WoW Wednesday: Blizzard’s Proposed ‘Level Squish’

The World of Warcraft is a very old game. Celebrating its 15th anniversary later this year the wide world of Azeroth has seen quite a bit of change over the years. Despite adding more and more to its end-game content, however, there has been a clear and deprecating problem to the overall experience. This experience, alongside Battle for Azeroth’s many other issues, continues to degrade the overall quality of the game and can be the biggest turn off for new players. I speak of course about Warcraft’s leveling experience.

We’ve talked about this before on WoW Wednesday in an article several months ago. There we discussed the controversial Draught of Ten Lands ban and why players seek to exploit their way to the end-game. Venturing through Azeroth’s old, and sometimes primitive content, can be utterly painful. While long strides were taken to revamp older content in Cataclysm, both Outland and Northrend still feature obsolete systems that stall the leveling process. Changes during 7.3 to experience gains also drastically elongated the process. Simply speaking, to level a character isn’t fun.

As such, Blizzard is now looking to reduce levels in World of Warcraft by squishing them to what they call a ‘dramatically lower’ number. An internal survey sent to multiple Blizzard departments (featured below) as well as players doing Customer Service surveys shows that the idea is a near certainty. While teased and suggested before in the past, such a thing has never been considered before. In the past it has seen several stat squishes with both Warlords of Draenor and Battle for Azeroth. These reduced overall numbers which by their previous expansion’s end had fallen into the several million range. We’ve also seen a sizable reduction in abilities for classes during the great ‘pruning’ at the start of Warlords.

A level squish, in my opinion, is neither a desirable solution nor the correct one.

Frankly its hard to know what exactly Blizzard is planning to do with this as press inquires from multiple outlets have simple received a, ‘no comment,’ response. Hypothetically, what would a level squish look like?

Frankly we could see a squish drop down to as much as level 60 reasonably. The first twenty levels could take place in the Eastern Kingdoms and Kalimdor. The next ten could feature Burning Crusade and Wrath of the Lich King content. 40 and onward could take place over Cataclysm and Mists of Pandaria. 50-60 could culminate in the latest three expansions, with the last few levels covering all of Battle for Azeroth.

The problem isn’t that level numbers have gotten too ridiculous. It’s simply that leveling has gotten ridiculous and there has been no attempt to fix it. While true, there have been adjustments to  gains and experience over the last few years, these have done two things. The first, as we’ve already surmised, is lengthening overall leveling time after level 60. The second has been more of a patchwork fix to try and allow people to choose what content they can undergo, giving certain brackets a choice where they’d like to tackle their grind.

Here’s the greater issue. No matter where you go, leveling simply isn’t fun. Whether its your first time or your twenty-first time, leveling is not an enjoyable experience. Gameplay is not engaging; there are no rewards to questing over the easy grinding that dungeons can garner (unless you enjoy titles). Unlike later expansions, which have made an attempt to be narratively engaging, there are no attempts in any of the first four that do not otherwise tie directly into end-game content. These storylines then become obsolete when players cross the level threshold and are forced (by breadcrumb quests designed to do so) into the next legacy expansion’s content. That cycle then repeats itself and gets incredibly boring INCREDIBLY quickly.

Meanwhile, especially for newer players, leveling time is impossibly long. As a player at max level, pushing through an alt, you can realistically level a character to 120 in a week if you played for five hours a day. That’s with full heirloom gear, all three different experience buff potions, with a monk, doing nothing but dungeons.

A newer player could spend at least three times that long, and only if they knew exactly where to go.

Let’s be honest, who wants to spend 160 hours on a game that frankly sucks to play?

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There are two methods to go about fixing this. One is, of course, completely overhauling leveling. This would be an incredible amount of work to go about and re-do the entire game up until Battle for Azeroth, retooling quests and making the whole world more engaging. This is frankly straight up impossible and unfeasible not just from a game development standpoint but a business standpoint. As we’ve seen in Battle when content is dreadful, like Patch 8.1, it is in Blizzard’s best interest to redouble efforts on the next end-game patch and push forward to better content. Most of its player base is full of end-game content players.

