Tobold's Blog
Friday, January 06, 2012
The future of leveling

It is theoretically possible to get stuck while leveling in SWTOR: If you ONLY do your class quests, at some point you will be unable to beat some boss mob needed to proceed further. But of course in practice that rarely happens, most people do a lot of side-quests and keep their level up sufficiently to deal with the main quest line.

But the theoretical exercise on how you could get stuck while leveling also tells us how you would get unstuck, and points us towards a fundamental advantage of leveling content: You can't get permanently stuck unless you reach the level cap. Even if you play really badly and can't beat some harder main quest encounter, you always have the option to go back to easier content, gain some more levels and/or gear, and thus make any hard encounter easier. Leveling content principally is one of variable difficulty, and how easy or hard an encounter is depends mainly on how high in level you are while trying it. Thus by judiciously skipping side-quests or doing bonus quest series, you can always adjust the difficulty of the leveling content to be in the optimum fun range, challenging without being either frustrating nor trivial.

That is a huge advantage over the endgame content, which is designed to be fixed difficulty (even if that fixed difficulty is then later diluted by nerfs and welfare epics). In a classic raid endgame, if your guild can't beat a raid encounter, there is nothing to do but try and try again, up to 400 wipes before success having been reported. If you need to beat an encounter to get the next better gear, but can't beat the encounter without better gear, you are stuck. Fixed difficulty by definition is only in the optimum fun range for a small, fixed part of the population. Making raids easier doesn't change that, it only changes for which part of the population the new difficulty is now fun. And if you open up alternative ways to gain epic gear which is as good as the one you could get by raiding, you remove the motivation for raiding at the same time as you remove the obstacle preventing people from advancing.

Now that with Star Wars: The Old Republic we entered a new age of more story-centric MMORPGs, there are good arguments for reversing the previous trend that made leveling shorter and shorter. Story-based role-playing works better while leveling, because "run 100 heroics" or "repeat that raid dungeon for 3 months" are hard to integrate into any sensible story-telling. If your average player plays for 20 hours per week, and you want him to subscribe to your game for a year, why not offer him 1,000 hours worth of story-based leveling game?

The endgame in a MMORPG like World of Warcraft is often perceived as "the real game", with the leveling game being an obstacle to overcome to reach the endgame; a perception which led to shortening time to level cap over the last decade from 2,000 hours in Everquest to 200 hours in modern WoW. But that perception is based on people wanting to play together, and World of Warcraft being deficient in offering multi-player content before the level cap. It is a vicious cycle of leveling being too easy to solo, which makes people solo more, and then makes them want to rush through the solo content to finally get to the massively multiplayer part. If you think that "people can't play together before the level cap", then the rush to the cap is understandable. But that is not an inherent feature of level-based MMORPGs, it is just the way WoW works. Many people have a limited experience of games working differently and end up having difficulties imagining a different system. But those different systems exist, and their constituent parts have already been tried with success in previous games.

A game with a long and challenging leveling game would need some features that World of Warcraft doesn't possess: Better incentives for grouping while leveling in the form of significant group xp bonuses, and a sidekick/mentoring feature enabling people to temporary adjust their level to play with their friends without losing out on all rewards. That isn't to say that soloing should be removed, it should just not be the most efficient form of leveling up. As forming a group has its barriers to entry, the "time lost" for forming the group has to be compensated by better rewards when grouping. And if the leveling part of the game is longer, that can easily be achieved by a simple group xp bonus which makes xp gained per hour in a group more than those gained while soloing. In World of Warcraft you'd earn less xp per hour and do less quests per hour if you'd do them in a group than if you'd solo, a bad design which pushes people into soloing even if they aren't lone wolfs by nature. Games which do a better job to encourage grouping end up having a better community, leading to people making more new friends, having more fun, and ultimately staying subscribed longer. SWTOR even shows how to reward players for doing quest dialogues in groups instead of solo.

