Moving to a level-based system was one of the changes I was personally most unsure about with this reboot. I have never been a fan of levels, preferring skill-based systems. Luckily, the ability to personalize your build with the weapon skill trees was retained. And I get that levels are more universally recognized. But after nearly a month, I have found that although levels do have some benefits, as currently implemented they are causing issues within Secret World Legends that are affecting gameplay — but mostly only for patrons! The good news is there is a fix.
I can see benefits on both Funcom’s and the players’ sides. Levels can lead to retention, which obviously benefits the studio. By helping to pace players, Funcom can better avoid the situation where players race ahead in the story then hit a brick wall of difficulty and quit in frustration. Missions that are level-locked prevent players from diving in before they can reasonably survive.
I also understand that having visible levels helps folks who want to judge their chances versus enemies before engaging in combat; seeing something way over your level might give you pause before charging in to certain death (or may not, to each his own!). Deaths cost in repairs and lost time, so if you are actively avoiding it — and we realize sometimes you aren’t — then being able to make that assessment prior to attacking increases your chances of survival.
Additionally, I can’t discount that levels are also a very obvious way to see progress of your character. You can see the numbers rising and know you are getting better/stronger. For some, that is a really big deal. I totally respect that.
Interestingly, none of the above reasons tops the list. The most oft-cited benefits of levels that I have heard when discussing the game with other players is that when you are sufficiently higher than the level of the mobs, they ignore you. Folks like the freedom of movement afforded in “grey” zones. This is a blessing to many specifically in relation to those pesky head-butting Ak’ab that knock players off their feet. Other players I’ve chatted with tell me they are glad to be able to traverse land near them without being punted about. But it goes deeper than just the bugs: Other areas also benefit because it makes going back for missed lore/legends easier. I admit to using this exact mechanic a couple of times myself to just take care of mission business without having to stop every few feet and deal with encounters. However, this benefit turned out to have an (unintended?) cost.
Outleveling a zone
I have run into a few problems directly related to levels while playing Secret World Legends. Level dings (which I hate) aside, I am finding that levels are hurting my gameplay. The top problem for me initially was that the atmosphere of the game was affected. Remember, messing with the atmosphere or the story are my two big no-nos! I first noticed it in Kingsmouth. Once I’d gotten through with most everything in the zone, the zombies no longer wanted to eat my face off. I mean, who ever heard of zombies who didn’t want a snack of human flesh? Was I just not tasty anymore? I mean, when even a zombie doesn’t want you…
But that disappointment that Kingsmouth lost some of its magic was nothing compared to what awaited me in Savage Coast. It was so disappointing to be doing my Innsmouth Academy quests for the first time and all of the mobs are oblivious to my presence. There’s no feeling of danger or threat as I run around the halls. OK, so I get that the zombies in Kingsmouth no longer wanted me and were perhaps telling me to move on, but these are areas and missions I hadn’t even gotten to yet! Worse, one of the greatest bridge-crossing experiences of the game will be completely ruined if a person has outleveled the area. It’s really ruining some gameplay for me, and not just in an ambient way either.
I realize the emphasis on ambiance is not necessarily a top priority or a big deal for some people, so if this was the only thing maybe I’d just frown and move on. But it’s not. There are multiple times throughout the game when your presence triggers the mob. If it cant sense you, it doesn’t trigger. This has already caused a couple of problems with missions. One time was with the scarecrows on poles: They aren’t attackable until they get down, but they won’t get down until they see you. It’s a bit frustrating to see all those mobs there that could advance your mission if only you could kill them. Although, I admit that the idea of people thinking they are safe from these “decorations” for a while only to be surprised at a later time makes me smile (+10 to ambiance), I’m afraid the chances of that happening are slim. I mean, if you’ve already out-leveled one area, you might just be outleveled the next time you run into them as well.
Free vs. patron
In the beginning I mentioned that the problems with levels are mostly only for patrons. Having played as both a free player and a lifetime patron, I can say that the levels actually work pretty smoothly for free-to-play players. In fact, the system seems designed specifically for them. As a F2P person, you have such long cooldowns on missions that if you play regularly, you just do missions one time and move on. That paces you through the zones to be the level of the zones. You may never notice any of the ambiance or mission troubles because they won’t apply to you.
Patrons, on the other hand, have the ability to redo missions every eight hours. Since loot no longer drops from regular mobs, all the gear and goodies you need to feed your equipment comes from mission rewards. So the more missions you do, the more reward bags you get. And remember, these items are all tradeable, so the more you do, the more you can trade or sell as well. Patrons can easily run through tons of missions in a lengthy play session, and quite a few in a short one. I know because I do it myself and see other players doing it too. If I am pressed for time, I can hop to a lower zone and pound out all my necessary daily challenges in no time at all to get loot, anima shards, and Marks of Favour. In addition to loot, these grant XP, so even only having done this a few times, on top of going back to help new friends coming to the game, I’ve already significantly out-leveled the second zone. I have friends who are only partially into Blue Mountain (third zone) and are already maxed at level 50 with all five zones of Egypt and Transylvania still to go!
Granted, maybe this is problem mostly for veteran players now, but you can’t tell me that new folks who play regularly and go the patron route won’t figure out quickly that more missions mean more stuff. And those are the players who will suffer the most with loss of ambiance because they won’t already know how it was or is supposed to be. Those experiencing the game for the first time might seriously miss out on the great atmosphere. And that bridge crossing!
An easy fix
The good news is that I think the problems with leveling can be erased. Now, I say this is an easy fix, but I mean that on a concept level; how easy it is to code and implement, I don’t know. I really hope it is easy to implement because I really, really want to see it in game. It solves both problems at once!
The answer is level scaling. Most games that have levels learn at some point that level scaling is necessary as players move fluidly between old and new areas. There are different ways to do it, from scaling mobs to the level of the player to allowing players to adjust their levels. Personally, I think allowing players to scale themselves is not only easier for the devs but preferable for the game. This will give players the freedom to choose their experience. Do they want to run through the zone untouched and unseen by everything? Fine, then don’t adjust. But those who want the feelings of danger or need mobs to trigger for missions can adjust. Win/win!
I think a great example of this type of system is the chronomentoring in EverQuest II. Yes, being able to mentor a lower-level party member was awesome (and how I rejoiced when that was first implemented!), but there are times when either you’re alone or no one is available at the appropriate level. By visiting an NPC, you pay a small in-game fee and you choose what level you want to adventure as. I would love, love, love to see this in Secret World Legends!
As for mob scaling, I know it is possible because it is already in SWL. The Jack of the Lantern mission actually has adds spawn that match the player’s level! This came as quite a shock actually to a friend of mine the first time through, but the friend was pleased with the unexpected development. Now, I understand that making all mobs in all zones behave this way might be too much at this point. I just wanted it to be known that it did improve the gaming experience!
So while I think leveling has presented some problems in Secret World Legends, I think those problems can be completely mitigated, leaving only the benefits. If this can happen, I’d be a pretty happy camper. Well, unless I am camping in Kingsmouth with zombies once again chewing on my face. No, scratch that — that would make me happy! (As an aside, another related thing that would make me happy would be to see the grey mobs cower in fear as higher-level players pass by. It’s a silly small thing, but man, that is something else I have appreciated in EQII. It is amusing — not to mention ego boosting — to strut past while mobs show their respect for your power. Not a necessary change, but it would be a fun one!).
So, Funcom? Any chance of seeing this come to pass?