How important are levels in our MMOs?

I want to talk today about the idea of levels in MMOs, and whether their time has come and gone. Many people argue Warhammer Online would be a far superior game without levels, and we have seen similar arguments made for other MMOs as well. (Why have levels in WoW when the ‘good stuff’ is at the cap, etc)

Whenever the topic comes up, my immediate reaction is that MMOs must have levels, that they are one of the core mechanics that make an MMO what it is. When you consider how many people enjoy the leveling process, and subsequently reroll an alt once they hit the cap, it would seem that an MMO without levels might not appeal to that large demographic. Levels also make it easy to identify progress in an MMO, they let us know what zone to be in, what instance to attempt, and what gear we can use. Removing levels, at first thought, would seem to play havoc on all of that.

My first MMO, Ultima Online, did not have levels. It had skill points, which were limited to a grand total of 700, with each skill limited to a cap of 100. Technically someone who was 7xGM (7 skills to 100) was at the ‘cap’, but even then it was debatable which 7 skills to pick, what style of combat or crafting you are aiming for, etc. But at no point was it clear that unless you have X number of skill points, you can’t enter a dungeon, or travel to some town/area. But UO, much like EVE, is a sandbox style MMO, and we all know sandbox MMOs don’t play by the same rules as more traditional theme park MMOs. (WoW and company) This still leaves us with the question; would removing levels work?

To me it’s fairly clear you can’t have the same MMO and just place everyone at the level cap. Logging in for the first time and have 30ish skills, gear in 15 spots, and an entire world to travel freely would be far too overwhelming to all but the most hardcore of MMO fans. And if we agree on that principal, clearly we need SOME kind of system to guide and limit a player, a job traditionally handled by levels. If we make the limiting factor gear, I fear gear would become the overriding factor for everything in the MMO, and we have seen how ugly things can get when items become the be-all/end-all. It we make the limit time, either in-game or real time, we run the risk of going too slow/fast based on each individual players comfort level. I would like to think I’ll grasp the basic concept of any new MMO a bit faster than someone playing one for the first time, and neither of us would want to progress a the others pace.

This post feels a bit rambly, and that’s because I really don’t have a good answer to an interesting question. Most of my ideas point the MMO towards a sandbox-style game, and while I know that would work, the question is more about whether an MMO can be a theme park AND not be level based. Can any re-imagining of EQ work without levels?

About SynCaine

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

31 Responses to How important are levels in our MMOs?

  1. elpaule says:

    In ATitD, which started level-less, levels were later introduced due to player demand. If i remember the reasoning was, that people wanted some kind of progression in numbers in addition to titles or deeds. I blame that of course on WoW, but even there it changed later from Lvl as virtual P to epic gear, so I might be wrong.

  2. Lars says:

    Guild Wars is sort of like that… Sure, it has levels, but you acquire them all quickly enough, and the game continues for quite some time after level 20. It still remains interesting because it has a collection mechanic (collecting skills) and the story (mission) progression. So, in short, yes, you could have an EQ style game without levels, but you’ll need to substitute an alternate carrot on a stick, since players need a goal.

  3. syncaine says:

    Well for me Guild Wars is a good example of why we do need levels. I could never really get into GW, and I think the lack of levels is one factor. Granted I only played it near the original release, and I’m sure a ton of stuff has since changed, but I remember having a major disconnect to GW compared to UO or other MMOs.

  4. Hudson says:

    Star Wars Galaxies didn’t have levels at first did it?

  5. Tesh says:

    Much of this question goes back to the basic psychology of why players even play in the first place. There’s at least a little Bartle Achiever in most players, and a level system scratches that itch. DIKU lineage MMOs are like a pandering psychologist who tells you that “you’re great, you’re the best, here’s my bill, come back next month” without offering anything of real substantive value (because change might make the doctor irrelevant). There’s definitely a market for feel-good frippery, especially in games, where everybody wants to be the hero, at least in their own mind. Levels and loot allow for players to get those frequent Pavlovian rewards without needing to invest in many choices. They also allow designers a lot of ways to distract players, keeping their attention on the rewards rather than spend time and money on creating dynamic worlds, moral complexity, or interesting stories.

