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?
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.
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.