In this post, I’m going to dive a bit deeper on the topic of starting experiences and how those shape and perhaps push away new MMO players. This is the third post of a series, and while I’ve written it within my best efforts to standalone, it is enriched with the discussion in the original post and the first addendum, both linked.
In that original post, my core assertion was that leveling is slow and often tedious because MMOs space out their learning of new abilities and gameplay mechanics, an issue which got its own deep dive in the first addendum post, but the slow portion is what I want to focus on today.
This is, to start with, a highly subjective topic and I think there are no true right or wrong answers to the questions we’ll explore in this post. I’m going to take two paths on evaluating this idea – the first from the practical player perception angle, and the other from perceived designer intention.
So, the question we are looking at today is this – is leveling simply filler content meant to pad out the games in which it resides?
Before we look at our examples in the MMO space, it is essential to dive into the past and evaluate the origins of leveling. In short, leveling was a system that originated with pen and paper RPGs that nearly all digital efforts can trace their lineage to. In these games, it is worth noting that leveling didn’t necessarily always bring massive shifts in abilities, but rather measured increases in power, as an element of the fun of a pen and paper RPG was the response and interaction of the players and the dungeon master running the campaign for the group. When I’ve played Dungeons & Dragons and Pathfinder, I’ve had DMs that run by the book and some who offer a degree of flexibility. When I’ve played with a friend who takes a strict alignment interpretation, the flexible DM builds situations in a way that both discourages the overly rigid play but also rewards attentiveness (perception checking against ceilings, as an example).
Depending on the DM, leveling in pen and paper can often mean very little, or it can be a huge difference. Some of that also depends on systems, campaign materials, and the party composition. When bringing these systems into digital formats, a choice can be made to preserve the pen and paper-iness, making the game act as more of a DM role and pushing the systems along in a way that feels like those classic games, but more often than not, the approach taken by most video game RPGs is to make leveling a more frequent, more constant, and more noticeable shift in power. In many games, as a result, leveling becomes about getting as high as possible as efficiently as possible to tackle the challenges offered with ease. Grinding before boss battles, spawn camping enemies, running through the tall grass for random encounters – all of these are byproducts of these shifts in how leveling works in digital games. When alternate systems for power progression exist, players find the most fun ways to progress character builds and often try to find unique or special ways. Take, for example, Final Fantasy VIII and its Junction System. The game has levels, yes, but they are largely superfluous and as enemies scale to your level, there are routes that beat the full game sub-level 20 by using strong and high-quantity magic Junctions to create a power imbalance that the game doesn’t scale for.
In MMOs, leveling serves many purposes, but in the post-WoW era, it largely is used to define content segments and to gate access to certain things. In WoW, you can’t get a mount until level 20, you can’t enter a raid dungeon until level 60, you can’t fly until level 60, you can’t access expansion continents until level 60 or higher, with the requirements growing as the expansions get newer. In this role, leveling is intended to keep you on a path of scaling difficulty in theory, as each new milestone brings new zones, designed with new challenges, and enemies that require different and more complete toolkits to confront. With each level, you gain a fair amount of player power – stat increases, new spells and abilities, unlocked talent tiers, and the ability to equip ever more powerful gear.
Leveling in other contemporary MMOs serves a similar function and has a similar path. Each has their own tweaks for their systems – FFXIV has no talents, but it has the job system, and while its current role in the game is vastly neutered compared to the A Realm Reborn state of it, progression in your class/job brings new quests, new story, and unlocks new abilities and features.
In addition to learning, this is the role of leveling in modern MMORPG gameplay. It serves as power increase and timegate – requiring you to “put in the work” to reach the heights of current content, granting you power in small bursts as you go. Part of the problem with such systems for long-lived, endgame focused MMOs, however, is that there are a lot of rough seams in the systems as you progress. A level 50 world enemy in ARR content in FFXIV might have around 2,400 health, and falls over relatively easily if you have reached level 50, regardless of your gear. A level 50 world enemy in Heavensward content, however, will have around 8,200 health and hits you a lot harder than the ARR teddy bears you’re used to (a thing I’ve learned this week from leveling Blue Mage!). These spikes due to endgame gear progression are things that each game has to work around for their own sake. In WoW’s case, the patch 7.3.5 world scaling system changes and the item level squish in 8.0 both served to flatten the curve of leveling and make it so that a player can progress reasonably without needing to buy gear upgrades. In FFXIV’s case, it uses the gating of the Main Scenario Quests and gear rewards tied to those, so that your first trip through forces you to acquire better gear via reward, makes you run dungeons and trials that reward upgraded gear, and uses item level requirements for those dungeons and trials coupled with the reward mechanics to ensure that you are progressing as needed. On subsequent jobs on the same character, your hand is not similarly held, but the assumption is that you have learned how the tomestone and gear vendors in the game work, and the game is stocked with vendors in each new expansion capitol offering you a straightforward purchase of appropriate level gear for Gil – no tomestone farming required.
So you spend probably somewhere between 20 and 40 hours in most MMOs just leveling, progressing through these various checkpoints in approach of the current endgame content. Is that content valuable, however?
