WoW Factor: Blizzard’s schizophrenic view of levels

    
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Here we come again.

So it was just last week when I did a whole column asking whether Blizzard does, in fact, have a plan when it comes to World of Warcraft. Normally, that’s the sort of thing that signals to me it’s time to take a step away and sort of let things percolate for a while, but here we are and we’ve managed to have two things hit in the same week that wind up both pushing in mutually exclusive paths for leveling in WoW.

On the left, we’ve got a survey that seems to do everything shy of outright saying that a level squish is incoming. On the right, we’ve got a leveling method people have been using to avoid getting hit by gear scaling being quietly nerfed into oblivion (or at least, that’s the goal; there’s some debate about how successful that’s been). And honestly, these events have been a good impetus to talk about Blizzard’s overall schizophrenic approach to leveling and how players are meant to actually experience this game because these more than anything illustrate the idea that not even the developers quite know what they want from leveling.

Let’s start with the leveling nerf, shall we? In a lot of games, such a move would make at least some amount of sense, if not perfect sense. No, I don’t fully traffic with the idea that leveling is what trains you to play the game at the level cap, but there is at least something to the concept, and I get the idea that designers might tell you to stop playing with exploits and go play the actual title.

All well and good, and all undercut when the game pairs that with a level squish survey. Obviously, the level squish is something that I’ve talked about before and did in fact mention in the context of this specific issue, discussing that while the idea of the level squish is not an inherently bad one, it’s the start of the solution rather than the end. And in the wake of this particular update…

Well, just pick apart the chain of logic here. The exploit is being removed because you’re not supposed to level up like that, and you’re destroying the flow of the game. Fine, that means every level is important. But we are going to be removing these levels in the future, so clearly it’s… not? Important? It’s actually entirely optional and not all that big a deal if you remove them.

Doesn’t quite work, does it?

What are we trying to accomplish here, exactly?

The core of the issue here, of course, is highlighted by that disconnect. Blizzard’s developers seem to know that you aren’t supposed to be leveling like this, but also that you shouldn’t be gaining seven levels without any actual purpose or power increase. This indicates to me that the developers themselves aren’t really clear on what the point of levels are in the first place, whether they’re supposed to be an increase in power or a progress marker or something else entirely.

Scaling is not really the issue here; it’s exacerbating an existing and separate issue. The issue is that no one seems to have a coherent picture of what levels are supposed to be. Adding in worldwide scaling just makes it clear that this is an issue which has existed since Warlords of Draenor at the latest.

See, if level alone is the indicator of power, then not getting new abilities or toys is fine. It’s not ideal, of course, but your benefit from gaining five levels is additional damage and survival against lower-level targets. The level contains an inherent benefit. Unfortunately, this is wholly incompatible with level scaling, and most of the games in which level scaling is a problem are games that fundamentally misread this issue.

A fine example? Final Fantasy VIII, which has worldwide absolute level scaling. When you gain a level, everything in the world gains a level. This leads to a game in which a Level 1 challenge is actually easier than playing the game properly, due to the actual ability system in the game being based around junctioning spells to stats.

Without going too far afield with this description, let me just say that the idea was that higher-level spells only show up when everyone is higher level. In other words, Firaga provides a much bigger stat increase than Fire, so while the gap between your stats and that of the enemy is smaller at level 40, you’re still coming out ahead because you can upgrade to Firaga. Unfortunately, it’s also very easy to get these higher-level spells from other sources, including the card game, and higher-level spells are often found as rewards in various places. There’s really nothing stopping you from having Firaga already set at level 1, and then the question is why you’d ever want to not have that much larger stat benefit.

The designers seem to have acknowledged this with the game’s Steam launch, which lets you just give yourself all of every single spell as a feature. And lo and behold, one of the big elements of the game’s design is that all of your abilities are earned not through leveling but through other means; levels are treated as if higher is better without thought given to what the effect would be when no abilities actually arrive due to a higher level.

Welcome to the death of reason.