The MMORPG genre is one of constant evolution, of "standing on the shoulders of giants". SWTOR advanced the genre by such a giant step through its "fourth pillar" of story-telling, with cutscenes and voice-acting, and with a main quest line individual to the character. Future MMORPGs which try to get people to quest with a 512-character dry quest text to read will feel dated. And the more people enjoy playing through the story, the less they will want to abbreviate the experience and get to a "story over" endgame. I can well imagine a future game marketing itself as having twice as much story through twice as long leveling as SWTOR has. And that is fine by me. The solution for people who hate leveling is a different game, one which simply doesn't have any leveling at all, and just starts with raiding right away.
But those different systems exist, and their constituent parts have already been tried with success in previous games.

I think you mean "success," with scare quotes. As in, not 1+ million subs success.

What you prescribe is for more MMO companies to leave money on the table by catering to a tiny, tiny audience of people who want to be penalized for playing solo. Why do you think WoW was so successful against Everquest and its other competition? Because you could solo to the endgame.

I believe people vastly underestimate the amount of players who want to be able to log on, run some quests, and log off without have to deal with other human beings. Yes, in an MMO. Less than 20% of US/EU/KR WoW players have killed a single raid boss, and heroics were ran only by a "dedicated minority" of players in TBC, pre-LFD. And nevermind the social people who simply want to chill out alone on any particular day.

Sure, you can tell us to go play single-player RPGs. Well, 20-80 hours later we're done. Meanwhile, I played WoW for 7000 hours over four years. Do the math, then tell me these companies are doing it wrong.
I think you have a very screwed up idea of what successful design of a game feature is. A game consists of very many features. And if one of those features works very well, is liked by the players, and is frequently mentioned as a strong point of the game, that is a success. That still allows for the possibility of the game having other features that stink, or being not very polished, having lots of bugs, being rushed out of the door, having a bad launch, or any other reason that can make a game fail to be an overall success.

Saying that because only WoW and SWTOR up to now got a million players in the West, only the features contained in these two games are good, and can't be improved upon, is primitive. It is the kind of thinking that led to many MMORPGs to fail while trying to clone WoW. If SWTOR is a success, it is because it does a major part of the game DIFFERENTLY than WoW, not because it copies other parts.
You seem to be advocating a return to the mechanics of Everquest circa 2001 only with a lot of added cut-scenes and story.

If you leave out the cut-scenes and story part, I'm right with you!
I don't think you can leave them out. The idea is not to make the leveling game 10 times longer by having a world the same size and forcing you to kill 10 times more of each mob. The idea is to produce a longer game by filling it with more content, story, and group activities. I don't believe an "Everquest 2012" with just updated graphics would still fly today.

"Saying that because only WoW and SWTOR up to now got a million players in the West, only the features contained in these two games are good, and can't be improved upon, is primitive."

Where did Azuriel say that?

My take on his comment was that people underestimate the importance of quality leveling content, as only a small proportion of MMOers participate in raiding. [Note: I don't know what the figures look like for Raid Finder]
I'm reading more and more about players stating that the only thing keeping them grinding through the (kill 10 droids) levelling game is the spacebar, which suggests the cut-scenes approach is already losing its shine.
"That is a huge advantage over the endgame content, which is designed to be fixed difficulty "

I agree, but they could 'unfix' the difficulty at endgame by not restricting how many people can enter a raid. That way, if you want a challenge you go in with fewer people and if you don't then you take a zerg. (Interestingly enough, open world PvP does allow this.)
I think you should mention the possibility of a game that doesn't have leveling, but still has typical leveling content.
You progress your character not by increasing your numbers, but (just) by gaining skills and abilities.

This game would allow everybody to play together while still offering significant character progression. But character progression would be a weak power-progression and a strong style-progression.
Azuriel: Are you saying you spent 7000 hours in levelling content? Because that sounds like a lot of alts, even in old school WoW which took longer to level.

If not, what exactly did you do for 7000 hours that just involved soloing? Were you chatting to people while you did quests, or was it crafting? I don't quite understand. WoW has plenty of levelling content, especially if you also go back and solo old instances, but I wouldn't have said 7000 hours.
Dave - so far the only use the spacebar has had for me is on the repeatable daily quests which should have a "just gimme the damn quest" option from the start.

I really enjoyed the change of pace between some, often challenging, "kill 10 droids" quests and kicking back and seeing the story develop.

There's a string of what are essentially "kill n things" and "activate n things" quests on Corellia that were so well placed in the story that it was only after the 2+ hours of total immersion that I realised they were just standard quests.

