Consider by most MMO players to be a lynch-pin of the genre, or at the very least a perfectly working game mechanic.
But is it really?
I say no. Why? Because I never stop hearing complaints about it, that's why.
I listen to a lot of podcasts, and read a fair bit of gaming blogs. And I can tell you, some of the most common complaints stem from levels.
Can't play together with your friend because your at different levels?
Tough, sucks to be you.
Got your arse handed to you at a starter zone because of some ganking dipshit at max level?
Get used to it, your in for one heck of a ride.
Been brutally murdered by NPC mobs that were a couple of levels higher then you?
Get a ticket and stand in line.
Some people say it's a symptom due to the actions players take, and that levels aren't to blame.
I call bullshit. Because when you break the problem down, levels are entirely to blame.
I'm going to crack open levels and see what makes them tick, and as a result find just what, and where the problems lay.
The Level Equation
Ok, how do levels work.
Sounds fairly obvious. Kill things, finish quests and gain XP, which in turn grants you a level after a certain amount. Then rinse and repeat. As a result you become gradually more powerful.
But to find the root of the problem, we have to dig a little deeper.
It basically works like this:
Time --> Kills/Quests --> XP --> Levels --> Power
Or in short, Time = Power.
You see, the very point of levels is as a progression system.
And this progression system increases your overall power relative to each level you have obtained.
Which in turn allows you to take on stronger enemies, quests, and the like. In essence, gives you access to more advanced content.
So, business as usual then.
So why is that a problem? You might ask.
Because when it comes to social interactions between players, it becomes a barrier, preventing players from sharing the same content, or competing on a fair and balanced playing field.
As to how this is the case, lets move on to the next section.
Now it's one thing know there is a problem, and another thing entirely to elaborate why there is a problem.
This is my attempt.
As I see it, there are two main problems with levels as a progression system in MMORPG's.
1) It becomes a barrier between players sharing content, and competing fairly.
2) It's association with grind when in conjunction with other mechanics.
Please keep in mind that levels do in fact do many things right, of which I am keenly aware of.
The consistent reward for effort is among the best out there for progression systems.
This however doesn't remove the fact that it still has problems.
So lets tackle the first one first. (duh)
How do levels become a social barrier?
First as I mentioned earlier, as you gain levels you gain power, and with that power you gain access to more content.
And it is this sharding of content relative to levels (ie, time spent) which causes the first part of our problem.
If Player A is at level 10,
and Player B is at level 20,
both players cannot share the same content.
And as such, cannot play together. (regardless whether they want to or not)
Because Player A cannot scale up to player B's content, because their too weak.
Player B can scale down, but then they are no longer sharing content, but rather Player B is doing the content for Player A, as Player B is far too strong for said content.
How do you resolve this problem? You can't.
Unless there is another mechanic built in to allow the higher level players to dumb down, so that they can play with lower level players, then your totally screwed.
But even then, that only solves half the problem. (well, not even that)
And that's only sharing content.
In terms of competition, the problem is much the same.
Because Time = Power, whoever spends the most time, becomes the strongest by default.
And the larger the divide between levels becomes, the more apparent this becomes, until it is no longer a contest anymore, but rather a slaughter.
Again, if Player A is at level 10,
and Player B is at level 20,
then there is not a hope in hell of Player A beating Player B,
regardless who is more skillful or knowledgeable.
Now this can be mitigated by the level cap, this however does little to nothing balance competition when there are variating levels between players.
(unless everybody competing are at the same level or level range. ie, look at Guild Wars)
Anybody that values fairness and balance can appreciate why this is a problem.
The metric for success in competition shouldn't be time, money, or gear, but rather personal skill. Because by winning via skill alone, you not only reward thous truly deserving of it, but make the act of winning far more valuable.
It's not winning if everyone and their dog can do it.
And surprisingly enough, were only half way there...... oh joy!
.... I'll try to keep this part shorter.
How do levels cause grind?
Grind being the act of any repetitive, and monotonous activities.
And in the case of levels, it's comes as a result of it's interactions with other mechanics, and in the absence of content.
Say you have to level from level 1 to level 20 without a single quest in the lot.
All you would have is killing the same mobs, often being different creatures but all fighting, and dying the same way.
I'm sure anybody would agree that would be a grind.
But what if it was to level 30, or 40, 60, 80, 120.... so on, and so on.
The greater the gap, the greater the grind. Most people would give up around level 30 or so of this crap.
But what is worse, is that the nature of levels is of a exponential cost requirement.