Blizzard has long predicated its games on a very conventional use of levels. Higher level means better stats and new abilities, which is just fine. However, WoW keeps increasing its levels while its ability count shrinks, and it seems as if the design team still hasn’t really addressed this particular issue. Level remains mostly a mechanic to gate which content you can access – because things like story don’t gate any of that.

This means that removing levels would damage the game because it would remove all barriers to entry to everything, not because it would massively undercut the sense of progression. (It would, but that would be more of an unfortunate side effect.) And if I’m being entirely honest, I’ll say this hasn’t really been articulated when discussing the idea of a level squish.

It’s not the biggest problem of that particular idea; the issue there is that it’s ultimately just kicking the can down the road unless something is really done about the game’s overall structure issues. But the fact that Blizzard itself doesn’t seem to be clear on what levels are supposed to be contributes to the same problem. Is leveling something to be mitigated and removed, or is it something that you have to go through in a very specific fashion and so trying to skip ahead is bad and must be prevented?

You probably come down on one side or the other, but it doesn’t matter which one so long as you do pick one. Therein lies the real problem. Until the team knows what it actually wants from leveling, it’s just going to keep being a problem for the game and everyone in it, now and going forward.

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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Jokerchyld

This isn’t a “WoW” problem, this is a MMORPG problem. How do you continually expand a game over the years without invalidating the previous content. The old model of vertical level progression doesn’t scale over 10 or so years. You get to a point where you have 100+ levels which instantly becomes a barrier to new players as the 1-99 content is no longer relevant, thus no one is playing there, thus no fun for a brand new player who wants to play with his friends at 100.

Scaling as well as skill-based leveling (as opposed to experience-based leveling) are good options. ESO world scaling is impressive. They can deliver new Chapters (ESO version of an expansion) and someone brand new starting at level 1 can jump immediately into that expansion or (and this is the best part) go where ever else they want in the world. This player agency of do what you want to do (within the provided systems) is what lends to longevity. But some gamers have this attachment to power leveling or constantly getting stronger and stronger which just isn’t realistic unless the game has a finite end.

In terms of leveling itself, the point of it has changed over time. Leveling in RPGs was a simple mechanic meant to log your progress as the characters experience. Where the levels represented your character growing and learning new skills and abilities. But back then RPGs were single player and they didnt have to worry about somebody else coming up behind the first character.

Speaking to WoW specifically the level squish would be helpful but won’t solve there problem which is they have developed content they made useless which each expansion. There is absolutely no reason to go back to old zones. And since each expansion in WoW was pretty much its own self contained story its hard to make the entire world cohesive.

There is a reason why there is a huge interest in WoW classic because it brings the game back to its RPG roots where the ultimate point wasn’t leveling (though that what you were doing) but more so playing with other people, learning about the world of Azeroth. The issue with these time locked servers (TLP in Everquest – Agnarr server, WoW Classic, etc) is what do you years after you reach the max level. The content will eventually become stale and they either have to progress through the expansions which takes the players away from the portion of the game they loved or they create new content. And I havent heard any developer discuss the latter.

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James Campbell

Hey, can you clarify what you mean by the term schizophrenic? I’m not sure why you used it as a descriptor here. I don’t care about ‘stigmatization,’ but my best friend grew up with the condition so I have a deeper understanding than most. That said, I don’t understand what you’re trying to say.

Is Blizzard somehow hearing several different voices on the matter? Seeing several different hallucinations?? Schizophrenia is internal and mental, so are you suggesting they’re hearing several voices or hallucinating internally on the subject? Are the supposed voices/ hallucinations fighting? Is this some sort of weird metaphor for them sitting on the fence or not picking what their levelling means?

That’s quite a description to use without explaining how you intend to liken it to your point. It seems more like an ad hominem when you just throw it out there, but don’t add any additional input on how the word is relevant to your thought process. Again, I don’t care about ‘muh feelings about using mean words tho,’ but I can see why some people might question why you would lead with that title.

