This week on WoW Insider, the Community Blog Topic is, “Is leveling too easy?”
Last week, MMORPG.com ran a guest article written by Mark Kern. Mark Kern is the founder of Red 5 Studios, developer of upcoming sci-fi MMO Firefall. Oh, and Kern was also a lead designer for World of Warcraft until he left Blizzard in 2005. In the article, Kern says that leveling in MMOs is too easy, which is what provoked this week’s community topic.
To ask if leveling is too easy is to presume that the rate at which we level is the problem. It is not. WoW, and thus every other MMO, is poorly structured on a fundamental level.
World of Warcraft was launched on November 7, 2004. Everyone was starting off on equal footing. Everyone was in the starting zones at the same time. They leveled in the Barrens, Hillsbrad, and the Badlands. They leveled from 1 to 60 across two continents. They did all of this together as a community. With a ton of content available, there was a journey to be had with no end in sight.
When the first content patch was released, a large portion of the player base was still in the process of leveling. Getting from 1 to 60 back in the day took a long time, so only the most dedicated players could spend the time required to reach max level in a month. However, those few who had reached level 60 were at the end of the game. They started earning reputation for various factions and putting together sets of armor so that they could plunder a few dungeons. Then they accrued better armor and started delving into more difficult dungeons. Once their friends started getting their armor together, they started raiding dungeons with larger groups and much more difficult bosses.
You have three guesses as to what Blizzard added in the first content patch. I’ll give you a hint and say it was patch 1.2, which was released on December 18, 2004.
It was Maraudon, a 5-player dungeon intended for level 43-49 characters. It was added a bit north of Shadowprey Village on the west coast of Desolace, which was a zone for level 30-40 characters.
Patch 1.3 was released three months later on March 7, 2005. It added the Dire Maul, which was another 5-player dungeon. It was the second post-launch dungeon to be added to the game, as well as the second dungeon to use separate wings like the Scarlet Monastery. The Dire Maul was intended for level 55-60 characters, and it could be found in Feralas, a level 40-50 zone.
Patch 1.3 was also the last time Blizzard would add content for leveling characters. Future patches would only add new raids or dungeons for max level players. Expansions would new starting ones, but those were designed for starting new characters, not helping existing characters.
Blizzard knew what they were doing when they added Maraudon and the Dire Maul. They added content wherever players were progression-wise. Most players hadn’t reached max level yet; Maraudon and the Dire Maul were added to give players a bit of a boost to reach the endgame. Once a substantial number of players had reached level 60 and cleared the dungeons at that level (Molten Core and Onyxia’s Lair) Blizzard started adding more raid content. Patch 1.6 was released on July 12, 2005, and it introduced Blackwing Lair.
Mark Kern left Blizzard in 2005. It’s difficult for me to find an accurate date of when he left, other than the quite nebulous “2005.” Complicating matters is the existence of non-compete clauses. They’re essentially restrictions on where and when an employee can get a job with a competitor after they’ve left a company. When Patrice Désilets—creative director for the Assassin’s Creed series—left Ubisoft in 2010, we learned that he wasn’t allowed to join THQ for one year due to the NCC. The thing about NCCs is that there isn’t a fixed date; how long the clause lasts for depends on the employer, if they choose to include such a clause in their contract.
Regardless, the first public record I can find of Red 5 Studios points to August 19, 2005. It’s very likely that Kern worked on the Dire Maul. If raids took as long to develop back in classic as they do today, then it is possible that he had a hand in creating Blackwing Lair, as well. If true, I have wonder if the suppression devices on the way to Broodlord Lashlayer were his idea. After all, he says that the journey is more important than the destination. Jokes aside, it’s likely that Kern left Blizzard when they were transitioning from adding content for leveling players to focusing exclusively on the endgame.
Blizzard launched the first expansion to World of Warcraft on December 5, 2006. The Burning Crusade increased the level cap to 70 and added two races, each with their own starting zones. These zones featured no new dungeons. At the completion of these zones, new characters would find themselves at level 20. Aside from this starter content, the rest of the expansion focused on the end game. All of the new content was set on a separate planet—Outland—and it was only accessible to level 60+ players. On Outland, players would continue leveling to the new level cap, which was raised to 70.
The second expansion, Wrath of the Lich King, was released October 14, 2008. Wrath brought with it the first new class since WoW launched 4 years earlier, the Death Knight. Death Knights started at level 55 in their own instanced starting zone; The Scarlet Conclave was only accessible to new Death Knights. At level 58, Death Knights were free to explore the rest of Azeroth, and this of course meant revisiting Outland. Like its predecessor, Wrath focused on the end game with the level cap increased to 80. Northrend, the new continent added to the game, was only accessible to players level 68 or higher.
