No need for level cap increases

Guild Leader FerrelDoes raising the level cap of an MMO add value to the game? That appears to be a simple question and I’ve heard a lot of players and developers say yes. I’ve even had some tell me that you have to do this. I contend that no, you do not. Raising the level cap is merely a throw back to a time gone by and is largely vestigial these days.

When an MMO raises its level cap I see it as an attempt to do one of two things. The first is to increase the length of time a player will take to consume a new expansion. The second is to allow head room for developers and create what is believed to be a clear progression. Neither are very good arguments for an increase of the cap these days.

Using a level cap to increase consumption time is almost a fallacy these days. Developers are so afraid of “the grind” that additional levels rarely add more than one month to a casual player’s time. Hardcore players will usually cap out in one to three days and those in between can do it in a week. Value may be added by this but I believe it does not outweigh the detriments that are associated with the increase.

On the other hand new levels do add clear progression and allow developers certain leeway to do other things. New spells can be added, gear can be inflated, and monster difficulty can be raised. There is no denying this. That doesn’t make this a necessity, however. You can do all of these things with alternate forms of advancement and gear. Why are new levels required?

I see raising the level cap as a negative method of progressing an MMO because it hits a few key areas. The biggest in my mind is the negative impact on prospective players. When I want to play an established MMO I look at the level range. Since I have no frame of reference as to how hard levels are I look at the max level. The higher this value is the less likely I am to play a title. I simply feel like it would take too long to get “caught up.” There is a good probability that I’m not the only player with this mindset. Does a game with a huge max level turn you off?

Additional levels also stratify the player base and create a level disparity. Slower players are separated from their friends and are forced to solo or group with those in their own bracket. Their friends are equally frustrated as they are forced to sit and wait on the others or find new people to play with. This can cause a lot of tension in a guild and has been the doom of more than one. This comes about because levels are highly visible while talent tree points and AAs are not. This is an issue of “hard” advancement against “soft.” Players will frequently excuse the later but rarely the former. Content is frequently the same way.

A level cap increase dramatically reduces valid and usable content for players at the max level. As encounters become trivial because players are over leveled the amount of options shrinks. While new gear and alternative forms of leveling may have a similar effect nothing is as detrimental to content in an MMO as levels. How an encounter “considers” is still a huge issue. By increasing a level disparity encounters just can’t keep up and are trivialized faster than they might otherwise be.

This leaves me to ask why bother increasing the level cap of a game? Every time this is done developers seem to cut the levels in between and make them easier. In the top MMOs players don’t even receive new spells. They just find themselves with an upgraded version of one they already had. Most importantly is that there is nothing a level cap increase does in the positive that can’t be done through talent trees, AA points, or gear. So why do it? Why raise the cap ten levels at a time? EverQuest had great success with five. I’m thinking one to two is most appropriate. The more horizontal a game is the better in my eyes but I’d love to see the counter point!

22 thoughts on “No need for level cap increases

  1. I still think Guild Wars got this right. Quick advancement to a low level cap, then everything after that is new content, new professions, new spells/skills, new items, etc. All horizontal.

  2. I think this is a tough balancing act and some MMOs have leaned one way or the other. It also is something that will probably vary amongst the player base as some really do enjoy leveling. I personally like the combination of the 2 as there’s just something satisfying about dinging another level that’s somewhat hollow when you’re not making your character stronger or cooler in some way.

    I agree with many of your points in that there are lots of other advancement paths available and having more options is always better for the longevity of a game.

    One of the worst mistakes I think MMOs can make is just raising the cap without adding anything else – I’ve been critical of LOTRO’s Mirkwood expansion for this exact thing. They are making free content updates to address this, but they did initially make a bit of a mistake in my opinion.

    1. One of the worst mistakes I think MMOs can make is just raising the cap without adding anything else

      That is really what I’m trying to get at with this. Level caps seem to go up “just because” and there isn’t a reason for it. I might be slightly cynical but when I get ten new levels and I get Sinister Strike 37 I really ask myself, “Why? Was 36 not good enough? Couldn’t you just add 10 more to it?” Basically, I think for me new levels should mean NEW levels. Not rehashed old levels for the sake of levels.

