Tobold's Blog
Thursday, November 04, 2010
The purpose of a level cap

When I played the original Everquest a decade ago, the average time players needed to reach the level cap was 2,000 hours. When World of Warcraft was released in 2004, the average time to reach the level cap in WoW was 500 hours. Today the average is *less* than 500 hours, in spite of the level cap being 80 now instead of 60; a veteran player can level an alt from 1 to 80 in 200 hours without breaking a sweat. But even a new player has an easier time nowadays to reach the level cap, both due to better information from various guides and websites, and due to Blizzard having streamlined many parts of the leveling process.

Now some people believe that faster leveling is always better. Gaining a level is one of the stronger rewards a MMORPG hands out, and people just love getting rewarded frequently. But player levels are linked to level-appropriate content in a persistent, non-random world, and as we can't make infinite content, we can't have infinite levels. There has to be a level cap. And obviously the original Everquest and today's World of Warcraft have very different philosophies about what the purpose of the level cap is. Everquest had a lot of players who never ever reached the level cap, I was one of them. If you don't play a lot, and maybe have some alts on the side, a "2,000 hours to the level cap" requirement can result in the level cap being lifted by an expansion before you hit the cap. It is thus possible to be *always* leveling, and obviously Verant/SOE considered that as a good option: If you never hit the level cap, you never run out of content.

The big disadvantage of such a game with endless leveling is that it seggregates players, mostly by amount of time spent playing, and to a lesser degree by how efficient they are in leveling. And the experience of Everquest showed that the players who reach the level cap do not necessarily consider that as a "Game Over" message, but are quite willing to keep on playing with characters at the level cap, as long as the devs provide something level-cap appropriate for them to do, for example raiding. Thus the different idea of World of Warcraft: If everybody levels up quickly, then most players will be at the level cap for most of the time between two expansions, and will be able to all play together, being all the same level.

Unfortunately that didn't work out that way. Because even at the level cap character development is still important. It just isn't expressed in terms of leveling up any more, but in terms of improving your gear. Some form of reward to improve characters is necessary to keep people playing. According to the Daedalus Project of Nick Yee the average MMO player spends a bit over 20 hours per week in a game, which adds up to 1,000 hours per year, or 2,000 hours between two WoW expansions. Imagine you would spend only 200 hours of those 2,000 hours leveling up your character, and then you'd be completely blocked in development for the other 1,800 hours until the next expansion. Most players would quit long before that. Thus today players reach the level cap, and then switch into a different mode of World of Warcraft, in which they mostly level up their Gearscore in heroic dungeons and raids.

So now we arrived at a truly perverse situation, where people quickly level up to the level cap, but end up being NOT of similar power at that cap. As yesterday's interesting discussion pointed out, today one of the biggest social problems of World of Warcraft is the random Dungeon Finder putting people together into a level 80 heroics group with vastly different levels of gear, skill, and even goals. As I am currently playing a level 76 druid and a level 62 shaman, I made the surprising discovery that a random group assembled by the Dungeon Finder during leveling is *more* homogeneous in terms of power and purpose than a level 80 random group found with the same tool. To boot, "normal" dungeons played through with a level-appropriate group are *more* challenging than the average "heroic" dungeon, because the average group for a heroic is completely overgeared compared to the content.

Some people blame the Dungeon Finder, but in fact that tool works perfectly well to assemble a homogeneous group and provide a reasonable challenge to them in the lower levels. Where it completely breaks down is at the level cap, because the possible difference between two level 80 characters can be so huge. Imagine a freshly dinged level 80 tank in iLevel 187 decent blue gear: There is simply no way the Dungeon Finder can put him into a working heroics group today. His best option is to sign on as dps, because groups are used to at least one dps guy doing basically nothing on any heroic run.

And I'm not sure this will get any better in Cataclysm. Of course at first things will get better, when everybody at level 85 is of similar gear level. But as long as the justice points or other rewards enable players to get the highest level of gear from endlessly running heroics, the seggregation of players will continue in the next expansion. Maybe the Dungeon Finder has to be reprogrammed to put groups of similar Gearscore together and then upscale the monsters in heroics accordingly so that the challenge remains the same for every group. But then what's the point of becoming stronger if the content isn't getting easier by that? Maybe a game which took a bit longer to reach the level cap would be better after all.
As a serial MMO hopper I have found that only 3 MMOs cater for grouping for the casual player: Warhammer, City of Heroes and World of Warcraft.

Of these the dungeon finder tool is the most amazing for the levelling casual in WoW and I really enjoy it. I am planning to return to WoW after Cataclysm, just to experience the dungeons with newly levelling alts.

I don't yet have a level 80/85 character in WoW and I really am not sure I want one, specifically for the reason that was stated in your post. I am not sure I want to enter groups of uber geared players as a healer and get laughed at. It brings back way to many memories of being kicked out of GW groups for not having the "correct" spell loadout.

