Player vs. Everything: Frustrated by levels

I was reading through my usual round-up of blogs and news items this morning when I found an interesting post by Van Hemlock on the topic of levels in MMORPGs. More specifically, it was about how levels in games keep players from playing with each other. He discusses how ever since he started gaming in 1999, being a different level than the people he wants to play with has kept him from playing with them. Whether you're too high for the content to be challenging or too low to be effective, playing with your friends at different levels just never seems to work very well.

Van Hemlock makes an excellent point, and it's a problem in almost every single MMOG out there with two notable exceptions: EverQuest 2 and City of Heroes/Villains. Both of these games recognize the problem and attempt to circumvent it, but they do it in very different ways. In City of Heroes, you can move either up or down in level so that you can see high level content at low levels or go back and do low level content as a high level player and still advance. In EverQuest 2, it's strictly one-way. You can bring yourself down to your friend's level and adventure with them for alternate advancement experience. Is this really as big of a problem as people make it out to be, and if it is, why don't more games have systems like these?

I definitely think it's a problem, because it's something I've been butting my head against for a long time too. I usually play MMOGs with my brother and with my friends. My brother will almost always get into a game faster and play more than I will, so he's always higher level than me, and in the past, I've usually played far more than my friends and had the same problem in reverse (although that's leveled out a lot as I've gotten older). The point is that we have a group of friends, all interested in the same game, all playing at the same time, but everyone is playing separately -- they're either soloing or grouping with random people around their level.

Now, I'm all for meeting new people, and online games are a great way to do that. But I often just want to play with my friends, too. I don't always want to have to be grouping with strangers. It seems ridiculous to have a group of friends all doing the same activity at the same time but doing it by themselves! Especially in games that we consider innately social. You wouldn't go to a LAN party and all play single-player versions of your game, and you wouldn't show up to D&D night expecting to have five or six distinct adventures (a separate one for each player). The whole point of gaming, in many cases, is having a fun, social activity with your friends!

In the past few years, World of Warcraft has shown everyone how important it is to give players options for solo content when they don't feel like playing with other people, but it missed the important flip side of that -- it's also important for players to be able to play with their friends, when they want to. Moving to a new server where you have friends or getting a new friend to play the game can be really challenging unless you're willing to start a new character with them and level at their pace (which is a challenge by itself). When people find out that they don't actually get to play with you until they've put in hundreds of hours of solo play to get to max level, the game can lose a lot of its appeal.

So why don't more games go the same route that City of Heroes does and let players move effortlessly up and down in level to meet their friends? Well, it's not quite that simple. One of the things about City of Heroes that makes it work so well is that the game is far more about beating up bad guys with your friends than it is about getting cool items. As long as players are putting in time, they can be advancing and it doesn't unbalance anything.

Games like EverQuest 2 and World of Warcraft are much more focused on obtaining items that make your character more powerful. If you have a way to move your character up in level, you're able to obtain items much more easily than you normally could by beating trivial content that wouldn't normally be trivial for you. When you go back to your proper level, you have items that are too powerful for you. Granted, you can already get items that are too powerful for you in many games and having minimum level requirements on them helps it, but if it was that easy to get them, nobody would obtain them through the normal, intended means.

The presence of quests also presents a challenge for developers who want to put a system like this in their game. Since quests are normally completed and then "turned in," it would be trivially easy to have a friend bring you up to their level and then run around completing all the quests, which you could then turn in later to power-level yourself. Of course, there are ways to design around these two limitations, but it requires you to think of them and then figure out how you're going to code them in. You never know when a solution you've figured out might spawn more problems, either.

It's probably for these two reasons (or similar reasons) that EverQuest 2 only lets you go down in level to meet your friends, and doesn't let you go up to meet them. The same reasons are also the strongest arguments for why Blizzard's leveling code snippets that were recently discovered might not be a system similar to the CoH system, as we discussed in the fourth Massively Speaking podcast. While it would be cool to jump around in level and play with your friends whenever you wanted, it doesn't seem like there's a really good solution in our current gear-focused, level-driven progression game model. Still, it's a real problem, and those solutions are a step in the right direction, even if they don't fit every game model.

I hope that we start seeing solutions in this area sooner rather than later. I'm starting to get pretty tired of telling my friends that I'd love to have them come play a game with me -- as soon as we all get to maximum level.

Until then, we're still just playing by ourselves.


Cameron Sorden Cameron Sorden is an avid gamer, blogger, and writer who has been playing a wide variety of online games since the late '90s. Several times per week in Player vs. Everything, he tackles all things MMO-related. If you'd like to reach Cameron with comments or questions, you can e-mail him at cameron.sorden AT weblogsinc.com.
This article was originally published on Massively.