Stop raising the level cap, it’s not working!

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…

About SynCaine

Former hardcore raider turned casual gamer.
This entry was posted in EQ2, Lord of the Rings Online, MMO design, World of Warcraft. Bookmark the permalink.

23 Responses to Stop raising the level cap, it’s not working!

  1. frank says:

    I think you are so right on all of these points. I’m eagerly looking forward to the new *content* WoW will bring with WoTLK, but I’m not at all looking forward to another 10 levels. Personally, I think each level increase is just adding another nail to the coffin of a dying game, that may be what Blizzard wants (setting us up for WoW2), but I think the players are getting screwed in the mean time.

    Sadly, I don’t see any games doing this right, hopefully WAR will but it is too soon to tell.

  2. hounde says:

    I also agree that deeper character customization would be a great alternative to the simple level gain treadmill. Would love to see other MMOs plagiarize EQ2’s AA system.

  3. Swift Voyager says:

    I’ve heard that RotLK is actually going to work backwards. You have to be at level 80 to begin and it levels you backward from 80 to 0. When you reach 0 you get to re-roll from scratch. The content is supposed to last about 336 hours, so someone should be able to get all the way back to starting a new character in 2 weeks. The next expansion after that is called “WoW:The Forgotten Content” which is simply all the early content without any changes what-so-eva and is available for an additional $60. This expansion is geared towards re-vitalizing the economy since all levels of gear will once again be useful as players progress back up through the previous expansions.

    obviously I’m being silly, but yeah, damn, how many times can you add aditional levels? It’s seriously time for WoW to stop increasing the level cap and actually do something creative.

  4. dvorak says:

    “Imagine questing and gaining more talent points in WoW, without the actual need to gain a level to get a point.”

    So, you want to give folks the ability to quest to gain benefits of going up a level… so they don’t raise the level cap? You’re just dressing the leveling grind up differently.

    “Players for the most part hate gear resets, as any item that was hard fought or required great effort is now worthless.”

    I love when folks put ‘for the most part’ in a sentence to try and make it sound like their opinion is popular, then don’t actually have any evidence to back it up. From what I’ve seen on the WoW forums, *raiders* hate gear resets, but they are far from the majority.

    Gear resets bring the folks at the bottom end up to the same ‘new’ starting level. They’re an equalizer. God help someone trying to gear their first 70 up for karazhan today. After WotLK, they’ll have a shot at breaking into raiding.

    “Gear resets also completely screw with an economy, as top level items and crafting materials sink in value.”

    Yes; this also creates opportunities for new folks to break into the high-level crafting game, instead of just letting the folks that locked up the good stuff early after the last expansion roll along with their existing monopolies.

    “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.”

    Define ‘very temporary’, please. Again – most players don’t level as fast as you do. Don’t presume to speak for them unless you have data to back it up.

  5. Rick says:

    I always appreciated Dark Age of Camelot for not raising the level cap, and I think WAR will follow the same model.

    DAoC did have some problems with the Trials of Atlantis, Master levels, etc. I hope Mythic has learned from those experiences. Still, at least their expansion was horizontal, not vertical.

  6. syncaine says:

    Dressing up the leveling game differently is exactly the point… Players like the aspects of leveling up, yet actually increasing the number of levels screws a ton of content/systems up.

    As for bringing those at the bottom up, that lasts for all of about one day, at which point the hardcore will out level and quickly out-gear those who were at the bottom before. Like I said, a gear reset is a cheap fix, and does not address the actual problem. As for starting Karazhan now, its a joke. Between welfare epics, the .5 armor set, and the rate that heroic badges can be acquired, gearing up for 25 man content in WoW is beyond trivial. Not to mention Kara has been nerfed to hell and back, meaning you could easily make progress even in quest blues.

    What high level crafting game? You mean the 2-3 actually useful crafting items, of which half are BoP and require the player to make themselves? Not to mention that the BoE crafting items that are useful are found on the AH for generally less than it takes to craft them. The idea of a monopoly in WoW is a joke.

    Very temporary – ten levels worth. Compared to the previous 60, I would call that temporary. Or compared to the time it takes to go from 60-70, vs how much time the average player spends at 70, and again, temporary.

