Starting with the genre’s second major title, EQ1, the solution to raising the level cap without increasing the gap new players must cross to join their friends has been to reduce the time it takes to go from 1 to cap. While this does indeed help new players play with their max level friends faster, it also reduces or at least alters that leveling experience, and in many (most?) PvE MMOs, the leveling experience is a major selling point. WoW might keep its ‘real’ game at the level cap, but I think anyone who has played it can agree that some of the best content is actually before you hit 60/70/80.
It strikes me as odd that this is such an accepted solution; to reduce what was once the selling point of a game in order to funnel everyone to whatever content was added in the latest patch or expansion. Is WoW’s 1-59 content less fun now than it was in 2004-05? Is the content that brought in millions of new players into the MMO genre now only worth being rushed through at greatly unintended speed (and further altered by changing the rules, such as adding mounts to areas they were not designed for)? It’s bad enough that due to level disparity those areas are not as populated as they once were, does somehow pushing the player through it at max speed somehow compensate for this?
Older players like the fact that they can level alts up faster because they have already seen 90% or more of the content. They don’t need to run an older instance multiple times to experience it again, or complete all the old quests in a zone. They already did that and enjoyed it the first time around, and now they need/want an alt to simply fill a spot in a raid, or to have another option for the Arena or BGs. Yet we know that even the best games experience churn (EVE recently reported that only 29% of their population has been playing 2 years or longer, and I believe that number is high compared to most MMOs), and so as veteran players move on, they must be replaced with new ones in order for an MMO to survive, and it’s these new players who are in effect punished by the current solution to level creep.
The issue is not whether or not adding levels to an MMO widens the gap between max level players and new ones, that’s obviously the case, and in the traditional PvE MMO model, adding levels with an expansion is just “what you do”. The issue is what to do about it, and I don’t believe speed leveling players through all your earlier content is the best solution as it does not address the root problem: little to no player population in older zones. Let’s face it, if every zone 1-80 had enough players to keep it lively and make all those group quests and instances possible, would Blizzard still be hard-pressed to reduce the time it takes to get to 80? If anything, each expansion would add further layers to keep a new player interested, so while a vanilla player might burn through the content in 2 months, someone coming in at WotLK might get to enjoy the full leveling experience for 3-4 months before they hit the max level 180 degree switch to raiding or daily grinds. The real issue is not the 3-4 months of time, but that those 3-4 months would be spent in empty zones, dropping any quest that might require more than one person and overall having to suffer through a sub-par experience. That player would be more likely to quit in the first month out of frustration due to population problem than anything directly related to the actual content.
A somewhat related issue is that you are mixing two very different player groups in any lower-level area of a mature PvE MMO. You have the truly new players who are still learning the game and seeing everything for the first time mixing in with veterans looking to power level an alt up. It’s obvious why the two might clash: one group wants to experience the content, the other wants to speed through it, and when you mix them together in a party, it’s asking for problems.
It’s a rather stupid problem to have really, as there is no real reason to keep veteran players in lower level areas against their will. If I don’t want to experience STV for the 15th time, why can’t I simply start at level 80 and be done with it? (The obvious reason is more money for the company as you grind from 1-80 again, but it’s a short-sighted solution that does more harm than good to the player base in the long run, IMO of course) If we are talking about a casual PvE MMO, where what you do at best effects you and your guild, why not just give players the option to skip leveling, and leave leveling from 1 to cap only for those who truly wish to see that content? Go one step further and dedicate a server or two (or 10, depending on the demand) for new or alt characters, one that allows free transfers once you hit the level cap and one that has all max-level content disabled to keep the flow of players moving. This gives all truly new players and those wishing to experience the leveling game a place to go to play with like-minded individuals in still lively zones, and also allows those wishing to join their friends directly to do so by not selecting that server. If I’ve never played WoW or some other casual PvE MMO, the barrier of entry would be much lower if I had the option to experience the full original game plus all post-launched added content on a server that is not 90% max-level characters and is mostly populated with like-minded lower level players, especially since at the end I would be able to transfer to any server my friends or guild might be on to join them for the forced-group stuff like Arena or raiding. If at any point during that leveling process I decide I want to join those friends NOW, I can simply create a max-level character on whatever server they are on and play on the leveling server in my spare time.
The technology for character transfers has been around for quite some time, and WAR has show that it’s both fast and relatively painless now, so that aspect of the solution is no longer a barrier. And since once you are at the cap, the grind switches from XP to items/rep/whatever, a fresh max-level character will fit right in to that mode, especially if you give them basic starter gear so they can jump into the lower levels of the instance/raid circuit. The PvE MMO model is built around keeping players grinding for as long as you can (and if you don’t like the grind, you are in the wrong genre); would that grind not be more enjoyable if it was presented in its original form and environment, rather than in the ever-increasing speed version that each expansion brings? How many new players quit before they ever get to the ‘real’ content because they struggle through under-populated zones and deal with the frustration of being unable to find a group for content they are interested in seeing? Unless the number of quitters is lower than the number of months you force older players to re-grind, perhaps it’s time to move on from the old “add levels and increase XP gain” formula that has been in place since EQ1?