However, in doing that they ignore newer players unwilling to make that grind and thus lose more of a potential player base.

The other solution is to introduce new systems into leveling to make it more enjoyable.

This can be done in many ways, but the easiest to perform would be introducing new intrinsic reward systems. In game development there are two methods of doing so. The first, an extrinsic reward system, would be introducing new elements outside of normal gameplay process. Comparable extrinsic systems we’ve seen are akin to the Artifact Skin system in Legion; it wasn’t something that was used in the natural flow of the game. These were simply additional bits to bolt on to existing gameplay.

The other, intrinsic, are systems that tie directly into the gameplay and can be seen as inseparable. It’s easy to introduce extrinsic systems, such as the Heart of Azeroth’s new Essences in Patch 8.2, to bolster old ones. Intrinsic systems must be carefully crafted, however, in order to be successful.

Take the old talent systems. Players from Warcraft’s Classic era may remember the three branching talent trees. Unlike the current 6 tier, 18 selection system, the older talent system featured roughly 49 talent points which could be spent on an expanding tree. This system was later introduced most effectively in the Borderlands franchise, where it remains as a great example of Classic’s old design philosophy. Whereas the current system focuses on large-scale changes immediately, the older system focused on progressive change over time.

There are perks to both systems. Now, talents are very versatile and can be changed for a variety of situations. In Classic this was not the case, where there were often singular optimized builds to collect specific necessary stats and abilities due to severe class underdevelopment and imbalance. However, you got a talent point for every level after 10 in Classic, meaning that every level you had something to look forward to. Now, you get one point every fifteen levels. Perhaps you get one ability every four or five. Instead of small development you have a wide array of control over, you now have BIG developments that quickly feel like extrinsic additions that your class doesn’t require.

Even crunching the required levels in half for leveling, that won’t change the time required to go to the NEXT major development. It will still realistically take the same time, just now you’ll have less of the pretty colors and nice sounds to enjoy.

So what is a realistic fix for this? Simply make leveling more rewarding.

Despite my opinions on most of Classic being poor gameplay, it knew how to reward players. While the talent system is primitive (and perhaps incompatible for current Warcraft), it intrinsically rewarded players consistently. It was exciting to plan out your progression and try new things. Even in terms of individual class identity every single class had a new quest to unlock abilities or unique weapons every ten to twenty levels. Most famously are the Warlock and Paladin Mount questlines, but Shaman also had several involved adventures to procure their next elemental totems. Warriors got incredible weapons and their new stances through questing as well.

This is partly why Legion was so celebrated. It felt GOOD to not only perform duties as the paragon of you Class, but to do MORE as a member of your class. While Warcraft is an MMORPG, the RPG part of that experience has been missing for an incredibly long time. Introducing more class-based elements as players progress, even as simple as new story-based quests, is a good way to start.

YouTuber Bellular has one of the better suggestions in an additional ‘latent power’ talent system. This system would introduce a new branching tree that would unlock as you progress. Unlike talents, which are variable, these would become passive abilities to engage in throughout world content. As they would be turned off during instanced content, there would be no need to balance them, allowing players to grow in power more and more over time.

Additionally, introducing new milestone rewards over time may be another concept. We have such a system now in both the new Heritage Armor transmogs. Every ten levels simply unlock a new transmogrification outfit for your class based on the zone you’ve been leveling in. Not only would this encourage players to level to that next major milestone (often offset from talents), it would also encourage playing on every continent. This would elongate playtime, something that Blizzard currently seems to want.

All of these are extrinsic systems. These are additions that are not going to fix the main problem of Warcraft. They don’t make leveling fun; they simply make it more REWARDING to perform. The fun comes from getting more flashy bits to enjoy, less so from the experience of leveling. The intrinsic problem Blizzard has will require an intrinsic solution. For now the best we can hope for is an addition to the problem that makes the suffering a little more enjoyable.

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