Massively reports that Stargate Worlds will increase their level cap every three months as they roll out episodic content. This exact system probably wouldn't fly in a traditional MMORPG, which tend more towards large chunks of new content at once and more stability at a given level cap for longer. Still, this got me thinking; why is it that, even as developers work insane crunch time, cut a variety of features, and generally launch unfinished, modern MMORPG's insist on launching with their final level cap? Here is a not-so brief case study:
World of Warcraft
WoW launched with more solo PVE content than any other MMORPG that had come before it, including enough material to solo to the level cap. At the same time, it's very clear where the polish lies; in the early game, to impress reviewers and new players, and towards the end, where new dungeons were added in the 50+ range, other content was revamped (e.g. Silithus for the level 58+ crowd).
It's not informative to directly compare the content in the 20-58 area to the 58+ content in the expansion; obviously they had a more mature engine with more features, and more experience making interesting quests. However, there's a real drop in quality there, and it is no longer time efficient for Blizzard to go back and address it now that many players are butting their heads against a level 70 cap. Instead of re-doing the content (which, again, would be time that would never be appreciated by players who have all the alts they want), Blizzard has simply helped players bypass it with faster leveling and better loot.
What if the game had launched with a level cap of 40, and an "endgame" of the Scarlet Monastery? One could picture moving the plot from Strath Live to a raid wing, and patching in zones and level cap increases over time. Perhaps you could have an event where the Argent Dawn mounts an offensive at the Bulwark and Chillwind Camp to break through Scourge defenses and open up the Plaguelands. Of course, you'd have to figure out how to deal with players who prefer raiding and PVP (both of which are disrupted by raising the level cap, though PVP was non-existent at WoW's launch and the raid game really wasn't tested much in beta). There's also the issue of crowding into the new zones as they open. On the other hand, there is time to clear each round of instances as they open up, and balance is easier with fewer levels and skills.
Lord of the Rings Online
I've blogged in the past about how LOTRO suffered from not having enough content at launch. Their level 1-15 experience (available in open beta and widely played by pre-order customers, reviewers, and the general public) was as good as any MMORPG out there, including WoW. The content was not quite as good, but functional from there until level 30 or so of their level 50 launch cap. Soloing past level 30 was a nightmare until the first content update, a month and a half after launch, patched in a crucial missing zone. The level 40+ content was so obviously last-minute placeholder junk that they spent the rest of their first year live gutting and replacing the contents of one of the two zones for level 40+ characters, expanding the other by a good 50%, and adding an entire third zone for the 40-50 crowd around the game's 1-year mark. By the time they'd finished the job, many of us had canceled and gone back to WoW.
What if the game had launched with the level 1-30 content? Instead of putting together boring, grindy and uninteresting junk (e.g. killing generic boars in Angmar, home of the Dreaded Witch King), they could have focused on finishing the stuff players were actually going to encounter first. They could easily have sealed off Angmar (with an event to open it later) and the area east of the Ford of Bruien (say that the flood that killed the Nazgul's horses made the area temporarily impassible). The first content patch could have carried the story onto Rivendell, making it highly anticipated. From there they could have expanded north into the Misty Mountains and so on, finally ending up in Angmar (seemingly the logical place for the game's first story arc to end).
Age of Conan
I've never played this game, so I'll limit my comments to the observation that many people claimed that there simply wasn't enough stuff to do past level 30 or so (which was, no coincidence, further than reviewers were likely to play the game before posting their comments).
Well, the devs didn't have more time, and they apparently didn't do much planning with the time they had. The business model (free to play base game, subscribe for perks and new content to be specified at a later date) was not a good idea. Still, could this thing really have been WORSE if they'd launched with some of the current content, perhaps a lower box price, and immediate, documented plans for X money on Y date (instead of the nebulous monthly fee that is charged whether or not anything new is added) gets you the next Act?
This game isn't out yet, and there are limits to how much anyone can say on the topic of its endgame since the few closed beta testers that have seen it are still gagged with an NDA. We can, however, say that the devs decided to cut 4 of the planned 24 classes along with four of the six capitol cities. Ironically, this brings Warhammer closer to following my advice.
Most games have all their classes in place for launch. When there is a need to balance the classes, they have to go in and mess with players' live characters. Adding in multiple classes after the game has gone live means that they can balance the existing classes against the NEW classes. For example, if it turns out that tanks are just too hard to kill, the new classes can feature armor penetration and/or debuffs that reduce healing. That's definitely more fun than taking existing classes and nerfing them, while the actually unfinished classes cry in a corner somewhere because they aren't getting the attention they need.
Obviously, Warhammer can get away with this more easily than, say, WoW would be able to; Warhammer still has a lot of classes, and players will spend the majority of their time fighting other players (who will learn to react to new classes) instead of raid bosses (who would need to be re-programmed and balanced to react to new classes). Still, it's better to launch with the classes that are finished than to launch with more classes that require major fixing.
What does this all mean?
To sum up my little tour of current MMORPG's, it seems that developers are more concerned with the APPEARANCE of the game being finished (look, it's technically possible to reach the level cap!) than with the REALITY of whether the gameplay is ready to go. If the game isn't a total failure, they can white-wash the early levels and hope that they will get to the later stuff before people get there, realize the game just isn't done, and quit.
The thing is, let's say you did set your level cap at 30 out of 50 for launch. Some of your players aren't even going to get to level 30 before you finish the content through to level 40. Sure, it might be temporarily annoying for the rest of the gang to be stuck at a level cap, but would people really prefer to push forward into mediocre content? Personally, if it's a game that I like and am confident that I will continue playing, I will be happy to try out whatever the devs have provided (e.g. rep grinds, PVP, group content, fishing) while camped at the level cap. If I haven't liked the game, in particular the part of the game I played MOST RECENTLY since that's freshest in my mind, I'm just going to cancel.
Now sure, there are some downsides. When you're raising the level cap repeatedly in a non-instanced world, you're going to get a lot of crowding every time a new area opens up. In a game with WoW-style item inflation, you're also going to have to offer cosmetic rewards that stays with a character (e.g. titles for killing a level 40 raid boss with no characters above level 40 in the raid), because gear rewards are going to be diminished in value with each increase to the level cap.
And, finally, there is the PR issue of not making it look like you launched your game half-finished at full price. Perhaps a decreased price for the initial box might help off-set that part, while simultaneously reducing the entry barrier for purchasing an MMORPG account that you can't resell on the local used game market if you hate it. Also, a LOT of the work that goes into making a good game is infrastructure stuff (the game engine, server code, network protocols etc) that is going to have to be done upfront regardless of content; players WILL notice if companies respond to a lowered bar by lowering their own standards even further. The real money in the subscription MMORPG market is in the subscription fee, so releasing a bad product is shooting yourself in the foot.
Bottom line? Whatever you're releasing, make sure it's good.