The Pros and Cons of the New Leveling System in World of Warcraft (10-50 Edition)

So I finally did it. After having a Kul Tiran Druid sitting since I unlocked the race over a year ago, I took this character from 10 (the new Allied Race starting level) to 50 using Chromie Time.

Firstly, I want to talk about my experiences with leveling briefly, because I’ve sprinkled bits of them in all over the place in the almost 4 years I’ve been writing about WoW and if you’re new here or haven’t read the backlog, it might be unclear.

Leveling is one of my least favorite activities in WoW. It is good for passive timewasting, and the first time through an expansion is an adventure that is interesting, but for me, I just don’t grok with leveling as an active participant. Leveling is a thing I do while watching YouTube or listening to podcasts, when I don’t need my brain to be fully engaged and don’t want to just immerse myself into Azeroth and play. After 15 years of play, I have every class at level cap, some multiple times, a couple of opposite faction alts at max level, and so generally, leveling every expansion is a relatively easy process – more or less.

My experience in BfA is that with leveling being a sort of intended pastime activity, with Allied Races and the Heritage Armor systems around, I sort of burned out. In late Legion, I leveled a Lightforged Draenei and Void Elf to 110 and got their armor, and that is where I’ve stayed for BfA until very recently. I leveled all my 110s to 120 save for the allied races and my original Shaman (every time I tried to level as Enhancement it felt really bad and I gave up), and when I started to tune out of the game hardcore earlier this year, I gave up on getting anything else near the cap for the expansion. I made sure to unlock every Allied Race (had all unlocked except Vulpera, which I now have thanks to the relaxed requirements in 9.01), and rolled alts of each – I have a Mechagnome mage, a Dark Iron Monk, a Nightborne Mage, a Highmountain Hunter, and a Zandalari Paladin.

When the new leveling experience came out, the first character I thought of was my Kul Tiran Druid, right away. He has a dumb meme-y name (Thiccbranch), he looks like an old man, and while I’ve never mained Druid in a raid setting, I did alt raid on Resto during Cataclysm and got very close to playing Guardian tank in Legion before the Demon Hunter bug bit me. I wanted the Kul Tiran Heritage Armor because I like the sea captain look, even if it doesn’t really fit a Druid at all (I think a rogue would be excellent, and an Arms warrior could be low key kind of interesting aesthetically with it). Lastly, I really like Kul Tiran in general because they’re the only fully unique Allied Race, in my opinion. Mechagnome customizations are cool and different, but the animation rigs make clear where all the regular bits and the motion paths come from. Zandalari can stand proud and upright, but they’re still trolls at their roots. Vulpera have fun customizations too, but they have a lot of the character of Goblins. Kul Tiran are just…different. They’re fat, they have a fully unique animation rig, and I think they’re visually more interesting because of it. In the same way I like Pandaren, I like Kul Tiran characters – there’s a certain spirit in them that the rest of the game kind of misses, I think.

So I set out to level mine. What were my choices going in?

Chromie Time, 2012: Mists of Pandaria is an expansion that kind of sits in a weird dead zone in my memory. Like, I remember launch vividly, being a raid leader, having shitty healers, and then my personal life exploded and I left during Throne of Thunder and only came back just prior to Siege of Orgrimmar, so a lot of the daily gameplay specifics of it kind of escaped my brain. It was the first expansion I really wanted to try with Chromie Time, because I loved the aesthetic and everything about Pandaria, really. I used to keep the CE soundtrack CD from MoP on loop in my car on my drive to work every morning in 2012-2013, because it was epic, different from WoW but also fit with it surprisingly well, and it had a certain calmness in a lot of tracks that was contrasted with an underlying tension that was enthralling.

Heirlooms, Yes, Experience Bonuses, Also Yes: Heirlooms don’t give their old flat experience bonuses any more, but instead offer a set bonus tier which includes receiving additional benefit from rested XP and the fact that they level with you so you don’t replace those slots until 50. However, in addition to that (which was good because I had banked max rest XP), I used my remaining Draught of Ten Lands from 7th Legion tokens, which offer a 10% boost, and I did the last 14 levels with the WoW 16th Anniversary Event 16% bonus. While I am certain this impacted my pacing a fair amount, I don’t think it will address the content completion rate, which I’ll get into later.

Now, let’s talk the actual process and experience.