  7. Swift Voyager says:

    Syncaine, I think I see the point that Dvorak isn’t getting. He keeps saying that gear resets and such will “help the newer players and casual players catch up with the hardcore people”. I think the point you are trying to make is that the only reason they are behind is BECAUSE of the ever-expanding level cap and gear inflation system.

  8. Snafzg says:

    My god, this is a great article. I will “officially” reply soon (with a trackback)!

  9. syncaine says:

    Exactly, gear resets are a poor and ineffective solution to gear inflation.

    Players in WoW face a twin glaives rogue, and in their minds everything will balance out come WotLK, and they think they will be able to compete with that rogue once the expansion is out. The reality is that rogue will be using whatever top tier raiding/pvp gear is available in WotLK, while the casual will still be using lvl 80 blues.

    The fact that the gear gap will be reduced for a few days before returning to its previously broken level is not a good solution.

    My overall point was that not only is raising the cap not a good solution, it actually damages the game a lot more than it fixes or adds. We saw a lot of great content become obsolete when TBC came out, and almost 100% of TBC will be deserted and obsolete come WotLK.

  10. Graktar says:

    Although I agree with you in principle, all the ideas you’ve described are essentially endgame progression tools. You’re staying at the end game with slow slow progress in various fields. The ‘endgame’ of WoW is where they start losing customers. They built their huge subscription numbers on their leveling game, and start bleeding subscribers when everyone hits the level cap. New levels draws those people back to the game whereas your ideas would not. Seriously, how does this sound for an expansion?

    –New alternate advancement path through Specialization!
    –5 new skills per class through epic quests!
    –No new zones!
    –No new gear!
    –No new classes!
    –Only $39.95, pre-order today!

    Seriously, read over what you’ve written. If you don’t want to obsolete old content by leveling, you also can’t obsolete old content by replacing it with new same-level content. If you add new zones you spread out the population and that’s also bad. If you can’t devalue old gear by putting in higher level gear with leveling, you also can’t put in new gear at the level cap better than the old gear or you get the exact same effect.

    Essentially, you’re arguing that you can’t add anything new to the game that would obsolete old content, but by it’s very nature an expansion pack is going to obsolete old content, EVEN IF ITS ALL AT THE CURRENT LEVEL CAP. If you make new level 70 zones, everyone will go to those zones and ignore the old ones because they’ve already done the old content . If you put in new items that are no better than the old ones, there’s no incentive for players to go out and get them, thus new content ends up being wasted. People might go to the new Dungeon of Spikey Death once to see it, but never go back again because there’s no incentive.

    The answer to obsoleting old content is not to stagnate new content, but to revamp old content to keep up. If the level 60 old world dungeons in WoW were retuned to give loot equivalent to the new ones, people would be more willing to go there and the content wouldn’t be obsoleted. Instead of narrowing choices with the xpac, you’ve expanded them. The way blizzard is doing things is counter-productive in the long run, but going to the other extreme is no more useful.

  11. syncaine says:

    Wait, where do I say no new zones/gear/classes?

    If we give classes specialization, can’t we add gear that caters to that, along with zones and quests that supports that specialization? And if we make switching specialization trivial, a player can focus on one path, complete it, and then begin working on a 2nd or 3rd. The new gear would be ideal for that specialization, but the old gear would still remain viable and valuable in more general specs, or in situations were a specialization has not reached its full potential. Plus the fact that gear rules 99% of a players decisions is a very EQ/WoW based mentality, and not the only way to design a MMO.

    The idea that an expansion has to make old content obsolete is the core problem, as thats simply false. Before it went to shit, did UO expansion make old content obsolete? What about every EVE update, is anything obsolete? Ignoring Trials of Atlantis (an admitted mistake), what about DAoC expansions? (up to ToA, I quit after that, so don’t know about later additions). I’m sure more examples exist, those are just off the top of my head.

    It is very possible to add content and options to an MMO without having to constantly add to the end-game pile, crushing the previous layer into obscurity. Just because EQ did it, does not mean it’s the only way to release an expansion.