      1. Gotcha, I took it a bit differently but certainly agree with many of your comments on horizontal progression. I’m not as anti-vertical but agree there are some dangerous pit-falls in that style.

        Hopefully when you do find a good horizontal progressing MMO you’ll share it with the rest of us 😉 I just think the “casual” gamers value seeing that level bar grow and as such MMOs will not be willing to jeopardize that cash-flow.

        I guess my point boils down to it appears a vertical progression equals more money and until someone disproves that things won’t change.

  3. I think you’re over-estimating player tolerance for differences in “soft progression” at the level cap – see WoW gearscores and EQ2 PUGs demanding players with their Mythical weapon for heroic content. The structural problem with horizontal progression is that the newly dinged character can’t get invites to current tier content due to lack of gear, and can’t get groups for previous tier content where they could get that gear because no one wants to do it (and especially not for undergeared strangers).

    As nearly as I can tell, the primary goal of raising the cap by an entire tier at a time is that players will accept “level 89 quest reward = level 80 entry level raid gear” in a way that they won’t accept “/claim reward for new expansion level 80 entry level raid gear” in an expansion that does not raise the cap.

    I suppose the secondary benefit is that, if your “horizontal/soft” progression is increasing player power – as AA’s, talents, and gear all do – the character’s level eventually ceases to be an effective measure of their power. My Dirge dinged 80 with 130ish AA’s – if the current expansion had raised the AA cap but skipped the level cap, it would have been possible to double that number. Over in WoW, it seems like you can nearly double your freshly-capped DPS through gear upgrades alone each expansion. Is it really useful to have that much of a power spread among characters with the same nominal level?

    1. Is it really useful to have that much of a power spread among characters with the same nominal level?

      Honestly, I’d say yes simply on the grounds that it works both ways. Is it really useful to have power spread by ten more levels every expansion simply because that is a common practice? At least with the same level or a small increase players can still effectively group together. Gear will certainly distinguish folks as you’ve suggested but the norm is not “no mythical no group” in EQ2. You see a lot of that in channels but tons of groups happen without mythicaled players. I know the problem is worse in WoW but that is also because they gear-flate to a degree that I just can’t understand. In that situation though, if you’re already doubling power at max level through gear, why did you need the levels to begin with? It is clear where progression is.

      I phrase my post in this way to really make people think. Do I honestly believe that an MMO should -never- raise the level cap? Absolutely not. I’m just saying two key things here.
      1. If you’re going to raise the level cap don’t raise it a ton. That isn’t necessary. I’d love to see someone try using “two” as the standard and making those levels count. You could also avoid the “gutting” of intermediate levels if you only raise two per expansion. Each level would feel meaningful and important.
      2. If you’re going to raise that cap make sure it matters. If you truly need to raise the level cap don’t copy and paste spells. Don’t basically reuse the last x amount levels. Make sure players will benefit in some way. From what I’ve seen in the last few years in the biggest MMOs these raises are not useful. They’re merely replication based on expectation.

      1. Further thoughts on trivializing content are up at my blog – I’m guessing that you will disagree with them.

        As to increasing the cap by two “meaningful” levels, why increase it at all? New spells and balance tweaks can be added without touching the cap. I don’t know my EQ2 hit mechanics, but WoW makes +3 mobs substantially harder to kill, while +4 mobs aren’t intended to be tanked, so adding even a SINGLE level breaks hit calculations and trivializes most of the old content.

  4. The ever-rising level cap and neverending progression is a killer for the quality of gameplay in most MMOs, especially those following EverQuest’s example. Levelling is probably the best part of the game.

    But neverending progression is not going to happen, and so far not even Blizzard managed to keep up. Horizontal progression vs vertical level progression became the new buzzword.

    About as old as the level based system itself are the cries to abolish levels. Though the horizontal progression idea often turns into some kind of vertical progression in the end – not even Guild Wars was safe from this. The latest expansion offered optional but very noticeable improvements to char abilities and strength through progress in the “rank” of various factions, which is not so much different from levelling vertically, just disguised and unfortunately quite grindy.

