Character levels have been an essential part of the game design toolkit for a long time. In many cases, they work quite well, such as in single-player games and in tabletop environments with a set group of players. However, when it comes to massively multiplayer games, there are also quite a few problems with this design paradigm, especially if the game manages to persist for an extended period of time.
The prominent example that illustrates this is World of Warcraft that recently celebrated its 10th anniversary and, in a highly controversial move, introduced an opportunity for players to purchase a boost for their character to near-max level.
In this post, I will examine this design element, the upcoming Timewalking design element that is about to be introduced to the game to alleviate other issues with level-based design, and some alternative designs as featured in Ultima Online, EVE, and Guild Wars 2.
Character levels in a single-player experience
Character levels work well in a story-based, single-player experience. As the character’s power increases, he gains levels, and situations that were previously a challenge become a breeze. In an experience that is meant to last for a limited period of time, this increase in power is invigorating.
The more linear the story, the less importance there is on character customization, and thus another relative weakness of level-and class-based design is rendered meaningless.
Character levels in a massively multiplayer experience
Once the world becomes persistent, however, limitations of the model become more visible, especially as the game ages.
Disconnect between maximum-level content and leveling content. The maximum-level content starts to live a life of its own (typically through gear progression). While the leveling experience is supposed to prepare the player for the maximum-level content, in many cases the experience is actually so different that many of the viable behaviors learned during leveling need to be unlearned for the end game.
Obsolescence of content. In a level-based game, content is generally meaningful only for a small range of levels. While this is OK, maybe even desirable, for a story arc, it renders a lot of content obsolete in a persistent world. World of Warcraft is perhaps a unique practical journey into this space, as through its many expansions, it has huge amounts of obsolete content.
Difficulty of playing with friends new to the game. As levels increase the power of the character, the leveling journey becomes a chasm between new and old players. Want to get a friend of yours started in the game? Prepare to wait for a month or more (around 100 hours of playing WoW at the moment) for your friend to be able to join you in content that is meaningful for a max-level character.
Difficulty of trying out new ways to experience the game. A level-based game design typically also includes character classes to enable different types of experiences. A wizard or a warrior, the choice is made in the beginning, after which gaining levels for that particular experience begins. Looking ahead to 100 hours of work before any meaningful synergies between alternate characters is a demotivating experience.
World of Warcraft level 90 boost
World of Warcraft has gone through several expansion cycles, each adding new content and new character levels to the game. The original level cap was 60, and it has been subsequently increased to 70, 80, 85, 90, and most recently to 100 with the Warlords of Draenor expansion.
With the purchase of the Warlords of Draenor expansion, each player is given one free level 90 boost to any of his characters, with further boosts available for purchase in the in-game store for the rather hefty price of 50 Euros.
Offering this boost has been quite controversial, with many people unhappy that such a “pay-to-win” option appears in the game. However, given the long history of the game and its fundamental level-based design choices, offering such a boost is almost mandatory.
World of Warcraft has had a lot of players who have retired from the game at various points of time. These players have characters at the then-maximum level, be it 70 or 80, and if they were to return to the game, they would face a long grind before they reach current content. Not a very motivating sales speech. However, with the level 90 boost, they can instantly join the current expansion content, and while they cannot join the real end game content immediately, the content they can access is at least somewhat meaningful for maximum-level players. The same applies to people leveling up alternative characters.
Thus, the level 90 boost is a great compromise between “pay-to-win” (it does not make the character instantly super powerful) and the limits of the design paradigm used in World of Warcraft. It alleviates many of the design paradigm’s issues:
- Disconnect between maximum-level content and leveling content (bringing the character closer to maximum level makes the gameplay more similar)
- Obsolescence of content (in the way that you can skip obsolete content)
- Difficulty of playing with friends (level 90 content is at least somewhat meaningful for level 100 characters)
- Difficulty of trying out new ways to experience the game (shortcut for alternative characters)
World of Warcraft Timewalking
Blizzard recently announced that a new “Timewalking” feature would arrive to the game with the 6.2 patch (not yet released as of the writing of this post). Timewalking will allow players to enter old, obsolete, dungeons and have their characters’ power level (not abilities) scaled down so that this content provides a challenge, while also scaling the rewards up so that they will be meaningful for maximum-level characters.
This is a direct response to the obsolescence of content problem, and, if the players who enter the dungeons can be of different levels, it is also a partial response to the difficulty of playing with friends problem. Of course, it is also a bit nostalgic, so it also caters to the existing player-base as a nostalgic trip.
At first, Timewalking will only be available on specific weekend events, so it seems that Blizzard is still figuring out how useful it can be in overcoming some of the weaknesses introduced by other design choices.
