Raising Level Caps: Is It Really The Issue?

Posted: December 18, 2007 by Kendricke in Everquest 2, General Game Concepts

Over at the Ancient Gaming Noob, Willhelm raises the question of whether or not level caps should be increased for the next Everquest II expansion.  Needless to say, I approach the subject from a notably different perspective.

I think that, by and large, new expansions for games which base progression largely upon “levels” should have consistent, regular level increases.  Especially now that the expansion cycle has been pushed out to a year, any expansion that does not release with level increases automatically means a minimum of 2 years between new level caps.  Even for relatively casual serious players like myself, that’s a long time to go without seeing additional character progression.

…and in games like Everquest II, most character progression paths are certainly tied to levels.

Make no mistake, this isnt just an arbitrary number we’re talking about here.  With those levels comes new spells, new gear, new skills, new traits, and an entire host of ancillary paths of progression, all tied to that primary levelling system.

Within Everquest II specifically, you can continue to develop new content, but if the extent of additional progression paths is limited to just new places to see, new monsters to kill, and new shiny bits of gear which act as slight upgrades to older shiny bits of gear, then that’s no real progression at all.

None of this is to indicate that levelling is the only method by which progression can be measured, however, so many of the progression paths within Everquest II rely heavily upon character levels as the yardstick to measure progression.  Without new levels, you simply cannot gain more skills.  Once you’ve mastered out your spells, you can’t increase their effectiveness till you gain the higher version of that spell…which of course isn’t available without leveling.  Most gear has level restrictions and once you obtain the best gear possible within your particular playstyle (which admittedly, can take a while), you’re halted from further progression till level caps are raised and/or new gear is introduced.

Of course, this doesn’t even begin to touch upon the importance levels have within the tradeskilling system.  Currently in Everquest II, there are essentially two methods to track character progression – artisan levels and owned recipes (which themselves are tied indirectly to the artisan levels).  Without a level increase, tradeskillers who already have full levels and own all recipes (which aren’t all that difficult to obtain, compared against adventuring equipment) are effectively stopped in their tracks from further progression.

Are there other means by which progression could be measured?  Certainly, and the acheivement system is one such method by which progression could also be shown.  The problem is that the achievement system itself is based upon its own internal set of levels.  We can fight the semantical argument that achievement points are different from level caps, but at their heart, both system are essentially just that – level systems.  The only real differences between the two are in how the levels are gained, and what the levels themselves represent.

Besides, by its very nature, the achievement system is inherently finite.  In fact, the more points you allow within the current achievement system, the less effective it is at accomplishing the goal for which it was originally set up – that being a method by which characters within a same class could better distinguish themselves from each other.  The system was designed around players being forced to make choices between option A or option B or option C.  The more points allowed into the system, the less choices players actually have to make.  Add in enough points, and suddenly all characters within a class have access to all of the same abilities, anyway.

The only way around this would be to create even more achievements and increase the overall achievement point cap.  Yet, though contextually different, fundamentally we’re back to the same arguments about increasing level caps and introducing new spells along with that.

I can understand and appreciate the idea that players want to be able to see the light at the end of the tunnel, and the more levels you introduce to a game, the longer that tunnel must appear.  However, is that a fault of “levels” or poor mid-game design?

After all, as I pointed out to Willhelm when I commented on his article, if SOE were to continue to create additional mid-range content that is fun, compelling, and which requires little to no time spent finding groups willing to hit such content, they could have 150+ levels and yet there would always be newer players who enjoy the game. The idea is the shift the thinking away from “ZOMG – 90 LEVELS!!!111!” and to shift it toward “ZOMG – I HAD SO MUCH FUN LAST NIGHT AT LEVEL 32!!!111!!”

That’s what I feel the heart of the matter is.  Players aren’t so much upset at the idea of high levels as they are at the idea that those same high levels are where the real fun is at.  Much of the blame falls squarely on the shoulders of designers who build excellent starting content (to hook you right away) and then excellent “end game” content (because that’s where all the current development is geared toward) leaving older or mid-level content essentially as it was or designed to be merely filler to help build you toward those eventual higher levels.

