level haters

People in Star Wars Galaxies today say, “I hate levels.  Remember SWG when it launched?  It didn’t have levels.”

No, they don’t hate levels.  They just hate being told their level is too low.  SWG just hid the levels from them and called them “skill boxes”.  The fact that they called their levels skill boxes isn’t what they liked.  They liked the fact that a newbie character could get a pistol from a friend and join a 20 person group to do what was essentially the “end-game” on the first day they played.  They enjoyed the fact that they could team up with a buddy and take down a master bounty hunter with newbie characters.  They never were told that “your level is too low” and they never felt that they had to level.

As much as people hate levels, they love levels too.  In Lotro, there are class-traits, race traits, virtues, reputation and equipment to all work on when you’re tired of leveling.  But guess what?  All that stuff has levels too.  You have to kill something many times for your character to get a bit stronger.  It’s just packaged in such a way that it doesn’t look like leveling.

The levels are a necessary addition to any MMO.  Without levels, what purpose is there in doing any activity more than once?  If you want me to kill hundreds of trolls in the Misty Mountains, then I need to see my XP bar moving towards the next level, or my deed bar moving up to the next virtue, or silver adding up to the next gold, or my legendary weapon bar moving up to it’s next level, or my reputation bar moving uptowards kindred.

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Suzina is a 27 year old who usally plays the same MMOs as her husband. Games played: UO, EQ2, FFXI, SWG, LOTRO.

15 thoughts on “level haters”

  1. To be fair to level haters, many of them also hate classes. They prefer games such as launch SWG, UO, EVE, or AC where you mix and match skills. The skills do indeed have levels, but you are free to design any sort of character you like.

    That said, in practice this isn’t the kind of freedom it really sounds like. You end up with a few builds being far superior to others for anything you feel like doing (be it crafting or combat), and very few players will stray from those templates. Those who do usually sacrifice effectiveness for uniqueness.

  2. Just seeing the bar move isn’t enough for me (most of the time). I hate when it takes an entire play session (read: 2-3 hours) to gain one level. I hate it even more when a regular play session (again 2-3 hours) doesn’t even gain you an entire level. When I reach that point in a game that is usually it for me, most of the time, unless it’s fun. But come on, how fun is it to hit the same few buttons over and over? The only game I’ve reached max level in is DAoC, because of the Catacombs expansion (fast leveling what what!), and the ability to gain xp from pvp. I can play Counter-Strike all day long, sure it is the same few buttons over and over, but by changing when you hit them a little bit you can see a victory where you previously saw defeat.

    I know the older school players who think it’s cool to take a long time to level are lookin at me all googly eyed, but that’s just my opinion.

    More on topic: When I was playing SWG (within the last year) there was a server wide PvP event going on. I was level 50 (max is 90) and could solo level 65-70 mobs every now and then, had a lot of aoe attacks and knockdowns, so I could maybe annoy someone. As I’m riding out to the middle of nowhere I hit two barriers that I know a lot of players hate: 1) An invisible wall and 2) Level requirements to travel beyond the invisible wall. Meh I say!

  3. “The levels are a necessary addition to any MMO.”

    No. They’re a convenient tool. Convenient enough that most MMOs stick with them. They’re not necessary.

    “Without levels, what purpose is there in doing any activity more than once?”

    Because it’s fun? Or have we just assumed that the grind is the point now?

  4. Personally, it’s not that I “hate” levels, it’s that I’m not fond of how MMOs have handled levels. On the surface, it seems like a level is a level is a level, just like back in the pen and paper days, but that’s just not the case. Too often levels *in MMOs* separate players rather than bring them together, trivializes content, and too often is used to gate content.

    Try reading Raph Koster’s articles on pro’s and con’s of levels as MMOs have been using them. [Link to his first article]

    Simply saying “skills are levels in disguise” is missing the point. RPG’s require some sort of leveling mechanic, because they’re attribute advancement games. I don’t think the levels-haters (or the skills-haters) are saying get rid of leveling mechanics, otherwise there would be no progress whatsoever.

    Ever notice in SWG and EVE (possibly Darkfall?) the term “end-game” was never really heard? There was just “the game.” EQ brought in the level caps and levels-based progress, where at some point that XP bar stops. You’ve reached “the end” of that part of the game, and do we need to count all the articles and posts over the past decade complaining about the so-called “bait and switch” between the leveling game and the end game?

