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The Soapbox: Instant high-level characters are a terrible, horrible, very bad, no good idea


While handing players the keys to a high-level character isn't something brand-new that studios are doing, it does seem to be more en vogue these days, from TERA to EverQuest II and now to World of Warcraft. It's a topic that has caused a lot of discussion and debate in the community, not to mention a lot of disquiet and dismay in my heart.

In last week's Soapbox, Massively's Mike Foster advocated instant leveling by saying, "There is no downside to giving players a chance to skip to the start of new content."

With much love and respect to my fellow Massively writer, I think Mike is completely wrong on this front, as are others that are giving a thumbs-up to any MMO that allows players to jump past content and into a high-level character. It has nothing to do with elitism and ego, as was suggested, but has everything to do with cheapening our mutual experience and the very foundation of MMOs.

There are many, many downsides to this disturbing trend, and I need to get this off my chest so that at least I've said it somewhere.

The Soapbox Instant highlevel characters are a terrible, horrible, very bad, no good idea
MMOs are based on rules for progression and growth. This breaks them.

I don't want to sound patronizing here, so please don't take the following as such, but MMOs are games. Games have rules and structure. Part of these rules and structures is a measuring stick for progression and power. This comes through levels (in their many forms), gear acquisition, zone advancement, and so on. The speed of this progression may be up for debate, but suddenly ignoring progression in a game that previously had it breaks the rules entirely.

Maybe you don't like levels. Maybe you have a whole rant about them. What I'm curious about is the answer to this: If you don't like levels or want to get rid of them, then what do you use to measure individual progress? Skill levels? Reputation bars? Item levels? And aren't those subject to the same criticisms that you give to player levels?

In other words, if you have an MMO that has no character levels, then you have to find some other way to measure and compare progress. The Secret World has the skill wheel and quality levels of gear. Some sandboxes fully rely on a more free-form use of skills, but you still have to level those up.

So should we just get rid of all levels? Should MMOs just be about twitch combat and utterly equal characters? I'm pointing to the extreme because I'm curious what's the golden middle here. What do you use to fill in the void of character levels, which have been around since the good ol' days of pen-and-paper D&D? There needs to be a good answer to this before you start chucking out the rules with nothing to replace them. And, for the record, I am very much open to hearing new ways of measuring progress in MMOs.

Players don't like it when rules that have applied to them are suddenly changed up to not apply to others because the studio and/or game is trying to coddle those lagging behind. Have you ever played Mario Party or Mario Kart and had the game give unfair advantages to those in last place while slapping down those in first? It's just pandering and leaves a bad taste in everyone's mouth.

The studio is doing it for its pocketbooks, not for the community.

Let's get this straight: MMO studios aren't giving you a high-level character out of the kindness of their hearts. They're doing this because they want to sell you the next expansion, and you're not going to buy it unless you're in a position to play it. It has nothing to do with letting friends be with friends -- that's a good cover story. It has everything to do with squeezing more money out of us.

All I'm saying is that if a studio has a choice between doing something that's good for the game or doing something that will make more money but possibly hurt the game's future, the cash grab is mighty tempting.

With it, studios are essentially saying, "Our old content isn't worth playing."

This is what really boils my blood. When a studio comes right out and allows you to hopscotch over a good chunk of its game, then it is clearly saying that the content you skipped isn't worthwhile. Sometimes I detect a note of shame in these efforts, as the devs are very proud of their latest achievement and don't want you dwelling on what they made five years ago.

So devs, if you aren't vouching for the quality and attraction of a good chunk of your game, why should I play the rest?

Instant high-level characters kill long-term interest.

When I first started playing FPS games in the '90s, I got giddy when a friend showed me how to toggle god-mode for Wolfenstein and Doom. Suddenly I had access to all of the weapons and couldn't be stopped. And it was extremely fun... for about a half-hour. After that I completely lost interest in the game because not having found those weapons or worked on advancing by myself robbed the meaning behind the experience.

MMOs aren't just an arcade game where you pop in a quarter and mash buttons; MMOs are a journey that you undertake with an avatar. Journeys should have a beginning, middle, and end(game), not just the latter. It may just be my feeling, but players who are handed a high-level character won't be as invested or interested in that character for the long-run.

Instant high-level characters present a severe learning obstacle.

Whenever the debate over instant high-level characters comes up, it seems as though this point is dismissed by the proponents. People can learn how to pilot a level-100 character in time, right?

