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.