Why do we still force alts to re-grind, and what about the new guy?

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?

About SynCaine

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

43 Responses to Why do we still force alts to re-grind, and what about the new guy?

  1. Thallian says:

    Its all just business driving decisions at the core, not fun. If it was fun driving things you’d have this.

  2. spinks says:

    I like the idea of assigning people to servers based on their level for levelling purposes. If you look at something like Free Realms, you can actually select your server at the point of login so you could even remove the need to transfer. Just flag servers up based on timezones, levelling content, etc. You could even run special events (like temp scenarios in WAR) targetting to level ranges to attract a crowd over a weekend.

    and then have pan-server auction houses or something so that everyone has access to a large market.

    • syncaine says:

      I think it depends on the game, but the idea of scrapping server communities all together is not something I would be comfortable with. I guess in a really casual PvE MMO it might not matter that much though…

  3. Talinine says:

    Dark Age of Camelot already does this, at least in part. Once you have a level 50 character in any realm, you can automatically level a new character to 20. I’m pretty sure on some servers, its even 30 or 40. It doesn’t cover everything, as there are alternate leveling mechanics past level 50, but it does at least soak up a little bit of the grind for alts.

    • syncaine says:

      It worked well in DAoC because at 20ish you could enter Darkness Falls, and if you wanted, level purely in that environment. I remember doing that with my necro, and it was a good time.

      • Grimjakk says:

        That’s something that actually sped the decline of the game, in my opinion. It “worked well” for some, it pretty much slammed the door in the face of new players trying the game for the first time.

        DAOC’s leveling curve, back in the day, was similar to old school EQ… where 1-50 was expected to take months and months to cover. Even after they revamped the newbie zones and experience curves, /level still meant soloing through the first deserted 20 to 30 levels of the game.

  4. Anjin says:

    I’m curious what you think a solution for WoW-alikes might be. Revamp old content, hoping current players will be interested enough to start an alt to experience it? Discard the old content and start everyone, even the newbies at the new level 1 equivalent? Leave it all alone and let newbies level at the original speed, further separating the newbies from the endgame? Stop adding high level content to prevent the endgame from running away from the newbies, but potentially alienate current players?

  5. Scott says:

    This could easily be turned into another “levels are bad” argument. One which I happen to agree with but regardless… There’s a lot to be said for something like EVE where players of every experience level (not game level) can at least all play together, even if the newer lower game-skilled folks won’t be as “competitive” as the vets. At least they can be there and find their own way to participate or simply observe, rather than being gated by Diku-levels. I’m guessing Darkfall is similar in that regard?

    I’m also a fan of Guild Wars (specifically Factions and Nightfall) where the brief leveling game is self-contained on a “noob island” then all the rest of the game world is relevant content to everyone regardless how long you’ve been playing.

    If we’re stuck with Diku-levels though I wouldn’t mind seeing a mechanism along the lines of “whatever I do on my ‘main’ can be passed down to an alt upon creation,” including levels, maybe even reputations, etc. to eliminate blatant non-fun grinding.

    • syncaine says:

      Yea I’m trying to stick to “if you do have levels, how do we fix this”, because clearly a lot of people DO like the ding-up process. I agree that games like UO/EVE/DF don’t run into this problem because content is not level gated.

  6. wyldkard says:

    “Is WoW’s 1-59 content less fun now than it was in 2004-05?”

    Well, yes. If you’re the type of gamer who is okay soloing everything, then maybe you’re not as affected by the state of WoW today, but for most people, dealing with ganking is only one worry. With vets rushing through content, it’s not even simply a matter of finding people to group with, it’s finding people to group with who don’t want to be run through an instance by a higher level player, and who actually wants to experience an encounter the way it was intended.

    Even after we hit the level cap with our initial characters, we were dismayed at the power-leveling happening, making most any instance run pre-endgame unbearable, if not outright impossible to find. Things are only worse now, especially with the massive amount of liquidity across veteran characters. There’s simply no struggle anymore, and that takes a lot of the fun of advancement out of the game.

  7. Melf_Himself says:

    I think what you’ll find is that, given the chance, the vast majority of people will skip the leveling grind. Because it’s not fun after those first few rapidly-gained levels, when the dings are long and far between.

    Your argument of “if you don’t like grind, you’re in the wrong genre” holds no weight because there are plenty of other things that people like about MMO’s that are not related to the grind. They tolerate the grind to experience the things they want.

    The better solution is not to make people grind in the first place. Make the game actually fun to play without dangling some carrot on a stick.

    A good example is Guild Wars, where it takes you a standard-single-player-RPG length of time to hit the level cap, and the rest of the content is experienced at max level (however, you unlock different abilities to try as you progress further). This way you don’t feel like you’re grinding. In addition, you can make a max-level, max-gear character for PvP only any time you like, to ensure that PvP is on an even footing.