  12. Nick says:

    Have you thought about it in another way?

    Maybe gear resets are a way for designers to develop the difficulty of a new zone.

    For example, a new Zone is being developed for an expansion. Now, the developers need to decide how difficult the new content should be; from how hard can the mobs there hit, etc.

    If they make it easy enough for the casuals, then the hard-core with uber-gear will blaze through the content, and claim that it’s too easy.

    If they make it challenging enough that the hard-core will still enjoy, then it might be hard enough that a casual might give up in disgust.

    A gear reset is simply a way to work around with the same issue. If the developer knows roughly the level of gears the players will have, it’s easier to design the content.

    Just my 2 cents

  13. *vlad* says:

    When TBC came out, my friends and I had pretty good gear, seeing as we had been level 60 for months. We blasted through Helffire Peninsula in record time, and were soon pushing into Zangarmarsh and Terrorkar Forest.
    Meanwhile, those players just hitting levels 58-60 found Hellfire Peninsula a lot tougher.

    The same thing will happen in WotLK. Players with T6 are going to breeze through the early stages, and those solo players who are thinking they are going to be starting off on the same level as the raiders are going to be disappointed.

    What they could do is scrap the 5 man Lv 60 instances like Scolomance, DM, Stratholme (put a pile of rubble on where they used to be), because that content IS dead.
    Make AQ20/UBRS 5 man instances, turn AQ40, BWL and MC into 10 man instances (and retune the mobs/rewards), because there will be few people who have completed them before. Then all that development won’t have been wasted.

  14. Khan says:

    I like your ideas!

    As for those thinking that new zones will suddenly be packed with players and old zones abandoned, initially that will be true. People always want to see the new shiney zones. However, after the buzz wears off, people will spread back out again. You’ll still see a large number of players in the new areas, but the old areas will still have a fair number of players. Something similar happened when LotRO launched its expansion with Forochel. For the first couple of weeks, people rushed into the new zone. Now that things have settled down a bit, there are still many players in Forochel, but we’re also still running Carn Dum, Urugath and questing around in Angmar (the “old” areas).

    I am concerned, however, what will happen to those instances when the level cap will rise to 60 for the new LotRO paid expansion into Moria. Classes in LotRO all have legendary traits they can get near 50 (the current cap). Some of those traits (those associated with the final class quest) have items which drop in Carn Dum or Urugath. What will happen when the cap is 60 and no one wants to run those instances any more? Will players have to give up those traits and the class quest items or will Turbine see the need to make those drop items substantially easier to get? The level cap increase creates a bind for the developers as well as the players whereas keeping the cap would help ensure that more people would still be running those old instances.

    Personally, I would rather have a large area for my level (many zones) where I could go where I felt like going than a smaller “level-appropriate” area and feel compelled to leave other areas behind just because they are beneath my level.

  15. Dvorak says:

    “As for starting Karazhan now, its a joke. Between welfare epics, the .5 armor set, and the rate that heroic badges can be acquired, gearing up for 25 man content in WoW is beyond trivial.”

    You clearly haven’t tried to PuG heroics lately. If you’re not at least kharazan geared and you’re not a tank or healer, you can’t get groups. Period. Your epics also better not be PvP epics, ’cause then you’re a ‘PvP n00b’.

    A new 70 is going to be wearing quest greens and blues, and due to the horrific terribleness that is the LFG channel, that is where their progression is going to stop until the new level 71 instances in WotLK.

    “We saw a lot of great content become obsolete when TBC came out, and almost 100% of TBC will be deserted and obsolete come WotLK.”

    Normal 70 instances are already abandoned, and they won’t be coming back unless blizzard simultaneously adds a tanking class and a healing class.

  16. Dvorak says:

    “I think the point you are trying to make is that the only reason they are behind is BECAUSE of the ever-expanding level cap and gear inflation system.”

    No, they are behind because the content they need to run to gear up is content everyone is bored to death with. Look at what happened with Magisters’ Terrace; everyone ran it once on normal mode to get keyed for heroic, ran heroic on it enough to get their rep and trinket, and now it’s just as abandoned as the rest of the 5-mans.