Each requiring more and more XP, and thus time. (and usually diminished returns)
So how can this be resolved? Easy. Break up the repetitiveness of it, with quests, social interactions, and other events.
However, the problem here is that quests are often very similar, and thus prone to repetitiveness. (hench quest grind)
Forcing social interactions (such as forced grouping), is always a disastrous idea.
And events tend to be few and far between.
By in large, the higher the level cap is, the more likely it is that you will repeat similar content.
(this is not always the case thou)
Now normally this isn't so much a problem, on your first way through.
But when your on your 4th or 5th time through or more, the act of leveling can get very old indeed. (esp so if the level cap is high)
But what can cause you to go through the leveling process all over again?
Another mechanic that is usually in close proximity to levels.
Classes in essence attempt to define your role, what you do within game, often in quite a strict sense at that. But what if you want to try some else out? What if your bored of your mage, priest, or warrior?
Tough, you really have little other option then to re-roll, and run the whole gamut all over again.
(or take a break)
Now some people really don't mind doing this, as a new class offers different experiences.
And the first dozen times it may be. But the problem is, that if you've played a class once in one game, then you've played it in every other game as well.
It's only a matter of time before this new experience, is not longer new experience.
In time this too becomes a grind. And all because you wanted to do something a little different.
What an awfully cumbersome way of doing things.
So much for keeping that part 'short'.
In the last part I'll go over what can be done to resolve some of these problems.
As I've shown, the key problem is levels equating progression with Time = Power.
However, progression doesn't not necessitate an increase in power.
All you need is 'a' gradual increase of some kind.
And it starts with what your measuring success and separating content with.
If that measuring stick is say, skill, rather then power. Then you can avoid most of the problems, and build a more cohesive community as a result.
If I beat someone because I knew how to use a particular skill better the them, and the fight was balanced to begin with, then it was a fair fight. They might beat me next time. We each are able to learn from our mistakes, improve ourselves as a result, and thus we progress.
If I beat a mob or boss monster, simply because I knew what it was going to do, before it did it and avoided it, then me and a buddy of mine can still enjoy the same content even if they don't know.
A couple of good examples are Guild Wars and EVE Online.
In Guild Wars, the level cap was not only low (lvl 20 cap), but also didn't directly increase your power. Instead you gained attribute points that you used to power up skills, which could then be withdrawn and used again elsewhere.
And due to the amount you got, and the nature of their skill system, you do a lot with very little.
Once you hit level cap, which was very easy to do, everyone was on even ground, both in competition and collaboration. What separated who won, and who eats a dirt sandwich, was none other then knowing what to use, and how to use it.
Progression by in large came down to collecting all the various skills, and learning the best way to use them. (on top of which you had a lot of ascetic progression, that didn't impact your performance)
While EVE Online, also has an interesting (yet exceedingly boring) skill system of it's own.
Instead you spend real-time to gain skill points in any particular skill you wanted.
In short, you got good at what you wanted to.
This is good because it is non-linear, and it also does away with the need for classes.
But what is most important, is that gaining these skills will have a minimal impact on power, but rather give you more options to work with. (skills give you access to other ships and equipment)
So as a result, it doesn't really matter how many skill points you have, it only matters what your doing and how you are doing it. (ie, it didn't matter if you have 50 million skill points, if your in a frigate..... your still in a frecken frigate)
Interestingly enough, because you can have one character do any given number of rolls, you can stick with one single character, and thus avoid any repetitiveness with re-rolling.
As such, it is possible to have progression without it causing problems with the social interactions of the player base. Nor does it have to be repetitive either. As you can have situation where you only need one character, and yet can do any job or roll you want to do at any given time.
Can levels be work in such a way to avoid all these problems? Sure, look at Guild Wars.
(although it still suffered from some repetitiveness of re-rolling)
But is that likely given it's history? No, not really, no.
I think the best solution is to build around a preferably new progression system, that not only avoids these kind of problems by being skill based, but also retains all the good parts of levels.
(ie, the consistent reward to effort thing.)
Of course, there isn't really anything you can do about the games in which it has already been implemented in. Once it's there, it's there for good.
But the first step in avoiding these problems in the future, it to know their even there to begin with.
Which brings us to the end of this..... colossally huge blog post.
Not exactly light reading.
But I hope it helps to some degree in understanding just what and where the problems of levels in MMORPG's are.
Given my track record for clearly explaining things, not a hope in hell I'm sure.
PS: I may very well in the future come back to edit this post, and try to make it shorter and more understandable. It's just too long......