The MMO Leveling Conundrum

I’ve been playing MMOs off and on since the original Ever Quest came out. Out of all the MMOs out there, I’ve played EverQuest, EverQuest 2, Dark Age of Camelot, Warhammer Online, World of Warcraft, and Eve Online; all for various lengths of time. All of these MMOs, with the exception of Eve Online, use a leveling system for character progression. In fact, this is the de facto standard right now in the MMO industry which very few have the courage or ingenuity to break.

Of course, this isn’t a bad thing per se. On the contrary, levels present a clear goal, get to the level cap. All other gameplay and content is then designed around this idea (except end game, but I’ll get to that later). Furthermore, levels give you a concrete indication of power and progress. They help you estimate fight outcomes (That guys lvl 26, there’s no way I can kill him at lvl 10). They also help reward you (DING! Lvl 35, now I can go get my Awesome Nuclear Explosion spell) and show accomplishment (She’s lvl 80 already? She must have played for 4 days nonstop). I’ve always loved RPGs and their level systems, but it they have flaws just like anything in the world.

The Level Gap Problem

The one major problem I have with MMO leveling systems is this; when your friends out level you, you can no longer play with them. Thus begins, what I like to call, the catch up game. You start to play like mad. It’s no longer about having fun and enjoying the experience, it’s all about the fastest way to grind to your friend’s level. Not only do you play yourself to death, but your friend might slow down too. They wait for you to catch up, doing side activities or leveling an alt, neither of which is what they want to do. All they’d like is to continue leveling, but they’re your good friend and they want to be able to play with their buddy. All this brings me to my point, YOU STOP HAVING FUN! It become almost like a job.

Most people play MMOs to get away from the world and have fun doing it. When people don’t have fun they start to get bored or, even worse, start to dread playing the game. Eventually, players quit and the developer loses money off of them. It’s bad for everyone. So, how do you fix this problem? Well, here’s a list of some solutions already out there right now.

The Mentor System

Early in Everquest 2’s life, Sony added the Mentoring System. This system lets a higher level player temporarily nerf his level to that of the person being mentored, allowing them to play together. The mentor and mentoree can share quests and fight in a group with no penalty. The mentoree even gains an experience boost, allowing a way to sudo-power level someone. This is great for friends at different points in their character path who want to experience some content together, but it has problems, mainly in a lack of incentives for the mentor.

As a mentor you’re basically doing charity work. You gets little to no experience toward your next level. Any item drops from mobs are nowhere near your higher level gear quality and the quest rewards are mediocre at best. Your only reward is in the satisfaction of helping your friends. For many this is the best reward out there, for others it not why they hang out online.

This system works well for friends who want to help each other level. It fixes the main problem, not being able to play with friends that are a higher level, but it does it by using a side system. It’s like taking decongestant; it treats the symptoms not the cause.

Monetary Advancement

For those of you who have played Eve Online, you know that levels have little to do with advancement and power. In Eve Online, money can literally buy (or steal) the world. There aren’t character levels or experience in Eve Online and there are no complex set of equations that calculate health and damage from character attributes. Instead they take the capitalist approach, if you need more fire power, buy it.

This presents a problem though. If money is everything then all you need is a friend with deep pockets and you can start at the top with no work involved. This can seriously water down the game for new players and is extremely frustrating for those without rich friends who have to work their way up from nothing while everyone else magically jumps ahead. That’s where Eve’s other advancement path comes in…

Leveling Skills

In Eve Online you advance your skills by training them over time. While playing Eve Online you always have a skill training. This skill gains skill points over time no matter if you’re currently playing or not. Essentially this serves as a time gate to new and better things.

This system has the same flaws as having a character level but on a more granular scale. Say you’re going ice mining and your friend wants to come along but can’t because he doesn’t have the Ice harvesting skill trained. Once again you can’t play with your friend but this has the benefit of only locking you out of one activity. Maybe your combat skills are equivalent and you can go rat hunting instead.

