Does 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!