The Soapbox: Instant leveling and the whining fringe

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The Soapbox: Instant leveling and the whining fringe
Warlords of Draenor
Over the weekend at Blizzcon 2013, Blizzard Entertainment announced the fifth World of Warcraft expansion, Warlords of Draenor. The content add-on brings most of the things one might expect from an expansion -- new zone, new features, new quests, new dungeons -- but perhaps most notably includes the option to instantly raise any one of your characters to WoW's current level cap of 90.

While you'll still face 10 levels of Warlords of Draenor questing, killing, and fetching if you opt to take the insta-level, the feature has re-ignited the argument among MMO fans as to whether offering players a maxed-out character somehow violates the core rules of the MMO genre. Should developers really provide high-level characters just to get/keep players in the game?

The short answer, of course, is "duh." Here's the long answer.

It's not for you

When you're typing an angry comment about a feature any random developer plans to implement into a video game, the first thing you should consider is whether that feature is actually designed with you in mind. Most of the time, it's not. In this case, the type of person who reads an MMO blog like Massively and treats MMORPGs as serious business has a different approach to games than the average gaming consumer. You know more, you play more, and you care more.

"Publishers don't have to convince you to play an MMO -- you already do. Probably several."

Many features that draw the ire of the community such as instant leveling, XP boosts, and simplified loot tables that give everyone a chance to look/feel cool have the exact opposite effect on people who are not already ensconced in the mentality of the "true" gamer. A human adult with children and a full-time job sees video games differently than you might (though, of course, exceptions exist on all sides). If you had two or three hours a week to game, would you want to spend it trudging through content you've already seen?

What about your friends, who likely also have limited time to play? Do they want to drag themselves through 90 levels of content again just to keep you company after you join a game? Even with the much-beloved mentoring and level-scaling systems used by titles like Guild Wars 2 and RIFT, that's a lot of time spent doing stuff you've already done. When a publisher says, "Download this game and instantly join your friends in new content," or "buy this expansion and immediately leap into the fray instead of spending two weeks playing catch-up," that message resonates with millions of gamers operating on tight schedules.

World of Warcraft - Warlords of Draenor
It's also worth noting that when it comes to features of this nature, you as the informed, hardcore gaming elite, are not the person the publisher is really trying to land. Publishers don't have to convince you to play an MMO; you already do. Probably several. Your continued playing of a game you already own is worth less than the enthusiasm with which a new player will approach buying the game, its previous expansions, and perhaps a cute cosmetic item or two from the in-game store. Not to mention the value of having a new player excitedly tell friends and family about her gaming experiences compared to the value of a bunch of old-hat fogeys wishing for the days of 40-man raids on forums the majority of the playerbase never visits.

Publishers don't have to court you because you're already in their pocket. And publishers are well aware that despite all your whining and caterwauling, the great majority of you won't actually walk away. You're too invested now and too curious about pretty character models, new features, new quests, and new epix. You'll claim otherwise, of course, and throw a huge stinking fit in blog comment sections everywhere (like here), but at the end of the day, you'll still be hanging out in Stormwind smelting ore and talking about how WoW used to be so much better when buying an epic mount took six months of grinding and gamers without unlimited free time wore gear that looked like patchwork quilts.

Instant leveling is awesome for everyone

Offering players the ability to instantly jump into brand-new content should be viewed as a win-win; gamers get to skip the old stuff and studios get to show off their fancy new features and additions. However, some "hardcore" MMO fanatics are convinced that allowing players to hop levels with a mouse click represents a betrayal on the part of the company or some sort of descent into dreaded "Casual Land," where everything's made up and the experience points don't matter.

There is no downside to giving players a chance to skip to the start of new content. In fact, the commonly cited negatives of this feature speak volumes about the way the MMO community views itself, its accomplishments, and its privilege:

"But I had to level through all that stuff."

Games change, expansions make them bigger, and the industry constantly evolves to be more accessible, more casual-friendly, and less centered on a tiny niche of 40-hour-per-week enthusiasts. Your grandparents had to pick up ice at the corner store, but I don't see you flaming up Frigidaire's forums over automatic ice-makers.

"They won't know how to play their characters."

I get it; you're the most elite gamer alive, and having to teach a new player to run dungeons or complete quests would absolutely devastate your ability to flex your skills and rock the DPS meter. But instant-leveling promos rarely move characters all the way to the current level cap, and 10-20 levels is certainly plenty of time to learn the ins and outs of a given class. Besides, if you see someone struggling, you could always try helping instead of complaining.

EverQuest II
"They're buying an advantage."

What advantage, exactly, does someone being the same level as you provide? He can run the same quests as you? Participate in the same events? One of the huge downsides of online gaming is that it seems to make people extra-sensitive about what everyone else is up to when its better to just focus on your own progression. This argument might hold sway in a game like EVE Online where the real-time age of your character has an impact on your ability to succeed, but in themeparks like WoW, TERA, and EverQuest II, it's a much harder sell. Everyone will be 90 eventually, and the results are equally accessible to all -- why do you care when it happens?

"Everything is too easy now."

No, everything is not too easy. We've had this conversation before. If you think World of Warcraft or any other game is too easy, please link your hard mode or arena achievements in the comments. If you don't have any, perhaps you could try accomplishing something difficult before complaining that the path from 1-90 and the normal-mode dungeons that lie beyond are too simple for someone of your immense skill level. Spoiler alert: Regular content isn't supposed to be difficult. Very few MMO players have accomplished enough in their game of choice to accurately measure its overall difficulty curve.

Instant leveling allows you to create a new character of any class and immediately skip the stuff you've seen before. It lets new players join with their friends for expansion-level content. And it brings old, experienced players back into the fold by letting them hopscotch over the content that bored them out of the game in the first place. Any game with the option, even if very limited, will be better for it.

Blizzard won't be the last (and wasn't the first by far) company to offer players a big level bump to either encourage them to start or convince them to return. It didn't destroy those games, and it won't ruin WoW.

Disagree with me? Let me know in the comments, or stay tuned to next week's Soapbox, where Massively's Justin Olivetti will deliver a rebuttal to my arguments.

Everyone has opinions, and The Soapbox is how we indulge ours. Join the Massively writers every Tuesday as we take turns atop our very own soapbox to deliver unfettered editorials a bit outside our normal purviews and not necessarily shared across the staff. Think we're spot on -- or out of our minds? Let us know in the comments!
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