Free for All: The other side of MMO leveling

Free Realms screenshot
As I pointed out in last week's column, I am more fond of spending money to obtain a high-level character than I am grinding out levels to gain one. As usual, I put out my opinion without considering how many people might take it the wrong way. To set the record straight and to give some evidence to the pro-leveling side of the argument, I would like to list off some of the reasons leveling is important. (Also in my opinion, of course.)

While I did refer to leveling as drudgery, my opinion does not automatically set some universal definition. What can be drudgery to me can be bliss to someone else, and so -- because it is gaming -- the impact of leveling can be felt differently by different people. It's not science; it's opinion.

Besides, it's not all drudgery anyway.

Rise of Mythos screenshot
The idea that the flaw in the MMO genre involves grinding out levels is a common opinion -- just peek into Massively's comment threads on a given day. Unfortunately, many gamers see achievement as more important than an attempt at something new. Many of the same gamers who took issue with my stance on the purchase of power were, seemingly, taking the stance that all of that leveling and repeated content was a better choice than skipping it. Of course, just because someone is against the ability to purchase a high-level character doesn't mean that the same person is pro-grinding, but I tend to get the same comments any time I argue against the achievement machine.

So why is achievement, leveling, or grinding so important the community? There is meat to the argument that says a virtual accomplishment like hitting max level has in-game and real-life value. For many players, in-game accomplishments bring on a feeling of pride. I have felt the feeling before, and moreover, I do not think it is silly or juvenile, even if it's not something I feel as often as I used to.

For example, in recent years, I have discovered the joy of assembling Gundam model kits. I can't tell you why. I have never once watched a Gundam animated movie, but assembling a kit is just so relaxing and brings me back to when I was a teenager. In one of my favorite kit review videos, the narrator talks about the feeling of accomplishment, one "no one can take from you," that you get when you assemble the perfect grade kit. He has such an obvious love for this accomplishment that I was truly inspired to keep building the kits.

I feel the same way about achievements in-game. I love when someone is truly proud of a killer sword or after taking down a boss, even if I know that I could never play for the 12 hours required or keep my attention on one boss, defeat after defeat. I've known raiders personally (I lived with one for a while) and truly enjoy watching these players play. There is a true camaraderie that comes from doing anything together, even more so when that something is as intense as raiding.

RuneScape screenshot
Leveling is really the basis for almost everything we do in MMOs. Almost every MMO I have played over the last 13 years, including sandboxes with "no" levels and "horizontal" character development, were based on raising stats or figures. Find me an MMO with things to do in it, and I'll show you a game with things to get better at, meaning that "leveling" is just a different way to say "becoming better at." So even if it seems as though I hate leveling, I obviously don't, else I wouldn't have been taking part in it for all of these years.

My main beef is when the level gap forces players apart. The gap serves to give newer or lower-level players something to overcome. That feeling of overcoming those levels is responsible for many millions of players logging in for years and years, and those players who logged in are the ones who have kept MMOs alive for players like me to enjoy. But we've had a long time to come up with new mechanics. Heck, I have long listed games in my columns that use new mechanics and do so successfully.

Is leveling, grinding, and achieving seemingly more popular than ever because players are mindless drones, or is it because that feeling of achievement is something universal to the gamer condition? It's the latter, of course, and I never want it to seem as though I think it is the former. But as I mentioned in the column, I truly believe that more people are growing tired of the hardcore leveling process than are becoming new addicts to it. Mobile, social, and other strange, new forms of MMOs are popping up not because players are lazy or inconsiderate but because many of them are tired of massive gaming machines that need upgrading every three years and because the gaming schedules they kept in college no longer fit their busier adult lifestyles.

I am not calling for the end of leveling. I think that upward character development is a standard that will continue to stay, even if we wrap it in "new" systems. What I am calling for is more new models like selling high-level characters to not only breathe some new life into the genre but put some new money in the pockets of forward-thinking and innovative developers. More money equals more MMOs.

Each week, Free for All brings you ideas, news, and reviews from the world of free-to-play, indie, and import games -- a world that is often overlooked by gamers. Leave it to Beau Hindman to talk about the games you didn't know you wanted! Have an idea for a subject or a killer new game that no one has heard of? Send it to beau@massively.com!

This article was originally published on Massively.