The Role of Levels in World of Warcraft – Do They Have A Place?

The other day, Wilhelm Arcturus had an excellent post up over at The Ancient Gaming Noob, discussing the possibility of a level squish in every expansion in WoW going forward. With the 9.0 patch happening tomorrow, millions of us are about to see something that would have been inconceivable even just two years ago – our levels are all being squished into nothingness.

120s go down to 50, and everyone else goes down proportionally from there, with Shadowlands launch opening up gameplay from 50-60, fitting the ten level groove that Blizzard has long since settled on after the experiments of Cataclysm and Mists of Pandaria with five-level expansions.

But the question posed by Wilhelm is an interesting one to me, because it has a tinge of nostalgia in it. Level squishes being an ongoing, continuous thing logically tracks with Blizzard – we’re about to also have our third item squish, this time Blizzard using the lower character levels afforded by the level squish to really compress down item levels before rapidly expanding them again with Shadowlands content. Blizzard’s core solution to their stated concerns of readability in combat and meaningful progression is to let things sprawl out for an expansion or two, then smush the results back down and cycle. A level squish, while theoretically different, fits the bill in a similar way – smash down the numbers, keep things scaled proportionally within the new paradigm, success.

But character levels is something of an undefined territory filled with hazards. Gear levels being compressed is fine because you replace gear on a regular basis in WoW. The first item squish didn’t even actually change item levels – it simply flattened the exponential scaling curve that existed in power at the endgame levels of each expansion, which led to some funky scaling (the statistical variance of an item level 200 piece of gear compared to a 277 ICC 25 Heroic piece changed such that the higher piece also had a higher value per item level) but it kept the rough value of things in-line. That was done because Blizzard knew players had tied value to their average item level and wanted to keep that value. The BfA item squish required venturing into unknown territory, taking players from near item level 1000 averages down to ~200 – a massive, easily-noticed shift. Players, however, took to the change quite readily (in spite of some bugged scaling for old content that Blizzard had to later fix) and these days, the idea of an item squish is becoming en vogue for the genre – Naoki Yoshida, game director of Final Fantasy XIV, has discussed the possibility of his game needing to employ a similar solution at some undefined future state.

Character levels are the last frontier for such a change, though. From the earliest pen and paper RPGs through to current day, being able to say “I am a level x (insert class here)” defines for the audience the experience you have gained and sets out an idea of the content you have completed and the journey you have been on as a player.

Except when it doesn’t.

Because, here is the hook – WoW isn’t an RPG. Not in modern times, at least.

Before you make a galaxy brain meme, let me discuss further.

What Makes a Role Playing Game?

Famed internet game philosopher Bhagpuss has frequently, in discussions about WoW and other games that most of us simply call MMOs, dropped the tidbit that WoW isn’t really an MMORPG, not in any real sense. I won’t lie, the first time I saw this point made, I found it a bit pedantic and weird – an almost gatekeeper-y sort of way to dismiss the game. However, if you really sit and let the thought marinate, it actually makes logical sense.

What is the cornerstone of an RPG in a broad sense? Choice. What defines an RPG is the ability for players to build their character to suit their tastes, allowing the game designers to offer a high-level class template that can be customized to fit your playstyle. When WoW started, the game had 9 loosely-defined classes with 3 talent trees to offer further specialization. The thing about this design is that it kept the core of the class alive and allowed you to bolt-on new abilities and strengthen existing ones in accordance with your playstyle. Sure, there were dump talents and poor choices – as a priest who usually took Wand Specialization just for the few times I needed Judgment of Wisdom mana ticks, the talent wasn’t exciting, but it gave you the means to make wanding offer…something. When I started raiding in Vanilla WoW, I played a healer, but I was a Shadow priest. My talents were deep into Shadow, all the way through to Shadowform, but I spent my raid time healing, and did rather well at it. It wasn’t until the priest talent revamp patch that I finally had cause to break with Shadow and went to Discipline instead.

Why did that work? Shadow didn’t make a worse healer – at least, not in its own right. I was missing some (but crucially, not all) of the talents that enhanced healing capabilities. Instead, I offered my raid a mix of things – during low damage portions of combat, I could shadowform and DPS. Using the Shadow Vulnerability talent, I could Mind Flay to stack the shadow damage increase debuff on bosses, amplifying the performance of our warlocks. It made me about 90% the healer of most of our priest roster, but that missing 10% of healing throughput was instead invested in a way that made sense for the rest of the raid.