    Bottom line, players love that sort of donut and cookie diet, and it’s easy for designers to create, so there’s no significant external impetus for designers to go another way.

    When I look at designing my games, I tend to look for alternate progression models, including avatar-skill-based play like UO or player-skill-based play like Puzzle Pirates. I’ll probably never go with a progression model that is heavily based on levels in the classical sense, but I’m not really aiming at the mainstream anyways.

    Levels will probably always be with us, and I have a sense that they will always be the mainstream. That depresses me a bit. I look at the American entitlement mentality and the Asian love for grind and see a huge amount of inertia backed by human nature. I take some solace in the idea that independent developers are more willing to experiment, and in an internet world, their work is more likely to see the light of day.

  6. Talyn says:

    MMOs must have levels, that they are one of the core mechanics that make an MMO what it is.

    While I know what you’re ultimately getting at, this statement is blatantly wrong. A “massive” amount of players all playing in the world at once is what makes an MMO what it is.

    “Levels” are what makes an RPG what it is.

    I put “levels” in quotes because the concept of levels is vital to RPG’s. Beginning a character and gradually learning more, becoming stronger or more powerful and gaining new abilities. This is a mechanic most simply termed “levels” and would equally apply to skill-based games like EVE, UO, GW and the original SWG. Having a number over your head, however, arrived with tabletop RPG’s because they needed a simple numeric system to express that growth. In modern video RPG’s, MMO or otherwise, computers can handle far more complex algorithms for expressing growth by other means other than simply having a number over your virtual head. Having literal levels with a number over your head simply makes content and encounters easy to design, and easy for players to grasp their relative power level to their peers and surroundings. Literal levels also segregate players who can no longer play with their friends and other long-term problems and in the end can do more harm than good.

    There can still be goals, incentives, plenty of content with a focus on horizontal advancement and a much more gradual incline to vertical advancement which would first and foremost allow a broader group of players to be able to *gasp* play together, and simultaneously keep content valid for a longer period of time if a challenge is always available there.

    As for your GW reaction, my observations are that many bought into the hype the magazines and media brought to light on the game pre-release, rather than what said about the game. So you bought the game expecting a Diku-MMO, and got something entirely different. Just like said you would, but the media ignored all that.

  7. Ysharros says:

    Not all tabletop RPGs used that — eventually. Ars Magica and the various White Wolf offerings off the top of my head, and of course the inimitable Call of Cthulhu… though, equally of course, all of those have measurable progression of some kind, which comes down to the same thing.

    I think we *are* ready to break out of the purely level-based idea, at least some of us, but I don’t think we’re ready to break out of the measurable progression box because, ultimately, that’s why a lot of us play games. I’m not sure I’d enjoy the Zen Koan game for very long, though I would be more enlightened after a few weeks’ worth of contemplation.

    You’ve got me thinking now. Never a good idea.

  8. Melf_Himself says:

    I wrote a reply to this here.

    In a nutshell: Guild Wars rocks but the lack of persistence limits its appeal for some. Eve also rocks but the time-based nature of the leveling sucks. A game using either model and solving its problems would be maximum win for me.

  9. sente says:

    Well for me Guild Wars is a good example of why we do need levels. I could never really get into GW, and I think the lack of levels is one factor.

    GW does not lack levels, they are just not important as such for most of the game; both since you reach the max level early and also most of what many consider important milestones or accomplishments are not tied to levels.

    Levels are just a way of visualising some kind of progress which can be useful if you do not have enough of good challenge/reward mechanics in the game – it is easy to measure and illustrate. But as Ysharros said, there are certainly other ways to provide measureable progress.

    The problem with levels comes when the challenge/reward mechanics tied to the leveling process becomes too dominating that it hurts the usage of the other challenge/reward systems in place in a game. At least if someone care about these other systems.

  10. Mikejl says:

    Its been said that a person is defined my their actions. And I think the the original SWG mechanics captures that. Could be little grindy in some of the skill trees however when I hit Master Ranger .. that was an awesome moment. Not just the title it was also the rifleman, creature handler and medic skills I build up that really defined my character .. defined me.

