Tobold's Blog
Thursday, April 08, 2010
Ramblings about the difficulty of leveling in World of Warcraft

Blizzard is fueling the hype over the next World of Warcraft expansion, Cataclysm, by giving out more information about proposed class changes this week. We probably reached the point already where people are more interested in the upcoming expansion than in the expansion we are currently playing. Instead of joining the discussion of details, like "omg, blood is the new tanking spec for death knights!", I would like to zoom back a bit, and talk about a larger issue, the leveling of new characters in Cataclysm.

Cataclysm is a somewhat unusual expansion in that it contains a significant amount of new low-level content. Not only are many people going to level new goblins and worgen, there will also be an increases interest in the level 1 to 60 game due to the revamp of old Azeroth. From a business point of view that makes a lot of sense. Blizzard recently revealed that only 30% of players trying out the free trial get past level 10, so making the game more appealing to new players by giving them more options, and making early quests more interesting, can attract more potential customers. The problem with that approach is that many veteran players will not enjoy leveling yet another character, because for somebody who knows WoW well, the leveling game is lacking challenge.

The curious thing about this is that normally this is a problem which a MMORPG should not have. As long as you are leveling up, you *should* be easily able to choose the level of challenge which is perfect for you, by choosing to do quests and fight monsters of a lower or higher level than you. Unfortunately that does not work very well in World of Warcraft, because the reward structure actively discourages fighting higher level monsters, and there is a rather low cap on how much higher level quests you are able to accept.

Fighting monsters that are orange or red to them is possible for skilled players. But such combats take significantly more time than fighting green or yellow mobs, and only give minimally more xp per fight. Thus even if you are skilled, the optimum for leveling is doing easy green quests to fight easy green mobs, because that will get you the most xp per hour, and level you up fastest. The reward structure directs players towards the most boring leveling content. Furthermore, while farming easy green mobs skill doesn't make much of a difference. No wonder a lot of players proclaim that the "real" game of World of Warcraft only starts at the level cap.

It is easy to see that this isn't optimal game design. While leveling should be accessible for new players, even if they aren't very skilled, it would obviously be better if it was obvious that facing tougher challenges would be well rewarded. And the only thing that would need to change is how much xp you get for tackling quests and mobs that are above your level. That would make leveling more fun for veteran players, plus allow them to use their skills to advance faster. As an added bonus it would encourage new players to learn how to play their characters better. Basically the xp curve of quests and monsters should be designed in a way that the higher the challenge and the risk, the more xp per hour your earn. So the time a player needs to kill a monster or to do a quest has to be taken into account, and the fact that more challenging monsters take longer to kill has to be compensated. Basically the xp per hour curve should not have an optimum like it does now, but steadily go up with increased challenge.

I'm all for making content accessible to even the most casual players, but that doesn't mean that the leveling game has to be void of all challenge and fun for more experienced players. It is good to have an "easy mode", but it shouldn't be rewarded better than challenging gameplay. Attracting new subscribers is a good idea, but it should be done without boring to death the existing subscribers.
Are you suggesting increasing the XP multiplier for red mobs/quests and making it even smaller for gree mobs/quest? I could go for that.
Blizzard recently revealed that only 30% of players trying out the free trial get past level 10, so making the game more appealing to new players by giving them more options, and making early quests more interesting, can attract more potential customers.

I think this is a gross misinterpretation of that 30% statistic.

There are plenty of reasons why this statistic is true that have nothing to do with failed user adoption.

Or put another way, I don't think you fully understand how most of these Trial accounts are being used. They are throw away accounts that cost nothing.

I've personally probably created a dozen of them to test/write LUA scripts in a separate window while crafting and doing other stuff on my main account.

Likewise, I've always used them on occasion while not subscribed to take a look at UI changes or touch base with someone in-game.

Then you have all the hackers, cheats, botters and such that use these accounts as a testing ground. And while I don't have a G15 keyboard, I'm sure plenty of people have created Trial accounts to test some more questionable macros.

When something is FREE, you can't really control all the possible unintended ways it is going to be used. And Trial accounts are perhaps one of the most abused parts of WoW.
In my recollection, yellow quests used to be way more effective.
I think there is a reason why Blizzard did not do your (otherwise very good) solution: it would be necessary to ban "helping a friend".

