Chaos Theory: Are levels good for Secret World Legends?

    
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We’d heard about (and stressed over!) various Secret World Legends changes for a while, but you just can’t know how those changes will affect the game until you experience them. Now we have. We’ve had three and a half weeks to dive in and play around, getting a feel for the Secret World reboot. So how do some of those changes play out in practice? I’ve already noted a few initial pros and cons, but some topics — like levels — needed more time.

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.

Ignoring Ak’ab

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?

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Malcolm Swoboda

I’ve always been okay with more of a level design (I have always insisted that TSW has more levels than it seems/markets). But yes, bring on optional player level scaling and, in my opinion, Elite/top level versions of zones, perhaps with exclusive rewards (and obviously, max level relevant rewards).

In terms of learning the game though, I find SWL to be better than TSW. I don’t agree with some who think it MUST be as hard as TSW launch ALWAYS. I like choosing my battles (though not necessarily choosing from every reward), while getting all the storyline anyway.

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Oleg Chebeneev

I dont see much difference with old leveling system. Old TSW had levels, they just werent visible. Kingsmouth was definetly easier location then Blue MOuntain. They just showed levels, not much changed.
As for mobs not reacting to higher level characters. Why would it be a big deal? If you outleveled zone, you probably did everything there already. And even if you didnt, mobs are irrelevant anyway since you can oneshot them. There wont be any challenge fighting them.

As for content scaling. I think this fits World of Warcraft much more then SWL. The ultimate purpose of scaling is to enjoy exploration and level in zones you want. And this only relevant where there are many alternative zones and paths to level. In SWL its always direct path. Kingsmouth > Savage Coast > Blue Mountain > Egypt > …
Main story leads you through this path, so even with scaling, you will follow it. Scaling wont do anything in SWL

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Jeffery Witman

And remember, these items are all tradeable, so the more you do, the more you can trade or sell as well.

One note here, though it’s a bit off topic, but Funcom made another problem for themselves with this one. You can only sell 10 items a day in the AH, and you can only have 10 items up at once in the AH. The rest you either need to use somehow, or sell for shards, apparently. Patron status does nothing to fix that, either.

With that in mind, if they did level scaling mobs I don’t think it would be all that good unless they scaled the mission loot as well. Even then it would be iffy as higher level missing just give more loot, not better loot.

Honestly, I think they solved this problem long ago in TSW (with lairs), but just created a new problem here with the levels and their associated mob behavior. The idea of paying any currency at all just to run around at a lower level to fix problems they created for themselves is kinda insulting. It already costs a lot to do pretty much anything in the game. The shard bottleneck as you try to upgrade gear and use the continually disappointing loot that only drops from missions, not mobs, is soul-sucking, and I’m not even done with BF yet. I’d rather go grind Aegis again than try to get a set of purple gear at this point.

Levels were pointless. It’s all about gear and passive stats. Maybe if they took levels to 100 instead of 50, and made them scale so that you reached 100 right around Orochi tower in the yet to be released Tokyo, the levels would make sense. They could have a season 2 full of character advancement not based on levels, but on something new and novel, like upgrading our favorite abilities or helping our factions navigate the end of days, or something completely different that they came up with as their own ideas because that’s their job.

Instead we’re getting stat creep. I now get to have moments as a tank where I have 500,000+ protection. Low level signets are all but useless, but if you pay or grind them up to max they make you godlike. Instead of one level of elite dungeons we get 10 (but only a few of them, and still no raids, and Tokyo is only on the horizon). I shudder to think of what the new Aegis Staten will look like given what they did to the rest of the game.

Just like everything else so far in the relaunch it feels like they took every possible idea of how to do a F2P relaunch and threw it all in just to see what sticks, levels included.

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Travis Beaty

To be honest, as much as I’m loving the game right now, I do wish they would have left the leveling system alone, as it seemed to work fine in TSW. The problem that I see is that they are trying to shoehorn simplicity into a game that isn’t about simple. Consider that by the time you’ve left Kingsmouth, you need to know Morse code, have Bible fu, and be able to read and identify sheet music. Or, if (like me) you’re too dumb for all that, you learn to use Google. I fear that if such simplification continues, our trusty DNA imprinted smart phones will not only initialize tracking, but “Stand by for Morse code translation” as well.

As far as direct effects on my gameplay, I’ve noticed it the worst when part of the mission requires the now apathetic zombie to follow you. For instance, that first quest at the church in Kingsmouth where you have to pull zombies through the door. I ran Kingsmouth missions on occasion to wrap up my daily challenges, and the problem is that apathetic zombies are apathetic — they see you, they just don’t care. That requires you to make them care by smacking them with your sword, which thanks to the level difference, is more likely to one-shot them than aggro them. In TSW they would chase me even if I was QL10.

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Malcolm Swoboda

“you need to know Morse code, have Bible fu, and be able to read and identify sheet music” – No you don’t. This is optional content, not mandatory gameplay (see: the levels, combat).

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Dread Quixadhal

I really don’t mind levels. I see many people here wanting some kind of level scaling, and I feel that’s a horrible mistake. I have to ask, do those of you who like level scaling just rush your way to “endgame” and only care about PvP and dungeons?

The big problem with level scaling is that it removes ANY sense of fear or challenge from the game. TESO isn’t a horrible game, but with level scaling I can literally waltz into any content and never feel challenged, other than by the possibility of being overwhelmed by numbers or trick mechanics, if I’m soloing.

