Note: this article was originally posted to EQNexus several years ago. Sadly, that website is no longer with us, so I am reposting my content from back then to The Errant Penman for preservation.
Arguably the backbone of the Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game genre, paradigms for progression have seen a huge shift as the years have progressed. At the genre’s roots, leveling was an important part of progression, and reaching the level cap was an arduous and distant eventuality; Asheron’s Call, which was released in 1999, featured a logarithmic leveling system with a leveling process so lengthy it took the first player to achieve it several years to do so. As the genre progressed, the paradigm moved to leveling becoming increasingly irrelevant, with the progression focus shifting entirely to gear progression through repeatable content at level cap. Leveling in modern MMORPGs is often described as simply an extended tutorial; as the time it takes to level has shortened to only a few days, the description no longer seems hyperbolic. With leveling becoming a superfluous time-sink, aging MMORPGs have sought to combat its drag on players through a variety of techniques, from World of Warcraft‘s heirlooms, which increase experience gained by alternate characters of veteran players, to Everquest II‘s highly controversial selling of heroic characters, essentially pre-leveled characters, on their cash shop. As companies have come to view leveling as a problem that needs to be solved, the future of the genre has began to focus on level-less progression systems.
Leveling has long been a popular feature with RPG players as it is one of simplest and most easily assessable measures of progress available. Being able to recognize progress is undeniably important – after all, how would we be rewarded with that dopamine rush without a level up sound? Levels aren’t simply rewarding as a measure of your own progress though, but also as a measure of comparative achievement. Still, as leveling becomes more and more meaningless to the modern MMORPG paradigm, the value it provides in those roles has been greatly diminished, and unfortunately, level-based systems also come with significant drawbacks.
A barrier to beginning progression
As mentioned earlier, one of the primary drawbacks to a level-based system is that it’s simply irrelevant to the modern MMORPG, and serves as little more than a time-barrier between the player and meaningful gameplay. That’s not to say I have anything against time-barriers, but as the genre’s meta has moved to embrace gear progression almost completely over character progression, the barrier leveling provides is not to progression directly, but to getting to the point to where you will even be able to progress. At this point, leveling does little more than give players with more time a few weeks head start over casuals.
Linearity and the planned obsolescence of content
Perhaps the most important drawback to level-based progression is that with every level gained, what could have been meaningful game content is rendered completely obsolete. The original vision of MMORPGs was that of a virtual world, and while that philosophy has mostly been abandoned in favor of developer-created loot-treadmills, its vision is still one of the best for the genre. Even in those games, developers create expansive, wonderful environments for players to quest through, only to linearly funnel them through its zones, promptly shuffling them off at the sound of the ding to never return – and why should they? There is nothing to be gained by doing so.
The unfortunate effect of this is that level-capped players are corralled into a tiny fraction of the game world, with little to no use for the rest of it. This planned obsolescence of an expansive and beautiful game world is honestly saddening, not to mention a colossally inefficient use of development resources. Why design environments and content that can only be used once, when you could forego levels and utilize it all?
Separation of veterans and newbies
Another drawback introduced by level-based systems is the inability for veteran players to play with their low-leveled friends without rolling an alt or trivializing the content. This separation makes it more difficult for veterans to introduce new friends to the game, which, from a marketing perspective, is a horrible system to have in your game. Industry giant World of Warcraft combated this by giving incredibly potent experience buffs to recruit-a-friend duos, which has only served to further trivialize leveling in the game, amplifying the rate at which content is trivialized.
Everquest: Next and level-less progression
With these considerations in mind, several modern MMORPGs have decided to eschew leveling entirely in favor of level-less progress systems. Everquest: Next is one of these games, and though I have favored it so far, the game will face challenges in implementing level-less progression. From what I have seen, the developers have already built a strong base of game systems in which a level-less game could thrive.
As mentioned in the introduction, it is important that players can enjoy a sense of progress as they play; we do love watching those bars fill up, after all. From what we know so far, Everquest: Next plans to deliver this in a variety of ways.
With at least 40 classes to collect and a limited ability to mix-and-match their abilities, class unlocks and progressing those classes could occur at a rapid enough pace to be viewed similarly to level-ups, only without the direct increases in power. While not as easily measured as a simple level, horizontal progression via the increase in build options and varieties is a tangible form of progression for players to latch onto, and can be especially rewarding if some classes or builds are more difficult than others to unlock.
