Go straight to max level, do not pass GO

Abuzz in the MMO blogs this week is an idea that was thrown out by devs in the EQ2 forum, which is to allow returning players to create a max level character. Note: They aren’t actually doing this (yet), just discussing the idea.

Syp wonders if this proposal was a wise thing to throw out to the player base as an idea (and a commenter reads it as a sign of desperation). Keen wonders how it would diminish the rest of the gameworld, particularly the level 1-89 parts. I figure it’s certainly easier than revamping the entire lower level game, WoW-style, to make it quicker for a new player to work through the game.

In many ways it’s surprising that so few games have experimented with selling max level characters. There’s no doubt that some players would be interested, why else would there be such a flourishing trade in MMO accounts? Disallowing players from skipping the levelling game completely has typically been one of the MMO sacred cows, because the levelling side of the game is considered to be a key part of the experience. Not only that, but being able to level subsequent alts more quickly via twinking/heirlooms/ etc is what passes for New Game+ in MMOs.

Offering a max level character to returning players doesn’t force them to forgo the levelling game. It’s still there if they want it on alts (or on the high level character). Offering a max level character to returning players also doesn’t give them a free pass to endgame, it likely still needs the equivalent of EQ2 gear and rep.

But it does make me think hard about  the split between the CRPG solo-friendly levelling game and the raid/PvP/group needed endgame in current MMOs. And even if there was no levelling game, nor any levels, a new player coming in when a game is 4 years old is still going to have a lot of catching up to do one way or another. And MMO class design tends to include complexity just for the sake of making the levelling path more interesting (ie. by being able to gain new powers on a regular basis). I know my LOTRO characters have a lot of rarely used abilities, for example. Being thrown into the middle of that by being handed a max level character is just an invitation for people to go look up the usual rotations online.

I also wonder how many other learning grinds could potentially be skipped. Would the games be less fun if you could pay to assign a maxed out crafting skill to your character?

Traditionally the progression path has been one of the more fun things about MMOs. But increasingly, experienced players  are looking to speed things up. In WoW if you have the gold (and a well stocked auction house), you could level a crafting skill in a few hours. Not much slow, careful exciting progression there.

I want to argue against offering max level characters to returning players, but increasingly I can’t find much of a justification. If it’s that or being left to languish for a month in the levelling wilderness, it seems like a logical option — even though it will effectively make the majority of the gameworld completely optional.

But one thing is clear, this generation of MMOs is uncovering weaknesses in the old MUD progression, class, and crafting models. Let’s hope devs on new games can learn something interesting from this.

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19 thoughts on “Go straight to max level, do not pass GO

  1. Yup, initially it was the levelling game that was exciting. WoW had a “what to do at level 60″ page on the website with some suggestions. BTW: “You’ve reached level 60 in World of Warcraft. It’s taken months, hundreds of quests…” – hmmm… by today’s standards this is quite funny.

    Nobody believed at this time that raiding/dungeons as “endgame” alone would be enough to keep people for extended periods of time, so “make an alt” was one of the suggestions.

    Maybe it is time to think again about virtual worlds, “gamified” or not, and progression through player levels and item. The older the game gets, the more “useless” areas are left behind.

    For some odd reason Guild Wars 2 will have some 80 levels or so, because people crave progression, which is true. It just strikes me as odd and backward, but there are always new players and they might prefer this kind of progression. Till they hit the cap, that’s it. Chars will be levelled down when they return to a lower level area, now I wonder how this will work out in practice… Guild Wars has shown with Sorrow’s Furnace, Factions, Nightfall and Eye of the North that “horizontal progression” is possible and fun, and now they are suddenly going vertical for GW2. I can’t say I am pleased about that.

    “But one thing is clear, this generation of MMOs is uncovering weaknesses in the old MUD progression, class, and crafting models. Let’s hope devs on new games can learn something interesting from this.”

    I hope they do. But taking a look at Rift and SWTOR, they don’t or won’t offer any change to the generic MUD progression scheme. Rift at least has the flexible class system and the name giving Rifts as their version of public quests. Sometimes I wonder because of what it is successful, more because of the tried and true or old and rotten depending on your point of view system or the few new elements. Let’s see how Rift handles the endgame, it seems to be the standard dungeon stuff so far.

    • Yeah, I was quite sad to hear that GW2 was going so gung ho for levelling, because I thought the flat levelling curve in GW was one of the more successful things about that game.

      But maybe the notion of levelling down will be successful. It’ll be interesting to see.