WoW, from launch until, I would argue, Cataclysm, had this degree of choice. With the old talent system, you could mix and match from trees and create a version of the class that appealed to you. Blizzard’s design began to laser-focus on specs over class near the tail end of Wrath of the Lich King, but the Death Knight mantra of “any role, any talent tree” wasn’t even uncommon. Paladins could take a healing role while having meaningful investment in the Retribution or Protection talent trees. It remained possible to be a Shadow priest healer through Wrath of the Lich King, although substantially less effective.

Cataclysm exchanged talent build choices for gear builds, focusing in on the meaningful differences between secondary stats with Reforging and socketing gems while further amplifying the benefits of trinket effects. However, this is the point where you were reduced in customizing your character. Gear choices existed before Cataclysm (well, duh) and socketing gems had been around since Burning Crusade. Reforging was a poor replacement for the loss of talent customization the game had previously had, and set a new course – specializations were now just as important, if not more important, than class. This was compounded in Mists of Pandaria with the current style of “pick one of three” talent tiers. As the game continued, choice has been limited further and further in character customization – talents remain simple choices every handful of levels, reforging is gone, gem sockets are rare and special things, and glyphs for spells remain cosmetic.

Leveling has been, for the longest time, the one real RPG constant in World of Warcraft. But even it has lost significance to post-cap progression mechanics. In Legion, being 110 was a given. What level is your artifact? – now that is the real question that defines your player power. In BfA, being 120 is likewise expected, but the level of your Heart of Azeroth – now that matters.

For almost a full decade now, characters in WoW have been defined in simple terms – what item level average and what post-cap progression level are you? Add class/spec to that and you’ve got the template of choice in the current game. BfA’s Azerite system, flawed as it was, actually gave meaningful build choices, in that you could still pick and choose secondary traits to prefer survival over throughput or to offer weird bonuses like being a Balance Druid or Shadow Priest with healing buffs.

In Shadowlands, those are gone and the only real customization you get comes via Soulbinds, a far more limited system. Sure, it has build implications and has the silhouette of a build system, but it offers even fewer choices and is further limited by a separate item acquisition and rank-up mechanic that plants deeply into said system. As with many build systems that have come and gone from WoW over the last decade, it will have theorycrafted ideals that most of us will take for the sake of convenience.

Leveling, in WoW, has not been a meaningful distinction point in years. What level your character is only matters in literally one scenario – if you can’t join in content with friends (okay, and also PvP brackets, where twink brackets still exist and can be deadly). War Mode for open-world PvP applies scaling factors to reduce the hopelessness of being ganked while still preserving some of that fun for the higher level player. Content scales to meet you in PvE outside of raiding and endgame dungeon gameplay, and even those have difficulty-based scaling factors built on gear level more than any other variable.

Compounding this is a simple fact – Blizzard doesn’t design leveling curves very well. In BfA, most characters will hit the level cap going 110-120 before even finishing all of the story quests. In Shadowlands, on the other hand, only doing the story quests on beta got me to 57.8 out of 60 and I was met with a hard stop, forced to grind out other side quests before being allowed to actually start the final quest of the leveling experience. Fine enough, but oh, if you go to Bastion (the first zone of the expansion), the side quests are gray and offer nerfed experience, so you basically have to work your way backwards, do some dungeons, and hope for the best (so do your sidequests as you go, kids). It has been so bad on beta that Blizzard is rebalancing experience gains for the third time in beta and has applied a buff as an interim solution so that testers can play the leveling content and get all the way through without hitting hard walls.

So then, all of that leads to the question I’ve been winding up over the course of this post – is leveling even worth having at all in WoW?

If you ask me, no.

Here’s why I think that: WoW isn’t really an RPG in 2020. It is an action fantasy combat game (AFCG, what a sexy acronym, better than Fantasy Action Combat Game or FACG). WoW’s core gameplay is about fast gameplay where choice is not a thing you do at a character level, but rather a moment to moment gameplay level – hence action. Role-playing is about building a character over the long term, making decisions that have echoing consequences over months or even years. None of modern WoW’s systems really do this – the game rarely asks you to make a choice that you can’t completely undo, offers no real gameplay differentiation for those types of choices, and the most consequential choices on offer are explicitly temporary and will not hold value for longer than, at best, two years – and even that makes a broad and favorable set of assumptions to the Blizzard design.