If doing red quests are the best XP/hour, than being boosted by a friend is the fastest way to leveling. To avoid this, Blizzard must hard ban this activity (for example you can't complete quests if grouped with a 5+ higher level AND if a non-grouped higher level damages your tagged monster, or heal you the monster is greyed out).

Otherwise the optimal would be: picking all the red quests, lvl 80 completes them, you break party and turn in the quests.

Of course Blizzard would never do my suggestion as "helping a friend" is the nicest thing you can do. They rather set the XP-difficulty curve to make helping ineffective (you get more XP killing green monsters alone than during boosting)
I'm just glad they are revamping 1-60. Hopefully it will completely revitalize the low level game and cause a lot of people to roll new alts and experience the new content.

I'm all for horizontal expansion. Cataclysm is giving both vertical and horizontal, which I think is a really smart move.
I think you are falling for what WoW has mastered so well. The game is easy to trick you into thinking you are awesomely skilled. And it worked on you.

You are basically saying "I am super skilled, I just don't do anything difficult because the game discourages it." Maybe that's true, maybe it isn't. Everyone thinks that, most of them are not skilled.

The current WoW allows average players to think they are "1337." If you gave larger rewards for difficult things, most people would fail, and it would show the majority of players that they are wrong and they are not skilled.
The leveling game is becoming more absurd as we write. With the dungeon finder I didn't do a single quest with my lvl65 warrior after lvl 15. I tank/dps through all instances and do BGs.

Especially BGs are worth a lot of exp. And BGs as well as instances bring along much better (looking)loot.

Despite his usual social-rambling Gevlon does have a point here:

Blizzard implemented the absurd penalthies for killung mobs outside of your narrow level bracket, because they didn't have a choice.

Remove the penalthies and people will (rightly) complain that WoW enforces grouping. Banning grouping would be more than stupid, if even possible without making WoW even less immersive. Yes, it's still possible.

Until now people looked at the better loot in instances/BGs as a bonus. This is about to be turned upside down!
People start to look at the inferior loot in 'normal' questing as a penalthy, which they do not understand.

So my prediction is that Blizzard will introduce better loot for normal grouping (some months after Cataclysm launched), because soloing is simply more of a hassle than grouping nowadays. It is less accessible.

On the difficulty level while leveling: It's out of control in instances.

As a def warrior I can go through instances and pull 2-4 groups of same level mobs. Then I aoe them down with thunderclap and cleave. I have enough CDs, especialy the new shield block to make me invincible for 10 seconds on a small CD. I also have last stand, health potions and of course shield wall or even fear and the arathi trinket.

Threat is not issue at all after the first thunder clap.

I have been part of groups that do monastary runs with two big pulls. That last one includes the endboss. They are same level. 70% of the damage is done by the tank. If the DDs are bad up to 100% can come from the tank.
A skilled healer finishes this kind of run with 100% mana.

People level to 60 with this kind of strategy.

The only instances that do not allow this kind of (incredibly unimmersive!!!) power leveling are the original lvl60 instances. I was surprised about how hard they can still be even today. (Compared to the previous instances!). There are moving patrols, the instances are non-linear, not streamlined .... and a hell of a lot of fun !

Until you hit outland and.. well. Blizzard needs to tackle this problem. There is a hell of alot of content in the old world.
Especially the old 60 dungeons. And it's all meaningless, because the green club of the bear is of item level 85 and the blue drop of the endboss of scholomance is item level 65.

It's a massive waste of content once again (in addition to the whole leveling world you do not visit due to better loot in instances). And it is an unimmersive one.

Revamping WoW is necessary. Blizzard does the right thing. I just fear that they did not know what amount of world waited ahead of them when they started this journey.

All the ney-sayers who complain that a revamp is a cheap expansion have no idea. There is incredibly much to do. Perhaps even some reconsideration of the idea that all players should be max lvl and maxitemlevel as soon as possible. Blizzard does have enough content and new players are starting to play WoW every day.

The dungeon finder already produces enough population to enjoy the low lvl game.
I'm currently playing a game where you start at level 1 and you can kill the lower level monster to receive the minimum experience for your current level.
But you can also go kill higher level monsters and get higher experiences from them.

But the game only takes in consideration the level of the monster for the experience gained!

And I agree with your point, would be much more interesting if, not only the level of the monster but also, the time for killing him, the damage that he causes on the player and the damage that the character causes on the monster, could be factors for giving a bonux exp to the character, for leveling faster.

