WoW Factor: The level squish isn’t the whole solution for World of Warcraft

Do you really want to hurt me?

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.

Fill everything with fel energy.

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.

War never changes, but World of Warcraft does, with a decade of history and a huge footprint in the MMORPG industry. Join Eliot Lefebvre each week for a new installment of WoW Factor as he examines the enormous MMO, how it interacts with the larger world of online gaming, and what’s new in the worlds of Azeroth and Draenor.

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Numbers are numbers. They only mean something in context. Before they “fixed” experience, you could cap from 0 within a week or so. I didn’t see a problem with that.

Now they’re trying to fix a problem they created. I’m not sympathetic.

Someone mentioned just starting people at the start of the latest xpac. That’s the most reasonable suggestion I’ve heard in a long time. If you needed to, lock abilities behind starter quests to allow new players to ramp into the class.

I never thought I’d say this, but I may have just about given up on blizzard. It is just a shame there isn’t an obvious heir apparent.

kelathos .

Ignore a level “squish” and just simply boost players from a starting experience, straight to the beginning of the latest expansion. For BFA that’d be level 110. We can bypass the leveling problem.


I honestly believe that level squish should be the way to go. There’s plenty of games where getting into now or having a hiatus of months/years just makes you drop them for good as catching up is impossible. Unless of course you pay for shortcuts.


Something about squishing a turd doesn’t make it go away… /eww :(

Danny Smith

When you have a game designed around the idea of “the moment a new expansion is out the last is shelves and entirely pointless” and its all about the rush to endgame as you skip everthing from past expansions then you really only have levelling to focus on and there are multiple levels in a row where you get nothing but a number, a little hp and maybe a miniscule damage increase. No new skills, talents, passives or new waymarks like mounts or flying.

When your only goal is the final level and you add white noise between because the only thing that matters is the last level that emptiness is deafening.

Annoyed badger

The problem is that WOW has never had an expansion.

its had replacement content added on teh end. that immediately makes teh whole of the preceding content worthless….and yet still makes you level through it all.

Then they made it worse with teh ability massacre, and the gutting of any character to experience whilst levelling such as class quests…..


I think it’s time they, (ActiBlizz), admit that over the years they have “designed” themselves into a “creative corner”, so to speak.

I’m not sure which way they need to go at this point. There are many things that are broken or just not working well right now. Possibly just stop with the level grinding and focus more on truly high quality story/player personal stories might be a way of transferring some energy back into the game.

For years, the entire game has been about the vaunted end-game. Why? Was it because it’s a theme park and we bought our tickets for the ride? Yeah, maybe. What is WoW’s end game? Raiding, pvp, arena, invasions, gear grinding, waiting for the next highly publicized patch that turns out to be nothing truly new at all, is basically what we do week after week after long arduous week.

I know how I feel. Just stop the grinding for level and gear. Give us all some damn crafting for a change. Use what makes WoW strong and that’s the deep, complex story lore. Involve us, the players. Remember us? Yes, the ones that make monthly, 6 month, or yearly subscriptions? There was a time before Blizzard blew up the game in Cata. that they, (Blizzard) were leaders in mmo development. Now, not so much. They just throw more gimmicks out there and spend lots of money hyping that “exciting” new patch we’ve all been waiting for.

Is this fun? Nope. It’s work. It feels to me like I log in or more like “clock in” and then go to work grinding because we gotta make that hot new raid and enjoy all the bling in ActiBlizz’s “premium” content.

Just freaking attempt to make FUN an actual part of the game. One more thing, from me, Classic WoW isn’t going to save the game. People who want to have fun again playing, crafting, and cooperating in rich story driven personal stories rather that clocking in each evening to work even harder “beating” yet another raid will save the game. However, we are NOT going to stay if it continues to be drudgery and boring as watching paint dry. Well at least i won’t. I can’t speak for the rest of you fine folks out there.