In this system, leveling doesn’t matter because you could accomplish what leveling does for WoW in a lot of better ways. One of the chief complaints beta testers have had with the Chromie Time system in Shadowlands is that you will almost always level faster than the content. In theory, you should go 10-50 in a single expansion, but the truth is you finish far sooner than content runs out.

My thought is this – the story is the thing that Blizzard wants you to see, right? Why not just make you complete the story and reward a rank or some sort of signifier that shows you’ve completed a given chapter which then unlocks access to content that belongs there? If you finish a full expansion story from pre-Shadowlands, well, then you can play all dungeons, raids, PvP content, world quests, and other content from everything pre-Shadowlands as well as accept the quests to push into Shadowlands content. You can have upgraded stats from this, or it just simply allows you to equip higher item level gear, which then would be the sole basis along which your player power progresses. I know this sounds weird at first, but think about it – the most significant part of leveling today is that you can put on better gear, and the vast majority of player power derives from that and not the actual level number on your character.

I guess my main motivation is this – taking out leveling would allow modern WoW to better serve its gameplay and systems. Level doesn’t matter except when it becomes an obstacle, so take it out. For the sake of preservation, leveling and those mechanics would still exist in Classic, but modern WoW only trips over character level as a stumbling block and never really leverages it as a thing that has meaning and significance. So why even have it at all? You can complete a starting experience to be a Veteran Hero, which unlocks story progression through either BfA or an expansion story of your choosing. Completing that makes you a Veteran of the Fourth War (or you could do fun titles for each expansion encouraging alts to play through each expansion story to unlock them) and that title gives you access to what is defined starting tomorrow as level 50 content, and then you could do the Shadowlands story and get a title at the end of the story quests there, and progress that system onwards into the future. (There would be a myriad of other concerns like PvP, but this post is not to fully theorycraft a replacement for leveling!)

Now, I want to end this post by evaluating the core question in Wilhelm’s post – will Blizzard keep level squishing into the future? I don’t know that they’ll do it every expansion, but we are on track for every-expansion item level squishes at present, so I can also see that being a very real possibility. My thought is this – if you scale everything to gear in the first place, then you don’t have to do twice the work. However, I think Blizzard wants to believe (or honestly does believe, which is worse) that modern WoW is still, at its heart, an RPG, and I hate to admit it, but it really isn’t. That isn’t a bad thing, though – if Blizzard were to embrace that, I think you could see a more interesting gameplay model, focused on story progression, allowing players to progress through the story at a better and more meaningful pace and without the awful warts of the leveling system of today. Certainly, the level squish happening tomorrow primes players to derive less value from the number on their character frame than they already do, and I think that makes either outcome possible – continual squishes down to keep that compact 60-level progression, or a new system where the game can lean more heavily on the power signifiers that the game already heavily values over character level.

Either way, it will be interesting to see what path Blizzard takes.

I know which one I think is better, at least for now.

8 thoughts on “The Role of Levels in World of Warcraft – Do They Have A Place?

  1. Levels. They’re generally good for two things, gating content and providing a sense of progression. And they are the easiest way to do both in many ways. But when you toss levels in the air, take half away, and made all the old content almost level agnostic, so long as you’re between levels 10 and 50, are levels really doing either of those jobs anymore? You might be better served by tracking progression by handing out an achievement for every zone where you finish up the main quest line… something WoW does already. I still haven’t really come to grips with what the level squish is going to mean in a more base, feral way, how it is going to make player feel… how it is going to make me feel… when it has been done the way they’re planning to do it. We shall see. If nothing else, we still have WoW Classic.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. The funny thing is unlike the item squish iterations, the level squish on beta feels decent and even good. Nothing about it feels weird, other than catching yourself trying to say “I’m level….50” instead of thinking in current terms.

