Today’s post is inspired by these recent posts from my friends Lonomonkey and Tamrielo about the concept of levels and feeling “left behind” in MMOs. I need to start by saying that I have a bit of an obsessive personality. When I start playing a new game, especially if I enjoy it, I tend to spend most of my free time playing and trying to progress. This can take a couple of forms. If the game is new or if few of my friends are playing, I will tend to do all of the possible quests and leveling activities, devouring all of the content on offer and trying to experience as much of the world as possible. When WildStar launched, I had purposefully avoided leveling much in the beta so that I could take this course and spend all my time enjoying the new sights, quests and lore. The other form of my obsession kicks in when I am starting out “behind,” either on a new server or in a new-to-me game where my friends are already established. In this case, I will level like a speed demon, ignoring anything extraneous to my goal of “catching up” with my friends. I did this when I started playing FFXIV, speeding through cutscenes and missing out on a huge amount of lore and side quests.
It seems like a level-free MMO where I could just jump in and start playing with my friends right away in that second scenario should be amazing, right? Well…I’m not so sure. The first issue I have is that even without levels, I’d hope that there would still be some form of progression, either through stats, skills, or gear. That means that even if you could technically play with your friends right away, you would still be behind them on that progression. The natural end state of this is getting carried through content until you catch up, which pretty much sounds like the same thing that can happen while leveling too. Let me tell you, dear readers, I would rather feel like I was behind and missing out on doing cool things with my friends than to be carried through content in a blur, feeling useless.
One great thing about most modern MMOs is that they’ve added rallying or level-syncing systems. I don’t have to level alone just because my friends have gotten ahead of me, and importantly, since we’re synced to the same level I will never feel like I’m just being carried. Sure, usually the higher-level character still has a power advantage, but if the system is good the low-level player still feels like they are pulling their own weight. The very best of these systems also give rewards that are useful to both the high and low level players for playing together this way.
The other issue I have is that the time I spend catching up is also time spent learning to play the game better. When FFXIV launched its recent expansion, I was a bit slow out of the gate. A couple friends got far ahead of me and I admit I got frustrated and cranky at being behind. It motivated me to start leveling faster to catch up. For me, this meant healing lots of dungeons. In the end, this was the best possible thing for me, since all that practice made a big difference as I was re-learning how to play my class with all the changes from the expansion. If I had just been able to jump in with my friends, I would have been a far crappier healer and they would have paid the price for it.
I know I’m a bit unusual in my speed leveling ways, but I am happy to keep enjoying leveling in MMOs. I would not avoid the leveling process if I could. It lets you make steady progress, learn your class, and is way clearer to a new player than most skill point or gear-based progression. Plus you get rewarded with fun level-up animations and that sweet sweet “DING!”