  2. The proposal for discussion about offering a max level character for free was really a question

    “would this be an ok way to make it easier to play with friends or others? We cannot fix the progression issues, but we can give you the choice to make it easier to play with others this way”

    It seems games tend to make the leveling itself shorter, but still not take the horisontal approach that Guild Wars has and make up some separate “end game”.

    Paragon Studios’ approach to make pretty much all content available for progression regardless of your level in City of Heroes is an ok approach I think also for fixing a design which did not quite intend that originally.

    If Guild Wars 2 is doing something similar it may work, perhaps they have some levels in there not to make the game too different from what many are used to.

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  4. Interesting thoughts. And yes, leveling multiple alts through the same content can be tedious. However there are other progression consider than just the progression.

    Leveling a character should teach you how a class works. Can you do this at max? Sure, but then what you’ll hear is how usless or flat characters feel. Because to make this learning curve easier you’ll have similar abilities crossing over. Eventually, every class is a hybrid with similar spells. Leaving you with Mages that feel like Ranger types.

    Also, moving down this road makes the game world smaller.

    Leveling become a giant instance you cross ofver. After that everything else is just dungeon trading.

    The MUD world was about the Adventure as much as it was about the “end game.”

    The problem is people don’t want the adventure. They want easy “pop in/pop out” kill stuff co-op play ala FPS but with a mini story line.

    I still say you’ll continue to see more and more big players transition to this format. I’m not sure it’s the “right” solution, but it’s what people want right now.

    I’m not sure if we’ll see the same “Golden Age” of mmorpg as we’re used to again. I’d like to say this will come full circle. If it does, it will probably be a couple of generations out. For now, I play my MMO and enjoy it. Who knows in 6/12/24 months from now. But today, I enjoy the adventure.

    • “They want easy “pop in/pop out” kill stuff co-op play ala FPS but with a mini story line.”

      One of the things I wonder is how many WoW players will migrate to Diablo 3 when it gets released, especially if Blizzard are smart and put something like an auction house into the D3 battle.net. Because in many ways it fits this playstyle to a T.

  5. It still wouldn’t get me to go back to EQ2. If they dropped the sub fee (not F2P stuff they have) maybe. Actually no, not even then. Maybe if they payed me…. maybe.

    It’s not hatred, it’s just not of interest to me anymore.

  6. Wow, this got long.

    Interesting topic. There are certainly two games, at least in WoW, 1.) level grind and 2.) max level, instance-based gear chases. You might separate a third, guild-based, end-game raiding. I, like many who live in 2), would like to be able to play the second with characters I haven’t been forced to take through the first.

    So, for instance, our guild needs another tank, and I started a Death Knight this month because I can’t stand the thought of leveling from scratch. The DK intro zone was great. Good lore, questionable morals, admittedly, and decent intro to DK specific talents and abilities. Imagine similar starting zones for “hero” druids, pallies, warlocks, etc. Not a bad compromise. What if we needed a healer? Hello, level 1.

    But now that I’m a DK in Outland, it’s the same ole same old. I really don’t want to run Zangramash again. At least in Cat I can run the quest chains I skipped leveling my main. There’s lots of Vashj’ir and the Egyptian-styled zones I never touched, and I’d like to take a look.

    I don’t think these clearly parallel quest chains in Cat were a mistake, either. Nor was the attempt to have the literal cataclysm remake level 1-60′s progressions new. Both are pretty obvious “New Game+” fixes. If I just started WoW, I get exactly zero from the cat-impacted starting zones. Are these progressions better? No, not really, my re-experience of levels 1-14 tells me, it’s just new.

    I’ve found myself thinking that some similar sort of forked quest progression, or one that allows DKs (and other classes) a *class-specific* (or even race-specific) alternative route through Outland and other once-and-done content would be great. The heirlooms (and access to gear via shared account gold) sorta do this, but only in that they make the progressions shorter and share the same logic as instant max level chars.

    That is, a max level char would skirt the issue completely/take heirlooms to their obvious endpoint. “[I]t’s certainly easier than revamping the entire lower level game,” is a heck of an understatement, and lets games off too easily. The DK was an interesting, mostly successful compromise for Wrath, but with Cat the DK is losing some of its prime positioning. A DK starting at a level somewhere between 65 and 75 makes more sense now, and to do it, you’re only making minor revamps the starting gear and area.