      Player reception might actually end up being positive on it, and I think that paves the way to just have WoW embrace what it already is and abolish levels altogether. I do think there will be outliers though, people who think of WoW as an RPG and see it through that lens are going to have some adapting to do, but it won’t be long before we can see that impact at a broader level. My guess is that the status of other content on beta and PTR is going to be a problem before the level squish, but I fully expect a few hot takes to come in close to immediately after servers go live.

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  2. I had assumed that this would go on forever as far as the level squish went – that at the end of ShadowLands, SL would become one of those Chromie Time thingies and the new expansion would become the L50 to 60 experience. Either that, or they plan on keeping this up to level 100 by which time they hope A Miracle Happens and they come up with the next solution to unweildiness.

    I am NOT a fan of removing the progression element (leveling) from a game that was designed around that concept from Day One. I might be less annoyed at it if they replaced it with something equally gratifying, but right now the overwhelming message is that “nothing is beyond being nerfed / obliterated / squished.”

    Kinda hard to become attached (or remain) to a game that messages that.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I used to feel largely the same way, but I think removing the progression tracking (levels) from a game that is already largely devoid of meaningful progression before a certain point (endgame) isn’t going to be the huge shift it would have once appeared to be. That’s where I think I came around on it – the level squish elicits an initial, visceral reaction of loss, but then when I think about how little my leveling has mattered on any of my characters, it kind of snaps into focus as something that could be excised from the game without impacting it too severely.

      While I proposed a base idea in the post, I do think it is a larger problem that Blizzard would have to fight with. Leveling has felt meaningless (IMO) for a long time now, and I don’t think the current paradigm of the game supports it in a meaningful way. Replacing it, however, is a difficult task, and it would certainly need a replacement mechanic of some sort, because there are people who still find value and joy in leveling. I’m not one of those people, but I couldn’t even say what the split is like in the playerbase, especially given that past the initial squish announcement last year, the level squish has felt pretty accepted in large part.

      I do think we’ll see a real test tomorrow, where there will be a non-zero number of players that decide losing levels (even with every disclaimer tied to it) isn’t really worth it and minimizes the player investment, and leave the game for it. It’ll be interesting for sure.

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  3. While I can’t really objectively argue any point you’ve made — I do admit to having quite a knee-jerk, allergic reaction to the very idea of removing levels entirely. I don’t mind the squish in concept, but aye — I do wonder about the ongoing plan.

    I think having a more permanent AA (Alternate Advancement) system might be an answer, borrow shamelessly from the Mastery system of Guild Wars 2 for example, or even champion levels in ESO, or perhaps EQ2’s AA system (although noting on this one: I haven’t seen it for *years* — it’s entirely possible what I’m thinking of isn’t there anymore or is entirely different. But at the time you could even do things like adjusting what percentage of your XP went into AA vs. normal levels.)

    This sort of goes to your earlier post on the throw-away nature of designs that Blizz is currently employing. I 100% agree and think that we need to see something that sticks with a character and continues to grow — even if they ultimately choose to cap out our maximum level from expansion to expansion.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ll admit to having had the same knee-jerk reaction at first to the idea of levels disappearing. The more I think about it, however, it feels like there is value in refocusing player progression effort where it fits and where the bulk of progression efforts actually happens. Now, if the systems remain temporary for that, it still feels really bad without levels – and your mention of other alternate progression mechanics would do well to slot in instead.

      I don’t know that I trust Blizzard to deliver a fully-formed system in that way, as the design of the squished mechanics has struggled from time to time and the current systems design seems like a weak point – but I’d be very curious to see them try it!

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  4. In a way, removing leveling would make the rented power systems more palatable. Knowing your character was always at maximum level changes the perception from “if I level up my character should have new abilities” to “oh, this area uses this different power system”. I’m not sure they could swing it, but it would be interesting to see them try. (Knowing there was a ‘forever max level’ would make attracting new players or pulling back in old players easier, too.)

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I think that is an interesting point – a lot of the rejection of changes to leveling comes from people with an attachment to the value of those levels. But to new players, levels are a wall to progress and play with their friends who are already playing, and I think it would be fascinating to see how Blizzard would sell the game in a world without levels. I haven’t been on a non-adblocked PC in a while, so I haven’t seen the banner ads I remember seeing about BfA with bullet points about the new content to see what their messaging about the expansion is, so I’m not sure how well they’re doing even trying to appeal to current non-players of the game.

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