Friday, June 11, 2010

How Often Should The Level Cap Rise?

Tobold is once again complaining that Blizzard should produce annual WoW expansions instead of taking two years per expansion. I think he's a bit unduly fascinated by the $40 box with the coaster and the card that has a 20-digit alphanumeric key on it. The real question to ask is what benefit players can expect from more frequent expansions. In particular, Tobold assumes that the level cap would raise in each of the annual expansions. Does anyone actually want this?

Who wants a level cap bump?
At the risk of generalizing about a demographic that I'm not a part of, I never get the impression that raiders are super thrilled about a level cap increase. Tobold is arguing that the damage is already done by having mid-expansion gear resets, but we've been seeing those MORE than once a year, and I don't think anyone would raise the level cap that frequently.

Meanwhile, increasing the cap retires content just as surely as gear inflation does. If you're queueing up for a random 5-man dungeon, would you rather have the same list of 12-16 dungeons for two years, or a list of 8-10 that expired every single year? I've done this experiment on my Warrior, who only has access to half of the dungeons due to his level, and I'd vote strongly in favor of the broader list, even if it meant fewer dungeons overall. If you've only got half a dozen dungeons to choose from, you're almost always repeating one that you did just a day or two ago.

Finally, we come to solo content. This is the area where, as a non-raider, I should be the most solidly behind Tobold in support of the annual cap increase. Solo players got a moderate amount of repeatable daily content in patch 3.1 and 3.2, a year ago now, and have not seen anything since. However, like group content, solo content also thrives on variety. If you're pushing to produce annual expansions, whether they are five or ten levels, the trend is going to go towards producing just enough content for characters to make it to the new cap, so that you can declare victory and go work on the next expansion. This will ultimately hurt the quality of the solo experience as well.

Horizontal or diagonal expansion?
If you look at games that actually pull off approximately annual expansions, like EQ2, the trend is strongly in favor of mixing in horizontal expansions along with the vertical ones. This still retires some content - in general, players ran the content from the Kunark era (raised the cap to 80) once to complete quests and spent most of their time in the Shadow Odyssey (horizontal expansion, which kept the cap at 80 and added bunches of new dungeons) due to better loot. You would then want to add some sort of alternate advancement, but WoW already has talent trees and glyphs, and may (or may not) get yet another system in Cataclysm.

The other issue is that a horizontal expansion is generally not going to do so much for solo players. EQ2's TSO added a new leveling zone and some new reps, including a solo daily quest that dropped tokens for dungeon loot, but I didn't bother to do any of it until the next expansion arrived and increased the level cap. There wasn't really any reason for me to do so, as the previous expansion's content was enough to let me reach the level cap, and it's not like I would have been aiming to do something with the dungeon loot if I'd obtained it.

In some ways, Cataclysm may be Blizzard's attempt at a diagonal expansion - not entirely horizontal, but not entirely vertical either. There's less vertical movement, and Blizzard is using the time to polish up existing talent trees (only including five new points allows them to avoid adding a new tier) and holes in existing content experiences. That said, this expansion's longevity may be heavily dependent on players' willingness to re-roll to see how the world has been shaken up. If players tend to stick to blazing through the new stuff on an existing main, this model could also feature the worst of both worlds, leaving players done and ready for the next expansion even sooner than the previous editions.


Tanek said...

Vertical expansion (raising the level cap) is one of my MMO pet peeves. It either causes or contributes to many of the problems I have with the "standard" MMO format.

-Encourages rushing to the mythical endgame and, for people who do that, trivializes the time and effort put into the "leveling" content.

-Creates an ever more daunting wall for a newcomer to the game, especially if they are of the impression that they need to reach the level cap before they can really start the game.

-Related to the above, often brings about "nerfing" lower level content so players can move through the levels more quickly (further supporting the impression this content is not as important as the level cap).

-Increases the barriers to enjoyable PvP. Not always true, I suppose, but look at open world PvP where a high level player can one-shot a dozen low level players. Or even tiered battlegrounds like in WoW where a tier covers 10 levels but you can be considered ineffectual unless you are at the tier cap.

-Stat inflation can get out of hand. Not to pick on WoW, but it is a good, visible example of this. A level 80 character is so far from a level 20 or even 60 that it would classify as a raid boss (and, in some player-run events, has...ok, using it that way can be fun, but still).

I would much rather a game with a static level cap, horizontal expansion,and alternate advancement methods. Gear can be creative and fresh without being overpowered. Content can be appreciated rather than rushed past. I know there are probably many challenges and pitfalls to this method as well (I don't pretend to know what they all are), but I do think that, overall, it would be better for both player and developer through the life of a game.

Borror0 said...

"At the risk of generalizing about a demographic that I'm not a part of, I never get the impression that raiders are super thrilled about a level cap increase."

It's sort of a bittersweet feeling. Most of us are happy to see our character gain levels rather than stay stuck at the same level, gaining new abilities, but on the other in means that leveling an alt to cap takes longer and that we have to acquire a new set of gear again.

Personally, I view vertical expansions as a necessary evil. If all you do from update to update is improve the gear, eventually your last raid will drop gear that would trivialize the earlier quests from that level. So, eventually, they have to increase the cap to keep the game accessible.

Longasc said...

Indeed, vertical progression makes tons of old content obsolete. In WoW all pre-WOTLK raids for instance.

Horizontal progression faces another problem. WoW had the daily heroic and now the dungeon finder to shepherd people together.

So what, diagonal progression? achievement systems and dailies, gear-based progression at nearly the same level cap?

I am tempted to yell screw the system: Let old dungeons do not only get obsolete, let them disappear. Let the whole world changes, factions change, new dungeons and new raids appear while old ones get phased out. And kill the importance of levels and the infamous holy trinity as well.

But so far nobody dared such a design.

You are right, it will be interesting what Blizzard will achieve with Cataclysm. I think the first reaction will be the usual omg wonderful, wonderful fanboy crowd reaction. Let's see how long the new world will last. It really seems to be designed to suck in new players and trying to convince old players to start from scratch again, too. Of course with several 80s alts and their assets in the background... Blizzard did not dare to kill all chars in a true Cataclysm.

I don't know where WoW should go. I don't understand why people who already played it for years still play this game, they should be well aware that they are not going to get served anything new. I guess Cataclysm is more meant to suck in another generation of WoW players.

Hagu said...

There is more than one reset. Look at the EoT patch. Someone who got to 80, did 80 instances to get geared for heroics in order to do Nax in order to do ulduar.

Now your gear you worked so hard for is eclipsed by someone pugging Nexus & UK. All the effort in trying to win after finally getting your T8 to drop and now a dozen LFD and you are guaranteed higher tier?

I would rather level from 80-85 than endure 100 LFD to replace my gear. I see no substansive difference between some more levels and the LFD grind.

Tanek said...

"Now your gear you worked so hard for is eclipsed by someone pugging Nexus & UK."

That is part of the problem. It is related to the skyrocketing levels issue. The goal becomes the gear, not the gameplay or the fun. (Yes, yes, for some the fun *is* being able to wear the higher level gear. I'm not one of them.)

Imagine a game with a relatively low level cap. Once you hit the cap, you have advancement by collecting stats/abilities/whatever that you can use to create your build. Make a similar system for the gear where instead of being forced to replace it every day for the new content, you can gather new "abilities" for your gear. Again, you have to pick and choose from what you have accumulated in order to make a build for your armor.

As I said in an earlier post, I am not a game designer and I don't know the first thing about how to create such a system. I just want some ideas out there that let the players and the developers focus on the content and not the levels or loot. Both may be fun for a while, but how long can it go on?