Heck, I did. Still do. I gleaned nothing from your article as to how it truly relates to the word, and if you think it’s the readers not understanding your point, it’s not. It wasn’t concise. And seeing as it’s your title, you should be LEADING with that, not mentioning the word 2 more times in ad hominem like passing glances before moving on to the meat. Either change the focus to be like your metaphor or change the title to be like your focus.

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Bruno Brito

Is Blizzard somehow hearing several different voices on the matter?

Yes. The internat detached voices and their players crying for something actually fun.

Seeing several different hallucinations??

I call those the “120 Boost”.

Schizophrenia is internal and mental, so are you suggesting they’re hearing several voices or hallucinating internally on the subject?

Considering how WoW is nowadays, that seems weirdly accurate.

Are the supposed voices/ hallucinations fighting?

Asskissing would be a better verb.

Is this some sort of weird metaphor for them sitting on the fence or not picking what their levelling means?

It’s a metaphor for how disconnected WoW’s leveling process is, and how it falls flat, after internal discussions that are completely detached from practical player experience.

I don’t know why people are getting so up in arms about the title. It fits, at least in my view, and it doesn’t stigmatizes anyone. Eliot wasn’t disrespectful towards anyone with said illness, nor will his article be the be-all-end-all for the complete subjulgation of people suffering from such.

MilitiaMasterV
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MilitiaMasterV

Casual dismissal of other humans is part of de-humanizing a group of people, which leads to worse things. There’s a lot of that going on in the nation I reside in currently, and I personally am fed up with it. We’re all Earthlings. Learn to be better to your fellow Earthlings!

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James Campbell

It doesn’t make sense, unless he clarifies what he truly means. You can give me your interpretation, but that’s not what the author actually meant, unless they explicitly come out and say so.

Furthermore- if we’re following your logic of the metephor- fan voices don’t count; fans don’t work for Blizzard. Internal means within the corporate entity itself.

I’m not up in arms, I think I made that clear with the TWO times I said it in my question.

What I’m saying is those are some serious reaches and mental gymnastics needed to even make a connection, and even then, those connections aren’t entirely clear.

Either make the metaphor more clear so that the people up in arms about it won’t view it as an ad hominem, or change the title to the real focus of the article. You know, the core of what the article is about should be the in the title. Naming it something, but then refusing to clarify on that something, connect that something with what you’re saying, and not making that something the focus of the article is what is confusing people.

If there was a proper connect, people would be able to understand the words better. But there isn’t, so they’re stuck assuming it’s an ad hominem. Clarification is not an attack against the author, it’s… Literally making their lives easier by not having to endure people being confused due to poor execution.

Mordyjuice
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Mordyjuice

I didn’t feel comfortable with that either as my wife’s ex is a schizophrenic, but I wasn’t going to make a thing out of it either; his case was particularly interesting because his IQ was easily in the low 140s and he had dual degrees in English and Psychology so he’d run circles around his professors and any therapist that had the misfortune of crossing his path, true story here he would frequently write massive papers for his classes that were close to 50 pages (well over what was required) using obscure words that were grammatically correct only to have to have almost weekly sit.downs in a Dean’s office with an Oxford Dictionary (which he memorized) arguing over the linguistics of his writing while carrying on like Deadpool.

MilitiaMasterV
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MilitiaMasterV

Why is it OK to stigmatize a mental illness in your header/article?

You can quite easily make your point without using people’s differences with negative connotations attached.

As a journalist who has stated they have been maligned in the past for their sexuality, I would expect better from you.

Schizophrenics are people too.

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cursedseishi

He really isn’t though.

schizophrenic–2. Of, relating to, or characterized by the coexistence of disparate or antagonistic elements:

There’s literally zero reason given to think Eliot was disparaging those with a mental illness or making light of it. The term has more than a medical definition, and in this article he is using it properly. I pulled that specific definition up rather easily in a dictionary, and there are others online matching it with quotes utilizing it in that manner.

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Bruno Brito

Uh…where did Eliot maligned anyone?