  11. Pete S says:

    If you remove levels, you just have to replace them with some other arbitrary measuring stick. This applies to virtually all games. RPGs have levels or stats, shooters have better and better weapons, driving games have faster and faster cars, puzzles have more and more manipulators. Most people play games to progress.

    Even the ubiquitous example of WOW bears this out… time and again we’ve read about what a small percentage of WOW players actually raid. Instead, most hit cap and then just start all over again.

    Can’t you create a capped character in GW rather then leveling one up? It’d be interesting to see what the numbers are there: how many people roll a level 20 vs rolling a level 1

  12. Talyn says:

    You can create a PvP-only character in GW which is already level cap. But that character can never enter any of the towns or PvE areas, only the PvP islands and arenas.

    As for “persistence” being what turned many people away, bull… Persistence is an illusion — an outright lie — already in our MMO’s. We don’t have “persistent worlds” we merely have persistent characters, just like I do in COD or Battlefield 2142. The worlds are purely static, nothing ever changes unless the devs patch it in. What turned people away is they ignorantly assumed they were getting EQ with better graphics and no monthly fee, and GW is more of a multiplayer (not massively multiplayer) skills-based action RPG.

    The difference with GW in particular is that, with the exception of the first game “Prophecies” which levels you as you progress through the first third or so of the story, the others level you in a “noob island” then the rest of the game takes place at level cap, all with increasing difficulty including content that is conceptually similar to raiding. To me, the only thing that “20” over your head means is that you’ve completed the tutorial and have good armor and enough skills in your arsenal to come up with a build that should be useful to the group as you progress and advance through the entire remainder of the game, where anyone can play with anyone. No level segregation, no mentoring needed. No mentality of “ok I’ve reached level cap, now what?” because you’ve barely even begun. On top of that, even at level cap you still “ding” and earn a new skill point, so that sense of achievement and immediate gratification of the “ding” still exists even though your level isn’t raising — because while GW “has” levels, it isn’t “about” levels, it’s about gaining skills to create customized builds to work with your gear in specific situations.

  13. Ossigor says:

    Talyn, the definition of persistant here is instanced play vs open world play.

    Guild Wars, Diablo & co are not persistant.

    Most MMO’s are.

  14. Talyn says:

    Oh, so now “persistent” means “open-world?” Someone better notify Merriam-Webster then. That is not, nor has never been, the definition of the word persistence. I’ve been inclined to do an Inigo Montoya “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means” more often in this single thread than any other in recent memory. But, going on with the charade, let’s put the *true* definition of persistence up against open-world vs. instanced-world. What exactly is the difference? None! Your character keeps his advancement the next time you login but the world itself is completely static. The monsters have respawned, that princess still needs saving again, Joe the NPC Plumber is still spouting off the same line of dialogue he’s always been saying. Other than our characters, “persistence” lasts only until the respawn or script timer has expired whether the world is instanced for only our group (GW), population-controlled public instances (AoC), or open-world (WoW, LOTRO, etc.).

    As for what you’re trying to get across, yes a fully-instanced world is also a major turn-off for people expecting a Diku-MMO with no subscription. I can’t stress enough that player’s own naive pre-conceived expectations are the reason for their own dislike of the game, though I’ll put the majority of the blame for this on media for hyping the game as an MMORPG despite constantly saying it was not.

  15. Lars says:

    OK, like Melf, I had too many ideas to fit them in this comment box. So I dumped them on my blog. Basically like Pete S says, levels are a way to measure progress for a characters advancement, and RPGs are ultimately about advancement. In fact, all games are; you have to have a goal. Without a goal, you have a toy, and we’re big boys (and girls) now, so we don’t play with those.

    The best way to measure progress would be STORY. Story is why single player games don’t generally feel as grindy even though they really involve the same kind of repetitive gameplay that MMORPGs have. I don’t think we’d be complaining about “levels” as much if our measuring sticks didn’t feel so obviously arbitrary (the numbers over our head.)