    @Yeebo: I notice all the “levels rule, skills drool” people *always* without fail bring up the whole “build of the month” topic. As if that only applies to skills-based games. No EQ or WoW guilds *ever* require players to get specific gear and a specific build in order to do a raid, or perhaps to even be a member of that guild? Please. As Raph Koster once said “players optimize the fun out of games.” It doesn’t matter what type of game — RPG, FPS, puzzles, card games — some players will always try to find the path of least resistance; it’s just human nature. It isn’t limited to only skills-based RPGs, not by a long-shot.

  5. I think your definition of “levels” is overbroad at your last paragraph. Do we gain levels in real life by increasing savings accounts, having more kids, or getting more square footage in our home? In MMO terms are armor tiers actually levels? Are the amount of PvP wins levels? What about technologies in A Tale in the Desert? How about relics for legendary items in LOTRO?

    For MMOs I think level is colloquially more narrowly defined than any “tier of success.” I think many times MMO players think of levels as a source of content gating. I would retype the first sentence of your last paragraph to “Goals are a necessary addition to most MMOs.” But all goals are not levels.

    That being said, I do agree that many MMOs that keep players coming back are goal oriented games that hide the reptition with milestone successes.

  6. @Scott: Huh? How on earth did you get “levels rule, skills suck” out of my post.

    I don’t claim that level based MMOs are free from highly constrained character builds. That would be a silly. Level based MMOs are by definition more constrained than skill based MMOs. Whether an odd skill load out sucks or not, at least it’s an option. Tweaking a class out with traits and gear is simply not the same thing as designing your “class” from scratch.

    My main point is that the “freedom” provided by skill based MMOs is somewhat of an illusion for most players unless the different options are well balanced. They usually aren’t.

  7. Suzina, you do OK until your last paragraph. Yes, skills have “levels” and yes, any incrementally-awarded advancement can be considered a “level” in the broadest sense, but that’s not “levels” as it exists in an MMO and making such a leap to justify what we see in MMO’s as “necessary” is utterly ridiculous.

    In MMO’s, level advancement traditionally includes everything you mention… plus a significant scaling-up of hit point / to-hit bonuses / damage resistance / etc. THESE create the barrier that stops a newb from playing with their friends from day one (barring some sort of mentoring system).

    Take those away and the game becomes something akin to auto-mentoring. The lowbie has fewer skills and various other enhancements compared to the more-invested veteran, but not leaps-and-bounds higher. Characters still develop… you can even call them “levels” but the substantial barrier that segregates the population is reduced.

  8. There’s nothing wrong with levels as an arbitrary granulation (izzat a word?) of character abilities, power and skill. As long as we understand that levels are an abstraction, then it’s all good.

    But I do echo the comments about how sometimes it’s bad how some games -handle- levels, which is an entirely different beast.

  9. “Granulation”? Looks good to me, and yes, as an abstraction, they can be useful as a gauge of progress. The trouble is indeed in implementation, which all too often introduces grind, stratifies socialization, and gates/obsoletes content.

    Of course, without them, people can still have fun, if you build your game to allow that sort of thing without the constant Achiever treadmill.

  10. I think the immediate problem of “getting rid of levels” is that, true, you get rid of all those things Tesh mentions. And that’s nice. But with the same brush you’re also getting rid of what is, for good or evil, a very useful instrument that players use to adjust themselves to the game.

    Other than going for visual size on screen, I can’t really think of any other instrument that lets a player gauge himself against a challenge in all of 0.2 seconds. Stratification can be bad, but it can also be good; in this case a player adjusting his approach, or even engaging a challenge or not, in a fraction of a second with just a glance at a number.

    Levels are also good as an indicator of flow. Of course vector quests are necessary, but there are always players who skip them for whatever reason. Those players must still be kept in the flow, and stratifying zones by levels puts that group in the “right” flow you’d want as a designer. You want your players to be more or less in the right place at the right time – if they hit the hard too early they get discouraged and quit, too late and the content is not challenging overall. Just by having knowledge of one’s own level in relation to the world, players can also adjust themselves to their surroundings; proceed forward, at what speed, taking more or less care, avoiding or plowing through challenge zones, etc.

