A new way to level

14th July 2009 – 5.07 pm

There is an understandable buzz about Cataclysm being the next World of Warcraft expansion and what regions and new content it may include. It is assumed that the level cap will be raised another ten levels, as it has in both previous expansions, pushing all the old content still further away from the focus of the game. XP gains, and thus levelling, can be sped up further, but it will still take time for characters not at the current level cap to get past all the old content. And even if new characters could be created within reach of the new level cap, akin to death knights, there is an awful lot of the world that would simply be passed by.

Instead of making even more of the World of Warcraft redundant by raising the level cap, perhaps an alternative idea would be to lower the cap. Or, rather, have the next expansion cause players to progress towards a lower level, quests and kills removing XP, and eventually levels, from the character. The cataclysm could be that Azeroth has been split in to two parallel realities, one filled with positive energy and one with negative. The 'negative' Azeroth could be a phased version of the 'positive', or current, Azeroth, with all the geography still in place but with the potential for different NPCs and quests, and where XP 'gains' would be negative.

Performing certain rituals or passing through certain portals transitions a character from one world to the next, where all the changes will be seen in full. The more time spent in the cataclysm the lower level a character would become. The loss of level could mean players need to decide which powers and talents to remove and play in a more limited setting, new NPC-trained powers replace older ones rather than adding to a full spellbook, or perhaps just a simple regression to earlier levels.

There would be new regions and instances in the cataclysm for players and raiders to explore and challenges to overcome, but the model would be changed so that you no longer need to reach the previous level cap before being able to experience the new content. It would also mean that there is no standard linear progression, with the level of an instance not being a direct indication of its comparitive difficulty. Players would be free to explore the content with far fewer restrictions than before, with the added option of being able to revisit content, from any epoch of the game, at their discretion.

It is, of course, highly unlikely that the above will be implemented, as there are likely massive complications with level-restricted items; balancing player abilities, particularly with those levelling up against those levelling down; creating alternative content to cover a few tens of levels downwards; making the current level-based combat system viable; allowing for crafting to be feasible; and reviewing the restrictions on flight and other travel or sanctuary conditions. However, for a game that defines the character primarily by level it would make sense to allow the player to determine her character's level more dynamically. I believe the opportunities would be fantastic.

Characters would be still be concentrated within an optimal level band but the overall spread of levels would be much higher than currently seen with having a fixed cap. There would be more possibilities to play with friends, as older characters could enjoy levelling down in the content of the expansion as new characters level up, before all joining to pass through Outlands or Northrend together, with the option at any point to experience the new content by phasing to the parallel Azeroth.

Old instances could be revitalised as new players get to experience them for the first time at the level they were designed to be played. Nostalgic players also get to relive their glory days in Blackwing Lair and Ahn'Qiraj, along with opportunities for new ten- and twenty five-man raids also available as part of the expansion. Rather than having to create streams of alts to enjoy favourite content, characters can level up and down almost on a whim, always balancing time spent levelling upwards in the old content with time spend levelling downwards in the new content.

There is a potential problem of players entering instances being overpowered, as they have more influence of their level. But instead of having strict level requirements in order to enter the instances, it would be a simple matter of having achievements in place that are awarded only when conquered by characters of the appropriate level and wearing appropriate gear. And, of course, completing the the instances will continue to reward, or remove, XP from each character and so eventually everyone will have to return to the pre-cataclysmic Azeroth, at least for a while. Perhaps there could be both positive and negative versions of all the new instances, so that players only wanting to experience the new content can do so.

Levelling speed could be kept fast, intentionally speeding players past content to give motivation for levelling in both directions. New players zoom past early content to reach the busier zones whilst allowing for the missed content to be visited later with their favourite character, taking time to level back downwards instead of needing to create an alt. Old players will race past some of the new content but will retain the chance of enjoying it in the future. Even players who enjoy creating many alts would find new opportunities, as the speed of levelling means that each alt could effectively play different content, whilst none of them would need to grind as far to get to the new content.

If it were possible to balance powers and items, characters and zones, dungeons and world content I think it would be fabulous to see a game where the possibility existed to level in any direction, particularly in a mature game where there is plenty of polished content that is otherwise ignored by every player at the level cap. With end-game content available at several tiers, and methods available to experience the content as it was designed, the game world would be a richer environment for everyone.

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