Skill Pacing Is Great: Genuinely, I think the skill pacing under the new path is much improved. The only problem is that the pruning of the ability lists over the years still means that you encounter levels with no new toys, but Blizzard has attempted to offset this by adding dungeons along the way at levels where nothing else pops up. Unlike the road from 1-120, where this still leaves massive gaping chasms without stuff changing, in 1-50, it feels so much better. It doesn’t have the magical progression of the original game, where every level offers something via talents and spell ranks, but it fits the modern game and for someone like me, has a different but still enjoyable charm.

Content Pacing Is…Eh, Less So: One of the weird things I think scaling has done is that quests that used to be paced by levels are no longer paced out as such. When you go to a quest hub, everything is there and you’re just having exclamation points thrown at your minimap with reckless abandon. Unless something is chain-gated through story progression, you’re going to be able to pick it up. Want to do Order of the Cloud Serpent quests at 17? Sure, why not? Want to be immediately beat over the head with the Temple of the White Tiger quest that used to be a wonderous capstone to the Pandaria experience? It’ll pop up far, far too early! I wouldn’t go as far as to say it damages the experience, but there are definitely cases (like the Temple one I listed above) where it does harm the majesty of the intended original experience, where the OG design has you progress the story to a point where the themes are apparent and the opening of the Vale is a huge deal and feels really powerful, where in Chromie Time, it’s just a marker on your map that can, depending on your route, introduce you to characters you haven’t met yet and discuss themes and story ideas that haven’t been presented to you yet. If you’re trying to get immersed, it isn’t ideal.

One thing that I think has definitely improved over the 7.3.5 scaling route, though, is the actual completion rate of content. Doing MoP for 80-90 on my Void Elf meant doing only a portion of Jade Forest and I was off again, and while that was with heirlooms with the XP bonus they had at the time, cutting my experience gain in half would have only really gotten me all of Jade Forest and maybe the first hub of Valley of the Four Winds. It sucked, frankly. With Chromie Time, I did all of Jade Forest, all of Valley of the Four Winds, all of Krasarang Wilds, all of Veiled Stair (all 4 quests!), and about 80% of Kun Lai Summit before I hit 50, got the Chromie Time ejection warning, and was booted out (oh, by the way, don’t bother porting anywhere to start questing on your own until it boots you, because it will kick you to your faction capital regardless of whether or not you are in a zone that applies to your Chromie Time selection). Now, I had a variety of XP boosts through a good chunk of the process, and had those not been there, I could have probably also finished Kun Lai and started in on Townlong Steppes before hitting the cap. My problem with this pacing is simple – it is better in that I get to see far more of the story and relive the expansion more fully, which is great, but it still means that you are very unlikely to actually get to finish the whole base story of your chosen expansion before getting the boot.

I know that asking any MMO team to spend development resources on legacy content is a temptation away from new stuff, but I think this system would work far, far better if the XP curve was balanced by expansion to ensure that quest completion through at least the full base experience of the expansion in question would be needed for 50. You’d have to counterbalance that with accounting for quest kills, random aggro, and such, but I think it would be possible to get very, very close. For me, it would be preferable – I remember really liking Townlong Steppes quests but especially Dread Wastes, and those are the two zones I never so much as stepped foot in. Better, yes. Ideal, still a bit short of that.

Scaling Is Fine: The team learned the hard lessons of the original scaling attempts in 7.3.5 where difficulty in the open world went up for leveling so as to teach you a rotation. Now, the game lets you sort-of steamroll enemies if you have a reasonable competency with the class you’re playing, but it doesn’t let you get super-overpowered like a full heirloom set used to back in the day. One-shotting normal mobs is rare, but can happen with the right ability and a lucky crit (Starsurge says hello and goodbye to your health bar), but you still feel powerful for class mastery, which is a good thing. Generally, your holy trinity role corresponds to how aggressive you can be – healers and tanks can pull more because it takes longer, but DPS have to pull in bursts to manage CDs and health. Playing Balance Druid meant mastering bursty pulls, where I’d pull 1-3 mobs and hit them with basic rotational stuff to build Astral Power, and then after they died, pulling 5-6, hitting Starfall or Starsurge combos on the group and watching them melt. I died a couple of times, but it never felt too unfair and when it happened, it was because I was trying to be too aggressive without preparation.