I don't doubt that alt #3 or 4 would have seen some of the shine wear off the cut-scenes but some of the dialogue still tickles me after many (betas and a few toons levelled to 10) play throughs.
"And if you open up alternative ways to gain epic gear which is as good as the one you could get by raiding, you remove the motivation for raiding."

You know, I hear this a lot in discussions of raiding and loot, and I really don't get it. Perhaps I'm some sort of mutant, but to me the motivation for raiding has always been "getting together with a bunch of friends and having fun killing Internet dragons." Loot is pretty much irrelevant, except that it opens gates to new Internet dragons to slay and/or the odd aesthetically-pleasing piece (although those are vanishingly rare, since most MMOs seem to follow WoW's "best stats, worst looks" paradigm).
The solution for people who hate leveling is a different game, one which simply doesn't have any leveling at all, and just starts with raiding right away.
Why would you make it a different game? Wouldn't it be easier and also better for the game to build a community to have them play the same game.

The "raiding at max level" convention from WoW (which took it from EQ I believe) is just a convention. It has its advantages (e. g. difficulty balancing is easier) but I don't think it's a "it must be so" MMO holy grail.
@Ulv - glad you're enjoying the cut-scene levelling without hitting the spacebar but you haven't really explained why you enjoy it in it's current context, i.e. an MMO. Surely there are already a multitude of games out there that already do it similar if not better? Why not play a single player game with similar mechanics instead? After all, many of the zones (including cities) in TOR are either empty or populated by only a handful of players anyway.
An interesting post, and one I can identify with. Leveling in WoW has always been the game for me, endgame I tried but quickly grew bored of the repetition. I played almost all of my time in WoW with at least one other friend if not several. We used to level in a group but by the Wrath era that was pretty much pointless as the silly mini-game mechanics and lack of elite quests spoiled that playstyle. Chain-running random pug dungeons is now a very valid leveling approach in WoW - one which I find abhorrent.

I would hope that SWTOR is a success, and continues to be so, not because all games should in future be 'SWTOR clones', but because it is a great game for those gamers who like story and 'the journey' more than the destination. Grouping even when doing normal missions is fun and a positive experience.

I also have experienced the same as Ulv, completely not noticing the usual archetypal quest types (kill X, fetch Y etc) as the stories are so well told.
"If you need to beat an encounter to get the next better gear, but can't beat the encounter without better gear, you are stuck."

Not entirely - you *could* consider getting better! In fact that's exactly why so many players were willing to wipe a lot in old-WoW - the reward was realising that you and your guild had eventually developed the skills to beat that previously impossible boss. That's a better feeling than getting a piece of purple gear.

Now it may well be that the time for this is over, and levelling will become more important again (in old-WoW, it took a long time: people forget that there was a *lot* of levelling content in WoW compared to other games, just because it can be speeded through now).

Will SWTOR hold up in this regard? From what I'm reading it's very linear, with very good content in each class track, but on your fourth or fifth alt you might be wishing for the more free-form WoW, where there would probably be at least some zones you hadn't done much in! And let's not forget what the alt-player would by now be describing as "the dreaded cut-scenes"!

One other problem I see with adding more levelling content is that unless you add lots of inescapable grinding whose rate is about constant whatever you do, some players will burn through the content really fast, and others will take forever to level. The endgame raiding model avoids that because it can raise difficulty exponentially over a relatively small amount of content.

Is there a cure? There is money out there to be got, because many people *want* to play the in the same world with their online friends year upon year. But creating the content to keep them satisfied doing that is a hard problem. WoW succeeded for some years, but now WoW faces tougher challenges - on one side from FTP games, and on the other side from games like WoW and Rift that seem to have successfully copied sokme of the elements that made WoW 'sticky'.

It may be that if many games are good enough to be sticky in this way, no game will actually succeed in really doing it. People will keep trying because the money is there, but perhaps all successes in the future wil be partial, and no game will achieve the stickiness that WoW exhibited over such a long timescale. Maybe guilds will start migrating wholesale between games...
My personal experience with SWTOR:

I get to level 50 with my jedi guardian yesterday, before I had completed the class quests and the quests for Corellia.