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Utakata

It seems the first Guild Wars had it right all the long…

Mordyjuice
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Mordyjuice

I believe Bellular the WoW Youtuber summed up ANet best with a studio that has great ideas but poor execution and follow up.

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Utakata

…but it worked wonderfully though. Or Anet would have changed that for that game to something more conventional. /shrug

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Bruno Brito

It did? Because while GW2 has several stuff right, i wouldn’t say it’s leveling is anything home to write about.

GW2 horizontal progression is pretty good, but it only works when you’re level 80. The leveling process is by all means, irrelevant.

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Utakata

It did! It was quite successful in fact. That’s why we have Gw2. If no one was playing GW1 because the leveling mechanics it sucked, we wouldn’t be having this conversation for one. Nor could Gw2 exist. So you know.

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Bruno Brito

But that’s not really an argument, WoW leveling process is bad too, but it doesn’t mean people don’t play.

GW2 leveling process isn’t BAD. I never said it was. I said it was irrelevant, and it is. There’s no reason for a game like GW2 to have a leveling process more than it should have a powering up process not tied to levels, but tied to exploration and skill learning.

GW2 leveling is whatever. But it’s world exploration isn’t, so you will see people playing of course, because it’s just a good experience.

Honestly, there’s a lot GW2 does right. Until now, i never even heard anyone say it’s leveling experience was part of it.

Mordyjuice
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Mordyjuice

They are not being inconsistent so much as they’re compartmentalizing, in BFA leveling is the way it is, in the next expansion WoW The Quest For More Money they will do the major revamp because quite frankly massive overhauls like that are always meant for expansion level events.

Blizz probably wants to study the feedback from Classic before committing to and overhaul any way whether it be leveling or talents or dare I hope a One Tamriel type revamp.

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kalech

This reminds me that one of the reasons/excuses for scrapping the old talent trees was that getting a +1% crit talent point when you level up is not satisfying or rewarding.

But now we have countless levels where we get NOTHING at all. Also, considering they’re already forcing us to world quest endlessly at max level for rep, artifact power etc, maybe they should just let us have some alternative ways of leveling up rather than questing.

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Schlag Sweetleaf

.

FUGGIT.jpg
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Paragon Lost

lol, about sums it up.

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Schlag Sweetleaf

I would like to think I provide a great service for the TL;DR crowd. :P

also; nice to see you posting again:)

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Paragon Lost

Lol, there is the TL;DR crowd and then there is just a very fitting picture. ;) Our military macaw Radar agrees.

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Schlag Sweetleaf

I had never heard of a military macaw before, so thanks for that:) I am no wiki-ied up on ’em.

What subspecies is Radar?
1.A. m. militaris
2.A. m. mexicana
3.A. m. boliviana.

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Paragon Lost

Number one the Militaris. (the smallest of the large macaws). He’s got little man syndrome to boot. We also have a special needs blue and gold macaw. She’s a plucker,(a form of self mutilation) always has been. It’s heart breaking and she’s also a runt for a blue and gold, being about the same size as Radar.

Sadly these breeders can be really crappy people, they (other breeders) think that the blue and gold was force weened and didn’t spend any time with the mother. Plus a lot of them are inbred to often which causes issues. I took her home years ago because I didn’t want to see her put down, she kinda breaks your heart.

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Utakata

Well, it’s not pining for the Fjords…

…oh wait, that was a Norwegian Blue! o.O

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Tobasco da Gama

It’s the vast majority of RPGs in general at this point, really.

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Schlag Sweetleaf

sadly , I concur.

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Schmidt.Capela

It’s what you get when developers add leveling systems just because everyone else has them without taking the time and effort to understand the system and its alternatives.

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Schlag Sweetleaf

Agreed..On the subject of levels Schmidt, did you ever play DAoC?

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Bruno Brito

I was playing on a Freeshard. Leveling in that game is a pain.