    Interestingly, there were rumors and official statements that Guild Wars 2 might have infinite levels but a very flat power curve – to appease those who love progression and still prevent huge power disparities between players and mobs. I hope they dumped this idea, it just looks like neverending grind for ever smaller to non-existant gain, which might even see pointless to progression uber alles fanatics.

    GW also ran into problems of adding two new classes every expansion. This totally shaked up pvp balance and pve balance/gameplay all the time. They also felt the need to add new skills all the time, and a fixed amount for each class. So that nobody felt disadvantaged or favored. But unfortunately some skills were so crappy that they apparently only got added because every class should get roughly the same amount of new skills.

    How to do it right? I still think, despite all the problems, Guild Wars had the best solution so far.

  5. I love level-based systems but I can’t deny that matured (older) MMO’s have a serious problem with accessibility for new players or even returning players. The sad truth is that even though a level 80 with 200AA is unbelievably better than a level 80 with 100AA, most people can’t see that difference without the use of parsers, etc.

  6. An interesting perspective. I felt that one of the few reasons why LotRO raised the level cap in Siege of Mirkwood was because they were asking money for the “mini-expansion”. There was only one ability added per class, and it was not terribly useful for most classes (Hunters only got a ‘port to the new zone, basically). Five more levels does make it easier to tackle the previous raiding content, though. But, I suspect that better equipment and higher stat cap help just as much if not more.

    1. I think that was part of it, but I also think they wanted to re-balance the radiance sets and legendary items. They wanted everyone to ditch their “too-good” Moria sets and their 1st ages (and 2nds for that matter) such that they could re-work both systems.

  7. Counterpoint is that leveling is actually the easiest part of the game to overcome a disparity. FFXI’s level cap was 75 for years, but the problem shifted to getting all the gear you need from endgame raids and instances, which made it even harder. It’s a lot easier to level to cap than it is to find a decent raid guild and overcome a random number generator.

  8. Progression in any MMO seems to be a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation. I played Anarchy Online with a friend when it was released, but haven’t played after the first month. He recently tried it again and, while level 5, saw a level 220 come floating past . . . and just logged out. I can understand his reticence to want to grind out that many levels.

    On the other hand, on the occasion I log into EQ1 (I’ve an all access subscription, but haven’t really played EQ1 at all since EQ2 was released) with either one of my two level 77 characters (the max level I got before stopping) I look at the DAUNTING amount of AAs I would have to get (not to mention getting my two characters to the level cap) to be even considered to be effective in a group, AS WELL AS trying to figure out the pages of AAs and what they are and what to get . . . and I just log out. I can’t bring myself to want to grind out the last few levels AND all those AAs.

    And then there was an old text-based MUD I used to play, DragonRealms. Although they DID have levels . . . they really didn’t mean anything. EVERYthing in that game was skill based. And EVERY skill had to be trained individually (though often concurrently) if you wanted to improve your character. The combination of skills would determine your level . . . and all levelling really gave you were Time Development Points (TDPs) allowing you to increase base stats. So, really, they didn’t have levels, just “skill ups”. Of course, seeing content where you had to have 250 skill in this, 300 in that, 450 in another (and skill ups happened VERY slowly . . . it took me 2+ years before I broke 200 in my first skill ) I stopped playing that game as well.

    All you can really ask of any MMO is that, whatever they do to allow players to improve their characters with the release of new expansions, they make the journey, from character creation to end game, fun and exciting. I do like that EQ2 allows for, not only mentoring of lower level characters so you can group together with your friends (and help them catch up by offering bonus experience by doing so) but it allows for “self mentoring” – lowering your effective level on a whim to go back and have fun with older content you thought was fun, or that you missed entirely.

    But I DO worry that, now that the level cap is 90 with the release of The Sentinel’s Fate expansion, that somewhere there’s a new player, all excited about playing EQ2 for the first time . . . only to see me come floating by on a carpet 80+ levels higher . . . and they just log out and stop playing. Without the influx of new people into older games, they may last a while (people are STILL playing DragonRealms 15+ years later) but they can’t last forever. What IS the answer? If I had that, I’d be producing my own MMO . . .

  9. I think the same thing. I don’t understand the addition of levels. It makes more content obsolete than it does adding.