Most players were at the endgame, so Blizzard was extending the endgame by adding more content there. This is the fundamental problem with World of Warcraft and all of the various MMOs that followed it.
Adding content to the end of the game means that all of the new content is at the end of the game. Shocking, I know. This creates a sense of urgency; if you don’t see all of this new content soon, then someone else is going to… see it first, I guess? It’s not something like Game of Thrones where you have to watch the latest episode live or else have everyone on Twitter or Facebook spoil the episode for you before the episode is even over.
This problem is only exacerbated with Mists of Pandaria. If you weren’t on Pandaria before patch 5.3, then you wouldn’t have seen the Vale of Eternal Blossoms as it was at launch. Garrosh ordered the Goblins to ravage the land. Unlike the Horde and Alliance setting up bases and mines throughout Krasarang Wilds, the changes to the Vale aren’t phased. The Vale is only going to get worse in 5.4! Furthermore, 5.3 added new dynamic events in the Northern Barrens. In 5.4, the Battlefield: Barrens events are going to be removed. There is content that is changing and evolving as the expansion progresses, so if you’re not there to see it before and after, then you will only see it after everything has come and gone. This pressures players to rush to the end like never before.
This is why Mark Kern’s statement that leveling is too easy is funny to me. In Firefall the story is going to evolving as players make progress. Will these changes to the story and world be as irreversible as the changes we see on Pandaria? Will it be phased, which is the way Blizzard handled the evolving zones in Cataclysm? If it’s the former, then the journey will be washed out as players rush to do as much as they can before the world changes. Is that really a better scenario than having players level too quickly? It is not. (And if it’s the latter, then I hope they do personalized phasing like Blizzard did for Mists of Pandaria.)
Sony Online Entertainment had a different approach to EverQuest’s expansions. At launch, EverQuest had a level cap of 50. The first expansion, Ruins of Kunark, increased the level cap to 60. It also introduced a new continent, Kunark, and the new player race that dwelled there, the Iksar. This new continent wasn’t devoted to the new 50-60 grind. Instead, most of the continent’s zones were set up so that Iksars could level from 1 to 60 without ever leaving. They could leave, but they didn’t have to. This made Kunark accessible to all players, because everyone could enjoy the new content regardless of their level. Assuming they had the expansion pack, of course. Additionally, EQ’s second expansion, The Scars of Velious, was set on yet another new continent. Unlike Kunark, Velious wasn’t designed for everyone. The weakest monsters were level 25, so it was still more accessible than requiring players be level capped first. The third expansion, Shadows of Luclin, added another player race, thus allowing for players to level from 1 to 70 without leaving the new expansion content.
It doesn’t matter if it’s too easy to level or not. The problem is that Blizzard is only adding new content at max level. When they released The Burning Crusade, my Paladin had to level through the same old Azeroth I already knew once it left the Ghostlands. With Wrath of the Lich King, I had to send my new Death Knight through Hellfire Peninsula like the three alts before it. When Blizzard revamped Azeroth in Cataclysm, it was actually good for the game; Goblins, Worgen, Forsaken Hunters, Night Elf Mages, and more all had a fresh new experience to level through. For Mists of Pandaria, all of the new Pandaren and the all of the new monks had to go through the now-old revamped Azeroth, the old Outland, the old Northrend, and the Cataclysm zones.
With each new expansion (Cataclysm aside), none of the content we see between level 1 and the previous expansion’s level cap is new to us. We’ve done it already. Some of it might be worth doing again. Some of it won’t be. So when you make a new character, you’re going to be taking the same journey as your previous one, who took the same journey as the character before it. The best way to mix things up is to stick to either Kalimdor or Eastern Kingdoms for your first character, then switch to the other for your second. For your third, you’d have to create a character on the opposite faction so that you can see what they have. Sooner than later, that content is going to be stale. Leveling will become almost monotonous.
Of course it’s too easy to level. It has to be, otherwise people would get bored when they make a new character. Since paid class changes are unlikely to ever happen, players will be making new characters for the foreseeable future.
It doesn’t have to be that way, though. The next expansion could add new leveling content. It doesn’t have to span the full 1-90 range like an expansion in EverQuest would. Silverpine Forest welcomes players at level 10 and then sends them on their way to Hillsbrad at level 20. Ten whole levels! Why couldn’t Blizzard add a new zone like that? A new zone for the 58-61 range would be nice, if only because Hellfire Peninsula is the worst zone in the whole of World of Warcraft.
It’s a good thing leveling is so easy, if only because I hate looking at Hellfire Peninsula.