Now I am playing that toon because I want know how the story ends. I am not playing for gain levels. And I have other characters at 10+ waiting while I try end the jedi guardian story. I too want get that other toons to higher level, at least until end of chapter 1.

On a side note, I tryed a quest at Corellia with my jedi level 50 and get powned by the final 2 droid bosses. I completed it with the help of a friend that had tryed that same quest 3 times before he finally killed the bosses. I think that I find at level 50 my gear need an urgent update... and that I was doing something wrong when trying to kill that 2 bosses (normal tatics will not work with that guys).

Whatever... I have a story to complete with my jedi guardian.
Isnt 20 hours a week regarded as hardcore? I mean that's about 3 hours a day..every day. I bet there are a lot of people who play 2-4 days a week, maybe for a couple hours each day.

I'm not sure on how we could define average, but for example personally it's hard to find anywhere close to 20 hours a week...and I would if I could. I guess I'd say I'm hardcore in theory but not in time played..your average player sure doesnt read mmo blogs.

I definitely agree though that leveling for swtor should be such a key part of the game.

Hwever the reason I brought up average play as other people mentioned, a vast number of players in WoW for example barely played the endgame. They leveled and slowly...

Its hard for someone who considers 20 hours a week to understand I think...that prob a huge number of players don't play near that much.
In Nick Yee's Daedalus Project survey, the average amount of hours played per week by the average MMO player was 22. Can the average be hardcore?
Tobold, I really liked this post probably because I agreed with it. But one thing everyone has to remember is that we each have different tastes and wants. That means its practically impossible to keep everyone happy.

In fact I have stated that super large subscriptions for paid MMO's are a thing of the past. I just don't ever see the 11+ million paid subscibers for one game ever again (including WOW ever getting back there).

Sort of like cable TV. There are more viewers but the audiance is fractured and there is almost a channel for everyone's specific taste.
Someone was asking for some help last week with one of his class quests. I gave him a hand but afterwards I felt I shouldn't have as he obviously was short about 3-4 levels to do the quest. He should have done more quests and tried it again. After all, the next class quest he picks up will be the same story.

And I've only had to go level some more once, with my Trooper. I was completely stuck with a quest until I had some better gear. That was at level 7-8...
Great post ... probably could have been 2+ posts with the ideas embedded in it.

I like your "standing on the shoulders of giants" allusion because it's appropriate. Things are popular because they fire interest and there is no reason to gamble on an unknown implementation when WOW/EQ has paved the way.

Which makes me wonder if the Wow with no talents Panda-Wow will really work... since they are getting off of those shoulders.

Anyway your reasoning (and some comments) about the leveling game being changed fundamentally by voice acting is interesting. This effect matches what I have experienced SWTOR is one of the few games where I actually feel myself slowing down to experience NPC interaction.

Players typically don't like "hard content to make it last longer" but they just might like content that allows for a slower leveling experience that is NOT bashing one's head against wall repeatedly.

Perhaps the real innovation that SWTOR brings to the table is the idea that DIFFERENT content can be brought in to lengthen play duration. And perhaps this leads to subscription duration???

Great time to be a gamer!

Successful game design that nobody plays renders the "successful" bit misleading, don't you think? Great game design can go unappreciated, absolutely, just like great politicians get buried beneath their richer, more base-pandering counterparts. I'm taking umbrage with your use of "success" here, for two reasons.

1) It's the wrong term.
2) What you propose would make these games manifestly worse for me and the large, apparent majority of players in these mega-MMOs.

Increase the amount of time it takes to level, that's fine. More story is great! But once you start making leveling more efficient in groups, by definition you make it less efficient solo. WoW penalizes grouping for no real reason, but it gets the underlying logic correct: the rewards of social grouping should be being in a social group. If I'm "forced" to group to level at the intended speed, the inevitable result is the same perversion of the social fabric we see in LFD that occurs whenever you mix conflicting groups of players amongst one another.

WoW et tal could have been the success it was/is for a number of reasons, sure, but I absolutely believe it's solo focus is one of the biggest. It certainly is the primary one that set it apart from its contemporaries.


