The Shift from Leveling Skills to Leveling Characters in MMOs

One of the biggest and most impactful changes to MMORPG design over the last decade is one that’s gotten remarkably little attention: the shift from skill based character progression to character level based progression. This was a shift that brought with it not just significant changes to the way characters are progressed and designed, but a mandate on the types of content that an MMO’s virtual world would offer going forward. As its grip on MMO design coalesced over time, I would argue that this mandate has largely resulted in consequences that did more harm than good.

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Taking Progression to the Next Level

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.

Adapting Level Based Progression to TES

The Elder Scrolls Online walks a delicate tightrope, trying to meld traditional features of the single player franchise with the staples of the themepark MMORPG genre in a way that will draw in fans of both game types and leave everyone satisfied. This is no easy task, and I can’t help but feel that in the end, some people on both sides will have to be marginalized – the key is to not do it unnecessarily. Normally I focus more on the MMORPG elements that I feel ESO needs to implement, but in this case, I’d like to talk about the preservation of the rich exploration and the freedom of the player to do the quests they want to do, when they want to do them, and how that central pillar of the single player games is being needlessly compromised to fit the game into the MMO mold.