It is an interesting conundrum and I wonder if the Dungeon finder will select members by a "gearscore" in future.
As with many other systems, the way you measure skews the results. Dungeon Finder works during leveling because the levels roughly match character power. For it to work at all at level cap, Blizzard needs to implement an algorithm that accurately measures character power. Players have made numerous tools to that effect, so that part is definitely solvable. Skill and goals are much, much harder to measure. One possible approach is to use statistics. If you take an hour and a half for a run on average and wipe twice during it, you will get grouped with players with those same stats.

But even if we assume that all of that can be measured accurately, how will the new measures skew the results? And how would the new system be gamed? Would players and RMT shops start selling PvE stats? For $9.99, you can get to do instances with the best of the best! ;-)
Age of Conan did the rather interesting thing this year with the latest expansion. The level cap was not raised, but a ton of new content was added with increased difficulty for lvl 80. The difficulty level was ENTIRELY based on GEAR [thus splitting lvl 80s based on gear] .

Initially i think everyone believed this to be a good [and interesting] move from Funcom, even myself. Everyone believed it would keep everyone together and will thus increase the population at the cap for more PvP and Raiding action.

So what happened? The problem imho is, Funcom removed a "regular" and "incremental" reward with well , nothing.

You now hit lvl 80 and the next reward is a GEAR reward requiring a massive amount of grind [without any reward inbetween] .

It's basically "vanilla lvl 80" -> grind the equivalent of lvl 1 - 80 leveling -> BAM -> Gear reward Tier 1 .

Problem is this gap is huge and the more casual players are dropping out as they just don't perceive a tangeable reward or "carrot" . I think it's actually very difficult to wade through a ton of crap for a "helmet + 4" when you have a "helmet + 2" and nothing else.

At the end, you just don't feel like you are PROGRESSING . So in hindsight if an MMO's reward system is based on repeating content over and over and over, you really must get something in there that gives the impression of progression...levels are the easiest and most reliable form of this.
The "everyone at level cap" is the best answer short of remoing levels altogether. Seriously, how long do you think WoW would last if a player who is invited by some friends had to spend 1 year before being able to play with them?

Replacing levels with gear is also a "best approximation" solution. Someone invited over by friends can get geared very fast with their help, so win-win situation: he gets to play with his friends, they get to feel helpful, they all go happily raiding together after.
The solution is making different kind of 5-mans. Make normal lvl 85 instances for fresh levelers, and heroics to geared people. Also with every raid dungeon release new lvl 85-s with improved loot.

Oh wait, you just re-created player stratification.
Seriously, how long do you think WoW would last if a player who is invited by some friends had to spend 1 year before being able to play with them?

There are much better solutions for that problem, e.g. the Mentor/Sidekick solution of games like City of Heroes.
I'm annoyed with the concept of leveling. It serves no real purpose other than to delay. Is there no other limiting factor that we can have in games?
"Some form of reward to improve characters is necessary to keep people playing"

This is surely the key dilemma. We need character progression to retain player interest and yet character progression is segregating players and making it hard for them to play together.

I wonder if there are lessons to be learned from Guild Wars. Even though there is a very low level cap and no gear progression after the level cap millions of players have kept playing the game. I know they have cosmetic armour sets and fancy titles but I doubt that is enough to keep people playing. Personally I think the skill system is a big part of the ongoing attraction. Having to pick a set of 8 skills from hundreds available means there are a huge number of builds to experiment with and a player never really exhausts the possibilities.
If you set up XP gain in the right way you could have it set up so that you could group with people with widely disparate levels but still have everyone benefit.

For example have one high level character do the heavy lifting while a bunch of low level characters tag along to heal, buff, help with a little damage, etc. etc. The high level could keep the cash and give the low levels the vendor trash that he doesn't have enough inventory space to carry anyway.

I've done this sort of thing in my old guild that really prioritized playing together (and we were on a PvP server so sticking together was good for safety) and of course this really slowed down our XP gain, but if you changed the XP gain equations up, made the leveling curve less steep or perhaps made leveling based on time and/or training costs rather than killing stuff it should work.

In any case I think it'd be more fun to lead a swarm of newbies into battles as a high level character than use a mentor system to nerf myself.
For a game I've played for 5-6 years, I no longer want a lengthy quest experience. I want to play end-game. For players who want a slow leveling experience, there are options now to turn off your XP gain while you do other quests or BGs or whatever.

And EQ wasn't about "exploring" to gain levels, it was about grinding mobs endlessly. Let's call it what it was.
I think level cap and "gear score" (I choke whilst uttering that phrase) is somewhat analogous to hit cap and expertise cap: Cap hit first so you don't miss (generally regarded as the most important cap for non-healers), then work on expertise (which has been described as a "secondary hit cap" by MANY other folks) to eliminate dodge (and reduce parry if a tank).