  16. Bonedead says:

    Here’s my crackpot attempt at making starting at max level with all skills and gear possible:

    Tutorial. Similar to the Half Life 2 tutorial. Just a bunch of different stages that represent different situations where different skills are required. As you progress through the tutorials the situations begin to require the use of more than one of the skills you have already learned to use, eventually leading to a random difficult fight requiring many different possible combinations of skills.

    (This may have been answered but I didn’t read the walls of text comments)
    SWG originally didn’t have levels, but instead used Trees. Which were basically levels. To advance through the blocks of the trees required you to gain certain amounts of XP in a certain skill (that related to the tree, ie Combat xp, Pistol XP, Melee XP, etc). Different blocks up the tree would earn new skills, much like gaining levels.

    So it was pretty much levels without the numbers.

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  18. Talyn says:

    @Bonedead: If I recall (and it’s been awhile, fuzzy memory and all), the various trees simply related to various abilities in your profession that allowed you to customize your character. Or in Diku-MMO terms, provided the skill customization for your class. It was the various tiers of your combat skills that increased your proficiency which is what I would equate with “levels” in the traditional sense.

    As most of us have been saying all along, of course we need some mechanism to express our advancement through the game, which we call “levels” whether or not the game uses literal levels over our heads.

    An important distinction, which is one of many reasons I champion for moving away from literal levels, is that I could create a brand-new character in SWG and by the time I was through the initial stages I could immediately get with my guild and transport to Dathomir to go rancor hunting, which could arguably be considered “end-game” content. Sure, my skill levels won’t let me do as much damage with my laser rifles or whatever, or I won’t be able to provide quite as much of a buff as a long-time veteran character, but I am still able to participate and contribute to the group. New players can play with veteran players immediately. No artificial barriers, no segregation, no penalties for grouping, and no obsolete or trivialized content. The same cannot be said in games that base their content on literal levels. Mentoring is merely a compromise which ultimately penalizes the characters for the sake of allowing them to group; it’s a hack to sweep under the rug one of the ugly problems of literal levels rather than actually dealing with it.

  19. syncaine says:

    And EVE does the exact same thing you describe Talyn. You can create a new pilot, and within an hour or less join your Corp (guild) in a mining Op or missions. Even in PvP you can make contributions.

    That’s the #1 reason to move away from levels, they are a hard barrier to play with others and limit content. The key though is to find a suitable, and equally fun, replacement that will still keep people playing. I drift in and out of EVE because of that open ended, you-make-it-up style.

  20. Talyn says:

    Agreed, but don’t try to place blame on EVE’s lack of levels for the ugly side of a sandbox game: BOREDOM. Levels do not inherently imply a theme park game, nor does a lack of levels inherently imply a sandbox.

    *Topic Hijack Alert*

    I haven’t read a single positive comment regarding what meager semi-directed content EVE has. You’re on your own to make your own fun. Or not. And while that has its attractions, even I am not always in the mood to have to make decisions every waking (virtual) moment I’m in a game. It’s a game, it’s supposed to provide the fun not be the paper bag I have to create my own fun to escape from.

    Give me a sandbox, give me freedom over my character and the world I adventure in. But for the sake of all that is virtually Holy, also give me some high-quality directed content that I am free to choose to participate in. Or not.

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  22. Melf_Himself says:

    @ Talyn: I agree that persistence in modern MMO’s is an illusion, but people are not logical creatures, and I think it turned them off anyway.

    Other possibilities to explain why it is not *as successful* as WoW:

    I have a suspicion that the lack of a subscription actually turned some off, due to a perceived “you get what you pay for” mentality.

    It may also have been an issue with timing. WoW was the first of the modern, well-polished MMO’s to hit the scene (beating Guild Wars by 5 months), and as such sucked up a lot of people who became trapped in the WoW hamster wheel.

  23. Tesh says:

    The subscription “get what you pay for” has a twisted sort of logic to it. The cost per hour of play goes up if you treat the game like a job or an addiction (spend lots of time in it), but if you’re a casual player, GW has a much better value per dollar spent. I think that a lot of people get sucked into WoW and then have to try to justify the sub to themselves by thinking that they are “getting what they paid for”… but in reality, the core gameplay is fairly repetitive and bland compared to what $15/month should really be buying.

