Dual Wielding: A series featuring two bloggers writing on one topic and answering the question, “If the pen is mightier than the sword, what happens when you dual wield?”
Make sure you don’t miss Kunzay’s take.
The topic of leveling in MMORPGs can be a contentious one. Some players view leveling as the “meat and potatoes” of the game, others as a means to an end (game). Then there are those who view leveling as an irrelevant and outdated feature. I’m inclined to believe it is the first of those choices; I consider leveling to be a definitive feature of the genre. That said, if leveling is so important to the MMO experience, why is it not always an enjoyable one? Which characteristics make the process a pleasure and which make it painful? There are several MMOs with leveling I enjoy, however there is no single game that has designed a leveling process with the perfect blend of pace, variety, and continuity and all three of these aspects are necessary for a quality leveling experience. For this edition of Dual Wielding I’d like to examine each, discuss what benefits they bring to leveling, and offer examples of games that have done them well.
A good leveling experience will allow the story to set the pace, rather than letting it be determined by a bewildering insistence on unnecessary grind. One of my biggest pet peeves while leveling is when an abundance of filler is included simply to drag out the process. Generally speaking most MMOs will have a main storyline told through questing that leads the player from zone to zone and ultimately ties in with the end game content. Additionally, within these games each zone will have a quest line that is distinct but supports the main narrative. Both of these categories of story quests make for enjoyable leveling, especially when they tie together in some way.
However when there are additional filler quests that must be completed in order to gain the level(s) necessary to enter the next zone, I get irritated. There is a point when the story the developers want to tell is segmented so badly by the mechanic of grindy leveling that I am no longer able to enjoy the unfolding of the story. Half the time I can’t even remember what was happening in the main quest line before I had to kill ten rats for “nameless peasant #17”. Imagine having a parent or spouse call you every fifteen minutes to run an errand while you are in a theater watching a film; that’s pretty much the same effect filler quests have on MMO storylines.
There aren’t many titles that pace the leveling with the storytelling well, most are too concerned with slowing the players down for fear that they will “finish the game” too quickly and move on to another MMO. Final Fantasy XIV is perhaps the best game I can think of that illustrates good pacing. While there are a few one-off storylines at every quest hub, they add character to the zones and are not so numerous that you lose sight of the main narrative. I especially like how the game ties dungeons in with the story so that for once I know why I’m entering the instanced scenarios. Because the pacing in FFXIV is done so well I am able to follow the storyline and understand the motivation my character has for traversing the world.
Variety is not only the spice of life, but of leveling as well. In addition to narrative driven questing, leveling should include dungeons, battlegrounds, crafting, gathering materials, exploration, and any other creative feature developers can imagine. Questing on its own grows dull very quickly. A good leveling system will provide the player with opportunities for other types of gameplay and reward experience points for participating in those features. In addition to alternative forms of gameplay while leveling, MMOs should also provide multiple paths for leveling as well. This can be accomplished by having several zones with the same level range or by allowing characters to scale down in level to match the zone they are in. Having variety in leveling allows players to gravitate toward those activities that best suit them as well as granting them options when leveling a second or third character in the same game. Options even while leveling allow me to change up my gameplay based on mood or inclination while still allowing me to make progress on the character I’m playing.
Guild Wars 2 is one of the best examples of providing variety for leveling. It is one of the few MMOs that grants experience for nearly everything you do in the game and it also allows you to scale down so that you can continue to progress while you finish a zone, even if you out-level it considerably. Gathering and crafting even provide enough experience for leveling; with my first level 80 character I completed the last three levels solely through crafting. There are also vistas and points of interest to visit, dungeons to run, and realm vs. realm PvP to participate in, all of which contribute toward gaining experience. Nearly everything you do will help progress your character’s experience and all are viable options to choose from.
Nothing mars the leveling experience like discovering once you’ve attained max level that everything you have done prior has no bearing on the end game. In fact, the reason why some players see leveling as a means to an end or why they would rather it be abolished all together is because of this issue. If greater continuity existed between the leveling experience and end game, there would be no reason to rush. Continuity between leveling and end game would also “flatten” the experience while also allowing for the sense of progress and achievement that levels provide. Rather than creating one experience while leveling then tacking on a completely different one at max level, MMO developers should first determine what it is they would like players to be doing in their game and then find ways to incorporate those goals from the very beginning of the leveling process. With a cohesive gameplay model the process of leveling can be enjoyed because the game elements you want to play are those you are already playing rather than on the other side of a goal line.
Few MMOs manage to pull this off, however Marvel Heroes does it quite well. Once you reach level thirty or so you have more or less completed the main storyline, despite having thirty more levels before end cap. At this point you can play through the story again at a higher difficulty level, complete legendary quests, mindlessly destroy aliens and androids in midtown, level your vendors, and obtain better gear through nearly all of these options. Once you reach level 60, you will more or less continue to do the same. While the options are somewhat limited compared to traditional MMOs, they are closely related to your leveling experience. I actually think having the traditional questing storyline end prior to reaching max level helps alleviate the sense of a dramatic change in play style once you reach max level. You essentially enter the full end game about half way through the leveling process and nothing dramatic changes once you reach level 60. And the end game options that are available are so similar to the gameplay from the first thirty levels that it isn’t a jarring transition. In Marvel Heroes there’s no surprise or shift in what you’ll be doing when you log in as a max level character, it’s exactly the kind of gameplay you’ve been enjoying all along.
I don’t want to see MMOs remove leveling all together, but I would like for game designers to smooth out the process and make it fun. Leveling is not a “necessary evil”, it is a vital way we interact with our virtual worlds, challenging us to branch out and explore and rewarding us with a sense of progress. With the right pacing, a network of options, and a seamless flow into end game, leveling will be something to savor and enjoy. As for the “real game” that so many players allude to? It can start where it always should have: at level 1.