    This means that to a large extent you can play with whoever you like, whenever you like, wherever you like.

    • syncaine says:

      Well ‘grind’ in this case was a bit of a joke. Is going from 1-60 in 2004 WoW a ‘grind’, or was it playing a really fun MMO? In 2009 it’s a grind for vets because they have already done it, but it’s still a fun MMO for first timers, just less so because of a lack of population.

      The ‘wrong genre’ statement applies to those who just want to be maxed out instantly day 1, and not have to ‘suffer’ through the whole character progression part. For those, I would say go play a FPS, or some other instant-action genre. The MMO genre is built in part around the idea that you progress your character and grow/expand your possibilities.

      • Tesh says:

        “The MMO genre is built in part around the idea that you progress your character and grow/expand your possibilities.”

        Then perhaps it’s time to challenge *that* assumption. Or, to find another definition of “progress” than the DIKU grind.

      • Melf_Himself says:

        Well, I bombed out around level 40 in late 2005, so I’m not sure if I ‘missed the boat’ or whatever but I did find it to be quite a grind.

        Let’s face it, the early levels are a dream in terms of rapid dings (and better quest progression etc), and then in the mid levels it shifts to feel more like work. It’s still fun to get the dings, but that fun is separated by longer and longer periods of ‘meh’.

        For me, this is because I need solid gameplay to keep me interested. There’s no real twitch component, no strategy (after you’ve sorted out your build), and no challenge (other than artificial challenge that you have no chance to overcome, like giving mobs way more HP/damage than you until you become sufficiently ‘geared’).

        Sure, there’s other fun stuff like the exploration, immersion, cute graphics, animations, social aspects, achievements etc. Some people prefer that stuff. But in terms of the actual gameplay? Yeah, I found it to be quite a grind.

        I’m not suggesting that the cap should be hit instantly, but in order to make the crummy gameplay tolerable those dings need to come more frequently, and actually mean something when they do (oooh +2% critical chance).

  8. Sara Pickell says:

    I find it slightly entertaining that the New Game+ was probably the first, or at least the most basic, form of character persistence to ever exist. We now have MMOs, the supposed epitome of character persistence, and New Game+ is either badly implemented or left out.

    Personally, I don’t think the people capable of solving this problem, and the people heading up WoW-a-likes are overlapping circles on the Venn diagram. The problem stems from an underlying concept of what an MMO is and ‘should’ be. For those who believe in the same general concept, while the problem can be admitted, it can’t be solved because any way of solving it would go against their vision of what an MMO ‘should’ be.

    • Tesh says:

      Yes. A thousand times yes.

      Tangentially, I miss New Game+, it was my favorite “feature” of the Chrono games.

  9. Melf_Himself says:

    Sara, I find your thoughts interesting and wish to subscribe to your newsletter.

  10. Anne says:

    Have the actual zones as servers so when you walk into a zone you actually change server or at least have the option to. A MMORPG that is based around the zones themselves being servers or something else that is just as complex that is more effective then the norm ‘one server one mirror world’ used mostly now days will be an ideal imo. Just look at Runescape or Free Realms as someone mentioned, choosing servers each time you log in isn’t far away from zones being servers themselves IMO (or group of zones, since I think most people agree that having zones unconnected/instanced isn’t progression).

    The core of the problem is money. Server transfers are nothing but sending the information of characters from one space to another, normally within the same building. Yet (for example) Blizzard still needs 30USD just for what essentially is a few electrical signals. Sure you could make the point that it requires maintenance, and a whole list of other things (creation, support staff, etc) but aren’t you paying for these types of services when you pay for the game box and the monthly fee? (Which just goes to show that Blizzard could sell shit on a stick and still make massive amounts of money, heh I’d rather preferred shit on a stick then WOTLK, that way I could have at least been able to go cal and throw the shit at them.)

    These types of issues with MMORPGs have probably come up again and AGAIN during meetings and in the minds of developers, most companies wouldn’t have the resources while others prefer to not advance the genre because they are making too much money on what they are doing (to send all of your characters from one server to another in WoW would cost what, 30-90USD? Blizzard isn’t going to say no to that).

    As technology gets cheaper and more effective MMORPGs hopefully will improve systems like this and advance them just like the next gen of MMORPGs will change *hopefully* for the better (e.g. better battle mechanics, etc, not looking hopeful atm though).

    • Tesh says:

      And when Wizard 101 can have a user-driven server shift on a 60 second cooldown, what does that tell us about the way Blizzard handles it?

  11. spinks says:

    “I find it slightly entertaining that the New Game+ was probably the first, or at least the most basic, form of character persistence to ever exist.”

    Sure if you completely ignore pen and paper RPGs.