It's true that quite a bit of those 7000 hours was spent raiding, and I absolutely wouldn't have lasted four years without the friends I made in-game. But it also 100% true that I never would have made it past hour 50 if I had been forced to group to accomplish anything at a reasonable speed.

I treat WoW and SWTOR as single-player RPGs with multiplayer options, and read this post as an assault on that (wildly successful) playstyle. I want Show & Tell, not Group or Die. Based on all available evidence, I am not alone.
Successful game design that nobody plays renders the "successful" bit misleading, don't you think?

So let's turn this around: There are unsuccessful games which have leveling. According to you this makes leveling an unsuccessful feature.

Every single good game design feature has ALSO been used in unsuccessful games. You can not deduce the quality of a single feature by looking at the success of a single game that used it. Otherwise you would be forced to conclude that people don't like first person shooters, because Duke Nukem Forever flopped.
But... Levels, as they are currently implemented in WoW alikes, are totally inimicable to multiplayer content:-

A 50 level game really amounts to 10 completely separate games, which oweing to the fact that there is noone else in your guild, at your quest stage and around your level (and your girl friend just out levelled you when you were at work) you have to solo from necessity.

Levels and multiplayer mix even less well in PvP. Open world PvP servers where you get one shotted by asshats a few levels above you, being one consequence.

Levels only really work in linear single player games - but the number of people playing WoW disguised that until recently:If you build an expensive pipeline you need to have a constant flow of oil going through it.
Maybe for mmos average is hardcore tobold, that's an interesting subject as it relate to gamers in general.

Hwever while meaning no disrespect to the Daedalus project, I do wonder how exactly they measured that. For example if they got data directly from the mmo companies that is incredible and obviously prob as precise as possible.

But if it's based off xfire, surveys, or something like that...well obviously that's a completely inaccurate metric, considering only the most hardcore of the hardcore use or participate in such things.
I find it a bit surprising that people get stuck in swtor, as personally and based on anecdotal evidence I've only seen the opposite - over leveling.

There is so much content sometimes that you can't help but over level and make some content trivial. However at least on the first play through it is usually worth completing easy quests, both for the experience reward (which remains substantial even a few levels over) and perhaps more so for the story behind the quests.

There is no comparison to any game I've played (mmo wise) in the way the story actually pulls you in. The level of sophistication, while not incredibly high, still surpasses all other mmos easily. There is at least 8 separate story lines that I might want to try over the course of playing.

My one qualm is that as tobold said, it makes a lot more sense to have leveling take longer with a story like this. It seems wasteful to have people possibly miss story due to leveling speed.

Then again...some people are under leveled for content...albeit I bet they are only doing class quests. The optimum prob involves a balance of class and general content, so as to leave some general content for future playthroughs as a diff class.
If you REALLY just want to raid/do PvP/Endgame stuff then maybe MMO's should take from Guildwars example and allow you to create a Max level character with initial gear.

Now granted that game allowed these characters only into PvP and all max gear had the same stats.

I'm sure it would be possible to make max level characters with minimum gear levels that could only
1) Participate in PvP
2) Only do instances/raids
3) Cannot get Gold/credits or non-BoP items.

This would be to prevent people just creating them to farm.
I agree that games like wow should get rid of levelling and just have item progression, since that it what the whole thing is about anyway.
When I really got into WoW with TBC, I was always one of two. Duoing was fun. Over time though I became a Collector of cute things, like mini-pets and random toys and often that meant I was alone grinding somewhere.
Over time being solo became the norm. Though I enjoyed following Storylines I didn't have the patience to run Dungeons over and over and eventually I fell far behind and my friends wandered off and I stayed truly Solo.
LFD and LFR have been blessings for me. Finally I get to see the whole story!
Every now and then I'll also meet some cool folks that are actually from my realm.
LFD/LFR are simply tools. When I'm feeling social i'll chat and usually at least 1 person chats along.
BTW the Transmog system has really snagged me, I'm now running around the world trying to find cool-looking drops. I love no longer being restricted by Stats. :)
As an update to my previous comment, MMO Champion has datamined stats for the Raid Finder achievement. Usual disclaimers re: data apply.

34% of level 85s since 4.3 have completed Dragon Soul on RaidFinder, vs 4% on Normal.
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