Example, if the damage the character receives is 30% of his total HP, there is a high chance that the monster is hard for that character and the player could gain a bonus experience from the monster.

But, of course, to avoid exploitation by "smart" players, the game server should have lots of checkings to guarantee that the character in question is really weaker than the monster he is fighting with.
yes, Tobold it would be very nice if Bliz did as you sugest and with Gevlons clever adjustment it could work. It`s not gonna happen ofc. Several reasons explained in the comments here and I suspect also one more reason, heirlom items. These would make it even more ezy for "old" player to level up and new player would feel cheated. And I suspect that Bliz is accually alot more conserned about loosing fresh players than old players.
Since it's also connected with difficulty during leveling up: One thing about heirloom items:

Since raiding seems more and more pointless, I leveled a mage, a priest and a warrior so far. The mage is full T9 and stopped raiding. The priest is lvl31 and the warrior lvl65.

I used heirlooms with the mage and hated it.
You get a cool staff at the monastary? Stupid you! You already got the heirloom. Even if the staff is a slightly bit better, next level it won't be.

You get your first shoulders? No reason to be happy; you got the heirloom.

I didn't buy any heirlooms for the warrior on purpose. I was so happy about that whenever I got a new two-handed axe. I cannot tell you how good this decision was.

Blizzard is aware of the problem, as they repeatedly wrote that heirlooms should not make you play your 'main' to equip your 'alt'.

So they will rather reduce the importance of heirlooms.

Not buying heirlooms, however, isn't a complete solution, as long as other people buy them. that's especially true at level 60 and 70.

You just got the big two hand axe from stratholm? Great .. But the warrior next to you in the BG has the heirloom axe. His axe does 40% more damage than yours.

Heirlooms have been a mistake. I'm all for the basic idea. But it should not be realiszed with items. It could be realized with a permanent buff during leveling, or similar.
The only real risk is the one of quest XP boosting as iirc the XP penalty for killing mobs with the help of a high level friend are rather high whether grouped up or just assisted.

As for the discussion on heirlooms, yes they do remove the joy of upgrading gear from drops and that is a big negative imho, maybe the heirlooms should be replaced with heirloom enchants that provide XP gain buffs?

Would a deselectable zone buff (similar to the Outland PvP zone buffs) help all levellers? Removing the buff increases the XP gained, reduces your HP and increases the mob HP?
The problem I see with your solution is that it drastically favors classes that are inherently good at soloing, e.g. pet classes. The classes have clearly been balanced around their ability to solo green and yellow mobs. All classes can manage that with few problems. However, low-level Hunters and Warlocks can do much better than that. They can solo +2 or +3 mobs in complete safety with little or no downtime. Trying to do that with a Priest or Shaman is a recipe for disaster.

Rewarding huntards and locktards with fantastic xp for the "skill" they exhibited on the character selection screen would lead to worse problems than what you are intending to solve.
Much of the issue with easy of content and difficulty and optimum level comes down to this:

-You can't hit higher level mobs.

Its not that they have more hp or do more damage, the limiting factor as found by Gevlon 2-manning dungeons while way below the recommended level is that once the level disparity is more than about 2 the chance to hit drops dramatically.

XP might scale with mob HP, but a mob 3 levels higher you miss 17+% of the time I think. Does leveling gear need +hit?

Alternatively I think one way to encourage group activity is to give more XP for fighting higher level mobs. Yes you can solo on green mobs, but grouping up and fighting against +3 and +5 mobs should be better XP and more fun.
Example, if the damage the character receives is 30% of his total HP, there is a high chance that the monster is hard for that character and the player could gain a bonus experience from the monster."

I see your point, but this example makes no sense. What you are saying is that the player gets a reward for doing worse. Perhaps a more sensible idea would be: If you take less damage you get more exp.

Samus made the key point here. WoW is built around the illusion of skill and challenge. The vast majority of players have been lulled into believing they are skilled because:

"wow, look at all these bosses Ive beaten and epics I have, I MUST be pr0!!"

Or barring that, they have subconciously come to believe in their abilities. We are programmed to connect reward with accomplishment. And as such, accomplishment with our own "skill".
I love the idea. I still enjoy learning a class aspect of leveling up, but this would make it even more interesting.

Add more challenging instances or better rewards for doing them early on and I'm sold.

- Ercles
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