It’s fully out in the open now. Blizzard will offer players the chance to fork over $60 to buy a level 90 character in World of Warcraft, and you’ll also get one included with a pre-purchase of Warlords of Draenor.
It’s a controversial move, to say the least, though one that’s hardly unprecedented. A small number of MMORPGs in the free-to-play space, like TERA, The Lord of the Rings and recently the original Everquest.
Online, have made similar offerings in their cash shops. Is it a bad thing, letting characters bypass most of the leveling process? And is it something we should expect to see more of, especially now that the industry leader has taken that route?
Let me get a little meta for a moment with a question: What is leveling? What purpose does it serve? Some of the most likely answers are that it’s a form of training, meant to teach you how to use your character effectively; or a fun, casual way to enjoy the game before having to do difficult content like raids; or it’s a form of “work” you have to do to unlock the “fun” content at endgame.
The thing is, none of these reasons make leveling necessary, at least not as it’s presented in most games.
You don’t need that much training. Yes, you do need some time to get adjusted to your class to learn how to play it properly. But 90 levels and dozens of hours? Consider that when WoW launched, the level cap was 60, and everyone seemed to learn their classes just fine for endgame content then. Granted, you do get some new powers and abilities going from 60 to 90 and WoW’s classes have undergone refinements from their original visions, but is there that much of a difference between how you play a level 60 warrior versus how you play a level 90 one now? (Of note, LOTRO’s Gift of the Valar only boosted characters up to level 50, while the current level cap is 95.) Do you need another 20+ hours to figure out how to work your new skills into your rotation?
You can still have fun, even at max level. Light and casual content is always available, even at max or near-max level, whether it’s adventuring through a nearly-your-level zone or some non-combat ability like role-playing or fishing. And if you still want to level traditionally in a game that offers a boost, to fully experience the joy of leveling, you have that option.
Fun > work. Then there’s the “work” argument, the one that gets bandied about a lot whenever “old-school” players hear about a level-boost option: “I worked hard to get to where I was and now you can just buy your way up?” But let’s be honest: Leveling in a modern MMO – meaning just about anything post-WoW – is a time sink but not a difficult affair. You can solo all the way to max in most games, usually facing nothing severely taxing. If you could skip all the “boring” stuff, wouldn’t you? WoW, and many other MMOs, have been providing options for fast leveling, mostly in the form of XP boosts, for years with little complaint. This is the same thing, with a slightly different form.
And buying levels isn’t pay-to-win. Or if it is, it’s about the mildest form of pay-to-win. While we talked a while back about what exactly constitutes P2W, buying levels falls firmly in the “no real advantage” category. As mentioned in the last paragraph, anyone can get a high-level character, and there’s no technical difference between my “hard-earned” level 90 and one that you bought.
Then there’s the real reason why Blizzard, and other companies, are allowing for this right now. Leveling in MMOs is an old, antiquated concept that serves more to split up players and discourage new players more than it helps keep players in the game. If you’re new to an MMO that all your friends are playing, how attractive is it to you that you’ll need to spend dozens of hours before you can “catch up” to your max-level friends and actually play with them? When a game is new and everyone is about the same, low, level, it’s not so bad, but for an aging game like WoW, it’s a chore to get to the point where you can play with other people – and isn’t that what an MMO is supposed to be about?
To that end, more modern games are smoothing out the progression curve, often eliminating levels and vertical advancement whenever possible. SOE has all but abandoned leveling, as seen in games like PlanetSide 2 and (eventually) EverQuest Next. How much fun would PS2 be if you logged in for the first time right now, a year-plus after launch, and had to spend months getting to the point where you wouldn’t be one-shot by a player at the maximum Battle Rank? Or had to grind out 50+ levels before you could join your friends? Yes, it might be fun for veteran players to pwn noobs – at least until the noobs stopped showing up, the veterans started drifting away, and the game eventually shut down entirely due to lack of players. Every online game needs a constant influx of new players and leveling requirements are often a barrier to new players.
PvE games are a little more forgiving on that front, whether it’s through a lack of levels or level upgrading/downgrading. City of Heroes famously pioneered the sidekick system 10 years ago, and it was, in a way, the first dent in the leveling gate. More MMOs will follow that trend, as developers realize that inclusion, not exclusion, is the way to get people to play their games in large numbers, and to keep bringing in new players, and that gating off “fun” content after hours of grinding isn’t a good idea.
And if they stick with “traditional” leveling, you have to believe that many of them will one day offer the chance to accelerate or buy levels, in the effort to make it easier for people to adventure together. Look on the bright side: You’ll have that many more skill-less noobs to pwn.
By Jason Winter