    Many new players never get to see the old content. You can’t even talk your own guild into doing it for nostalgic value.

    Just imagine if all content was the same level at the end game how much you would have to do in World of Warcraft.

    The only logic I see with increasing the level cap is to level the playing field. It lets new players to the game be equal to someone who has played the game for years. A level 100 noob, and a level 100 veteran both hit the level the same day they are basically the same. Both have the opportunities to upgrade their gear.

  10. I agree. I was a long, long time player with EQ and the reason I honestly left it was that, after a few breaks, I had fallen way, way behind. After 68 levels of grinding, I just didn’t have the willingness to grind out another 7-12 others. I knew that it wasn’t a terribly long time to catch up level wise, but it was all that time I’d rather be doing something else. It became a huge chore and just *wasn’t fun.*

    I, too, agree with others that Guild Wars had it right. Low and easy level cap, then make the game expand horizontally. Playing longer gave you a whole lot more depth to your character, but even if you were new, you could still play with someone who was old. Your skills and spells would be more narrow, but still plenty effective. I’ve heard it’s similar in EVE — while it takes forever to max out all sorts of different skills, you can max out a tree of skills and become exceptionally effective in that area in quick time, thus able to play with your friends who had been playing for years. SWG had it right, too, at least in the olden days — new and older players could play together fairly easily, because it wasn’t that time consuming to max out a skill.

    There are other ways to move a game horizontally, aside from powers and spells. Add other elements into games — tradeskills, abilities, etc. that are meaningful and focused on new content. There’s a whole entire host of things you could do in that regard, which would be fun for players, add something tangible to the game and have nothing to do with levels.

  11. In many cases, the problem is purely a psychological one. Charn summed it up quite well.

    It is human nature to want to “be better” than the “other guy” and “better” is measured by some sort of differentiator. A virtual world is no different than the real world in this. In fact, the virtual world can often be more brutal because a good number of folks channel any real world frustrations they might have into this alternate life.

    Most folks, deep down inside, want to be “at the top” and don’t really want too many other folks there. Of course in an MMO, this is pretty futile and bound to lead to frustration. I have many friends who have quit many MMOs right after a level cap increase. I press them and they cannot offer a rational explanation. They are clearly angry and bitter, and point to “the grind” and “never being able to be keep up”, etc, but in the end, I believe it is that, for them, the only driver to begin with was being “king of the hill”. Faced with having to climb again, they just can’t do it.

    For a lot of people, MMOs are about rocketing to “max lvl” as soon as possible, and then standing around in an auction house and complaining on forums. A level cap bump is traumatic because it forces them back into action “unnecessarily”.

    Personally, I have learned to just enjoy being in these worlds and doing what content I can. I have lvl 80 characters in EQ1, EQ2 and WoW and some low level chars in LoTR, RoM, STO, CoH/CoV, DDO and a few others. EQ2 just increased the cap and, to be honest, I really don’t care. I am excited to explore the new content. I’ll hit 90 when and if I hit it. If I am “locked out” of the ultimate end-game encounters because I am “under AA’d” or “undergeared” I really don’t care either. I don’t invest so heavily in any one game that it matters anymore. There are other things to do besides gaming and other games to play as well.

    The point where MMOs become such stress, seem like a “grind”, feel like “work”, where level cap increased cause “angst” and “keeping up with the joneses” starts to inspire rants and flames… These are all signs that its time to reduce your emotional investment in the game.

    Any game whose goal is to present a living world that offers something to players new and old over a period measured in *years* is going to have some sort of progression and, as a result, will never be able to avoid these problems. I have heard some suggest that MMOs should have some “quick” ramp to max level and then the game would “begin”. I would submit that this would fail miserably as well. It would simply be an X month delay on the game becoming a persisten world FPS.

    In an RPG you trade time for improvements to your character. Whether these improvements are highly obfuscated (as they are in EVE) or very clearly defined (as in the EQ model), they are still clearly there or you would have no character development. Every system in which time is traded for progression is going to have to manage a development curve that is going to have to slowly creep forward as the game ages and, hopefully, keep as many players as possible in the “active” portion.

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