To be entirely honest, you might have expected this column a little bit earlier because it’s been a hot minute since Ion Hazzikostas once again floated the idea of a “level squish” for World of Warcraft. At this point, it’s been mentioned often enough that it seems almost inevitable this is what’s actually going to happen, and you might expect that I’ll join our own Justin in his statement that this is not the solution the game needs.
Your expectations would be wrong. I think the level squish is actually a really good starting point for fixing some of the game’s extant leveling and ability issues, and while there are definitely arguments against it the overall idea is sound. Yet I’m still not excited about it because a level squish in and of itself is not the solution for the problem. It’s the starting point. And history makes it seem unlikely that we’re getting any further than that starting point.
Before we really start picking this idea apart, let’s talk about why leveling in WoW is currently a bit of a mess. There are a few central problems that’s causing people to dislike leveling quite so much, but I think that ultimately it can be condensed down to two main points:
- There are too many levels. With a level cap of 120, starting at level 1 feels as if you’re facing an enormous climb to get up to the level cap, and even though the early levels fly by it’s still pretty intimidating for a new player. This is compounded by the fact that a lot of the older areas are still severely underpopulated, leaving you feeling as if you’ve got ages of leveling before you aren’t exploring a big empty world made for people no longer occupying it.
- Levels don’t do anything. With worldwide scaling, what you’d expect is that levels reliably give you new abilities to thus ensure that you’re still gaining relative power; however, you stop getting new toys and abilities and even just boring +x% damage increase traits pretty early. Long stretches with no abilities means that those levels essentially serve no purpose.
A level squish, at face value, feels like it solves both of those issues. For one thing, you can squash the levels down so that it no longer feels nearly as intimidating at a glance to reach the top of the ladder. You also no longer have any (or as many) empty levels, by spacing things out more evenly along the reduced number of levels. So this is all good, right? Why not just go for a level squish?
Except that doing that isn’t going to really solve the problem by itself. While trimming down the overinflated level count will help, it’s only the first step toward solving the larger problems that are underpinning those issues. And you can see the problem by just asking what happened with the item squish.
The item squish, again, was a good idea. Stats had gotten hideously inflated by the end of Mists of Pandaria to the point where the final fight against Garrosh had to artificially refill his health a couple of times. So the item squish happened, items were brought down to a more meaningful level, and then… Warlords of Draenor added in the exact same ever-escalating vertical climb to items, getting even higher with the addition of Mythic difficulties.
So now we’ve needed another item squish just two expansions later, and while you can argue that this one is closer to the way it should have been done in the first place (and you’d be right), the problem becomes clear. If you’re squishing everything down but planning to add the exact same ever-climbing set of numbers, a squish itself isn’t fixing anything. It’s kicking the can down the road.
What the item squish needed was the item squish itself followed by not inflating items into even more tiers of reward and creating another expansion with wildly escalating power rewards. A philosophical shift was needed along with the mathematical one, an effort made to not just address the problem but the causes of the problem.
At face value, a level squish addresses the issues of today. It means that players are no longer stuck with as many empty levels and don’t face such a huge climb. But the developers have even gone on record saying that they don’t want to do another five-level cap increase, and when the next expansion happens it’ll bump the levels up by 10 again and we’ll be back in the same spot. Or if the level squish happens in the next expansion, there’s the expansion after that. The problem isn’t being actually solved.
Furthermore, if you just squish the levels and keep the time required for them identical, you’re creating a situation wherein you’ve replaced one problem with another. No, the level counter is no longer so high and leveling you into empty levels… instead, you’ve got the same amount of dawdling in levels with half of your abilities and it takes twice as long to level up. Leveling is still unpleasant for different reasons.
No, what we need here is an understanding of what those problems actually are. Why are people unhappy with leveling? What’s causing this to be a point of contention? How can the game return the feeling of leveling up and actually gaining abilities and power and rewards instead of making it a chore that you have to go through?
I can think of lots of ways the designers could do this. Yes, most of those ways will require making the classes and specs somewhat more complicated; considering that most of them require a grand total of three buttons and there’s built-in support for having more than 24 buttons at easy hotbar access, I consider this a feature rather than a bug.
Heck, if they wanted to get really creative they could even split up leveling per expansion. Keep the overall level cap at a manageable level, say level 80, but let you also gain something unique for leveling through a given expansion’s content. So you’d have the base game cap of level 60, a Burning Crusade 10-level band, a Wrath of the Lich King 10-level band, and so forth. You only need to clear through two of those bands to hit the overall level cap, but clearing additional content helps you with new abilities, similar to the way that the crafting system is split up now.
But we don’t need to be that creative. It’d be nice, but the actual face of a solution just lies in making sure that the levels we have do something and players are rewarded instead of punished for leveling up. That shouldn’t be so difficult.
So on face value, yeah, I like the idea of a level squish. I think it’s a good thing for the game as a whole. The game has too many levels and too few things to do with those levels. But it’s the first part of what needs to be a larger-scale fix, and without any faith that the underlying problems will be addressed it’s not a great plan. Sure, it’ll fix elements of it in the short term, but the short term becomes the long term pretty quickly.