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Schlag Sweetleaf

It was indeed , but also a point of pride to make 50. It broke my gaming spirit when Realm Ranks were introduced as my thinking was get to 50 and then get to the frontier, not too begin a whole new leveling campaign. I would like to say to DAoC’s credit, the balance of meaningful pvp and acceptable pve was excellent . I know a lot of people here are much more accomplished here in game design and theory, but using the daoc model and using redesigned “win” conditions ,I believe common mmo problems like the zerg and outleveling old content could be fixed . Someday I hope to give my thesis on this:P

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Bruno Brito

To be fair, the freeshard i played ( Phoenix ) made leveling easier, but by christ, even with the easier leveling, that game is just so damn clunky that i couldn’t be assed to grind my ass to 50.

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Mordyjuice

I don’t think the situation is that simple but the editorial was summed up pretty well.

Seriously though why doesn’t Bree give you an official outlet where you can provide wrap ups for major articles?

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Schlag Sweetleaf

Unfortunately, Gleek didn’t make the roster of the Superfriends;)

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Bruno Brito

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hyphnos1

They know what they want from levelling.

Player time inputs.

A level squish isn’t inconsistent with that or the levelling need.

Rest assured a level squish will leave time to Max level as high as they can make it and not destroy the playerbase.

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TomTurtle

My mind sooner goes to the fact that they sell level boosts rather than merely aiming to knock out these leveling exploits/anomalies. This is only one of many previous changes/nerfs to leveling they’ve done. I also imagine the level squish will be more about the feel of leveling rather than improving it. It’ll probably still take just as long.

And like you’ve mentioned, that’d be a problem. I’d rather see them open up your zone choices to level in at the very least and make it at least somewhat faster. It’s been mentioned that people would love to simply choose any expansion and play through its entirety while leveling rather than doing a zone or two and moving on.

I’d also love bigger changes to the game by making older content relevant. Not mandatory mind you, but at least give players more reasons to go back. It’d be neat if they implemented optional downscaling so you could level along with a friend on your max level toon, and you could choose to do older content at level for some type of reward.

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Anstalt

I don’t play WoW but this sounds like another great example of why vertical progression is a bad thing in the MMO world. It causes so many problems with very few benefits, the main benefit being that it’s familiar/obvious to the average gamer.

I’ll be curious to see where Blizz take the game in order to address the issue. It affects all MMOs, most just ignore the problem but a few tried to “fix” the issue. Whether its buddy systems, free handouts of gear or full scaling, these are just plasters over the core issue and not a proper solution at all.

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Bruno Brito

But all MMOs with leveling have vertical progression.

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Anstalt

They do, and it causes problems in every single one of them!

  • All content except for endgame becomes redundant for everyone eventually, wasting the time of the developers
  • Power gaps caused by vertical progression segregate the community, making it much harder to play with friends and find groups
  • Power gaps kill off PvP by making it a negative experience for everyone except those at the top of the power curve, thus cutting off new blood. This is why MMO PvP has never been popular in comparison to other genres.
  • Every expansion is forced to continue adding power, creating ridiculous problems with escalation and also creating even bigger barriers for new players
  • Most of the time, vertical progression isnt even “real” progression – your numbers get bigger but so do the enemies so comparatively everything stays the same. It’s only the addition of new skills/traits/gear that actually change or improve your gameplay that provides real progression, but that is often balanced with things like skill/level squishes
  • The problems with vertical progression are often exacerbated by the linear nature of the content, so not only are we segragated by power, we’re also segregated by content progression.

Vertical progression is a concept that has come over from single player and co-op RPGs, games where everyone playing it is always at the exact same point and so power gaps don’t occur. However, it’s a mechanic that just isn’t suited to a multiplayer environment, especially not a massively multiplayer environment.

Horizontal progression is the answer. It’s simple enough to provide players with meaningful progression without increasing their power, its just not something we see very often (or at all) in the RPG world. Luckily for me, Camelot Unchained is going with horizontal progression and I can’t wait to see how it turns out! Sounds amazing what they have planned so far!

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Bruno Brito

But i’m not disagreeing with that here. I’m just saying that if your MMO has a leveling process ( even GW2 ), it has a vertical curve. It’s that simple.