gamers need to get past the concept of levels = content. Gating content based on what your character can handle should become the norm, but all too often gamers will look at the level cap of a game and determine if it is worth their time. If a game has no levels, it will likely be considered an alien beast that they can’t wrap their head around, but we all need to try.

So I’d love to hear from you guys in the comments. What’s your opinion of levels? Love them? Hate them? Have a better idea? Is gear the answer to gating content? Should content be gated at all? Right now MMOs are stuck in a rut, and I’m curious to know what you guys think of this single aspect and how it can grow and modernize.

Matt Miller / Matt Miller is a 22 year veteran of the computer game industry and columnist for MMORPG.com. He was Lead Designer for City of Heroes over five years, and has "seen it all" when it comes to MMOs (but still learns something new every day). You can always reach him on twitter @MMODesigner

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Matthew Miller

Matt Miller is the former Lead Designer for City of Heroes and is known in the Hex community as DeckOfManyThings. He writes a monthly column at Fiveshards.com, a Hex fansite devoted to strategy articles and expert play advice for Hex fans hard-core and new alike. He can be found on twitter @ManyThingsDeck.