Dual Wielding: the ideal levelling process

Dual Wielding: A series featuring two bloggers writing on one topic and answering the question, “If the pen is mightier than the sword, what happens when you dual wield?”

Don’t miss out on Ironweakness’ take on the subject.

Introduction

This time, Ironweakness’ and i chose to tackle another subject- the ideal levelling process. For me, this is a difficult topic since i never really finished levelling in most of the MMORPGs i play- so voting for a longer levelling experience seems to be quite the opposite of what i’d want- but since i am someone who likes MMORPGs to be “virtual worlds” with a heap of different activities and a somewhat robust economy, a longer levelling experience makes sense. So here are my thoughts on how levelling should be- in my opinion, of course.

Neverending

I do like the arbitrary level number next to my character’s portrait. It’s an easy way to gauge overall progress of that character in the game. I don’t think that journey ever ends, though, so the concept of a “max level” doesn’t appeal to me. Just take a look at the achievement list in your favourite MMO – the developers agree! But they put another arbitrary number on achievements instead of making use of the existing one, character level. I could, of course, use that arbitrary number to see where i stand in regards of overall progression within the game, but i don’t really see the point in adding another value instead of using the one that has always been there to do exactly that.

Let it take forever, because there would need to be a soft cap applied. I’d prefer the soft-cap-max-level to be high, though, to allow for tangible progress early on. Let’s say your maxlevel is 255; just let it take 3 months of ingame time to go from 254 to 255, i don’t care. It shouldn’t be reached, anyway.

Of course, the problem is skill/class progression, which is often tied to the levelling process, but that’s a topic for another day. For now, i’ll make it short and simply state that i prefer skill progression over class progression because it allows for horizontal character progression- see EVE or The Secret World, for instance.

Uses all activities

If we take another look at achievements, the funny thing is that there are achievements for almost everything- yet, in most games, the only things that grant you “experience” to raise your level are killing mobs and completing quests. In my opinion, everything an MMO offers should contribute to your characters’ progress in levels. Good examples are Guild Wars 2, where pretty much everything you can do rewards experience, but also Final Fantasy XIV by use of gathering/crafting classes and SWTOR, where, as far as i know, most things you do give some progress to your characters, although it won’t always be towards levelling them but provide the player with alternate currencies.

Is heavy on story

But please don’t let me be the chosen one. I want to see an MMO-story that actually makes use of all the other players out there and it doesn’t make sense that we’re all superheroes, demi-gods or immortals- if we were, we were the ‘normal’ ones in the setting and the world dynamics would change.

Story-heavy MMORPGs are often criticized for being too solo-centric, but i feel that, while this might be true for the MMORPGs that are released, it doesn’t need to be this way. There are great, story-heavy movies/books out there that don’t just focus on one character. The key is that those characters have different opinions, different goals and different motivations behind their choices. In my opinion, we could do this in MMOs.

I think Star Wars: the old republic actually gives us a glance at this possibility- when you are in flashpoints, dialogue opens up. As in normal quests, the player characters will be prompted to answer. Every player of the group may choose an option to his or her liking, but what is actually said- story-wise, is decided by dice roll. This allows for situations where something happens, story-wise, that wouldn’t have been your personal choice and is still very interesting to observe.

So i don’t think it’s impossible to do. Of course, creating story takes some time, so how much story there is for players to experience should differ from game to game (and budget to budget), but if you’re a themepark MMO, story is part of the package.

Gives weight to activities

This ties in with the previous point- not everything there is to do in an MMORPG is totally epic stuff- there’s going to be the basement full of rats, the odd delivery quest, the filler content. And also, baking bread, smelting iron and so on. A game that wants to provide a good levelling experience gives weigth to activities- for instance by not throwing tens of quests at us when we enter a “quest hub”.

The Secret World and Guild Wars 2 do great in this regard- TSW only allows the player to have one story mission, one main mission and up to three item missions active at the same time, making each mission seem more important and easier to follow. Missions in The Secret World are often multi-tiered, as well. Guild Wars 2 doesn’t have quests, at all, and makes heavy use of location instead. Be in place A and there’s this thing to do, in place B it’s another one (often even providing multiple ways to finish these quests- by collecting items, killing mobs and so on), dynamic events are location-based, as well. Only your personal story and daily/monthly achievements are similar to what you’d call quests in other games.

