A shine of light, a sound effect, a screen graphic. Sometimes you get more fanfare than elsewhere. In Final Fantasy XIV, the game’s victory fanfare plays. In WildStar, you even got a little bit of congratulatory speech for how good you were doing, cupcake. But no matter the circumstances, there’s the time-honored tradition of announcing to the rest of your guild that you just reached a brand-new level, usually with the ancient and respected word of power: “Ding.”
Leveling up is supposed to feel good. A lot of the time, getting a new level does feel good. It’s satisfying and leaves you with a warm rush of accomplishment. But sometimes it doesn’t quite work out. Sometimes, to your amazement, leveling actually feels bad, or at the very least like a tedious chore. Heck, it can even happen with a game that you otherwise like, when suddenly you’re tired of the work involved of leveling up and you just want to be at the level cap already.
So what makes MMO leveling feel good? I’m glad I asked.
First and foremost, I think it’s worth noting that as odd as it sounds, one of the most obvious elements of a leveling experience is actually less important than you might think. While the experience is important, the actual levels kind of aren’t.
How can that be? Well, we all have a pretty clear picture of what makes for a good individual level in an MMO. But the leveling experience itself is more about the process of going through those levels. While Level 58 might be well-designed and fun all on its own, the leveling experience is more concerned with what things are like as you worked your way up from level 57 and moving ahead to level 59. Levels are therefore actually something of a secondary component in making this experience feel good.
They are important, yes. You can’t make a good leveling experience if on most levels you get nothing worthwhile or get notably weaker as you level up. (Something that some games have done – looking at you, World of Warcraft.) But a lot of what makes for a good leveling experience has much less to do with the levels themselves and more to do with time.
Time is the currency you use to purchase progress.
To a certain extent this is something we all know to be true. For many games, the only real reason to have a leveling process at all comes down to creating a time investment up front, with classes or builds that don’t effectively come online until the end of the process rather than earlier. (This is in stark contrast to a lot of single-player games, where leveling is more often a matter of refining or improving what you start off doing at low levels rather than getting the tools to “complete” your build.) Time is an investment; put in enough, and you level up.
Thinking about it this way also reveals that a lot of older games didn’t really have more challenging leveling so much as they had different exchange rates for the time you spent. Games like Final Fantasy XI and EverQuest allowed you to rather easily lose levels, but that didn’t mean time wasn’t your primary currency; it just introduced what amounts to a currency sink.
So if challenge isn’t really the main metric here, investment is. What makes for a good leveling experience comes down, at least in part, to whether or not the time you’re putting in seems as if its giving a reasonable return on that investment – whether or not levels and the associated feeling of rewards are coming fast enough to be enticing while also not being so fast as to all blur together.
If that were all it took to make a satisfying leveling experience, of course, it’d be simple. But for one thing, it’s not entirely clear how fast is too fast and how slow is too slow. In a game with 50 levels, is a level every two hours of play fast enough? Too slow? Too fast? What about that same speed with 100 levels? Half that speed, but only 20 levels?
We can probably all think of times when leveling was nice and quick, but the leveling experience still didn’t feel very satisfying as we were going through it. Or times when leveling was slow, but we didn’t care. Which comes down to a very different metric, but also one very important: Do you feel as if you’re accomplishing something while leveling other than simply leveling up?
Older games tended to rely a bit more heavily on the idea that reaching levels allowed you to do something. In FFXI, for example, you didn’t get levels by doing missions; leveling allowed you to undertake missions that slowly unlocked new options. But more modern games tend to be much more invested in ensuring that what you’re doing while you level is fun in and of itself, not a timesink that you pour more time in until it spits out a new fun thing.
A lot of older games that have seen consistent upgrades over the years tend to go down this route, too. FFXI has tried to provide a lot more stuff for players to actually do to help along the path of leveling, more advantages and currencies and rewards to pick up along the way. It’s not a full restructuring of the game from the ground up, but it is definitely more rewarding to level beyond just earning your way toward the next major level breakpoint.
And it’s worth noting that “rewarding experience” can be different for everyone. If you’re with a group of friends, for example, you could be having a plenty rewarding experience just sitting and chatting while you level. I’ve mentioned in the past how I’ll often idly watch something on my second monitor while leveling in a sort of quiet, relaxed state. In these cases, experiences like FFXI can be more rewarding, since there are no story beats or attention-getting setpieces happening as you level to break up your flow.
Putting all this together, though, it paints a picture of what makes for good leveling experiences, and it’s not as simple as just speed or what you’re doing. Rather, a good leveling experience is one that lets you feel rewarded not simply by levels, but just by playing during those levels. It lets you use your new abilities as you go, keeps you engaged with the game rather than divorced from context, and provides you with enough new content along the way that you feel like all that time spent is rewarded rather than wasted.
That’s… actually pretty hard to do because as I’ve tried to illustrate here, there are a lot of different ways to make these experiences rewarding, and several of them are at odds with one another. You cannot simultaneously make the experience itself exciting and rewarding and allow people to idly level while watching something on another screen.
Which means that to a certain extent, what makes for a good leveling experience isn’t simply a matter of objective fact. It ties into what you’re looking to get out of the leveling process beyond a higher number. And that’s a question worth asking yourself above and beyond announcing your dings.