From a fun standpoint, it certainly can be. Nothing requires MMO content that isn’t endgame, current player focused, or new to be boring and tedious. I would be overly simplifying if I said that the whole leveling canon of the modern MMO genre is a sinkhole where creative gameplay and fun mechanics goes to die – in fact, that would be downright hyperbolic and absurd. I do believe, however, that leveling in most modern MMOs is built on a core, self-reinforcing perception – if leveling is a thing that is “in the way” of the “cool stuff,” then it stands to reason that players want out of leveling as soon as possible. By creating marketing messaging and content-cycle reinforcement of the idea that leveling is a wasted time activity, developers and designers create that impression in their audience, who tells them that the leveling experience they made is too long and not fun, and so begins a cycle where each new expansion undercuts the existing content and creates new leveling content that is faster and has varying degrees of hints at the endgame.
This is the rub – developers often create their bespoke, maximum adherence to design intent version of leveling in the 1.0 version of the game, and then player feedback, marketing loops, and other reinforcement often cut the future content of the same sort off at the legs. Some of this is a challenge because the 1.0 versions of most MMO leveling are the longest – in FFXIV it’s 50 levels to start, then 10 each expansion. In WoW, it’s 60, 10, 10, 5, 5, 10, 10, 10 – although today it’s done in brackets so at least now it goes 60, 10, 10, 10, 10, 10. By nature, 10 levels of content is going to be shorter, especially because expansions also rarely add more than a handful of zones. Vanilla WoW has 40 zones, compared to TBC’s 7. ARR FFXIV has 20 (compressing capitols and housing districts altogether into one), where Heavensward has 8. The number of hours one could spend in that shrunken number of zones is innately less, even if questing makes you push up and down every nook and cranny.
So it ends up being a cycle – some players say the base experience is too long and the marketing of most MMOs focuses heavily on what you can do solely at the endgame, resulting in a push to truncate leveling and create a more endgame-focused experience, which then also shifts development time and resources into that gameplay, which leaves leveling feeling bare and less important.
That then leads to a perception which I know I feel often – that leveling is simply filler. In many cases, this is text – for a long time, it was considered absolutely ill-advised to sell a new MMO expansion without touting how many levels of advancement players could make. Blizzard’s early hype videos for every expansion until Shadowlands have, without fail, included a flying screen bullet point of how you’ll journey to a new level cap. The Cataclysm and Mists of Pandaria 5-level bumps were considered ill-advised and took a lot of messaging to convey to players, and the level squish in Shadowlands was the subject of years of soft expectation building by the development team, various interviews and player surveys which all slowly pushed the idea into conscious thought, and even after all of that, it remains a bad choice in the eyes of some. So leveling is expected, but only a single bullet-point feature in a sea of endgame content.
Now, I suppose the post to this point kind of sets up my next discussion – is leveling intended to be filler? I think it depends on the game and point in time. I do genuinely think that Blizzard has waffled on whether or not leveling content is valuable at different points in the lifecycle of WoW – from 4.0 to 7.3.5, it seems the answer was that leveling was largely filler, reinforced by design decisions that made it substantially less rewarding and important. I think from 7.3.5 on, you could argue that Blizzard re-emphasized the value of leveling in their design, but Shadowlands yet again shows them touting how much shorter and easier leveling is in 9.0 compared to now, with them eager to push you into the new zones 70% faster than you would have reached them in the current model. However, it is worth saying that I don’t think this is Blizzard trying to make leveling unimportant – in fact, I’d argue the streamlining they are doing is to the service of new players.
Getting into WoW in 2020 kind of sucks if you’re brand new to the game or especially genre as a whole. You have a daunting amount of content in front of you, built to please a longer-term audience that wants something different. Similarly, if we cast our gaze back to Final Fantasy XIV, it has an even worse experience in some ways. It has a more consistent and coherent story and lore to tell through its leveling, but at the same time, the content delivery mechanisms for those developments are clearly smushed together and make an obvious point of where you leave the streamlined, leveling-intended MSQ behind and where you meet the dreaded patched content, whether it is the Horrible Hundred of 2.x or the much shorter and less tedious transitions between Heavensward and Stormblood or SB to Shadowbringers. My hope is the changes coming in patch 5.3 to that 2.x content in particular help address the gameplay issues – the story is great, but the constant ping-ponging all over the map and the forced repetition of trials gets a bit bothersome (so much so that I have never leveled a second character in FFXIV). Past the first job, leveling in FFXIV is almost purely filler – there’s nothing but a job quest every 3-5 levels until 70, when you then either get role quests (if it is your first time leveling 70-80 with a given role) or nothing until an optional level 80 quest for your job that gives a title, some gil, and a couple of handy materia.
So, then, looking at it holistically, we have my personal beef with leveling – it is content that often is pitched as a roadblock and presented/marketed as something standing between you and the things you are supposed to really want to do, which makes it feel dragged out and tedious, which then makes developers push to make it faster, which makes it also feel pointless, which further degrades the value of leveling and enters an established game into a cycle.
That isn’t to say that my opinion is all there is though. A fair number of players see this but enjoy leveling for what it is and find it relaxing or otherwise stimulating in a way that carries value. This is the challenge with making any sort of mass-market product, encapsulated perfectly – for everyone like me, leveling is at best filler and at worst tedium, but there is an opposite end that values the experience of the journey, and shades of grey filling in all the space in-between. Changes made to appease a certain audience can leave the others in the cold, and thus begins a balancing act.
Is there a perfect “solution” to leveling? Well, I don’t know for sure.
But in a special, not-originally planned third addendum post, I’ll explore an idea I had years ago when I was thinking about designing an MMO and I’ll open my idea wide open to be joked about!