In the vast majority of MMOs - and RPGs for that matter - level is the one constant that tells you you're getting stronger. The arbitrary number tied to the quality of gear you can wear, weapons you an weild or skills you can use is typically a catch-all for showing progress.
A recent thread here on MMORPG.com got me thinking: are levels the only way people measure their own progression? Sure, it's easy to look at an MMO and say that if they have a level cap of 130, but you're only level 56, you're a little under halfway through the game.
But level and content don't always match up. Oftentimes in MMOs there are far more content avenues than there are dings to a level path. At level 130 in The Lord of the Rings Online, for instance, there are entire epic questlines and side quest content to progress through. So if level was the only marker of progression, ideally once you hit 130 you wouldn't be able to progress further, right?
For me, I find myself using that content as the benchmark. When players can reach max level by just baking pies, then there has to be another way to mark your progression. The farther I am in a story, the closer I am to completing the quest lines that matter to me, that's how I gauge my own progression within an MMO.
Not every MMO uses the level system - or even the ones that do don't always make it the main way to progress. Elder Scrolls Online sees levels matter only in your own personal power and not necessarily the keys to unlocking content throughout Tamriel. Games like EVE Online instead use a skill-based system, though players still compare Skill Point totals to determine whether they are farther along than other players. The more skills unlocked, the more ships they can fly and the higher quality fittings that can be used on said ships.
However, a single player who is just better can overcome a skill point deficiency any day.
I'm sure some people also gauge their progression through the accumulation of end-game gear and achievements. Hitting the level cap for many in games like Final Fantasy XIV or World of Warcraft is just the start of the game, with end-game raiding and grinding for gear to do before the next batch of content hits. Measuring your progression through bosses killed and raid gear accumulated is just as popular as simply a number next to your character portrait.
So how do you track your progression in an MMO? Do you bother, or is it something that is just on the periphery - there, but not really paid attention to in the end? Let us know in the comments.