    For $15 you could get a used copy of pretty much any of the Final Fantasies, and spend a hundred hours or more in it, with deeper combat mechanics than WoW. You could get a Star Ocean game, or a Kingdom Hearts. With WoW, you’re paying for the luxury of playing with other people, but the experience is just so… static compared to a more scripted RPG (ironically, perhaps). Kill ten rats, tank and spank, grind, grind, grind. It has a certain Zen sort of appeal, and the multiplayer can be fun, but the storytelling is vastly inferior, and if you don’t have the time to play enough per day to make it worthwhile, you’re much better off spending your money on something that you actually BUY (and can resell), not just pay for access to in monthly chunks.

    As for how that ties into the level system, the discrete sense of chunks of progress is a valuable one to keep people playing for that “one more hit” sense of inertia. It even spreads to the subscription; “one more month and I’ll earn enough in dailies to get that mount”. People love to be able to measure what they are doing… but they also like to have a sense of accomplishment and completion. A never ending level/loot grind with periodic ten level extensions and loot recalibrations is only designed to be a pretty treadmill. It’s not designed for closure, so the achievement metric can only measure how you’re doing, and how much you’ve done… but not whether or not you’ve really done anything of importance, or how you’ve changed the world.

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  25. Topknot says:

    I’ve often thought a system similar to Monster Hunter ( would work well.

    You dont gain levels but rather ‘Hunter Ranks’. Going up a rank does not increase any stats but instead allows access to harder quests/monsters from the Hunters Guild. These monsters, when killed drop body parts that are collected and used to craft new armour and weapons. You can also pick herbs, honey, mushrooms… all sorts of stuff to make HP/Attack/Armour potions etc.

    No content was wasted as you would be required to kill a range of creatures to craft armour and weapons which would be required to kill the harder monsters required for progress.

    I’d kill for that to be turned into a fully fledged MMO game. It used to be online but each ‘town/quest hub’ could only hold something like 8 or 12 people in a town. Parties could be no more than 4 people.

    I heard it was turned into an MMO of sorts but only in Japan and more like its PS2 counterpart than a modern MMO.

    I know Hunter Rank is essentially the same as Levels but it was done very well and felt a lot different to levelling up in modern MMO’s

  26. Topknot says:

    … hmm, I missed off part of a sentence…

    “…are collected and used to craft new armour and weapons” which would increase various stats such as HP, armour, resistances etc.

  27. Talyn says:

    One problem leaping out at me with the Hunter Rank idea is that it still creates a barrier to grouping, very similar to quest chains. “Oh, you’re way behind, I don’t feel like catching you up,” or “Oh, you guys are further ahead than I am, sorry.”

    Or depending how the game’s advancement schemes are setup, what if I want to gain Ranks in some other aspect of my character over rather than Hunter? Now I’m being locked out of all content tied to Hunter Rank. And people with high Hunter Ranks are in turn locked out of all content tied to whichever Ranking sphere I chose to pursue.

    I don’t mind blocking specific content with prerequisites such as keys to instances, etc. but aside from that stop putting up barriers to, and penalties for, grouping. Is that so much to ask for a massively multiplayer game?

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  29. Pickly says:

    For $15 you could get a used copy of pretty much any of the Final Fantasies, and spend a hundred hours or more in it, with deeper combat mechanics than WoW. You could get a Star Ocean game, or a Kingdom Hearts.

    Plus, in the non-RPG field, there are a lot of strategy games (Older civilization games, starcraft, etc.), city builders, etc., that can provide huge amounts of playtime from the number of different strategies and difficulty levels there usually are in them.

  30. Melf_Himself says:

    “The subscription “get what you pay for” has a twisted sort of logic to it.”

    Oh, for sure. But it’s all about what people perceive. And what they perceive is that WoW costs the most that a game can cost, and requires the most time that a game can require, and therefore must be the best game around.

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