The eternal allure of traditional leveling MMOs

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What’s one thing that WildStar, The Secret World, and Marvel Heroes don’t have that I crave?

A complete traditional leveling experience.

Don’t get me wrong; each of these games are great fun in their own right. But from each, something is missing. In WildStar, it’s a shortage of additional high-level zones being added and an ease of dungeon running (dungeons are there, but they’re still anything but casual). The Secret World’s quest structure isn’t quite the same as the traditional questing MMO, which means that I sample more than binge on it, and I’m not fond of its dungeons as endgame content either. Marvel Heroes has options coming out of the wazoo, but it’s not as if you really move through a world, leveling up (even in the story mode).

No matter how many or which MMOs are in a current personal rotation of games, I find that I need — I desire — a very traditional, full-featured title as an anchor for my gaming life. Kind of like how malls have big-name outlets as anchors — your Nordstroms or Macys — I find myself installing those kind of titles. What kind of games am I talking about? For me, they have to have the following features:

  • A traditional leveling system with a world through which you move through zones
  • An endgame that’s accessible (LFG dungeons, dungeons for noobs, dailies)
  • Regular tab-target combat (not action combat)
  • A healthy population and a good outlook (content/expansions being added)
  • A community (guild) that’s easy to plug into and makes me feel welcome

My mainstays with these have been limited to just a handful of titles that meet these qualifications. LOTRO, although I’ve never been super into the dungeon scene there (although there are more coming, so that’s a good sign). World of Warcraft, which is why it’s currently on my machine. Final Fantasy XIV, which meets these standards but has an aesthetic that’s a little hard for me to overcome. SWTOR, although these days the expansion — while fun — isn’t really about progressing through zones as it is doing the instanced story chapters. RIFT is the solid if forgettable candidate (why isn’t this game more sticky for me?).

Other possibilities include Guild Wars 2 (although that doesn’t quite scratch that main game anchor itch for a variety of reasons) and EverQuest 2 (which I’ve never been able to get into). But past that, it’s really those first five as potentials.

WildStar sates some of these desires, albeit with action combat, but when I hit that hard wall of “oops you’re out of zones and level 50 and have you thought about making raid attunement your lord and savior?” I start to look elsewhere for my entertainment. There’s still plenty to do in the game, to be sure, but it leaves a leveling void that isn’t being filled. Alts are an option, sure.

No matter how far I roam the field in search of entertainment, at the end of the day I keep finding myself coming back to the familiar, the comfortable, and the quite traditional. Maybe what I’m expressing is a desire to have a “home” of sorts. Right now I can’t claim any game as such, although WildStar still does get most of my regular time and attention. I’ve been flirting with most all of those five as of late (apart from FF14, and even that’s gotten some sidelong looks from me recently), going on dates with them and asking them tough questions about a potential long stay.

Do I return to LOTRO and work on getting my Captain through Gondor, perhaps jumping into the dungeon scene? Do I stick with World of Warcraft, since there’s an expansion on the way and I’ve got a long way to go in getting this Shaman up to the cap? Do I give FFXIV another try and see if I can’t access that stickiness that others have seem to found? Do I take RIFT out for more questing and instant adventures and dungeons? Or should SWTOR become my default fallback?

I don’t feel like I can really invest in a character’s career in any one of these for the long haul. I should probably make a decision soon. I just know that I need one of them to be my go-to in my gaming sessions. Does anyone else go through this?

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10 thoughts on “The eternal allure of traditional leveling MMOs

  1. tsuhelm December 22, 2015 / 9:17 am

    I would refer to it as pure ‘Old school MMO grind thrill’ where I can get more pleasure from taking a new char to level 30-40 in LOTRO than exploring newer later areas. Its comfortable, its easy, at times challenging although those are mostly self generated, and fun in that no alienness is encountered. Its also what many people find the most distressing part of old MMO’s and I am glad it is not what makes up 100% of an MMO. I remember having to to try and explain to others how I could grind my old JRPG chars to max levels by repeating content… it was simply comforting in the end.

  2. Trippin Ninja December 22, 2015 / 11:48 am

    I feel your pain. I finally cancelled my wow sub and my swtor sub is all I have at the moment. I have recently installed and tried getting back into ESO and Lotro without much luck. I did the free weekend in FFXIV and enjoyed it but didn’t pull the sub trigger. Tried jumping back into Fallout 4, Dragon Age and Witcher 3 recently as well but it usually only lasts a few quests and then I move on. Having a real hard time finding something I want to sink my holiday time into. I might end up trying a month of FFXIV but still not sure. The last two nights I have actually been enjoying replaying Kotor 2. The new movie has me craving new Star Wars games.

  3. Raignn December 22, 2015 / 12:03 pm

    I really recommend you keep on in WoW. I came back about a year and a half ago and started brand new. I was really surprised by how much I enjoyed the whole process. Leveling is faster, but not too fast, more fun. The quests are better. It’s SO different than it was. I really think you should add it to your rotation and get to 100. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

    (Also, very long time reader, first time commenting!)

