WoW! Thoughts! — On the Problem of Levels in World of Warcraft

Thoughts on how levels are a boon and a curse to WoW for endgame content.


Blizzard recently announced that in Patch 5.3, they will be lowering the amount of experience needed to level from 85 to 90 by 33%.  While Blizzard has lowered experience levels for older content before, to do this while that expansion is still current is unheard of.  Fundamentally, this highlights a problem Blizzard is lucky to have: the problematic effect of levels on an aging MMORPG.

Leveling is an RPG staple that goes back to the genre’s D&D roots.  It is intended to represent that characters grow and become more powerful as they progress.  Not only do characters gain attribute points with each level, but they often gain new skills or talents.  It is an abstract representation of the fact that as a warrior spends greater and greater amounts of time in battle, he will learn how to be a better fighter through simple repetition.  This is why experience points are used as the analogue measure of when a character has reached a new level.

Vanilla WoW and the early expansions were able to take this staple and use it appropriately.  This allowed Blizzard to design the game with a leveling path in mind.  Zones were each given level designations so that players would travel the world as they grew stronger.  Additionally, this served to gate some areas to newer players.  While there was no literal barricade to stop a new character from drifting into the Plaguelands from Tirisfal Glades, the level 50 creatures patrolling the zone would make sure that no one would get too far.  As Blizzard has refined their approach, they have used these content gates to direct players through content in the new zones.

Pandaria tells a story of characters coming to the continent in the Jade Forest. They wander  the Krasarang Wilds and Valley of the Four Winds meeting the locals before traveling North to Kun Lai Summit and contending with the Yaungol invasion.  Players discover the Yaungol were forced from the Townlong Steppes by the Mantid, who are revealed as victims of the Sha in the Dread Wastes; the very same Sha released in the Jade Forest.  By splitting the story amongst the zones of Pandaria in such a way that the quests (when done in order) tell the story as players level up so they can move onto the next zone and continue the plot, Blizzard has mastered the art of storytelling through questing.  While there are currently enough quests such that players will out-level a zone before completing the narrative, often, the finale is rewarding enough that players will want to finish before moving on (or at least come back and finish the story after level-capping).

Blizzard’s problem in Mists is that this has been an end-game heavy expansion.  Even after a player plays through all the zones, there are factions in each zone that players can return to at level 90 and continue the story.  There’s even a zone solely intended for max level players: the Vale of Eternal Blossoms.  These daily quests have been driving the tale of Pandaria beyond the initial zones and through each subsequent patch.  Blizzard wants players to enjoy the current content — enough that they’ve made a guide for what to do after hitting 90 to prepare for the Isle of Thunder.

Blizzard knows there are always new players coming to the game, or older players looking to level alts and play in the new content, so they continue to develop ways for players to speed through their outdated work.  For example, the experience amount for leveling through older expansions has consistently (until now) been reduced upon the launch of the next expansion.  Additionally, Blizzard’s recruit-a-friend program gives players a way to bring friends into the game and give them experience buffs to make getting to level 90 a breeze.  Heirlooms are also a common approach for speed-leveling alts.

Even the new monk class and the pandaren race have been given buffs that allow them to level much quicker than other characters.  Blizzard knows that players want to experience all that Pandaria has to offer.  That includes all the level 90 content, and they are not going to stand in the way of letting players get to that content as quickly as possible.  In fact, the only way they could let players access that content quicker would be to remove levels altogether, and that might not be a bad idea.

Levels work well for single player games where there is a distinct story and you want players to feel like they are improving as they progress through the story.  In an MMO like WoW, levels can be applied early, but as the world grows, levels begin to create some strange situations.  The primary function of leveling is acquiring skills and talents.  In WoW, these skills and talents are distributed to players throughout the leveling process both as an enticement (only 100 XP until my next level and new skill!) and to help players understand how to play their class.  It is this reason that players are able to change their race and faction, but they are tied to their class.

Blizzard doesn’t want a character to level a warrior and then at 90, switch to a mage.  Class mechanics are all different, and players need to be proficient with them.  This is the true game aspect of Warcraft.  The level grind before players hit max level and are expected to participate in cutting edge group content is intended to prepare players to perform in that group content.  Especially since Cataclysm, Blizzard has continued to push raid situations (such as battles with void zones that need to be avoided — the proverbial fire that you should not stand in) into non-raid content as a way of giving players raid experience without requiring them to learn on the fly.

The problem with skill allotment, though, is that many classes are already beginning to feel button bloat by having too many skills to balance.  Each expansion, Blizzard perfects each class’s rotation only to have to integrate a new (and powerful) skill when the next expansion rolls around.  Players expect new skills as they level, but most classes are already as functional as they can be.  There is little for anyone to gain by Blizzard catering to our base expectations of more skills, and it will be interesting to see how Blizzard deals with this when announcing Mists‘ follow-up.

The way around leveling may actually be to change what levels are measured.  At level 90, Blizzard still gates their content with the ilevel of player’s gear.  This dictates an order for players to progress and increase power without adding skills.  Functionally, Blizzard could get rid of player levels, replace it with gear ilevels, and the game could continue just as it is now; with zones available to a character indicated by the ilevel of gear required.   The only difference would be that players can buy higher level gear on the auction house, whereas leveling can only be acquired through time.  Blizzard would need to restrict some gear availability to ensure that no one could jump into an end level raid before figuring out their role first.

As much as the old content is there for players to enjoy, Blizzard knows that old is old.  The strange thing about Blizzard’s decision is that they are showing that the definition of old has shifted.  No longer does old denote the prior expansion; old is everything that is not in the most recent patch or two.  Blizzard wants to get all of their players (even the alt-oholics) into the Throne of Thunder, and this experience reduction is a sign of that.  Really though, it’s a sign that the leveling model of player progression is starting to buckle under Blizzard’s design philosophies.  Blizzard will probably raise the level cap in the next expansion and continue with the formula they have established, but it would be exciting if they left the level cap at 90, or removed levels altogether as a way of making a more welcoming World of Warcraft.

WoW! Blurbs!

No Patch 5.3 this week!  Come back, one year!

Battlefield Barrens preview.  It can’t be any harsher than Barrens chat.

New story explaining what happens to Sunwalker Dezco’s kids.  Holy Cow!!! Pandaria needs a daycare center!

Nick Zielenkievicz
Nick Zielenkievicz
Nick Zielenkievicz

Senior Producer

Host of WoW! Talk! and The Tauren & The Goblin. Sometimes known as the Video Games Public Defender. Wants to play more Destiny and Marvel Heroes but WoW is all-consuming. Decent F2P Hearthstone player. Sad that he lost the Wii that had Wrecking Crew on it. Would be happy if the only game ever made was M.U.L.E. Gragtharr on Skywall-US. Garresque on Ravencrest-US.

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