If there are any Blizzard fans out there, just let me get this out of the way. I'm a huge Blizzard fan. Huge. I'm a fanboy. If you met me on the forums, you might be forgiven for thinking that I would blindly follow Blizzard off of a cliff. Well, maybe not, but you get the idea. So this isn't criticism of Blizzard you're reading here, but merely an exploration of what World of Warcraft's success has revealed: character levels are an antiquated system that I believe are restraining RPGs.
Now, RPG characters being measured in terms of levels goes way back in RPG history. It seems a dominant characteristic of most pen-and-paper RPGs. Even in non-level based systems, there is a distinct sense of 'this character is generally stronger than that character.' This system of measuring characters in RPGs according to a 'level,' or dominant measure of their power or skills, has easily perpetuated itself onto console RPGs and MMORPGs. Pokemon uses character levels extensively, when I was playing FF6 I obsessively got as many of my characters to level 99 as possible, and in WoW, I'm nearing the current high-level mark of level 60.
So obviously, levels are useful as a game design tool. They're an easy way for designers to design and control character/player potential, abilities, and access to portions of the game. An area can be designed specifically with a certain level of character in mind, such that higher levels don't often bother to go there, and low levels can't survive there. They give players an addictive 'one more level' syndrome in a long chain of short-term goals, as WoW players often count down the 'bars' in their experience meter until they gain their next level. And they can help engender a sense of the heroic and super human, especially when a high level character is viewed through the eyes of a new player's low level character.
But RPGs have been using character levels, or similar systems of numerical measurements of steadily increasing power, for such a long time that I wonder whether such stat-based thinking is limiting how far RPGs, and more specifically MMORPGs, can go. Complaints about 'grind' ' the fun-less experience of playing not because you're enjoying the game, but only because you need to get the next level ' should be recognized as a symptom for why level and stat based systems for MMORPG characters may not be a perfect solution.
Grind exemplifies the reason why I'm not completely satisfied with a level or stat based system in today's MMORPGs. Grind basically results from a disconnect between what an MMORPG purports to be, and what it actually plays like. Do I play WoW to simply get to level 60' Do I play WoW so that my character can do X more damage than the other guy' Do I play WoW simply for the satisfaction of saying that at level 60, I'm more powerful than I was at level 55' That's all what grind is, an uphill battle through tedium to become one of the 'haves' in contrast to the 'have-nots.' Or do we play MMORPGs to experience a constantly changing social and story dynamic between so many people' Are MMORPGs places where it doesn't matter if you can beat X boss, but it does matter if you can find a niche within the community and inhabit it successfully?
Now, WoW has dispensed with the more obvious weaknesses of previous leveling experiences in that it's relatively easy to get to level 60, lessening the grind effect' But if leveling is so unnecessary that you speed players through it, why keep it at all aside from a shortened tutorial segment' A term heard around the Blizzard forums is 'The real game starts at 60.' Why must we play for several months before we get to the real game?
Besides, in order to keep the joys of leveling available to players forever, you'd need an infinite level cap. Leveling, and the pursuit of power that it represents, is a never-ending journey to newer and better places for newer and better abilities and items. It's impossible to ask developers to create new areas and items fast enough to keep up with the rate players consume them. It's also illogical to create so much content when casual players get left behind in the dust and don't experience so much of what the ultimate hardcore MMORPG players clamor for. Already we can see these tensions play out among the most vocal of WoW message board posters: players complain that 'Blizzard makes too little hardcore gamer content' or 'Blizzard ignores the need for casual gamer content,' both sides equally unhappy.
Besides, the emphasis on leveling your characters and building a game around that has taken away from all the other potentials of the MMORPG genre. MMORPGs are in danger of becoming too focused on the 'playing' of the game and not paying enough attention to the ability of MMORPGs to explore other types of gameplay and interaction. In WoW, crafting (as in tailoring, leatherworking, alchemy, etc.) is more of a side hobby, serving more as a different sort of grind ('I just want to get the next recipe!') and as a money sink for most players. Blizzard didn't design crafting to be an element of the game in and of itself, but merely to provide a side attraction for WoW's players as they level and perhaps one or two interesting items that make their journey to 60 a little more interesting.
Character levels, or any system that can measure character progression via a ramping stat system, inherently encourage all these faults in MMORPGs. When players are measured by a number, the predictable response is 'how can I increase my score'' But MMORPGs can be capable of so much more than that. MMORPGs, with their thousands upon thousands of players, should not just run a glorified multiplayer race to lvl 60 (and after that, a glorified multiplayer never-ending deathmatch if you're pvp-minded). Instead, they should invite players to create and inhabit an online social structure with a variety of definitions of 'success,' all with legitimate gameplay to back-up that player's journey to success.
Just look at what happens when regular RPGs drop the level system and encourage players to exist in a social structure instead of fighting endless armies of monsters. Without a level system to force players down a path of 'I must get stronger,' games like Animal Crossing can exist: players get to pursue their own goals of becoming a town gossip, an interior decorator, or fashionista. The point is no longer to level your character to beat X boss, but involve yourself in the fabric of the game and find out what facet of the game appeals best to your personality.
This is not to say that players don't want to fight monsters. They do! Players want the epic, the fantastic, the grand and challenging. But why must we be forced to face the problems of the world only after spending several months to reach level 60' And why must this need to level pre-empt the need for gameplay that would appeal to players who would rather bake a cake than pick up a sword?
But the emphasis on character levels, the emphasis on grinding, and the emphasis on a player character's inherent power is keeping MMORPGs from letting people roleplay anything BUT another wizard or warrior.
There are many ways for MMORPGs to impart a sense of a heroic feat to players. But the only sense of heroism that WoW and many other MMORPGs support is the heroism of gaining a level. After more than three decades of being measured according to our character levels, can't RPG developers come up with a new gameplay to reward players that doesn't necessarily involve spending months to reach a numerical goal in an MMORPG?