Doesn’t change at endgame

The ideal levelling process doesn’t suddenly change the game surrounding it when it’s finished- “endgame” and “levelling” should basically be the same game. I see no reason why raids should be a max-level-activity. Sure, if the levelling process is short and players enter and leave the corresponding level-brackets very quickly, it doesn’t really make sense to create complicated content before max level. If, on the other hand, the bracket in question takes time to traverse, there could be dungeons/raids or whatever for earlier levels. If you take a look at EQ2, for example, it does a great job at providing content for all group sizes at almost all levels- this should be the norm.

Gives choice

I think if we’re talking about a linear quest-driven-progression, there should be multiple ways to level through the content. World of Warcraft and Everquest 2 are great examples – you could level multiple characters without entering the same zones (or minimizing this) on more than one of them, because for every level bracket, there are more than one or two options in playing. But even if we’re looking outside of zones, crafting, exploring, gathering, these are all activities that should be rewarded by raising that arbitrary number of character level.

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11 thoughts on “Dual Wielding: the ideal levelling process

  1. We had quite a similar take on what would make the ideal leveling experience. I think the current leveling paradigm is still tied to the subscription model where content needed to be artificially gated to keep players subscribing. It needs to be revamped for the current business model. Not to mention the shift in player demographic, with MMO gamers aging I think leveling that is casual friendly will do more to keep us in a game then grind ever will. That means no more focus on end game as “the game”, no more filler content, and plenty of short term goals that add up to a bigger one.

    I do have a question about your first point on continuous leveling; that’s something I’ve never considered before. How would that affect the traditional expansion model with the raise in level cap that comes with it? Or would this be tied to a DLC style game instead?

    1. Well, i chose to edit that part. As a matter of fact, i think there are two examples, maybe three, where something like that could work: EVE Online, with its skill-based progression, the same for The Secret World (you even fill up that bar at the bottom of the screen! All they needed to do was to add a counter) and Guild Wars 2.

      You could expand by allowing/introducing more weapons for a class (if class-based progression system), more skills to choose from and so on- things like that. At some point, your character wouldn’t grow in power but instead would just become more versatile.

      The “levels” in this system wouldn’t count for anything but “game experience” as in time played, effectively. It would be more about showing “veteran status” within the game than character progression.

  2. I wish you on everything but story. It doesn’t belong in most MMOs, I don’t want it, and I think it actively hurts the experience more times than it doesn’t.

    1. Hm, i don’t know. Usually, i’d agree- an MMORPG is not the best medium to tell a story. Then again, there is The Secret World and i think it does a great job in it. Even if you don’t tell a story directly, an MMORPG would need to have lore- else you wind up with a shallow experience.

      1. And next to the excellent storyline, this blog entry just also mentioned the greatness of the skill wheel. With the exception of very early in the game, where you still collect essential skills, you are not getting stronger “per se” any more by learning more skills. After all, your skillbars (both active and passive) are full already.

        What you get instead is more versatility, you can adjust your setup (outside of combat) for different tasks and finetune it better for different challenges. The “fault” of the skillwheel is that it’s really overwhelming for the new player but once you got some basic understanding, it’s second to none.

        At the same time, i have to admit that the overwhelming skillwheel might indeed be the reason why some people find combat in TSW to be “cumbersome”. You can gimp yourself badly by making bad choices. The recent rework and improved tutorial makes things better, but still is far from perfect. (I’d still advocate giving player mid-tier decks and provide one or two more “tutorial” style missions in the progression, but building that would require a lot of manpower, so i guess that’s not feasible. ) Once you got a proper setup and/or understand how to make good setups, combat becomes quite smooth, but if you don’t want to ever invest any time to get a good setup then you’ll find that TSW is less forgiving there than some other MMOs, which never challenge you while leveling and rather punish you hard at endgame. (The other complaint about TSWs combat are the “bland” animations. There might be some truth in it, especially if you use firearms, but there’s simply just so many ways to fire a rifle. )

        Another positive mentioned in this blog entry is the superior mission system of TSW, but some people indeed dislike it. It ties strongly into the story focus of the game and makes sure you know what you are actually doing. For those “brute force leveling” players, who don’t want to know what they are doing but only want to grind more XP by questing, the old system of “questhub, get 10 quests, work them off, return, get XP” is preferable.

