In Part I, game journalist Petter Mårtensson points out the relation between level caps and dominant business models in MMO's as they contribute to lengthen gameplay artificially. In Part II, he looks at the problems that are inherent in the leveling methods applied in MMO design and what changes we might expect in the future.
Despite being functional, the leveling system has a few problems built-in. While effectively being a gate that the player needs to pass before being able to fully explore the game, a gate that needs to be braved every time a new character is created, it's often completely arbitrary. In most games, the monsters that must be defeated for the player to get experience points scales according to the level the character is. While the character often gains access to a wider variety of abilities as levels are gained, the actual process of killing a level 50 monster is usually the same as killing a monster at level 1. The feeling of being powerful is created only by the fact that the monster you are killing now was impossible to beat 10 levels earlier.
It also has the possibility to gate players from their friends who join the game at a later stage, or gate them from a community that mostly sit at level cap already. While effective early on, the system can become a burden when the experienced players still manage to tear through top-level content and have to turn to lower level characters for things to do - and often complain about having to go through the process all over again. We, as players, are so used to leveling now that we can do it with our eyes closed and our hands tied behind our backs. We all know that the "true" game, as envisioned by developers, can usually be find after the leveling road has been tread again. We will complain about it when we have to go through it again, even if your game is completely new and it's our first character.
You then have a choice. Speed up the process, something that is often done these days as games grow older, or slow it down. Speeding it up means more people at level cap, meaning more people will tear through the end-game content faster. Slowing it down will attract the anger of the community, as a slow leveling curve is seen as nothing except a tiring grind (mostly because, 9/10 times that's exactly what it is) to keep people from leveling up too fast. And as the game grows older, the leveling-content needs to be kept as fresh as the end-game, consuming more developer resources in the process.
World of Warcraft is often hailed as the game which made the MMO genre much more accessible to a bigger market than the games that had gone before it. Now it struggles with its own legacy, forcing Blizzard to more or less "reset" their old content in the upcoming Cataclysm-expansion. A similar fate awaits the world of Norrath in EverQuest 2. While new MMOs, from Champions Online to Fallen Earth, still cling to the tested and tried levels, there's a risk that more and more players will find themselves bored with having to jump through the same hoops over and over again. Aion, NCsoft's latest MMO, found itself under attack for forcing people into a slow experience point grind, showing that an increasing number of players is starting to see through the level illusion.
It's a tricky situation. The levels are a part of our collective MMO psyche, players and developers alike. A brief look at the rookie channel in EVE Online, a game that does not use levels, will show many new players wondering how to see what level their characters are. It's a tradition that we've locked ourselves into and taking a step back and looking at it from a wider perspective - one spanning several games, not only the game we're currently playing or working on - can turn up a myriad of problems with it. The MMOs of the future will have to deal with it, in one way or another.
Now you have to excuse me, I have to go level my rune keeper in Lord of the Rings Online...
Petter Mårtensson is a games journalist from Sweden, specializing in (or obsessing over, depending on who you ask) massively multiplayer online games. Most of his journalistic work is published in Swedish, but his personal blog - Don't Fear the Mutant - is written in English.