My experience with SWL is limited, as I’ve only played it for a short time. Even so, I’ve out-leveled the Kingsmouth zone long before finishing the storyline there, because I’m one of those annoying explorer types who is compelled to go find all the side missions and quests, and do them at least once.

What *I* would really like to see is a system like Everquest 2 used to have, where you had a slider that adjusted where your experience points went. You could put them all into “level” if you wanted to progress faster, maybe to catch up with friends, or get out of a zone you’re bored with; or you could put them all into “AA” (a kind of skill points), to slow down or completely halt leveling while you finish quests and still be building up points to improve your character. By default, it was in the middle, so you gained on both sides.

SWL could easily do something like that, where you could translate some of the experience into fractional AP and SP, gaining you extra skill unlocks without forcing you to outlevel the content… or letting you go whole hog into leveling if you really want to hit 50 and do all that “endgame” stuff faster.

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Tobasco da Gama

I have to ask, do those of you who like level scaling just rush your way to “endgame” and only care about PvP and dungeons?

The whole point of level scaling is that the entire world is the end game.

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Tanek

While I also like the slider idea for xp, I think you missed the type of level scaling some would like to see.

It isn’t necessarily the kind like in ESO where you scale up/down automatically for whatever zone (although I do like it over in that game). Think more like EQ2 where, if you outlevel an area and want more challenge, you can do something like pay anima shards or MoF to level yourself back down to 10/20/whatever.

That lets you play how you want and still keep the challenge of a zone if you prefer that to being over level.

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Castagere Shaikura

I like the combat changes but really miss the old game. I just couldn’t get into doing the leveling all over again. The new game just didn’t work for me. And my friends i got to try the game didn’t like the 3 day vs 8 hour mission cooldown thing MJ. They felt it was punishing the f2p player.

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Tanek

When it comes to not over-leveling areas, it may be helping the f2p player. I started a free account to see how it went and the pacing there seems MUCH better.

which isn’t to say the cooldown would not be annoying if there are things you want to redo quickly (like a mission for an achievement), but overall, it did not seem horrible, at least on Solomon Island zones.

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Paragon Lost

They’ve created a problem and caused themselves a lot more work by going to the level system. They should have worked on the skill based system instead and fixed that and used it in SWL. Like MJ I’m not really fond of level systems, I like skill based systems myself. I think the scaling might help bandaid their issue as MJ is suggesting.

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wandris

Levels in almost all games are irrelevant. Merely a low gate that every play is expected or needs to achieve to do “endgame”. There was a time briefly back when WoW launched when getting high level sort of meant something,, you were looking at 10-14 days /played for most to achieve lv 60. Now though it is lv 1-100 in only 3-48 hours depending on how much you cheese it. This carries on to most games that copied this design philosophy and it takes away almost all point of just doing the content for the fun of it or exploring, especially when your power surpasses the content considerably. I really liked TSW for the fact you could slowly go through the game exploring every corner of it and not surpass it unless you went out and got higher end gear from more advanced areas. As for SWL I have some serious doubts although I am still only a few hours into it thus far, although I could always go back to TSW if it starts to suck.

I suppose it comes to this idea of grinding being a bad thing. But you can’t remove grinding or dress it up in any way that will make it any less of a grind. Getting to the end faster or sooner only means you are now free to make some other grind and in the end you otherwise lose any sense of achievement or exploration.

I really like the leveling in BDO. IT is a game of nearly endless grinds. Ten 100 level life skills which getting guru20 on any single one of them is almost an unimaginable. Getting a combat level of 61 is a few 1000 hours of playing, something that is not needed to enjoy the game at large and a goal to work towards over several years for most people. Getting there is an actual achievement. Then every individual piece of gear is in itself a grind for silver and farming as you raise it towards +20 with an exponential cost/power curve. People like to bemoan Korean grinders but I am now see that every level in crafting, combat and gear means more than a meaningless ride to max level in the dozens of WoW design games out there.

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Rottenrotny

If there’s one thing I really hate. it’s forced level scaling.
WoW and ESO have already made this mistake and I like both of those games less for it.

That being said, I’m all for OPTIONAL level scaling ala Rift.

Level 50? Want to head back to Kingsmouth? Cool, just travel there and then click the level scale button. Boom, and when you’re done click it again to return to your character’s actual level.

Agreed on how nice it is to return to lower level zones and the mobs ignore you. /thumbsup

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Tanek

Exactly. As MJ mentions in the column, something like EQ2’s chronomentoring could work well here, if it is even possible to implement.

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Hirku

The priority for me is to complete the main story and major NPC missions on level, so I simply prioritize that content, and other than 3 side missions for dailies I consider everything else something to do for fun later on.

It’s working well, at least for me. I’m about to enter Blue Mtn. exactly on level, but with all NPC missions and the dungeons in the previous two zones finished. And I find it’s fun to hop back to KM or SC and casually complete the stray side missions and study the monsters up close without having to kill them.

One thing I’m also doing is saving the lore until lvl. 50, not only to avoid overleveling but also because by 50 each lore piece should be a nice chunk of XP compared to what you get if you pick it up as you go.

I don’t like levels in SWL and I like the idea of level-scaling even less. The old system was perfect if you figured it out, but of course that’s gone so I’m making the best of the new situation.