Dug From The Earth

Honestly, the only way to fix the “im not gaining things often enough, or fun enough as I progress” problem in WoWs leveling process, is to dump the dumbed down talent system and move back to something like what Burning Crusade had. Also, removing the need to go and train new skills and ranks also takes away from that “I gained something new when I dinged” feeling

Going from 80 levels to 120 levels, after this was already done, only further made this problem bigger.

Blizzard, you cant have it both ways. Your game is either simple and dumbed down, or complex and fulfilling. Cant have your cake and eat it too.

Dug From The Earth

Ironically, even though i feel they are a plague to the genre, all those Free 2 play asian mmorpgs seem to have grasped this concept long ago,

You get SOOOOO much stuff as you reach each new level. They even give you bags that you open each level that contain loot bags inside for the NEXT level. There are always so many things to look forward to “getting” when you level up in these games.

Given, they do this to keep you playing long enough to buy all the shiny stuff in their microtransaction shop. It must be working though.

Nathan Aldana

except it was never complex and fulfilling. It was complex, but ultimately meaningless in its complexity.

John Mynard

They need to take a big step, for them at least, and permanently cap the player levels at 100.PERM-A-NENT-LY.

This will free them up to work on more interesting ways to deliver power to players, ways they can use to fine tune things.

I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again and I’ll probably be a broken record before long but it’s long since past time for the game to have moved into developing something like Prestige Classes from D&D either working within the PERMANENT level cap of 100 or acting as a side dressing.

It can be a way to solve lots of problems like a lack of tanks by giving players alternate paths to the same goal. Like give Hunters and Rogues the opportunity to leave behind their previous paths and become a Warden, retaining the ranged capability, but also granting stealth, but at the cost of shortened attack range and slower attacks.

Warlocks, Mages, and Shaman(maybe Druids) could leave behind their demons, elements and other accouterment and become Tinkers or Golemmancers or something where they have a single mechanical companion that is configurable for different roles, ranged, melee or healing, and that they can take direct control of for tanking. This could be taken a step further and have the mech be themed based on the source class with either regular fire, green fel fire, or purple fog erupting from the power core. This could have it’s own minigame where you have to find rare components or materials that are randomized across the world.

I think WoW has taken the existing leveling system about as far as they can and they would be better served, long term, by figuring out ways to “level” us horizontally instead of vertically.

Bruno Brito

Why 100? Why not 60? 40? 20 like D&D?

Dug From The Earth

Fewer levels just means longer time to get from one level to the next. This doesnt fix any problems unless you have captsone points between levels where players can earn new things from progressing.

For example. You get 1 talent point every 15 levels. If it took you a week to earn those 15 levels, you might think “I played all week long, and only got 1 measly talent point”. So now they squish it from 120 to 60 levels. Now talent points come every 7 levels. However, the time to get from 1 to 60 is still the same as it took to get from 1 to 120. So, getting those 7 levels will STILL take you that week of playing, where again, you only get ONE talent point. Yay.

The goal here, is to let players feel like they accomplished things and earned things each time they log in and play for a decent amount of time.

That is something WoW has lost over the years. You can put hours into the game, and dont feel like you have done either of those things.

Bruno Brito

Fewer levels just means longer time to get from one level to the next. This doesnt fix any problems unless you have captsone points between levels where players can earn new things from progressing.

More class and racial quests would be nice. More options too. I’m really still not convinced about WoW’s talent system overall.

David Blair

This is what I thought Hero Classes were going to be back in the day when they first announced Death Knight. I was like, “Cool. You can turn your Paladin into a Death Knight or keep rolling as a Paladin… maybe they’ll add Arch-Druid next expansion and keep bringing them out…”

Robert S.
Robert S.

EQ2 had had expansions with no level increase. Problem that happens there is even though a player has multiple choices of content, only the most recent max level content was worth doing, because the gear was far superior to the gear you got from an older max level expansion.