    Yes it’s still to have a number hanging up there, but it’s an important number because it connects a lot of things together and a lot of things with the player. I’ve seen around systems which replace number+color with words (ex. very easy>easy>average, etc…) but that’s just looping the loop. It’s still silly, only that it’s silly in more ‘human’ terms than just a number.

    Getting rid of levels is an interesting idea, and I have no doubt it will happen massively at some point, but that point is not gonna come around until we find something to replace levels with, and accomplishes the same function. Otherwise the game would feel jagged, like a completed puzzle with a piece missing, or that itch in the middle of your back you just can’t reach.

  11. Forgot: Levels are also good as a powerful instrument that players use to compare to one another, and that’s something which happens a hundred times per session under different disguises, whether players notice it or not.

    A: Can I go with you guys to Mounds of Spit? I need the Legendary Spittoon of Yosemite Samwise, wanna see if it drops.
    B: What level are you?
    A: 35
    B: No, you need to be at least 50. 45 with a good group that runs you, maybe.

    Takes 10 seconds. Without the level (and nothing similar to replace it) it would turn into an ordeal of finding out what gear the player has, how much experience with that kind of content he has, what skills he has and so on. It’s not “keep the 35 because it’s 35”. It’s because of what that ’35’ means, because any moderately experienced player in any game knows more or less what to expect from a 10, a 35 and a 50 in all of two seconds of thinking.

    Levels are great summarizers of these things, and things like these happen constantly in any game. Players need a short and sweet instrument to compare themselves to others.

  12. @Julian: Your second to last post I agree with. It’s a nice summary of why designers like levels.

    I think you are full of it in your last point. In any skill based MMO there is always “something similar” (e.g., what ship you are driving in EVE). It doesn’t take any more time to straighten out a PUG in a skill based MMO than it does in a level based MMO in my experience. Who is on and interested in running the same content as you is far and away the rate limiting step. Theoretically the confusion you mention could come into play. However in practice I have never seen it.

  13. “I think you are full of it in your last point.”

    I take exception to that. I’m usually full of it in way more than one point. I’m not willing to disclose the exact ratio, though. :)

    As for the rest of your comments, you might very well be right. I’m sure “there’s always something”, because there has got to be something for the game to feel right. Without getting way too much off the philosophical end here, I think player differentiation in every sense and at any granularity is at the root of any game. Computer or not.

    What I meant on the second post was also to illustrate levels as a summarizer, acting on that kind of thing. Like Tesh and others mentioned, it’s up to the implementation to determine if that level ‘matters’ for content or not (you know what I mean). But still, implementation or not, the level as a ‘high-level abstraction’ or conceptual summarizer of a player, his expected gear, his expected skills, his expected experience with the game and other expectations, works and works very well. Again, works very well as a summarizer only. And that’s another factor why levels are kept.

    In a nutshell; they can be nasty, but they’re always handy to have. In whatever form.

  14. “Without levels, what purpose is there in doing any activity more than once?”

    You had me nodding my head up until here.

    Please take a step back and comprehend how much that fails when applied to NON MMO games, and then take a step forward and ask, why are MMO games still being designed that way.

  15. “Without levels, what purpose is there in doing any activity more than once”

    Umm, because doing that activity is fun? My gods, is this really *that* difficult to understand?

    If you are doing something abysmally boring repeatedly again and again, day after day, just because you get levels by doing so, then there’s something wrong with you and the game that you are playing and I definitely want to play a completely different game than the one that you seem to enjoy.

    I want to play a game where doing things is fun, because things that I’m doing are fun things to do, even though I’m doing them over and over again.

    Playing Puzzle Quest is fun, even though it’s basically the same game over and over again. Playing a flight simulator can be fun, even though it’s the same takeoff and landing pretty much every time. Playing an arcade racing car game can be so much fun, even though it’s the same track and the same car. Playing a sports game can be fun even though your players and the team stay the same. I remember Mario being fun even after I had finished the game a half dozen times. I can’t remember Mario leveling up in that game.

    But oh noes, if it’s an mmorpg game the game itself must be so tedious that the only possible way that anyone could even remotely enjoy it can be if they get rewarded with a virtual number that grows. And it must be tedious because you seem to thing that that’s the only possible game design you can have in mmorpg.

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