    There is a bell curve distribution here – few people can do the high-end content because it’s hard. There’s a swell of average folks working on some level of content, and then there are a smaller number of alts or stragglers.

    Once the level cap is raised, there is a window of opportunity for folks to catch the tide: the swell is at the level 80 normal mode instances, then heroics, then 10-mans, then 25 mans.

    If the wave passes you by, though, you are just shut out of getting into raiding. Alternate advancement isn’t going to fix that. And a small window of opportunity is better than no window of opportunity. And that’s what they have now.

    “We saw a lot of great content become obsolete when TBC came out, and almost 100% of TBC will be deserted and obsolete come WotLK.”

    It’s already obsolete because folks are bored with it. Blizzard can add all the 5-mans they want to WoW: Sunwell-geared players aren’t going to run it.

  17. Talyn says:

    Next time I see a hardcore raider dare write they’re not in it for the loot, they’re in it for the exploration, the challenge, and the enjoyment of raiding with their friends I’ll be sure to refer them here where all the hardcore raiders just admitted it’s all about the gear, and they won’t run new content if it’s “beneath them.”

    That said, this is yet another perfect example of why levels-based games need to go the way of the dodo. “Advancement” and “Development” don’t have to be a big number over your head. WoW cannot be fixed, Blizzard put the nail in their coffin when they designed the game to be 100% gear-dependent. Every time they raise the level cap; every time they reset gear; every time they invalidate and obsolete their own content, it turns players away. And I seriously don’t think any “solo player” ever considers themselves on equal footing with raiders when it comes to starting new expansion content, either.

    I was very disheartened when Turbine announced they were raising the level cap in LOTRO. I hope this is the only time it ever happens. As soon as Silius mentioned he was hoping to get Vanguard into position by next year to start considering an expansion, a lot of players started on the “woohoo maybe they’ll raise the level cap!” bandwagon. Why? What exactly does 10 more levels of Killing 10 Rats so the number over your head is 10 higher prove? Either way, you’re still at a “cap” and you’re still going to be bored if one of the end-game paths don’t appeal to you.

    Just make *content* for all difficulties for all types of level-capped players. Pay special attention to the mid-game. Add new content that complements, rather than obsoletes, existing content. And add new activities and advancement possibilities. Not more “levels” of the exact same crap we’ve already done.

  18. Thallian says:

    Of course I agree on the gear thing. I was just trying to think of a good solution. Maybe decoupling gear from being tied to levels so strictly? Then you could raise the level cap and just raise the gear a bit? So that old stuff was not obsolete? ehh its really a numbers game isn’t it?

  19. Thallian says:

    good ideas Talyn

  20. Zubon says:

    I’m not looking forward to The Lord of the Rings Online™: Shadows of Angmar™ with an increased level cap. I am playing through for the first time now, so I will hit 50 a bit before 60 is possible. Am I really going to raid for loot that will obsolete as soon as a new box appears? If I could get a full set of top-end gear pretty quickly, sure, that seems like a productive use of time. To get one or two pieces that might be replaced by the first quest of the expansion pack? Might as well shelve the new level-capped character and work on another. Making the first week of new content 5% easier is not worth hitting the same raid repeatedly for a few months until the new box is out.

  21. syncaine says:

    Yea the LoTRO expansion was the original inspiration for the post. Out of all the MMO’s out, I think LoTRO needs a level increase the least. Turbine has done a great job making the game alt friendly, and I think people would have been fine with a bit more 50 content, and a bunch of pre-50 content, especially with a new class coming out. Maybe they will figure out a way to make it work, but I’m a bit nervous.

  22. Boohyah says:

    Wow the limits of QQ’in in this game never seem to reach and end. It’s a game fellas….you remember what a game is right? And you know the great thing about games right….you can always stop playing one and move on. Quit bitchin/crying/QQ’in and pick what game yall wanna play. You think Blizz makes billions each year by following how the players want the game? I was actually trying to look up something else when i came upon this and had to pass out some tissues. Anyways enjoy your QQ’in and feel free to troll me lol

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