  4. bhagpuss December 22, 2015 / 4:48 pm

    Won’t surprise you to hear that I’m 75-80% with you on all of the above. I can do without any kind of endgame so long as there are plenty of races and classes that play differently – I just keep leveling new ones. And I can do without any system that requires you to run dungeons repeatedly.

    Other than that, though, yes it’s all about the leveling. I much prefer an actual level increase with each expansion but I can certainly manage well enough with an alternative leveling system like AAs for a while. One of the reasons I found myself liking Heart of Thorns a lot more than I expected was because the Mastery system is effectively a new leveling ladder.

    It’s a shame you don’t click with EQ2 because it would seem to have just about everything you ever mention enjoying in an MMO and it is VAST! It’s like ten WildStarrs and then some. Sometimes we just don’t feel it, though, which is where I ended up rather quickly with FFXIV, another MMO that looks good on paper but ended up feeling like sand in the joints for me.

  5. tyrannodorkus December 22, 2015 / 7:21 pm

    EQ2 has been my home. It has all the traditional leveling experience and MMO’ness I need. Been in a bit of a slump though and been kind of absent from it recently.

  6. Syp December 22, 2015 / 7:39 pm

    I’ve given EQ2 the ol’ college try more than once… and while I certainly do appreciate and respect its parts, I could never really get into it as a whole. Shame. Maybe if it was 2004 again and there was no WoW.

  7. wolfyseyes December 22, 2015 / 10:44 pm

    XIV definitely scratches this itch for me, though apparently the aesthetic choices of the game seem to be a hindrance. I find it as silly as people poo’ing on WildStar for using colors other then a mud soup of grey and brown, but I can also appreciate the sentiment, even if just at a cursory level.

    That said, I have been kiiiiiind of squinting in LotRO’s direction. Especially with the sales going on for it….

  8. Xannziee December 23, 2015 / 2:01 am

    ESO is that game for me, not tab target but the combat is a lot easier without it imo. Its a high end game with endless zones and new content coming in regularly. The pvp is epic but optional. I think ill stay forever ❤
    GW2 is too strange for me and I dont like FFIX either. I only play ArcheAge cos of my friends. So ESO is The Game 4 me:)
    Good luck finding your right game.

  9. Sylow December 23, 2015 / 6:25 am

    An interesting posting, especially since i quite often feel that i play MMOs -despite- the leveling nonsense.

    Also in my eyes, even TSW is very much “traditional” leveling, just hidden a little bit better. Instead of gaining levels, you gain skillpoints, which allow you to use better gear. You get better gear from higher up zones. All of that by now also is added up in some strange “effigy rating”, allowing you to estimate your “level”. Now add augments and see how much you can improve your gear, which effectively is your level, and you can also play TSW as the absolute grinder. I don’t feel like that would be fun, but for me this posting reads a bit like “traditional grinder wanted”.

    One of the premium examples on why i find traditional leveling and level oriented zones bad is FireFall. I really enjoyed that one for several months. The game was very open world and sandboxy. Indeed it basically only had one zone, it’s size was acceptable and it was very enjoyable to navigate it from one end to the other with the different means of transportation in the game.

    I also have to point out that it even at that time was a leveling game, as progressing your battleframe allowed you to equip better weapons, armours, jumpjets, etc. Thus while the game played like a shooter (first or third person, but it was always crosshair based combat) your gear still made a difference. For “grunts” in higher difficulty missions you had to land two headshots to kill with a normal sniper rifle, while a better sniper rifle might not only have two more bullets in the magazine but was able to kill these grunts with one headshot.

    All the same, while equipment mattered, it was not the deciding factor, the player mattered more. In the run of the time i leveled all frames and later did not bother for difficulty much any more as i was able to do even the hardest missions in an unleveled frame. (When i started out, the same difficulty was “undefeatable” for me even in a halfway leveled frame. )

    Next to this “leveling exists, but player skill matters”, new mission targets of any difficulty spawned regularily, my only gripe was that the icons were very similar and it was impossible for a beginner to understand if the target next to him was of beginner difficulty or if he’d have to be very good to survive there.

    This gave the game many advantages:
    – while there was only the one big map, every player was able to do something everywhere on the map.
    – no matter how easy the next event on the map was, every player would gain something from it, and if it just was crafting materials.
    – playing together with friends who play much more/less than the others was easily possible.

    Unfortunately then they made the big change, the WoW-ized the leveling. The 20% more damage and 20% more ammo advantage of high quality gear changed to 300% more damage and 100% more ammo. Enemies were adjusted accordingly. The big map was splintered up into zones for each level range. Rewards were adjusted to the level area you were in.