        The next big positive, although not mentioned in many blogs, is the group content. Many players notice the annoying solo-instances in the game when playing in group. A number of the old solo-only instances have been changed to allow groups by now, but there are some solo-only remaining. So yes, the problem exists but is not as bad as it might seem at the start, especially since the developers really really work hard on making all later content group-friendly. I couldn’t remember any solo instance after issue 6, and that one was a dream-sequence and had no combat, so it also was perfectly fine. So the “solo only” problem is minor. At the same time, there are the dungeons, which acompany the leveling process, one for each zone. (So yes, the first dungeon can be done in gear of QL1 or 2, which you get by just doing the first few missions. ) Even the dungeons fit into the story and continue telling it, but they also are well done in terms of quality.

        Unlike dungeons and raids in other MMOs, they have very little thrash mobs. So you don’t have the boring thrashmob-killing towards the next boss, but rather go from one boss to another. And while the first bosses in the beginner dungeons of course are simple spank-and-tank, they get more interesting and challenging in the higher up dungeons. (Also, all dungeons are available in higher difficulty versions, where even the bosses of the first dungeons have more challenging properties. )

        Since i haven’t done much dungeoning/raiding before TSW (all the drama of raid guilds just drove me away) i can’t really compare, but people who raided in other games too tell me that the quality of TSWs dungeons is on par to other MMOs. And since TSws horizontal progression also kicks in here (albeit with some vertical progression for QL 10.4 gear) there is limited power creep, which helps things being more easy and relaxed. Doing dungeons in other MMOs for me very often was a hostile experience, in TSW it is not. (This btw. is one of my few worries for the game. For the next issue more dungeons were announced, but in the interview they also spoke of more powerful gear. If the developers now restart the ratrace of “better gear”, the community might suffer from that. )

        Which brings me to the next point i have speaking for TSW: the good community. Not only is it free of goldseller spam, but people generally are really friendly and helpful. I would love to credit that all to us being so much more mature than players of other games, but i think realistically some design decissions also have a huge influence here. Among them are: no tagging or killstealing, whoever assists in killing something gets rewarded, mostly horizontal progression and some other nice features. Honorary mentions go to the rather strong RP community and the great support they get in game, e.g. the Albion Theatre, a theatre where players can set up the stage and do shows and plays. (And where sometimes during my girls radio show the games community manager turns up to just also be on the stage and play along. ) I wouldn’t know of any life and still running MMO to match that.

        I hope this wall of text helps you. It’s not like the “rest” is not there, it’s just that the story so much outshines everything else, that people usually only mention it when talking about TSW.

      2. I thought about answering Murfs doubts with a post of my own, but you mention everything already, great comment. One thing i’ve also mentioned earlier that didn’t make the cut here in this post is that- at least before the NPE- grouping up with 1 or 2 other players for missions was a very good idea- so players were kind of encouraged to group without force or instanced dungeons.
        Two others would be the (imo) great business model and the general feeling i got from Funcom – that they do the best they can. It might not be perfect, but it seems like honest work.

      3. Don’t let me stop you. After all, your would be a new post on your blog, while what i wrote is merely a comment. (Although a bit lengthy. )

  3. I have to say having a storyline is an incredibly important part of leveling. SWTOR does the whole class storyline and planetary storyline incredibly well. No storyline to means a very very shallow experience. I mean if I don’t want storyline, I should just automatically get to cap level and gear and go at it. Hmm Planetside2 does this…pure pvp, no stories, no leveling just go to war, earn credits, buy equipment and pray you last more than 5 minutes in a fire fight.

    Leveling…I guess it’s ok as long as I’m being entertained and immersed along the way. If there is no sense of me character “Being” then why bother with an MMO? Why bother with custom equipment? Why bother with anything? The whole point is to tell a story, of making your character a part of the universe. Now, if all my quests are just pure kill 10 rats with no rhyme or reason, I get incredibly bored with leveling. I need to want to progress in order to deal with the hours of gameplay while working on a given toon.

    1. Indeed. Sometimes some people give me the impression that all they need is a skinner box and they are set for a long time. For me, when given the choice between an immersive world with storyline and the skinner box, i will take the former. I accept the later as it usually comes with the package, but it’s not what makes a game for me.

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