Vague Patch Notes: What makes MMO leveling feel good?

    
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Not riding a dinosaur.

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.

Zoop.

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?

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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.

Sometimes you know exactly what’s going on with the MMO genre, and sometimes all you have are Vague Patch Notes informing you that something, somewhere, has probably been changed. Senior Reporter Eliot Lefebvre enjoys analyzing these sorts of notes and also vague elements of the genre as a whole. The potency of this analysis may be adjusted under certain circumstances.
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T

It doesn’t? It’s just an annoyance I have to get through. I get more of a relief when I hit certain levels. A “Finally, I can go over there and explore what I wanted to 4 levels ago without getting ganked instantly” or some such. I don’t find levelling to be ‘satisfying’ in any way/shape/form.

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Dug From The Earth

The best leveling experiences for me are those that completely make me focus on anything OTHER than leveling up.

At the end of a play session I can sit back and think, “Oh wow, I didnt even realize I gained a level!”

Nephele
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Nephele

For me, what makes the leveling experience good or bad is both the content and the social experience that I get to go through along the way. Back in EQ, I *hated* sitting on zone walls or camping in dungeons and grinding out levels, but I loved the socialization and meeting and befriending other players and getting invited along on their adventures. It made that time investment feel worthwhile.

By the same token in more modern games where leveling is mostly a solo experience, what makes it bearable is how good the content is. If it’s interesting and engaging, and I feel drawn into the world, I can forget that I’m basically playing a single-player game. But, if the content becomes repetitive or boring or doesn’t feel relevant to the world, I lose interest quickly

On a final note, I’ve played a lot of games that have tried to treat their leveling process as a dopamine drip, and were very concerned with making sure that you leveled quickly so you could get another ability or a better gear set or a new instance – but because it happened so frequently, it felt meaningless. There’s value in making things take longer or require effort so that the achievement actually feels meaningful.

Bottom line for me is that I need my next MMO to have both rich content as well as to be group-centric while leveling. Otherwise, it just won’t hold my interest enough to keep me playing for very long.

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EmberStar

Two of the games I’ve spent the most time playing really don’t have leveling, at least not the way MMOs do.

Ark: Survival Evolved does have levels. Up to 155 if you fight every single boss at every difficulty. But the way that game is setup, you mostly just get slightly less stompable – if you put all 155 levels into health, you’d *almost* have the HP of a level 20 parasaur. And to do that you’d barely have the Weight limit to wear armor, never mind carry weapons, ammo and building materials. You get “stronger” in that game by taming better creatures. The main thing you gain from leveling is access to more blueprints, such as saddles for stronger creatures and better armor so your tiny pool of HP goes farther.

The other game I’ve played a lot is Space Engineers, which doesn’t have leveling at all. Again, you get “stronger” by building better ships and/or bases. A human with a hand drill is never going to mine as quickly as a mining ship. So you use the hand drill for exactly as long as it takes to get the materials to build that mining ship. That game doesn’t even pretend to increase player health though, and there’s no personal armor. If you walk into Line of Sight of a hostile turret you’ll *always* be dead before you can say “What was tha~” *THWIP*

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EmberStar

What makes leveling feel good: If I ever find a game where I look forward to starting at level zero and having to slog through until my character is actually strong enough to feel heroic, I’ll let you know.

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Mark

For me:

Additional abilities + increasing rotation/toolkit complexity
Additional content opportunities (rather than reduce them, WoW)
Additional difficulties
Exploring new areas
Meta achievements (FFXIV leveling all Disciple of Magic jobs, for example)

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Ironwu

Pretty much the obvious:

* Additional Skills.
* More power (whatever that means in the specific game; like Mana, Stamina, etc).
* New options for game play. Additional areas, quests, missions.
* Bonus boosts and in-game gifts that are actually useful.

Pretty much anything that has real utility and value.

Definitely NOT what is given in Retail WoW Shadowlands. Which is nothing. And in many cases makes your character even weaker than prior to leveling up!

Aldristavan
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Aldristavan

I loved the leveling VO in Wildstar. I laughed out loud the first time the game cursed at me when I dinged.

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styopa

While I get the irony with which it was delivered, it – along with so many other ways WS tried way too hard to be cutesy – IMMEDIATELY showed me that I wasn’t going to be interested in that game.

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Bruno Brito

Being honest with you, what kept me from making WS my main game was not it’s style, i actually loved the over the top comedy.

It was the gameplay and the 180 that the game did. The first WS trailers presented the game like this semi-sandboxy experience where you would tame a new planet with the population. It would have a oldschool feel to it but it would be modernized, i liked that.

The moment the new trailers got out, showing weapon-locked-classes, themepark progression, raidcore mentality and twitch-based-gameplay ( that i abhor in MMOs because i’m yet to see ONE MMO where you play with less than 30 ping ), was when i knew i would be playing it on and off and would never get into it as much as i’d like.

I mean, jesus christ, Wildstar combat was…polarizing, to say the least.

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Anstalt

I rarely enjoy the leveling process in MMORPGs.

I don’t like story, so that never hooks me in. I don’t feel like games are a good medium for telling stories (though they are great for creating stories), so endless story quests really bum me out. I’d much rather just grind mobs and explore the world, but thats not often a viable leveling strategy in modern mmos.

I also don’t feel like leveling is particularly rewarding. Vertical progression is something i dislike in mmos as it segregates the community – a cardinal sin in a multiplayer game – and also makes old content redundant. So, the only thing I look forwards to is new skills. If the combat system is well designed, then a new skill should open up new possibilities, i.e. add depth. Sadly, new skills are often just bloat.

So, the main thing I look forwards to is finishing. I love endgame, once I’ve finally unlocked all skills I can begin the process of mastering my class. Endgame is where the combat has the most depth. Endgame is where there are the most players to team up with, and is also where it is the most social. Endgame is where I can finally find content that is challenging.

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Rick Mills

For me it goes back to tabletop games – it’s a feeling of progression – you may stop playing for a week, but you come back and you’re not starting over – it’s a higher calling.
This is one aspect WoW fails – especially with professions and what could be housing , but goes away in a couple of years. ESO somewhat maintains that progression, but it’s horizontal.

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Schmidt.Capela

I often don’t even take leveling into account.

My metric is more like, do I have any content that is currently available for my character as it is right now, with its current level and gear, that I’m not bored of yet and I believe will be fun and enjoyable? If the answer at any given moment is no then I will usually stop playing and switch to another game.

I might make an exception if playing for a short while a piece of content I don’t feel negatively about will unlock further content with 100% certainty, but anything less than that — including if unlocking further content is RNG-based, for example because I need some dropped gear to pass a gear check — and I will still leave.