I do say “fine” and not great, however, because there are still moments where the scaling feels like it tips the scale a bit back in the wrong way. The Sha spirits in the Temple of the White Tiger quest, for example, had sharply higher health pools than I remember, in terms of time to kill, and I did that quest about 9 times pre-6.0 and twice more in 6.0 after the first item squish, and none of those attempts (even on my least liked class Rogue) felt as bad as doing it now did. There are also a few points at which incoming damage feels scaled far too high, like a few quest mobs (not even bosses or named, just regular mobs) could chunk my health bar by 20% in a hit from an unavoidable melee attack or special. These points were few and far between, and rarely did they do more that annoy or inconvenience, so I think the team struck a pretty good balance here.

Quest Design Is As Out of Date as the Content: I’ve played WoW since around 8 months after initial launch, and while it is a sort of part of my story as a person, writer, and player, the old design paradigms always feel weird and disjointed with the current ones. Having new players run the newest content is a great way to fix this for them, but for those of us doing Chromie Time, it hits a little less effectively. For most, running Warlords of Draenor is the best because it has a clean story progression with focused hub and spoke zone design (fitting as the expansion in which they wanted to remove flying), bonus objectives with piles of experience, treasures with XP tied to them, and a pretty quick flow. Legion is pretty good, although questing sprawls a lot more there than in WoD, and MoP is fine, but before that, you’re dealing with a much worse flow. It might be better subjectively in terms of world building, sense of scale, and the like, but in gameplay terms, it is a lot of ping-ponging, fedexing, and threadbare dialogue tied to quest hubs of little consequence or story significance. And that is fine, but it means that Burning Crusade (which I took on my Mag’Har Orc warrior) is absolutely godawful to play in, where modern expansions are fun, delightfully flowing experiences that gently push you between hubs and batch quests up in ways that allow you to make meaningful choices about how to proceed (which is helped and sometimes hurt by scaling just throwing everything that isn’t locked deeper in a quest chain at you at once).

MoP felt like a good middle ground, and I’m making it a goal to do every expansion at least once, but man, the decision to play TBC or even Wrath content in Chromie Time feels like a mistake, a trap choice, and it does sort of cause bad friction.

One fun thing is that you can get a time capsule of pop culture that you probably missed questing outside of the original service dates for each expansion because of XP curve changes and questing experience changes. In Krasarang Wilds, there is a whole quest that basically just serves to make a Skyrim “arrow to the knee” joke, and I was like, holy shit, this joke is 9 years old, and then I had that moment of like, “oh yeah, this content is 8 years old” and then I felt a bit despondent about the forward march of time and moved on. Speaking of the movement of time…

Chromie Time as a Mechanic Has Some Wrinkles to Smooth Out: As the internet’s foremost Cataclysm defender, I would love to do the 80-85 experience again in Chromie Time. One wrinkle – there isn’t an option to commit to just that. The only choice that is cataclysm-adjacent is a weird anachronistic route that has you do Classic zones and quests until 30, at which point you can then move on to either other Classic zones or do Cataclysm’s 80-85 zones. That sucks, frankly – it has as many zones and as much content as Pandaria, but it gets stuck gated in this way. Now, I do sort of understand why they might have done that – all the zones were ones you could fly in from the start, and 30 is when you unlock flying, so it sort of has an intuitive logic about it, but at the same time, I did at least level one alt in the day through Cataclysm without a flying mount, and it is indeed possible and kind of fun. I’d rather have the choice, with a disclaimer that it might suck, than simply not have the choice at all whatsoever to do just those zones from 10-50, because I feel like they tell a cohesive story and that is the one that will be most lost to time because of this change in leveling.

Outside of that, Chromie Time is fine enough for the most part, although I will comment that having to run to just the main faction capital to turn it on feels like an unnecessary restriction (albeit one that fits with the Exile’s Reach/Allied Race starting experiences). Also, the countdown timer upon dinging 50 feels really bad and while it presents in-lore well enough as an idea, it creates a weird logjam of stuff to do right away. You get ported to your Embassy, given the Heart of Azeroth quest, and then have to do basically the whole BfA introduction, and then you need to unlock world quests, gain access to the enemy faction zones in BfA, do Nazjatar, do the Azerite Essence chain, do Mechagon (if you want, the game doesn’t force you to), do the N’Zoth quests to get the cape, and because you didn’t do BfA, the minimap is just clobbering its own readability with golden exclamation marks, some for world quests, some to go do zone stories, some for unlocks, and all of it is just a chaotic clusterfuck of unreadability. The Shadowlands approach to alt leveling is going to be vastly superior simply because it marks the whole leveling story as done the second you confirm you really want to do it, so the game gives you a much cleaner read on things. This is an artifact of being prepatch, where Chromie Time is clearly designed for the future but we still live in the dingy greys and browns of Battle for Azeroth and so nothing can be quite that simple or smooth.