Sure, I guess. But it isn't optimal, especially in light of the fact that MMOs are designed from the ground-up to teach us over time how to play these characters. Part of the progression journey is seeing your character grow in strength and abilities and gradually learning how to use those abilities to overcome increasing challenges. Throwing one into the deep end of a pool might produce a swimmer (and it might not), but that swimmer isn't going to be as strong, as experienced, or as capable as one who is trained properly.

It also makes for a huge headache for the developers to create some sort of tutorial to catch people up. You don't want to be running dungeons with people who have no clue about essential abilities of their class and have found themselves bewildered by all of the choices to the point where they have focused down to a scant few. That's not elitism; that's just wanting to play with gamers who know how to actually play.

The Soapbox Instant highlevel characters are a terrible, horrible, very bad, no good idea
It creates a mess of other issues.

I already mentioned the difficulties with learning how to properly use a high-level character, but what about the many, many other issues that come with throwing players ahead in the game? What about MMOs that have a main storyline and build upon previous stories? Do you have to provide a summary somehow or do away with the notion that story is important? What about crafting? Should the game give each of these newly minted highbies crafting skills (that they didn't earn) comparable to their level or else have them go back to low-level areas and work up crafting from scratch? What about exploration: unlocking travel points and uncovering maps? What about other forms of advancement?

These changes impact everyone in the game, no matter what others may say.

The pro-instant high-level character crowd always trumpet that giving Joe a level 85 won't impact Sue's naturally earned level 85 at all. There's a "live and let game" sentiment that is tossed in there as well as some vilification of those who might oppose this.

So without deriding those who are for level-skipping, I do want to say that these moves impact everyone in the game. Everyone. We do not play MMOs in an isolated vacuum. You know how we talked about MMOs featuring progression and advancement and achievement? Well, guess what takes that away in a heartbeat.

Sue may have earned her 85 the way the game intended, but the second Joe gets his for free, then it puts them on an equal level in the eyes of everyone else. Having that 85 doesn't represent squat to others, and it tells Sue that her time, her effort, her journey is equal to someone clicking a single button once. That's incredibly demoralizing, and she has no way to broadcast that she's very experienced with her character and would be a good asset to any team. Looking at her and Joe side-by-side, no one would be able to know the difference.

In a sense, PvE is still as much about competition as PvP, it's just that you compete with your advancement, your acquisitions, your wealth, your creations, and so on. If the standard for comparison is completely nullified, then why bother with any of it in the first place?

It perpetuates an atmosphere of entitlement.

Yeah, I'm going there. Just because a person plays an MMO doesn't mean she gets everything in it without any effort or time invested. Pitching a fit or whining to developers that it's just not fair that others are at the level cap and have raid gear while the player lacks these doesn't mean that the devs should attempt to mollify that gamer. You aren't entitled to a high-level character just because you want one. Seriously, is this how we want development to be influenced going forward?

Listen, I don't have a lot of excess gaming time or disposable income to toss at games. As a result, I don't have that many high-level characters unless I stick with a title for a long time. And I'm absolutely OK with that. What I earn, I earn. I don't need handouts.

Players feel compelled to take the path of least resistance.

Another issue with instant high-level characters is that putting them in creates undue pressure among those who would have no problem leveling to take the path of least resistance because everyone else is. I may have the option to level normally, but the studio has now made it so that I'll do so in a virtual wasteland while being "behind" the others who took the fast pass to ubertown. It makes skipping to that level the new standard that is all but unavoidable for the entire population.

This addresses a serious issue with the easiest and laziest possible solution.

So whether or not you agree with me, there is one point that the pro- and anti-instant high-level character crowds can come together in agreement, and that is the need for MMOs to offer a solution for friends of disparate levels a way to play together. I just feel that giving a high-level character is both the easiest and laziest solution to the problem and also absolutely wrong for the health of the game.

The thing is, we've seen better solutions already. Mike even mentioned (and dismissed) a few of them last week. Sidekicking, mentoring, or otherwise temporary level-adjusting measures offer paths to grouping while retaining genuine progression and personal achievement. There are MMOs that dispense with levels entirely, and that's fine too. The Guild Wars franchise has been generally excellent about downplaying the disparity between levels and allowing the maximum number of people possible to group up. Lord of the Rings Online is launching its new expansion this month with a feature that auto-levels up players for a special portion of its content.

Coming up with elegant solutions to grouping obstacles is something I'm very much for. I'm just saying that we don't have to accept a hatchet job on our own MMOs to make that happen.

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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