How about not using levels? Ultima Online and EVE Online
Levels are not the only option for character advancement. They are so prevalent in part because they are rather simple on the surface, and in part because they were the first system, at the heart of the Dungeons & Dragons tabletop RPG (1974). Activity-based progression, where skills are gained as they are used, made its debut in Traveller (1977), and a mix between the two, where players can purchase skills freely with experience points has been around at least since GURPS (1986).
Activity-based progression was one of the key features of Ultima Online. In UO, character’s skills improved as they were used, and in many cases a character that was not fully developed was able to perform a limited set of tasks just as well as a character that had reached the skill point cap. The most notable exception was player-vs-player combat, in which a variety of skills was generally needed. UO prevented super-powerful characters from emerging with a cap on the total number of skill points a character can have.
EVE Online features an interesting character advancement system. Skills do not improve upon use, but rather the player selects the skills a character trains, and the character progresses in the selected skills regardless of whether the player is online in the game or not. Skills slowly become increasingly difficult to train, thus limiting character advancement in a soft way. It is basically an evolution of the GURPS skill model fitted to an online environment.
The model employed by EVE solves a lot of the problems prevalent in a level-based design. As the character gains more skills, it can be used in more roles, but even relatively new characters have suitable roles available to them in almost any circumstances, including PvP combat. Whereas in a level-and-class-based design each role needs its own leveling path, a skill-based design enables certain roles to be filled by less-progressed characters while for other roles you need a more developed character.
Reviewing the problems detailed earlier thus looks like this from this point of view:
- Disconnect between maximum-level content and leveling content: does not apply, even new characters can participate in high-level activities
- Obsolescence of content: does not apply, content is mainly based on player interaction
- Difficulty of playing with friends: does not apply, even new characters can participate in high-level activities
- Difficulty of trying out new ways to experience the game: does not apply, veteran characters can learn a wide variety of skills and thus experience new areas of the game
There is one caveat though. Both UO and EVE have a strong focus on player interaction. The challenges presented by the games are not, for the most part, based on the environment or monsters (PvE), but on interaction with other players, either hostile (PvP) or co-operative (PvP, crafting/mining/resource production).
Could the same model be used to present PvE-type challenges? Perhaps, but it is not obvious how that would work out. I will not go deeper into drafting such a new framework here.
Mitigating the weaknesses of level-based design: Guild Wars 2
Guild Wars 2 is a level-based game that has taken a different approach to the players’ feeling of power and content obsolescence. The system they use is called dynamic level adjustment.
Dynamic level adjustment actively scales the power level of players in almost all situations: in low-level areas and dungeons, all high-level players are scaled down to roughly the area’s level (while receiving rewards appropriate to their actual level), whereas in PvP areas all players are scaled to the equivalent of maximum level. Note that low-level players are not scaled up in PvE areas.
This approach eliminates most of the issues with level-based design at the expense of making the players feel less powerful: there are no areas in the game where even experienced adventurers cannot be challenged.
Guild Wars 2 also used to feature upleveling of characters in PvE (called sidekicking, thanks to its origins in City of Heroes MMORPG), but this feature was removed in the beta, because many people just chose to go straight to max-level content and ignore the path there altogether.
Reviewing the problems detailed earlier thus looks like this from this point of view:
- Disconnect between maximum-level content and leveling content: new characters can participate in high-level PvP activities, although they do need to level up for PvE
- Obsolescence of content: does not apply, content is challenging for all characters regardless of level and rewards are appropriate for their actual level
- Difficulty of playing with friends: new characters can participate in high-level PvP activities, experienced characters can meaningfully team up with low-level characters for low-level PvE content
- Difficulty of trying out new ways to experience the game: full experience requires maximum level, but high-level PvP, for example, is available right from the start
In addition to dynamic level adjustment, Guild Wars 2 is also taking a different stance regarding the prevalent paradigm of increased level cap in each expansion. Arenanet has stated that the level cap will not be increased, nor will there be new tiers of gear for max-level characters.
There are clear advantages to using a level-based character progression, not the least of which are its familiarity and relative simplicity. However, in persistent worlds, the level-based design paradigm suffers from many limitations, although it is possible to work around them.
World of Warcraft, given its long run, is the clearest example of the limitations of the classic level-based design, and its designers are increasingly working on mitigating the issues caused by this basic design choice. The level 90 boost and timewalking are both solutions aimed at mitigating the downsides, and while there are many vocal players who do not appreciate these features, they are necessary in order to keep the aging game viable and to lure in both new and returning players.
Other games, such as Guild Wars 2 (released in 2012, almost 8 years after WoW), have had the benefit of learning from WoW, among other things, and developed more sustainable level-based experiences. Obviously, the work done on this one area of the game is not the only feature to determine its life span, but in the long run it is one of the significant aspects of player retention and acquisition.
Photo: Birthday cookie by StarsApart @ Flickr (CC)