Overall? I had fun with my experience and it actually was enjoyable for me quite often, which for how I approach leveling an alt, means it has improved a lot. Your mileage may vary, but speaking for myself, I think this experience sets WoW on a clearly better path that makes the modern game a more streamlined and current experience that is neatly aligned with the modern design paradigm, even as it also introduces some rough spots through systems that can’t fix all the things automatically.

4 thoughts on “The Pros and Cons of the New Leveling System in World of Warcraft (10-50 Edition)

  1. I’d have a couple of arguments about content pacing.

    I think it’s great you don’t get to complete all expansion zones, because you will have some room for variety later. My experience iwth Pandaria has left out Krasarang and Townlong untouched (all other zones completed), and I may take a slightly another route if I go there on another alt.

    By 50 you perfectly understand how the continent ticks, even if you don’t do all zones in full. And anyways, the story resolution happens in raids and endgame aka extra zones – so you’re not supposed to see everything during leveling. It does not hurt to come back later and hit all the remaining zone and raid/dungeon stories at level cap if you feel them to be a must-see.

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  2. I still wonder why Blizzard decided to do unintuitive world scaling instead of player scaling. They’ve wasted time on rescaling everything, didn’t do any future proofing (what happens in the next expansion? Chromie Time stays 10-50 and you have freedom only up to Shadowlands? Shadowlands joins Chromie Time and they have to rescale it to 10-60 and also rescale all the previous content up to 60? Shadowlands and players are scaled back to 50 and new expansion becomes 50-60 content?), completely ruined difficulty and didn’t solve the problem of big dead world outside of whatever is current expansion. Proper way would’ve been optional buff that scaled you back to maximum level of the zone you are in and scaled rewards up to your real level.

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  3. I just posted about how much I’m enjoying the later expansion questing, which I’ve never seen before. Compared to the Burning Crusade stuff I did first it’s a different game altogether. Some of the storylines in Vol’Dun have been sufficiently interesting for me to want to see them through to the end, which is not something I often say in any game.

    The whole compulsion people have to “finish” a zone or a storyline completely mystifies me. There are only two reasons I can see – it’s compelling content, so you want to see it all or it’s a pre-req to something else you feel you can’t do without, as flying has become. Other than that, why even consider carrying on with a zone, hub or questline that you’re not enjoying or feel you’ve seen enough of? It’s a game, not a job. Just move on, you’re done!

    To that end, any change that opens up more quests and quest hubs faster and with fewer pre-reqs is excellent design in my book. I love how I can travel all over the map now and get quests everywhere. Of course, I don’t have much of a point of reference to know whether that’s a change that came with the new leveling process or whether it’s how the newer expansion zones always worked. I’ve played plenty of MMOs that forced you to complete one hub before the next would give you quests, though (or hit level gates) and I’d love to think we’ve said goodbye to that stilted design for good.

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    1. For as much as I often have a dim outlook on the older quests in WoW, I think that they are good design for their time and many still hold up in gameplay terms, but the newer quests are designed with a narrative running them that I think makes it a little more fun to follow. Vol’dun (if you’re playing Horde) is a fun story that has some interesting twists and I’ll say it is worth doing all the way through.

      I also agree with the completionist compulsion. I know that my desire to finish zones isn’t always rational, and the places where I enjoy the zones (like the Mists of Pandaria leveling I just did) are things I can still go back and complete if I want. Burning Crusade – eh, I’m doing it for the sake of writing about it later, a self-imposed burden, and I guess to be fair, once you leave Hellfire Peninsula, I remember it being better!

      Totally agree on the quest hubs being open. There are minimal flow breaks in the new experience from simply opening everything wide, and I think it is actually better for it in most cases, with only a few sore spots where the story purpose of a given quest is better served through some gating. It actually makes some of the design quirks apparent, like being able to do what used to be a endgame faction immediately raises the question of why such a requirement as being level-capped exists for content with no power rewards in the first place.

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