Vague Patch Notes: On scaling and meaningful advancement in WoW and other MMORPGs

    
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It seems like pretty much nobody is happy with how scaling is working in World of Warcraft at the moment. The game’s scaling means that you seem to be getting actually weaker as you level up, which is sort of the antithesis of what you want with a brand new expansion. The best way to use the new signature artifact is to not use it at all but in fact stash it away to spoof the aforementioned item level scaling. Is scaling just bad all around?

Of course, the real problem here isn’t the scaling itself. Level scaling, as a concept, has a lot of merit; it’s just that there are issues in place about what “scaling” and “levels” are supposed to mean. So let’s talk a little bit about scaling, the concept of levels, and how many games have made this work for a very long time without ever running into these specific issues.

Was this the best game ever? No, don't be silly. But it was an extremely good game, and it knew things.It’s hard to track down the exact genesis of character levels back in the original version of Dungeons & Dragons, but if you look up the original rules there’s a fun aspect that makes it very clear what was being done. The original rules mention that experience was meant to be relative, based on what level of the dungeon the character was on. In other words, it makes perfect sense that your magic-user would be described as 8th level; that’s how deep in the dungeon you’re supposed to be! You’re equipped for handling threats that far down and no further.

Obviously, that particular meaning has been lost to time (for example, we now expect our characters to be able to venture outside reliably). But the term and concept has stuck with us. It’s pretty uniformly agreed that your level indicates how strong you are, which is where scaling becomes kind of wonky; if you hit level 25 and all of your enemies also become level 25, you haven’t really gotten any stronger.

At least, not if the only benefit you had was being scaled up to level 25. This is, in and of itself, part of the problem. But let’s take a step back and start by understanding the problem scaling is intended to solve, which also ties into that old-school D&D problem.

Suppose you have your favorite character, a magic-user. Now, suppose you’re going to bring him over to do something with your friends who are just starting the game. They’ve made a whole bunch of new characters who are all level 1, while you’re level 20 or so. Your adventure can either involve you faffing about with them in level 1 areas while you grow increasingly bored as things just explode when you look at them, or they can tag along gamely behind you and watch as you actually do all of the fighting. Neither one sounds fun for all parties involved.

Level scaling is the solution to this problem. City of Heroes both allowed you to scale your character level as well as scaling enemy levels, which worked out marvelously. You could still get benefits from partying up with your friends and scaling up to your level. You’d be in areas they could access, and numerically they’d be as capable of contributing to combat as you; they wouldn’t have all of your tricks, but you would all be taking part.

It has other benefits, though. If you have a game with 50 levels and five areas, you can divide those areas into bands of 10 levels. This is fine, but it also means all of the stuff in the game for characters at the level cap will need to be in the highest-level area. Scaling means that you can provide an effective challenge in all five areas, an increase in places to do stuff by a significant margin.

Besides which, it also saves you from the drawbacks of games wherein you can easily outlevel content. You no longer outlevel anything; it’s all relevant eternally. The benefits may be lesser, but that’s a case-by-case matter.

In other words, what level scaling ultimately does is turn a game from being a level-based game into being a more organic one. Level is a measure of character power only insofar as it measures how many power milestones you’ve hit, like more skill-based games. This means you no longer have quite so many things you can discount as trivial, but it means that you don’t wind up with older stuff no longer having the most remote threat.

Let me throw you in the bank and never use you again.However, we touched upon what makes this work just above. Notice how I said scaling in CoH wouldn’t affect your total number of tricks? That’s important. A level 50 character won’t have extra stats when partied with a bunch of level 10 characters… but the extra abilities gained over 40 levels are still there. In short, you still feel like the character is much more powerful than the others.

You know what game handles worldwide level scaling very well? The Elder Scrolls Online. I never felt at any point like gaining a level was anything but a benefit there, even though everything leveled right along with me. Because that meant new points to spend on things, new places to raise my skills, and more options all around. Which meant that enemies could become trivial not because my stats were greater than theirs, but because I had new ways of dealing with them. Because now I was passively recovering huge amounts of health and could focus on fewer stats thanks to skill modifications.

Heck, look at Guild Wars 2. That game has had level scaling across the open world in since launch, and yet it works, because higher levels mean better stats on gear (which grow faster than leveling stats), more skills (and skill slots from lower levels), and better enhancements. Your higher-level character can do a lot of stuff that lower-level ones can’t, especially with certain builds which don’t come online until you have a few levels.

Herein we see the core of what makes level scaling work, which is really the same thing that makes “no level” games work. When done right, level scaling just makes your overall strength into a number, but it’s otherwise level-agnostic. Your real measure of power is through extra skills and the enhancement of same.

This also explains why WoW is having such issues with scaling. In GW2, a new level always means gaining something; every odd level is more specialization points, there are lots of things unlocked, and even the otherwise “emptiest” levels with nothing more than a stat boost still contain free gear rewards. A level always gives you something beyond an inherent stat bump. By contrast, hitting level 116 in WoW at this point not only awards you nothing, it actually takes away from your existing abilities by turning off Legendary items. You get notably weaker by leveling.

