Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Ramblings about the difficulty of leveling in World of Warcraft

Blizzard is fueling the hype over the next World of Warcraft expansion, Cataclysm, by giving out more information about proposed class changes this week. We probably reached the point already where people are more interested in the upcoming expansion than in the expansion we are currently playing. Instead of joining the discussion of details, like "omg, blood is the new tanking spec for death knights!", I would like to zoom back a bit, and talk about a larger issue, the leveling of new characters in Cataclysm.

Cataclysm is a somewhat unusual expansion in that it contains a significant amount of new low-level content. Not only are many people going to level new goblins and worgen, there will also be an increases interest in the level 1 to 60 game due to the revamp of old Azeroth. From a business point of view that makes a lot of sense. Blizzard recently revealed that only 30% of players trying out the free trial get past level 10, so making the game more appealing to new players by giving them more options, and making early quests more interesting, can attract more potential customers. The problem with that approach is that many veteran players will not enjoy leveling yet another character, because for somebody who knows WoW well, the leveling game is lacking challenge.

The curious thing about this is that normally this is a problem which a MMORPG should not have. As long as you are leveling up, you *should* be easily able to choose the level of challenge which is perfect for you, by choosing to do quests and fight monsters of a lower or higher level than you. Unfortunately that does not work very well in World of Warcraft, because the reward structure actively discourages fighting higher level monsters, and there is a rather low cap on how much higher level quests you are able to accept.

Fighting monsters that are orange or red to them is possible for skilled players. But such combats take significantly more time than fighting green or yellow mobs, and only give minimally more xp per fight. Thus even if you are skilled, the optimum for leveling is doing easy green quests to fight easy green mobs, because that will get you the most xp per hour, and level you up fastest. The reward structure directs players towards the most boring leveling content. Furthermore, while farming easy green mobs skill doesn't make much of a difference. No wonder a lot of players proclaim that the "real" game of World of Warcraft only starts at the level cap.

It is easy to see that this isn't optimal game design. While leveling should be accessible for new players, even if they aren't very skilled, it would obviously be better if it was obvious that facing tougher challenges would be well rewarded. And the only thing that would need to change is how much xp you get for tackling quests and mobs that are above your level. That would make leveling more fun for veteran players, plus allow them to use their skills to advance faster. As an added bonus it would encourage new players to learn how to play their characters better. Basically the xp curve of quests and monsters should be designed in a way that the higher the challenge and the risk, the more xp per hour your earn. So the time a player needs to kill a monster or to do a quest has to be taken into account, and the fact that more challenging monsters take longer to kill has to be compensated. Basically the xp per hour curve should not have an optimum like it does now, but steadily go up with increased challenge.

I'm all for making content accessible to even the most casual players, but that doesn't mean that the leveling game has to be void of all challenge and fun for more experienced players. It is good to have an "easy mode", but it shouldn't be rewarded better than challenging gameplay. Attracting new subscribers is a good idea, but it should be done without boring to death the existing subscribers.

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