Via Massively I got the news that leveling a character from 1 to 80 in Age of Conan will take 250 hours on average. For comparison the orignal Everquest was considered to take about 2,000 hour to reach the level cap, and the average number of hours to reach level 60 in World of Warcraft when it came out was 500. So the announced number of hours for Age of Conan appears rather short.
Of course it is questionable to talk of average hours to level cap at all. My first level 60 character in WoW took 500 hours, but my latest WoW character went all the way to level 70 in under 250 hours. Leveling speed changes with patches, but more importantly due to players having learned how to play better, and due to twinking, that is the first character handing virtual currency or gear to the alts. But lets assume that Funcom is talking of everyone's first character. Is 250 hours to the level cap too short, just right, or still too long?
To answer that, we first have to look at what a level cap actually is. It is not the end of the game, it is not even the end of character development. The level cap is more accurately defined as the point in a character's career where his power development slows down significantly. You stop receiving xp, and only by acquiring better gear can you still improve your character, but that is much slower than gaining power from leveling. Due to this slowdown point, at the level cap there are the most characters of similar power level. And as similar power level of characters is useful for playing either together (e.g. in raids) or against each other (PvP), the level cap is the point where all the raiding and most of the PvP takes place. The gameplay changes at the level cap, from the leveling game to the end game.
So whether a short time to the level cap is good depends on what type of gameplay you are after. Age of Conan is supposedly about PvP, so getting everybody to the point quickly where they can fight for battlekeeps makes sense. But for many players of World of Warcraft the leveling game is more fun than the end game. When my wife reached level 70, she quickly abandoned the character and started a new one, because she neither groups nor does PvP, and the WoW end game wasn't attractive at all to her. World of Warcraft is an ideal game to level up alts, because there are now 8 different newbie zones, and you can reach level 60 with at least 4 different characters without doing the same quest twice (the path from 60 to 70 is considerably narrower). Age of Conan only has one newbie zone from 1 to 20, and we don't know how many ways from 20 to 80, although probably not more than 3 (one for each race) at any given point.
The other important question is how much time are you going to spend in the end game? According to surveys the average WoW player plays over 20 hours per week, that is 1,000 hours per year. If it takes 200 hours to level up in every expansion, and then you need to wait nearly two years for the next expansion, you spend 90% of your time in the end game, unless you play a lot of alts. Again that is nice if the end game is all you like in a game, but for many players the end game feels more repetitive than the leveling game, and they burn out after spending too many hours there.
The real danger of a short time to level cap for a game company is that the average player reaches the level cap in 3 months, decides he doesn't like the end game after a short while, sees that leveling an alt would just go over the same content again, and thus quits to play another game. Because in the end it is not the time to level that is really important, but for how many hours there is non-repetitive content in the game. If I understood the Warhammer Online video podcasts correctly, WAR will have 6 completely separate ways to level a character up to the level cap, one for each race. I have no idea of the time to level cap in WAR, but even if it is just 250 hours, an average player could still play for a year and a half before having seen it all. That is why Warhammer Online looks pretty attractive from my limited knowledge and PvE-fan point of view. I will buy Age of Conan, Warhammer Online, and Wrath of the Lich King, with all three boxes costing similar amounts of money. But if I just look at how many hours of non-repetitive content there are in each of the three boxes, WAR looks like the best deal here.