There are games like this out there, of course. For example, Final Fantasy VIII had the exact same problem, where levels did not in and of themselves confer any benefit. Instead, players were encouraged to avoid leveling at all times and end battles in such a way that they gained no experience. Oblivion had a similar problem, which players get around frequently by never leveling up because there were, well, no benefits to leveling up.

Seriously, there’s a whole article about the leveling problem for that game. This is not a design to emulate.

There's not a lot of nice things to say about ArenaNet lately, so I'm glad to find things.

A similar problem is that WoW’s scaling is for both character level and item level. The proportions of this don’t matter, and I explained the problems with the latter when it was first introduced. But then, you can probably suss out the problem already; the whole point of “scaling” working is that you still get stronger at a rate faster than your enemies. Letting them scale up to your power level, even at a slower rate, obviates the purpose of having power improvements.

Put another way, let’s say a 10% increase in your damage means enemies get 5% more health. Why not just lower the main stat increase to 5% and have the same net effect?

Level scaling, in and of itself, is a good thing. When handled correctly it gives players a reason to use the whole game at the level cap instead of just parts of it, and you still feel all of the satisfying bits of gaining in power when your level increases. It’s just that when it’s handled inelegantly by shoving the game full of empty levels with no actual power climb, the levels feel pointless.

Which is the sort of thing even the original D&D rules knew to avoid, and they were the first.

Sometimes you know exactly what’s going on with the MMO genre, and sometimes all you have are Vague Patch Notes informing you that something, somewhere, has probably been changed. Senior Reporter Eliot Lefebvre enjoys analyzing these sorts of notes and also vague elements of the genre as a whole. The potency of this analysis may be adjusted under certain circumstances.

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athiev

The core of the problem is that WoW has unnecessarily kept adding levels when there was no progression to go with them. Progression lately is all about leveling up the expansion’s gear gimmick. The leveling process is purely about filling up a bar — all the bonuses and ability changes come from the gear. This is the result of the years long war on button bloat. Because no permanent abilities can be added, nothing meaningful can be attached to levels. So the design solution is: stop adding levels?

kjempff
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kjempff

Well I disagree , scaling breaks apart all that is a mmorpg. Scaling is ok for other types of games; those can be gamey without loosing integrety because they don’t offer immersion and world concepts.

Of course there are really not much of mmorpg left in mmos today and that attracts non-mmorpg players who don’t value things like integrety, virtual world persistance, feeling of accomplishment and anticipation (“when I get stronger…”).

Those of us who still try to see a mmo as a virtual world and our avatar as a character entity there, scaling completely messes up the integrety of that which we play for. Of course if you are in crowd of “hey it’s just a game, now throw some fun at me, I don’t care how”, then scaling is mostly positive – We just play for very different reasons, thought we both have fun there definition of what makes something enjoyable is not the same on a fundamental level.

I will not waste my time trying to go into details and explanation of why consistant world and characters power relation between environment and other is important, why feeling of accomplishment is tied to this consistancy. If you are one type of player you just don’t understand these concepts because you don’t play games for that, but if you are the other kind you probably understand completely the implications of scaling, and possibly also don’t see what scaling tries to solve as a serious problem.

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athiev

On the other hand, being able to run around and one-shot rooms full of older raid bosses is arguably pretty damaging for the coherence of the world?

kjempff
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kjempff

Not really, the old lady with a stick is still the same whether attacked by a novice in cloth wielding a wooden stick or by a top trained soldier in full kevlar and a machine gun – That is coherence. Besides is a pseudo problem that someone can one shot raid bosses – First, it can easily be designed so the power progression hardly allow that, not to mention that it would not happen if you take away the reward for doing so.
Scaling is mostly a clever mechanic for developers to avoid “wasting” content (because mmos have become story-content driven).. that is also why content gating by key/flagging has been removed from mmos (another great loss, for anticipation and feeling of accomplishment). Scaling is fix for a non-issue, or to be more correct a issue created by the unwillingness to create content through systems and emergent gameplay.
So developers created the non-issue, and fixed the non-issue by introducing something worse than the non-issue :D

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Eamil

Rather than put in a manual mentoring/level syncing like people have been asking for literally for a decade, they decided they just had to do it their own special way and it’s biting them on the ass.

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Koshelkin

I don’t like the fact that I outscaled content in WoW way too fast, especially considering that some expansions are placed in the same level bracket. I like the fact that I have the luxury to choose a path while leveling but it hate the fact that I can’t finish invidiual stories while still progressing. Pandaria, my favourite, is outcapped after around 1/3-1/2 of the story, and that’s without doing any Cataclysm stuff which is the parallel path at that moment. It’s paradox if you think about it, they still want players to progress the old path from expansion to expansion but they don’t give them the room to finish the story before the content is trivialized. Either WoW leveling should be way slower(or like a switch you can enable that reduces exp gain to the proper amount) or they should scale everything.