We are also aware that Everquest: Next will feature tiers of content, but have little to go on as to what exactly will separate the various tiers. Will they be a gauntlet that players must improve their characters or gear to progress through? Will it simply be a con system to indicate the level of tactics employed by the mobs in question? It could even refer to the amount of players needed to tackle the encounter, for all we know. The extent of our current knowledge on tiers comes from an interesting article on Massively:
While trying to get a handle on the new concepts of EverQuest Next, some folks latched onto the term tiers as a substitute for levels. Georgeson, however, explained that the two are not just interchangeable terms for the same idea. Tier doesn’t equate to power level — it means capability. Higher tiers mean that players have a handle on how the game is played, from how to do combat to how to manipulate their skills to make various builds. It also means that they have a more robust selection of skills, giving them more flexibility to deal with situations. Unlocking tiers is a matter of demonstrating you know what’s going on in the game. And moving up tiers is not going to be a laborious process: Georgeson stated, ‘Unlocking them is a matter of days and weeks, not years.’
Regardless of how they are eventually implemented, we can be sure that progression through tiers will be a tangible way for players to measure their own progression.
Everquest: Next also brings with it the unique capability for players to permanently change and progress the world itself through the developer-introduced rallying calls. Could world-progression end up being one of the primary ways in which players recognize progress?
Gear progression is another avenue, but one that brings with it its own slew of problems.
Some attempts at level-less games have quickly become the victim of gear progression, where one sort of leveling is simply exchanged for another (the fear of this being what prompted the response above on tiers). To implement a level-less system that avoids this, the Everquest: Next development team will have to go in an entirely different direction with gear progression – and they are; how does one avoid stat-inflation rendering content obsolete? According to Lead Designer Darrin McPherson in an interview with PC Gamer, by completely changing how attributes work:
The attribute system is completely different in this game. So, instead of all of your equipment giving you attributes, attributes aren’t found on equipment. Attributes are very rare things that you can work tremendously hard to modify.
Giving yourself a point of strength means that maybe you jump higher, or really significantly cool things…and that’s one of the things you can progress and earn in the game.
Implementing meaningful gear progression with this sort of system will be tricky, and I am excited to see what they come up with, but it is good to hear that they will be doing it by making gear beneficial in ways other than raw power increases, and not by undermining the benefits of the level-less system.
With the assurance that, for the most part, content will not be out-leveled or out-geared, the problem of keeping zones relevant is mostly handled, at least in the sense that you’ll always be able to go back to a zone. This begs the question – why would you? There is value in simply allowing players to complete content in a non-linear order, and this does open up world design to be very expansive without having to funnel players through the correct leveling route, but once their quests are complete, what reason will they have to go back if the content stays the same? I’ll admit I set that one up; does the Everquest: Next development team have an answer to the question I intentionally posed to set up their core features as the answer to? Why yes, they do!
In a break from the modern paradigm on reusing a zone (repeatable daily quests), Everquest: Next charts a more ambitious task – to provide the player with a unique experience every time they return to an area, chiefly as a result of three game features:
- The “life of consequence” – simply put, NPCs are planned to react dynamically to you based on your decisions in game. The depth of this system is currently unknown, but the A.I. licensed from Storybricks enables a lot of potential here.
- Dynamic mob spawns – another feature of the A.I. which involves mobs moving around the game world based on the influences of both players and other groups of mobs. Check out the first quote on this page of EQNexus’ Information Index for more details on this.
- Dynamic underground zones – if the first two aren’t enough to keep the game’s environments fresh, the vast underground portion of Everquest: Next‘s world will be procedurally generated, providing players with a different experience every time they venture under the surface.
It’s no exaggeration to say that Everquest: Next‘s entire game world seems to have been created with keeping content relevant in mind.
The move to a level-less progression system can be quite rewarding, but to take complete advantage of it, developers need to create a game built at its very core to function as such, and Everquest: Next appears to be exactly that. I look forward to taking advantage of an entire game world and not just a few high-level portions of one, without progression creating barriers between me and my friends. How about you? Join the conversation on the forums.