Applied to the current discussion: reach the hard level cap (80, or 85 in Cataclysm), then work on the secondary level cap - which is gear.
@David: Multi-boxers would absolutely LOVE your XP gain idea to carry a squad of new alts. Personally, I'm going to level two characters at a time via the method in Cataclysm.
I have, for some time now, argued that this was the essential misunderstanding people had when approaching certain asian games that have famously long leveling curves. Lineage 2 is well know for having such a long leveling curve, so long in fact that I am not convinced that the game was designed to "finished." You essentially hit endgame at lvl 76 when you can start using S-grade gear at level 80 you can get into slightly better gear but the time between leveling from 80-85 is incredibly long. It takes as exp to get from 79-80 as it takes to get from 1-79 about 2.1 billion. and each level after adds about 20% more. It seems to be more presented as just a very slight incremental upgrade, almost like a reward for time as a veteran. The difference in power between an 80 and an 85 is also considerably less than in WoW. It is noticeable say in a 1v1 pvp situation but it is not enough to keep people from running together.

Pretty much getting to lvl 76 is like hitting 80 in WoW. then getting to lvl 80 in L2 is like getting well geared from heroic badges. You can now raid though you are a bit behind those who have been raiding.

The F2P game Perfect World is possibly an even more extreme example. PWI, which is the North American/European release of the game is just over 2 years old. The max level is 105. But the highest level characters in the game are currently 103 and there are only 20 of them. This game is not designed to be capped out on. I suspect also that they will raise the cap to 110 in about a year to specifically allow people to be able to continue progressing even if very slowly.

Regardless if progression continues by level or by gear at max level or possibly even by both, I think the trick is to close the gap somewhat between the haves and the have nots. Each level still needs to be a bit better but it doesn't have to be huge some different. This way you can have lvl 76 running with lvl 85 in a game like L2 and not dragging them down. Perhaps contributing less but not hurting them.

Which brings up one last point. When endgame activities are built around doing things that have a limited number of people, that is where you start seeing problems with people feeling like the last slot was wasted because that person did not have good enough gear. They want the heroic to be a faceroll and they can't do that if everyone doesn't have a 5500+ gear score. Same with raids, they can take you so close to the line that you can't afford for anyone to be less than minimally geared. On the other hand, in L2 doing things like keep sieges, I found that it was simply the more the merrier. You needed enough high levels to form the core of the attack or defense but nobody complained about having a lvl35 bladedancer show up. It might be almost unnoticeable dps but since there wasn't a limit how many could participate no body was complaining and the buffs the dancer puts out still help the group.

So, just a different perspective on what it means to progress in a game.
Oh, it is worth pointing out that it still only takes about 3-4 months to get a character up to lvl 76-79 in lineage 2. That is really not significantly longer to get to "end game" than even WoW. But it can take years to get to 85 legitimately.
Is it also, possibly, part of the problem in WoW that by the time you get to the end of an expansion cycle as we are now, the difference between having your quest blues and getting the latest and greatest badge gear simply becomes too much of a divide? I mean, you don't work your way though tiers anymore, you get pushed straight into the second to the latest raiding gear.

I would suppose that the problem isn't nearly as bad at the beginning of an expansion as it eventually gets late in an expansion.
VikingGamer, your point about caps on people in a group/raid affects views towards undergeared/underleveled players is really interesting. The contrast with my own experience in running BC raids during Wrath is striking. Taking a level 70 character to Black Temple with a group of 80s is usually a drag on the raid; the 70 can be expected to screw up mechanics, do minimal dps, get lost, die more (and need a rez), and need on loot that ought to be greeded. The high level players are likely to be annoyed and the low level character is likely to feel like a burden. It's not a good situation for either group of players. I suppose one of the downsides of the "bring the player, not the class" mantra is that low level characters can no longer feel useful even by bringing unique buffs since those are likely to already be covered.
The purpose of the level cap is to get you addicted to incremental increases in your character's power.

Those incremental increases in power, with a side of random rewards trains the player to keep playing because to do so will be rewarding.

Many of the players willfully pay $15 a month for two years, replaying the same content over and over and over again. And when Blizzard announces that they are going to reset their progress and make them grind it all again, they cheer and wait in anticipation for the negation of all that previous "progress". And they call it an expansion, which is to say, more levels, professions, reputation, and gear to grind for the next two years.

How long does it take to go from level 1 to level 2? Level 2 to level 3? Level 66 to level 67? Level 84 to level 85?

Answer: just long enough to make it seem rewarding, so that you keep playing (paying).
So they are designing the game to be as fun as possible for me so that I keep playing it? How sinister!
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