  12. Sara Pickell says:

    I suppose even talking electronically save games were first. So perhaps I really should have quantified that as being about persisting post story-line completion.

    You can subscribe to my blog through clicking on my name, but it’s been a while since I’ve had a serious discussion about design on there. Eventually I just got tired of dealing with GPs, among other things. And maybe I just finally gave up some optimism for the genre.

    I’ve been feeling the itch tonight though, but I’m dog tired so if I do get around to something it’ll be tomorrow.

  13. smakendahed says:

    I’d rather it be a choice than an assumption that everyone wants their alts to be max level once they’ve played through the content. There are times you might want to play with a friend that is new to the game.

    And I don’t entirely agree they should just have all alts start at max level because there can be a bit of a learning curve to figuring out the class and its abilities.

    Starting all over? Maybe not… seeing more of what Blizzard did with the DKs might be a good alternative (again, if that’s what the person chooses to do).

    Also, if new players come in and find the lower level zones completely barren it might make them think it’s a dead game.

    I know I had a number of issues with DAoC when I went back a few years later. The lower level zones were empty – I’m not kidding. I think I was playing for a week before I saw someone.

    • syncaine says:

      Exactly, it needs to be a choice. Assuming everyone wants all their alts to start maxed would be worst than assuming everyone wants to start an alt at 1.

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  15. Damage Inc says:

    This is one of the things I never really understood about WoW. In every other MMORPG I had played, content was always added for the lower tiers. Then came WoW and although they did add 1-20 content in BC, that’s all they really added. WotLK came out and I’m assuming the lower tiers got nothing. (I haven’t played WoW in 2+ years.)

    I think it really all stems to the reason I really don’t enjoy WoW that much. For me, UO, AC, EQ… were all WORLDS I played in. WoW and most of the other MMO’s since WoW are all games I play and the developers treat them like games.

  16. I’m torn between what I want – force people to start alts at level 1 in order to keep some sort of semblance of a low level community or allow people to start at a higher level once they’ve done it once in order to combat the repetitive grind.

    Right now, I’m all in favour of the second options simply because WoW is so quest focused and the problem is that once you’ve done a quest once, you’ve done it a million times. Killing 10 foozles just to earn a level is dull dull dull.

    However, I used to very much be in favour of the forcing people through it simply because I never actually saw it as a grind. Some of my favourite dungeons in EQ2, for instance, at pre-50.

    My personal preference would be for WoW to make some changes to encourage grouping at lower levels and introduce some more content. How about a new expansion with zones from 20 – 80?

    • Tesh says:

      Or, make all the content playable by all levels (or get rid of levels) via sidekicking/mentoring or some such mechanic. Let people play the game because they find playing itself fun, not as a gate to what they really want to play.

      • syncaine says:

        But sadly we know all too well that in order for most players to have fun, they need to be lead around by the nose. Give them options (sandbox), and they grow bored because they can’t create the fun for themselves.

        Levels work so well for the masses because in parts its an easy way to guide them to the next goal.

      • Tesh says:

        Well, for the “goal oriented” players with noserings, it’s entirely possible to create goals that have nothing to do with leveling up. I don’t disagree with you, there just has to be more than the leveling grind to get people to play and have fun.

  17. Bhagpuss says:

    Staggering servers by levels is an idea I’ve suggested many times in the past. It has its own problems, but for an established game i think the benefits could outweigh the disadvantages.

    Personally, I am pretty much only interested in the “levelling up” part of the game. I don’t raid, I enjoy PvP only in small doses when in the mood, and I have zero interest in leaderboards/bragging rights. So far, I have yet to find any MMO that has an “end game” that holds my attention for 5 minutes, but I take years to get bored with levelling up, even if it’s my umpteenth character in that game.

    I’d love to be playing on a server with people who actually wanted to be going through old content, rather than with disgruntled people trying to get past it as fast as possible.

  18. syncaine says:

    My father plays exactly like you Bhagpuss, he has multiple level 80s over the course of 2+ years, and once he hits the cap and does a few more quests, he plays another character. Zero interest in BGs, raiding, or rep/item grind. For him a leveling-focused server would be perfect and keep him interested longer.

  19. Saylah says:

    I recently resub’d to WOW to help along a cousin. This is her first “real” MMO having become interested after playing Free Realms. While she is enjoying herself with the newness of it all, I can’t help but mark how barren the old world seems. I see players asking to be powered thru instances and being told “No, just go level?” How is that the anwer??? Level past the content as though it never existed? Or level to the point at which you can to it alone which makes it all irrelevant? I’m dumbfounded by the sheer stupidity of those types of answers. She’ll never experience the WOW I played – ever. She’ll be lucky to see the instanced content until she’s very high in level, very lucky or begs for mercy. Just seems a bit ridiculous that WOW at least, doesn’t have a solution for veterans wanting alts and new players wanting to experience the “real” version of the game.