Ryan Shwayder touched on this a while ago in his MMO Rant #10:  The Mid Game. In that article, Ryan points out that:

“[Developers] only ever make the beginning and end of the game super polished, and they only ever really update the end game. Give me some new options in the mid game so the second or third or eighth time I play it, I can take another path or at least see or do something different. Make the world more dynamic so things at least change a little bit, even if you don’t give me an entirely new zone.”

I think Ryan’s on to something there, and I think perhaps that’s part of the frustration players like Willhelm feel towards high levels.  After all, relatively casual players who might schedule one night a week to hang out with a static gaming group aren’t going to want to spend time researching or looking around for content that will not only help them level, but which is fun and exciting all at the same time.  I’m a bit more than a casual player, and I don’t like having to put in work just to find the fun parts of the game, either!

I think the idea that “raising level cap is bad, mmkay” is merely symptomatic of a larger design issue. Let’s face it, if a game is fun at every level along the way, then would we really see arguments about high level caps being a problem?  Of course not.  I’d argue that most players tend to concentrate more on the perceived destination if they feel the journey itself is tedious or boring.  If the actual gameplay is maintained and kept engaging in those important mid-levels, then it should be self-evident that we’ll see less problems with raising the bar on the highest levels.

If I’m right, it means that keeping level caps doesn’t solve the problem, but merely serves to placate players who feel left behind or left out.  It’s a simple bandaid designed to hide a puncture wound that actually goes deep into the guts of the system.

It’s not the level cap increases which are the problem, but the perception that the fun only exists at the level cap.  That perception itself, which is easy to peg on players, is actually a design flaw.  Players shouldn’t be put in a position where they wonder when the game is going to be fun again.  Players shouldn’t be asking themselves if the game will be more fun at level 70 or 80 than it is at 40.  Players should be enjoying the hell out of themselves at whatever level they’re at.

If players feel left out because they’re not at the cap already, that’s the real problem.  At that point, there’s really only two true fixes – either speed up levelling through the mid-levels (which essentially validates the opinion that the real fun begins at high levels) or put in work to keep those older zones up to spec with the technology and polish your developers are putting in at those “end game” zones.

It’s not as sexy to rework Thundering Steppes or Antonica as it is to build a brand new megazone, and it may not seem like a valuable use of resources, but that doesn’t make such an option any less important.

  1. Wilhelm2451 says:

    I think the level cap question is particularly acute for EverQuest II as SOE seems to have locked themselves into 10 level increments, so in 3 years they have added 30 levels to the game, so they are on track, if they keep it up, to pass EverQuest’s level cap, or at least match it, if EQ jumps another 5 levels next year.

    Yes, 10 is just a number, and 10 EQ2 levels are probably easier than 5 EQ levels, but it can give the impression that SOE has to add 10 levels a year or the game will die, which can make it seem that EQ2 lacks depth or that the player base is make up of nothing but achiever types.

    As you say, focus on the mid-game can mitigate that, but isn’t that difficult to do? You cannot have an expansion with a level cap increase, but then add no new content to fill those higher levels. The level cap increases will, thus, always divert attention from the mid-game, won’t they? That will always be the shiny new content while the mid-game soldiers on.

    I also want to nit pick at your statement on the finite nature of the achievement system. You seem to imply that the achievement trees are somehow static and that SOE will just give us all more points to spend in them, thus reducing the hard choices. Do you see a reason why they couldn’t give us more points AND more depth in the tree, thus maintaining the choices and differentiation?

  2. tipa says:

    I guess the real test is to look and see if people in WoW are staying longer in the mid-thirties/forties content now that they have added more quests and solo encounters there.

    If people still race through those levels, then perhaps, EQ2 shouldn’t bother.

    I think the midgame content in EQ2 is excellent up through the mid-50s, but it becomes harder to find groups, because of level spread — if players are spread out between levels 1 and 80, it’s harder to find groups than when the same number of players were spread out only between 1 and 50.

  3. Kendricke says:


    RE: Mid-Level Development:
    You can update and revamp mid-level content throughout the year as part of the new initiative to provide free content between expansions.

    RE: Achievements:
    The short answer: The more depth they add to the Achievement system, the more difficult it is for them to continue balancing all possible combinations when building encounters for solo, group, and raiding quality.