Eso doesn’t have the same problem because the main story is running independently from the story of the zones. Not necessarily the better path from a storytelling perspective because it lets me perceive most of the world separately from the main story arc. There’s those anchors dropping around but in the end nothing’s really tightly woven into the narrative of the main story arc.

*shrug* Nobody/Nothing’s perfect?

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David Blair

There’s always the “Breath of the Wild” method where you get better at combat with practice, and you get new abilities through questing, exploration, and challenges.

Polyanna
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Polyanna

In any RPG, proper progression should feel like this: At every point as your character develops, you should be able to look back on things that once felt hard but now are easy, and look forward to things that still are hard or are not easy yet. And you should feel at the end that you wound up somewhere impressively far from where you started, where you can look back and admire the epic journey it took to get there.

As a corollary, the rewards you get in terms of increased power and a feeling of progression and enrichment of your character should always be proportional to the time and effort that you spend playing the game.

The problem with WoW is that at every level the game doesn’t feel like that at all. It feels like treading water, where you can never quite see over the waves, and never get your head above water for long. But if you stop paddling for a second, you drown. And then there are points where the harder you paddle the quicker you sink.

Worse still is the bits that the game invites you to sink huge amounts of time into, like leveling new characters for Allied Races, where you go for long stretches of time while getting basically zero reward, or what you get is insultingly trivial compared with the time and effort required.

It may still be an “MMO” in many ways, but it is barely recognizable as an “RPG.”

This is not the fault of “scaling.” It’s the fault of a design team whose every public comment and design priority shows that they have absolutely no idea what proper progression is, or feels like, and no interest in building a game that has it.

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Serrenity

I’ve been watching this scaling kerfuffle and have arrived at … well, my thoughts on the matter.

I think the BIGGEST takeaway from this in my estimation that Blizzard really needs to stop with half-measures and do full scaling across the world instead of this weird tiered thing that they do. I think about it like they trying to fit a Square peg in Squircle slot. Yeah, it kinda works if you push you hard enough, but it’s not a super pleasant experience for either the peg or the slot.

I think they are keeping levels primarily because they (erroneously) think players want levels or that they get some weird satisfaction out of levels. Also, it’s simpler game design for the treadmill. It’s easier to make gear that does more or less what the previous five versions of the gear did just “Now with +5 ilvl!” than it is to come up with some other method of progression.

So yeah, really I think this is Blizzard trying to fit an antiquated system into a modern way of doing things and being a bit half-assed about it, and getting wonky results. And I think they are going the safe / easier route for the gear treadmill by just giving what is essentially the same piece of gear, just with more ilvls.

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Bannex

I mean I play WoW and I think it’s a fine game in general. Honestly, I really haven’t noticed this outrage everybody is talking about in terms of level scaling but then again im a filthy casual.

I did see that if you bank your high level items including the HoA your time to kill drops significantly. That seems really damn stupid and they need to fix it asap.

My major issue is that while they’ve done a great job with the zones, the small scale stories and reinvigorating wpvp they have a boatload of half working systems and poorly thought out designs as far as gearing.

I really didn’t enjoy artifact power even though i enjoyed the artifact weapons. HoA is just another art grind and it feels bad man.

I hate rep grinds, they doubled down on rep grinds. Feels bad man.

Warmode is a great idea executed poorly. They even discussed how they’re going to balance the populations but then somehow they’re not balanced. I understand they’re fixing it but wtf were they thinking? They should go further with warmode and provide solo mode. Make me the only one in the zone, I’d love that. Sometimes i just want to wander around and experience games by myself regardless of their genre designation.

Finally, dungeons. ENOUGH TRASH FFS. Yes trash has its place in dungeons but it seems like every exp they increase the amount of trash pulls like they’re fun or something. On a side note these are some cool freaking dungeons.

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anarres

Or add a small chance for trash to drop great loot.

laelgon
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laelgon

Maybe it’s just ESO’s combat in general, but I never seem to feel more powerful, though it’s not bad.

GW2 on the other hand, I can definitely tell my gear and stats make me more powerful, even while scaled down, without being overpowered. I like that.

Destiny 2’s scaling was the worst I’ve experienced. Enemies stay in such perfect lock step with your gear level, that besides a greater gear score number, literally nothing changes once you approach end game. I was grinding “better” gear for an arbitrary number that allowed me access to content, but no functional difference.

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Bannex

Destiny 2 is a spectacular failure in so many ways which is a shame because I do enjoy the combat.

I try so much to like ESO but I can’t. It really feels like a western korean mmo

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Koshelkin

That’s the worst comparison I’ve ever read… well wait, let’s rephrase that, no offense intended. Why does ESO feel like a western korean mmo to you?

hurbster
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hurbster

Yeah, can’t work that out either.

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Bannex

Oppressive cash shop
Spammy paper thin “action” combat
Broken af pvp bordering on pure nonsense
Beautiful graphics and zones followed by pseudo mobile features like daily log in rewards
Loot boxes
Need i go on?

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Axetwin .

It’s more beneficial to remove your trinkets instead of the Heart of Azeroth.