The Eve Online skill tree is also very wide but not nearly as deep. Meaning, a new character with no skill points can go from a starter ship that dies if a speck of dust touches it, to a combat ship that can stand on its own against the majority of people in a month with little to no work on your part. All you need is some time and the money.


Anyone who has played World of Warcraft knows what the rest system is. While you are offline your character gains more rest the longer you’re logged out. Those who play less will be offline more and therefore have more rest. When you log back on you are rested until you progress past the rested section of your experience bar. While rested you gain bonus experience on top of your normal experience. This accelerates the time it takes you to gain your level, allowing players who play less to close the gap much more quickly with those who play all the time. While this doesn’t stop your friend from out leveling you, it will at least make the catch up process less painful.

Developers have to be careful that rest isn’t too good though. If rest gives you too much of a bonus you might create a situation where those who play every other day out level those who play every day because of the rest bonus. At this point you’re penalizing players for playing your game to much and rewarding others for sitting on their hands.

World of Warcraft combats this problem in two ways, bonuses from rest only apply to experience gained from monsters and you can only have so much rest at any one time. First, because you get a huge chunk of your experience from turning in quests, applying the bonus to only what you gain from monsters slows the rate you gain the bonus while keeping the total amount you eventually receive from rest the same. Second, the rest cap prevents you from accumulating rest bonus indefinitely if you don’t play for a long time, ensuring that everyone will run out of rest in a reasonable time.

The End Game or Gaining Item Levels

Once you reach top level in an MMO, you then start what people call the end game. Some like to call this the “true game”, while other (like me) think of it as an extension of content. In the end game you raid and work toward improving your gear. Basically, you’re leveling your gear. This has the same problem as character leveling, where you can out level each other, but with an odd one way relationship.

Let’s take for example two max level characters. One character has close to the best gear in the game while the other just reached max level and only has sub-par gear. The player with sub-par gear wants to do the hardest raid in the game, but can’t with his current equipment and first needs to get higher level gear. This barrier is only in place when going from a lower to a higher item level, though. The top gear character can play with the low gear character in weaker raids with no penalty for level difference, unlike the experience nerf when there’s a standard character level gap. Even better the high item level character can gain something worthwhile from the lower level raid, be it money, something for another character, or even an item for a second set of gear they’re working on. In the end, it works out for everyone.

Nothings Perfect

None of these solutions are perfect and I seriously doubt there’s any way to completely fix the level gap issue. The solutions that seem to get the closest are those that throw out character levels all together and start from scratch. Sadly many companies are afraid to do this because they want to stick to what they know works and what they know will bring in the dough at the end of the day. This is a hard and dangerous game of trial and error and I’d love to know the answer myself.

Did I miss a solution that’s out there or do you have an idea? Please leave a comment.

This post originally appeared on Lost in Neurons on Monday, February 1, 2010. As part of a clean out of Lost in Neurons to make it more focused, it has been moved here, where its author feels it better fit.


  1. Great article!

    I'm a fan of the Guild Wars solution: leveling for PvE but instant level-capped characters for PvP. Ass "sidekicking" into that system and I think it would do all I'd want it to do.

    I like leveling for what it offers, mainly a way for players to self-modulate the difficulty of a game. The sense of progression can be nice, too, and I like a good character development scheme. It seems like the big warts come out when you start talking multiplayer.

    I hate ganking, so I've long been a proponent of normalized PvP and a very narrow power band. And yes, playing with others really does need a "sidekicking" system or some other normalizing. It still baffles me that these MMO things, ostensibly banking on their multiplayer, make it so hard sometimes for players to actually play together.

    1. I think Guild Wars 2 will let you do "sidekicking" if I remember correctly. There's so many things that have me excited about that game.

      And yes, MMO make you jump through to many hoops to be able to play with friends. I've quit more MMOs (including WoW multiple times) because I couldn't play with friends for one reason or another.


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

Latest Board Gaming

S2E22 - E3 2017 - “Who doesn’t want to be a dinosaur?!”

Games of the Year 2022: In Conclusion