  20. Tesh says:

    Saylah, that’s why I’ve long argued that the “real” game needs to be the living, dynamic world that works as fun for players of *any and all* levela. Or to get rid of levels entirely. This “the game starts at the level cap” mentality is absolutely idiotic.

    Note, I’m not against raiding or activities that go on at the level cap; those are all well and good for some people, and I’m fine with that. (Though they don’t interest me much.) I just think that “the game” should use the bulk of your asset creation, rather than 90% of your assets being used as a roadblock to what you really want players doing.

  21. syncaine says:

    @Tesh: While I overall agree, the fact that levels will be a part of most mainstream MMOs is something we either improve, or stick to niche titles like EVE or DF. Just because WoW cripples 90% of its content with the way they handle levels does not mean the basic idea behind levels is flawed.

    • Tesh says:

      Agreed, and it’s their implementation that is really the trouble. (A level-less game can work, too… it’s just not the only option.)

      If levels can still be in the game, but anyone can play any content at any level, with tunable challenge *and commensurate rewards*, that changes things to the point where people can play where they are having fun, with friends who want to be there, too, rather than playing to *get to where they can* have fun or being walled away from friends who have different levels.

  22. Kyff says:

    A point that I miss in this discussion is the time dispsarity between a newbie and a veteran with the best intentions making it almost impossible to find permanent groups.

    A nwebie usually plays one toon. If the game is good he plays it everyday – as the veteran did, when he was a newbie himself.

    So if mains of one or more newbies and ats of one or more veterans team up and have fun for one day. They will hardly meet up to continue the questline the following day. The veteran has to raid, to improve his main and other stuff to do. The newbie will outlevel almost every alt and be left alone soon.

    Thats why it’s almost impossible to actively advance new members in your guild to the level cap in most cases. The mentoring system in EQ2 was helpful in this regard and a good way to support lowlevel guildmembers (It had other issues though).

  23. Solidstate says:

    Interesting post (and discussion).
    I see this problem as being 2 separate problems: one, what to do with new players entering a mostly empty world (and with re-rollers who are genuinely interested in playing a lower level alt and don’t want to rush to the cap). Two, what to do about veteran players re rolling alts and wanting those alts to quickly hit the level cap so as to be available for raiding, crafting+gathering, PvP or whatever.

    I agree that a better server technology, either staggered leveling servers, x-server instances/LFG channel or similiar system would help for the first type of people. A mentoring system would also help partially with the problem.

    As for the second type of people, I truly don’t see what would be so horrible in allowing people with max level chars to roll alts directly with high a level. Perhaps like a DK in WoW you could make the char at a level 20 levels below the cap. In WoW leveling 20 levels is pretty, especially if you know what you are doing (and I think it’s a good assumption that someone already at the cap knows how to level). At the same time, you wouldn’t abandon ALL of the old content (at least not for those not interested in it), just most of it.

    To me, the perfect (well nearly so :)) next expansion in WoW would raise the cap to 90 while allowing players at the cap to roll alts at level 70. Maybe you could even add a system where the more high-level alts you rolled on a server, the faster each of them progresses. Of course I know this won’t happen, this isn’t the “vision” the WoW devs have and they have stated this in the past. But this is my dream :)

    Interestingly, the upcoming WoW patch 3.2 will allow players, for a small ingame gold payment, to freeze/unfreeze their character gaining XP. Kind of the opposite of what we are talking about :)

    • syncaine says:

      My guess is people with twinks would want XP frozen, now that BGs give XP?

      Freezing XP would actually be another tool to help friends stay close in levels or keep multiple alts in a certain range so you can jump in and help someone out. Say two friends are playing, and one simply plays more than the other. With XP freezing, he can still play more and not outlevel his buddy, perhaps completing side quests or just messing around with PvP or farming for crafting.

      • Solidstate says:

        “My guess is people with twinks would want XP frozen, now that BGs give XP?”

        Yes. Another option which was mentioned is people wanted to level up to 60 (or 70) and then stop and play the game as if the following expansions were never released – all level 60 raids to MC, BWL, etc., with no gear from the expansions either. Of course Naxx no longer exists in EPL so that part’s out.

        “Freezing XP would actually be another tool to help friends stay close in levels”

        Yeah, but think what a pain that is to the person who plays more and is “forced” to wait for his/her “slow” friend. I’ve never tried a mentoring system first hand but it sounds like a much better system.

      • Melf_Himself says:

        I’m surprised nobody’s mentioned the ‘leveling pact’ in CoX. This shares all XP gained between you and a friend, which is great to keep friends together.

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  26. Mike says:

    I don’t understand – you claim the main issue with leveling is the low population, and your method for improving this is to allow people to -not- level?

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