    The result added up like this:
    – if you fight enemies of higher level than you, they one-shot you while you need to hammer several magazines into them to kill even one.
    – if you fight enemies of lower level than you, you gain nothing of value any more.
    – no matter at which level range you were, it felt like you had your 20 square meters call to be in, if you leave them you get punished for it.
    – if a friend is online who plays less than you, you should ignore him. If you go to his difficulty you break things for him, if he comes to you, he will be one-shotted all of the time and log off in frustration.

    Of course this is an extreme example, but actually it very clearly shows the big drawback of almost all games with strong leveling curve: most of the game is a waste of development time. There are huge low tier areas, where a lot of time, effort and thus money was spent and wasted to create a pretty area, where players only quickly rush through to the next level, without ever taking a look.

    To be fair, there are some MMOs out there who try to solve the problem.

    – In STO and some other MMOs you can down-level yourself to your friends level. This fixes the problem of the friend being frustrated, you can play together, but by down-leveling you also sacrifice your own progress, so playing with a friend who plays less than you do still is a bit of punishment.
    – In GW2 (and i think i heard of another game which does that, but can’t remember which it is), you automatically get scaled to the zone you are in. As drops and XP are still adjusted to your level, you don’t punish yourself for doing that, good work there. At the same time, once your first character has world completion, there’s not much to do in the lower zones for your second characters but to run through all of them once to collect all hero points.

    Thus even in the two best and most positive examples i could come up with, the problems with strong leveling and level specific zones are not fixed, but just cut down to a bearable level. Just looking at things from from a financial point of view, ressources like map creation would be much better used without a strong leveling system, and players actually would have much more from the game in the long run, instead of being locked into a few zones. (And once the next expansion hits, they are locked into the next zone, while the currently “top tier” zone just becomes one more zone to rush through. ) Unfortunationally there seem to be way too many people around who love “strong leveling” and skinner boxes, making this basically inferior design the more lucrative one.

    And one more thing, your list:
    •A traditional leveling system with a world through which you move through zones
    •An endgame that’s accessible (LFG dungeons, dungeons for noobs, dailies)
    •Regular tab-target combat (not action combat)
    •A healthy population and a good outlook (content/expansions being added)
    •A community (guild) that’s easy to plug into and makes me feel welcome

    In my eyes TSW and GW2 meet most of them. In TSW the first is hidden below skillpoints and equipment level, in GW2 you have levels but the actual “leveling” also is hero points, achievements (to get mastery points) and equipment.

    For the second point, accessible endgame, the LFG tool of both of them are mediocre, but at least for TSW improvements are announced. Also in TSW you can join the chat channels “Noobmares”, “Sanctuary” and “Event”. The last one is only active during times of an event, like xmas, but either of them is run by the community and there are helpful players there, ready to take you into action.

    On the third point, both of them are very much the same. By all means, the only difference of combat of GW2 and TSW boils down to TSW having clearer telegraphs and dodge-rolling just giving you quick movement without including invulnerability, while GW2 uses more particle effects and the likes for eyecandy, which also very well covers up the fact that the actual character animations are barely on par, often even inferior to those of TSW.

    On the fourth point, GW2 had its first official expansion this year. (I had to pay gems for the living story, so for me this also is paid content and thus a kind of a mini-DLC. ) That’s more content that some other bigger MMOs produce in the same time and even at a higher rate. Of course, we players still consume it much faster than it’s being created, but that’s true for all MMOs. On the outlook, that’s more philosophical. Behind GW2 there’s ANet. They have a history of quickly shutting down even still lucrative game for being “less lucrative than others”. But GW2 seems to currently be a strong cashcow, thus i think it’ll still be here for a long time.

    For TSW things
    are a bit more interesting. Funcom has a history of really supporting their games for a very long time, but the companys own existance only is secure till the end of next year. According to their annual financial report, TSW is lucrative and while “The Park”, based on the TSW IP is not included in the last report, it was stated to have been a financial success. At the same time, the company currently is working on three new titles, their success or rather their failure can really determine the companies fate. If the company burns, we just can hope that the profitable IP of TSW survives and carries on under the next owner.

    And for the last point, the quality of the community: I have experienced some good communities in several MMOs. GW2 has a very mixed bunch, the addition of the raid unfortunately also added a huge load of elitism, so things there are a bit on the downward slope, but mostly the community is fine. That being said, the community in TSW is leagues ahead of any other community i experienced out there since leaving a small MUD in old times.

    In terms of guild: your posting here reads a little like a “looking for a nice guild” statement. If this is true for either TSW or GW2, my email address is included, just drop me a mail and i can give you some info about the guilds i am in. 🙂

  10. Telwyn December 23, 2015 / 6:46 am

    I think this topic is why I’ve been going back to LoTRO and EQ2 over the years. Although the endgame point on your list isn’t that important to me I’d probably add one other in its place – the ‘stickiest’ MMOs for me are those where I feel encouraged to create a stable of alts. If I have overlapping crafting and very distinct classes to play on separate characters it can help to keep me playing over the long term. That’s one weakness of FFXIV from a this standpoint, being able to do everything on one character doesn’t indulge my desire for a stable of varied characters.

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