For years now MMO gamers expect a level increase when their MMO of choice releases an expansion pack. Bumping up the level cap a few levels is as natural as adding new items or monsters, but is it really needed? Is WoW a better game because the cap is 70 and not 60? Did all those level increases in EQ1 really push the gameplay? Will LoTRO be that much more fun once Turbine lets us level to 60 instead of 50?
First let’s break down exactly what more levels means, because too often player will lump a bunch of changes and assume they are all the direct result of a level increase. First, it means gaining experience again, something that is a very natural process in an MMO until you cap. People like to see the XP bar fill up and finally ding. It’s solid confirmation that you are making progress. Next you get new or improved skills as you gain levels, which again people really like. It’s fun to go to a trainer and see what new tools you can use. And finally, leveling again means a gear reset, as the older top tier stuff is quickly replaced with higher level quest and common drop items, putting everyone back on a more level playing field, at least until the next wave of grinding/raiding/pvp takes place.
All of the above sounds like fun stuff, and I would venture to guess is what most people think of when they hear ‘level increase’. Yet all of the above can be accomplished without a level increase, albeit in more non-traditional ways.
Want players gaining ‘experience’ from quests and mobs again? Allow specialized progression paths, something similar to EQ2’s AA point. Instead of just blatantly making everyone more powerful, allow players to specialize more, with more choices on how to kit their max level character. Healers could focus on either single target healing or AoE healing, same with DPS, and tanks could pick between increased magic or physical mitigation. However you structure it, the system would allow character growth that would feel similar to gaining experience and leveling, without actually changing the level cap. Quests and even monster kills could all contribute to an ‘alternate XP’ pool, and players could spend those points on growth paths of their choosing. Imagine questing and gaining more talent points in WoW, without the actual need to gain a level to get a point.
As for new skills, why not create some challenging quests and encounters with the rewards being class specific skills. Instead of just handing new abilities out when someone dings, give players a clear path in the form of a quest chain, perhaps something similar to the epic feel and pacing of LoTRO’s book quests, and allow them to pick what skills to pursue and in what order. All players like choices and feeling in control of their characters, and this would be the perfect way to facilitate this.
The gear reset is a cheap copout. It’s an admission that the games itemization is broken, and the quick fix is to return everyone to point A and let them grind all over again. Players for the most part hate gear resets, as any item that was hard fought or required great effort is now worthless. Gear resets also completely screw with an economy, as top level items and crafting materials sink in value. The fact that you can once again gain quick upgrades to your gear, like you normally do when leveling, is not reason enough to turn your game upside down. Plus that quick gear gain is very temporary, as players will quickly hit the new level cap and once again fall into the slow grind for gear that happens in most MMOs.
In addition to issues with gear, raising the level cap also has many other negative impacts on a game. Old ‘end game’ content is quickly forgotten and never used again, meaning all that development time and effort is completely wasted. Zones that once served as tougher ‘end game’ zones, like Silithus in WoW, are skipped by most players as they race towards the new level cap. Often these zones contained the more complex chain quests, requiring former level capped players to put in substantial effort to gain a reward. Once you raise the cap, you remove the motivation to put in that effort for those rewards, as there value has been greatly diminished thanks to the gear reset.
Along with unused zones, you also make all high level crafting obsolete as well. Why chase after rare materials to make an epic former level cap weapon, when in a few levels it won’t be useful? All of those rare materials drop in value, and the need to acquire a rare pattern is lost. Most expansions ‘expand’ crafting by adding new patterns, but in reality for every pattern added, an older pattern is rendered obsolete. In the end crafters generally have just as many, if not less, options to craft useful items. Not that much of an ‘expansion’, is it?
And finally, the most common problem with raising the level cap is that you stretch your player population across more zones without increasing the size of that population, while also raising the amount of time required for new players to join their maxed out friends. You either allow this problem to persist, or you add in another quick fix and change early leveling speed, like WoW did. As with most quick fixes, you end up breaking up the pacing of older content in an effort to rush everyone to your end game. The same end game your expansion and level cap increase seek to fix…