    The more in-depth answer: Sure they can add in more Achievement trees. Of course, doing so is simply another form of level increase with additional spells, erm, I mean achievements. Potato, pototo. We’re back to finding different ways to increase the level cap.

    Of course, there’s an interesting side discussion: Why does the idea of 90 levels (as opposed to 80) scare the hell out of players, but shifting from 100 to 140 Achievement levels is seen as a “good thing”?


    RE: level 50 grouping:
    That’s a great argument for more creation of solo content in those level ranges.

  4. Wilhelm2451 says:

    Of course, there’s an interesting side discussion: Why does the idea of 90 levels (as opposed to 80) scare the hell out of players, but shifting from 100 to 140 Achievement levels is seen as a “good thing”?

    Because zones, mobs, and equipment is all keyed to your adventure level, making those levels a lot more… um… tangible? Achievements are less intrusive in the scope of the game, but make you feel good because you can do something new/special/better than before.

    That is my theory, and I am sticking to it!

  5. Kendricke says:

    It’s as good a theory as any, and I’ll buy into it.

    Of course, I believe it also supports my position that so much progression within Everquest II is tied to level. If you cap out too early (which is much easier to do for a rather significant number of players), a lot of those “zones, mobs, and equipment” which are keyed to your adventure level also quickly become capped out.

  6. Laldail says:

    The biggest issue with an MMO that is not new is finding that critical mass of players who are interested in consuming the same content as you.

    While it is true that new players join games, they do not tend to join an older game in the same numbers that launch day brought. Even new expansions might bring in new players but the effect is relatively transitory on any specific level range. For instance, I remember multiple instances of Antonica at launch. I wonder when the last time that occurred.

    MMOs have a lifecycle and for a new player to expect a 3-year-old game to have the same vibrancy of player life in the low to mid levels in as it had when new is, I think, asking a bit much. If the reasoning is that it is because these levels need to be redesigned or spruced up, then I would ask – why did we play through them in the first place? Were not some of the these same instances and zones actually end-game content at one point?

    MMOs, by their nature, are level and achievement based. While many players like to play alts, a significant number (in my experience) will never seriously play more than a single character in any game. Once that character is at or approaching max, these folks are looking for engaging endgame content, a level cap raise, or a new game. That’s just the way it is. Even in my guild, where alts are plentiful, there are many who simply are not interested in doing content that is “not relevent” to their main character, even if it is fun. This makes it difficult to find guild groups on a regular basis for a lower level character. But really, it’s the nature of the game and the current phase of its life cycle.

    Unless there is a commensurate marketing campaign to bring in a significant influx of new players to make the effort worthwhile I just don’t see how any improvement to the existing structure in the mid-game of EQ2 would be worth the resource expenditure. Those who are currently having problems finding groups and prefer to level slowly while “enjoying the scenery” might experience a brief period of increased grouping opportunity that would quickly speed by them again as the majority consumed the new material and moved on. And that’s assuming the changes were considered interesting enough to bring out the alt hordes for a while.

    I pretty much expect a game to keep getting better, provide interesting advancement opportunities for my character(s), and be fun. I’m not too concerned about how they do that, really, but once I get to the point where I get to the character select screen and sit there no really to press play on any of them then I know it is close to time to move on or for the developers to come up with something new and different if they want to keep me. For now, more levels and higher challenges do that for me fine. Of course, having a great guild helps there too.

  7. Illuminator says:

    Of course, there’s an interesting side discussion: Why does the idea of 90 levels (as opposed to 80) scare the hell out of players, but shifting from 100 to 140 Achievement levels is seen as a “good thing”?

    The answer to that is the rigid con system. There’s enough commentary on that to write a book.

  8. Kendricke says:

    Though I don’t disagree with you on the con system, the “players” I’m referring to here are generally lower level players who are not near the cap.

    These players get upset if the cap is increased, usually for a listed litany of reasons (most of which seem to dance around the ideas that it stretches the playerbase further apart or that it makes the “end game” that much farther away).

    For a level 43, blue cons will remain as blue cons regardless of whether or not the maximum level is 80 or 800. At level 43, the actual existing content remains constant with a shift in level increase.

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