    I guess I’m thinking out loud to say that *Poof* max level chars seem an ill-thought out money-grab (see UO’s advanced characters). Hero classes, or even heroes (high level chars) in conventional classes with their own quick intro quest lines — combined with alternative and/or class-specific, sped-up quest progressions through old content is the way to go. In a sense, the Cat paradigm for 1-60 is a giant waste. You give old players a partial excuse to run 1-60 again, but new players are still stuck. Overlaying progressions, Choose Your Own Adventure style, makes more sense.

  7. I really don’t get why people want to level alts. It really kills immersion for me. I want one alter ego in the virtual world.

    IMO the endgame should allow you to continue to customize your main char with more training, more difficult questing, and epic events like gaining legendary weapons.

    If I have a mage, and I want a healing or a tank class my main should be able to learn how to do that, perhaps with some race limitations.

    And it should take as long as it takes to level a second alt, and have the requisite gear limitations.

    Hunter/Priest

    Mage/Druid

    Rogue/Shaman

  8. I want to argue against offering max level characters to returning players, but increasingly I can’t find much of a justification.

    I think the justification is simply that giving people max-level characters would also harm the levelling game for others. You could argue that it shouldn’t affect other people whether someone else wants to be max level instantly or not, but nothing happens in a vacuum. People skipping levelling would mean that levelling zones would be even emptier than they already are now, lots of people would run around at max level with little knowledge of their class etc. Also, if you give players a way to achieve something more efficiently, there will always be psychological pressure to do it like that all the time (see also: the dungeon finder and how many people use it even though they would actually rather group with people from their server instead).

  9. Uh, where did I say it was a sign of desperation? My post was mostly just on the fact a lead dev threw that question out to the crowd — and if it was appropriate to do so — and not so much the specifics of the question in question :)

  10. > Would the games be less fun if you could pay to assign
    > a maxed out crafting skill to your character?

    Wait… why pay? We already pay for the game. We pay a monthly fee. And now we should also pay to skip content we don’t like? That’s just wrong. Either allow it or not but don’t charge money for everything.

    It’s really time that consumer right start to make rules/laws about what’s allowed/disallowed in a game and what the companies have to offer for free.

    • Well, games with cash shops (like EQ2 and LOTRO) do often offer potions etc which will give a temporary boost to crafting xp to let people level crafting more quickly. This is along the same lines really.

      But it is a very interesting notion to wonder where consumer rights fit in, especially if policies change after you have already bought something.

      • You can’t compare that. A FTP game is designed to be boring without the cash shop items. That’s how they make money.

        The content in a subscription based MMO is designed to be fun to play, because they want to you continue to pay your subscription. I don’t see why I should pay an additional fee to be allowed to skip content which I don’t like.

      • Dunno man, do you think speed-levelling a crafting skill in WoW is fun?

        Having said that, the other reason not to encourage this kind of design is that it has a knock-on effect on the in-game economy. If people usually level crafting more quickly by buying materials on the auction house in-game, then letting them buy the skill for cash kills the lower level material market. That’s also food for thought, which doesn’t affect levelling xp for characters so much.

        Similarly, you could imagine a design that stimulated the in-game economy by letting crafters sell items which temporarily improved xp gain (eg. potion of learning, or somesuch). That way, people who wanted to level faster would have to farm up some gold and buy the items in game. I think that in a very real way, most of the stuff that’s sold in cash shops happens at the expense of boosting the in-game economy.

      • Oh no, I didn’t say WoW should do that. Not at all.

        I said IF they do it, it must be free because it’s not an additional service they develop for you (like the iPhone app) but you’re skipping content you’ve already paid for.

        And if they like to charge 20’000g for a skilled out trade skill, that’s fine. But not Euros.

  11. I like this idea for World of Warcraft, as long as they alter the current levelling process to something much slower, like it used to be.
    This would mean that those who want to skip the whole levelling process to get straight to the end zone can do, and those who want to enjoy questing and exploring zones at a leisurely pace without levelling too fast, can do too.

  12. “this generation of MMOs is uncovering weaknesses in the old MUD progression, class, and crafting models”

    Hmm, I’m not so sure that’s the case. MUD gameplay as I remember it didn’t have a particularly big elder game problem, nor was levelling up generally viewed as being as unpleasant and boring as many MMO players find it today (despite typically taking longer per level!) and the class system was certainly not one you would just divide up along tank/DPS/healer lines.

    I think the problem is not the mechanics themselves but the unthinking transplantation of MUD gameplay into these larger scale games, often with tweaks made to supposedly help with the wider scope of such games but which damage the original system. eg. Reducing the penalty of death so that levelling up becomes a routine treadmill rather than an interesting obstacle, increasing the max player level and thus rarifying the number of players you can effectively group with, etc.

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