MMO Mechanics: Zonation and scaling mechanics in MMORPGs


The recent E3 hubub about The Elder Scrolls Online new level syncing mechanics being extended has got me thinking all about the mechanics behind zones in MMOs, especially after I pored over an edition of Tamriel Infinium about how the feature’s extension could impact the game by Massively Overpowered’s own Larry Everett. Sooner or later, every MMO with a levelling system has to tackle the issue of what to do when players of differing levels want to play together, and while there are several ways in which to tackle the disparity, I’d love to see an MMO that combines some more traditional methods together in a case-responsive manner that also incorporated some degree of competence-based vertical scaling of content too.

In this edition of MMO Mechanics, I’ll have a look at the most common methods of dealing with zonation and bridging level gaps in horizontal progression systems and consider the rewards for both player and developer that the various scaling mechanics might offer. I’ll briefly cover the various scaling methods before evaluating the impact on gameplay and also the developer rationale that inspires their use.

EQ2 (2)Classic zonation, down-leveling, and upscaling

Most MMO fans will be very familiar with the classic level-specific zone system used in World of Warcraft and its many contemporaries, but it’s worth mentioning for context anyway. These systems separate the map into distinct areas that each suit players of a set level band, which is most often reflected in features such as the level of monsters there and the relative difficulty of the area’s quests. Players get poor rewards from completing content much below their level, yet content that lies far above their level is extremely difficult to complete, so the player is naturally guided from one zone to the next in a linear manner. Old content often becomes disused by most of the playerbase as a result, however, and a constant cycle of moving the goalposts and exhausting content transpires.

EverQuest II implemented a mentoring system that allowed players to temporarily level their characters down to the same level as their friends to facilitate grouping. All players would get all the same loot and reduced XP, making it a bit of a drain on the higher level players. This system was later expanded with the introduction of a little chronomancy magic, which lets players pay to reduce their levels temporarily without someone of that level needing to mentor you as though they were self-mentoring. Guild Wars 2, among very many other titles, expanded on this concept by making players automatically down-level to the area they’re playing in, ensuring that each encounter remains relatively challenging and engaging despite your character’s actual level.

As Larry also mentioned, City of Heroes had a fantastic sidekick system that levelled you up to the level of your friend temporarily. Several MMOs use similar tactics, and Guild Wars 2 automatically ups a player’s level for PvP and some other content temporarily. Going back to my original inspiration, The Elder Scrolls Online goes one step further and scales players up or down automatically to match the level of the content they choose. I’m not sure if an entirely blanket, full game approach to upscaling is a wise decision for ESO, particularly since the choice could disincentivise players from following the natural levelling process and could see chunks of wasted content that players no longer give a chance because of its relative difficulty or given rewards.

city of heroesMotivations and reward

The classic zone system links progression inextricably to the game’s content since you have to complete content appropriate for your level and items in order to make progress and you must make progress in order to complete new content. Whether you mainly enjoy MMOs for the progression aspect or for in-game rewards such as new areas to explore, items to get, and storyline to complete, you can be forced to do something that you don’t like in order to achieve the progress you seek. The part of the gameplay you enjoy most becomes the reward, and the other gameplay becomes the grind you tolerate just to get to it.

There are so many examples of this working both ways in level-based MMOs such as WoW. People will grind levels for as long as it takes in order to reach endgame and gain access to certain dungeons, raids, and other exciting endgame-only content types. On the flip side, people are also often perfectly happy to grind through quests and zones they don’t like in order to level up or gain items, in which case progression itself is the reward and the content is the time-sink. Whichever the case, I’m not convinced that the player benefits from sitting through unwanted distractions to get to the good bits, so I can see how the “One Tamriel” system appeals.

riftThe business case

There are huge differences all across the genre in the mechanics of levelling, progression, loot, and exploration, and at least part of the reason for it is that some strategies work better or worse depending on the business model used and the target audience of the MMO at hand. The classic zone system comes from a time when subscriptions were dominant and the long game was king, so much of the gameplay was designed to keep players interested and stretch out the user’s play experience over a longer duration. I’ve discussed the dangling carrot of horizontal progression at length over the course of this column, and I’m still largely decided that the mechanics employed simply aren’t inspiring enough for the modern MMO enthusiast.

Decoupling the content from level progression or other time-consuming gating mechanisms could be a huge mistake for a subscription game to make though. If people could burn through all of the content that interests them in a subscription game in a month, they may get bored and quit after that month rather than sticking around. Conversely, a buy-to-play game such as Guild Wars 2 doesn’t really suffer any ill-effect from level scaling and could actually see an increase in sales due to the fact that people know they can play with their friends. Extending this to up-levelling too could be a huge boost to sales as people won’t need to grind much at all to play interesting zones beyond the starter realms with their friends.

As a last point from the business perspective, I also wanted to point to the way in which some MMOs elongate the endgame to keep players actively engaged without simply increasing the level cap and devaluing the content that has come before. Horizontal progression mechanics vary wildly in scope, but I really love when an MMO facilitates more fluid, realistic ways for me to enhance my character and continue his or her journey even in games with a typical levelling progression system.

esoCombining mechanics

I wonder if we should layer the flexibility that is at the heart of the “One Tamriel” level scaling mechanics with some sort of horizontal progression mechanics to incentivise content uptake, perhaps something akin to a zone affinity system such as GW2’s masteries. If each zone was a foreign, unintelligible wildland regardless of my level until I dedicated time to unfolding its secrets, I would feel more willing to test myself against the unknown zones just to unlock those pieces of intrigue and piece together my character’s strengths and weaknesses. Masteries in GW2 are a great concept mechanically that could be translated into a much more far-reaching system that reflects the familiarity and affinity a character (or player for that matter) has with a zone into a real in-game benefit that transcends the typical levelling experience without making it quite so obsolete.

It could be the case that once you’re comfortable in the new environment you find that it is no real match for your character, or you could likewise find that when you venture deeper into an area you’re wildly outmatched by its horrors. Time of day mechanics, special events, specifically selected character traits, and even storyline decisions could all change the nature of any particular zone and switch up your expectations for what lies in each area, while learning the particular tricks and ways of a zone will also lessen the threat level. I would love to see such a rich, dynamic system that doesn’t quite spill into sandbox territory yet offers players a sense of realism and learning that can’t be found on a standard character sheet. I want my character to be vulnerable or capable depending on the unique situation unfurling around him or her, and I want to be able to change those feelings through my actions or innate abilities. Set the world at the feet of my characters, yes, but challenge me to fight to find my path.

Over to you!

Are you a fan of level scaling? What sort of mechanics would you employ to differentiate zones from one another? Is levelling the best way to accelerate a character? Should zones only contain monsters within a known level band, or does this break realism? Have your say in the comments below.

MMOs are composed of many moving parts, but Massively’s Tina Lauro is willing to risk industrial injury so that you can enjoy her mechanical musings. MMO Mechanics explores the various workings behind our beloved MMOs. If there’s a specific topic you’d like to see dissected, drop Tina a comment or send an email to
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