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?