Pop quiz! Which would you rather prefer in your level-based MMORPG?
- Zones that dynamically adjust their levels and difficulty up and even down based on a character’s own levels (or characters whose levels scale up and down to meet a zone’s range), or
- Zones that remain fixed in a level range, preventing players from going in them before a certain point and allowing characters to out-level them?
To me, this question isn’t as simple as it might first appear. Lately among MMOs, there seems to be a trend for games to implement level scaling for areas. Guild Wars 2, Elder Scrolls Online, and SWTOR are three major examples of how this is being done (in GW2’s case, it was there from the start, while the latter two changed things later on). You hop into a zone and the level of the zone’s enemies roughly meets your own, whether the game’s adjusted your level and stats to match or the zone’s and everything in it. World of Warcraft: Legion has leveling zones that present dynamic scaling so that it doesn’t matter which one you do first or in which order. If you’re level 105, the zone will be 105. If you’re 110, the zone will be the same.
For the most part, I’ve been more accepting with the level scaling concept, seeing it as more of the future of the genre. I like levels and progression, but dynamic scaling offers far more flexibility and options, as well as allows players of differing levels to group together. Plus, as a nice bonus, it keeps old content relevant; as a level 80 Guild Wars 2 player, I can go into a newbie zone and the level scaling brings me down so that the mobs are somewhat on par with me and the rewards are what I’d expect elsewhere.
But lately I’ve started to wonder if there’s a darker side to level scaling, if studios and we have been too quick to abandon level-fixed zones. While it’s nice to have the flexibility to group with others in a multiplayer situation, level scaling is actually a feature that I didn’t like at all in, say, the Elder Scrolls games. It felt like it made my progress feel irrelevant, that the more I continued to level, the harder the game would get to compensate, sort of punishing me for becoming better. Plus, when you aren’t ever able to outlevel content and become powerful against what was once a threat, then you’ve taken away a genuinely fun part of RPGs. Yes, rofflestomping is quite useful and even enjoyable, for those of us who like farming old content and seeing how far we’ve come.
In LOTRO lately, I’ve been doing the scavenger hunts. These have taken me all over the game world, and as a level 105 character, that means that everything prior to Gondor has ceased to be a threat to me. This is actually incredibly awesome, because it’s like I’ve earned “tourist mode” in these zones now that I’ve outleveled them. I can ride about with impunity, sight-seeing without fear that I’ll have to fight every two steps. It’s an explorer’s dream and even allows me to go right up nose-to-nose with enemy mobs and appreciate their art and their idle animations without that character going all berserk and moving constantly. It sounds like a small thing, but it’s actually pretty cool if you’ve taken the time to do it.
I don’t think I’d ever want dynamic scaling in LOTRO at all. I like how the game uses levels as sort of guiderails to our travels, yet there are enough zone options that I don’t feel hemmed in (or I didn’t, prior to 105). It’s a heady rush to be able to go back to, say, Misty Mountains and romp through the elite giant area that used to be instant death to anyone who dared solo into its territory. I feel like I’ve become mightier and a force to reckon with, and sometimes it’s pretty relaxing to plow through these areas like an unstoppable whirlwind of death.
So I don’t know what the right answer is here, even for myself. Some might say to abolish overarching character levels entirely, some might vouch for level scaling as the future, and some might hold fast to fixed levels for the benefits there. It does really depend on the game and its format, especially if that MMO was designed from the ground-up to function a certain way. What do you think?