Level scaling vs. outleveling: Which is better for MMOs?

Pop quiz! Which would you rather prefer in your level-based MMORPG?

  1. 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
  2. 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?

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18 thoughts on “Level scaling vs. outleveling: Which is better for MMOs?

  1. Gamera977 May 10, 2017 / 9:22 am

    I like fixed level zones better. It’s as you say easy to see my progress in TSW now that I’m doing Transylvania to go back to New England and mow down the same mobs that used to give me fits.
    Heck, I remember in Everquest back around 2000 a stupid level 15 dark elf NPC named Kizean Gex (sp?) who killed me over and over at low level. When I hit the mid 30s and up I’d go back to that zone whenever I was having a bad day and just kill him over and over.

    As the saying goes ‘Revenge is a dish best served thirty levels later..’

  2. Wilhelm Arcturus May 10, 2017 / 9:33 am

    I would prefer a way to de-level yourself if you want to fight through a zone at level and earn exp and rep, as EverQuest II has. Part of the joy of leveling up is going back to your old neighborhood and beating the crap out of mobs that used to own you. Now its, “Oh, you’re level 62 now? Well so is everybody else, so screw you!”

  3. Orthom May 10, 2017 / 9:40 am

    I have to say i like the Guild Wars 2 approach. By only down leveling they keep a sense of progression while not invalidating all the low level content.

    Also if you come back to the low level areas with endgame gear you are much tougher then a newby geared low level character. You have more skills at your disposal as well. Again progression you can feel.

    On the other hand killing a champion in a low level zone is still an accomplishment. Even with a level 80 character in full ascended gear.

  4. Sylow May 10, 2017 / 11:02 am

    Thanks to recent happenings (TSW disposing of us, me migrating to ESO) my point of view on this topic got a bit wider. I like level-scaling, but now also know an example of how things can take a strange turn.

    For GW2 i also like how it’s done. Again, by having more skills and traits available and making good combinations, you end up more effective than a lower character. But while you are more effective than the beginner, the difference is not so big that content would become completely trivial. So thanks to this system and the way GW2 set up its dailies, all of the game remains to be active content.

    At the same time, your level determines the “maximum content” you can handle. I still remember when i leveled my warrior. For most of the game, a properly set up warrior is tough as nails. But then i decided to take a shortcut by going through an area which was just three levels over my characters level. Suddenly every single mob felt like a small bossfight.

    This limitation is even more true for group content. There are some dungeons which are designed for lower levels (story mode), but you better don’t turn up in the later ones or in exploration mode without being fully leveled and well set up.

    So all in all, levels mostly unlock new content in GW2. But all in all, while there (just like in any other MMO i play) there are some things which i’d wish were done better or at least differently, i consider level scaling in GW2 to be done almost perfectly. After all, it suffers of only one problem: gear seems to be scaled based on your character level.

    This means that if you are in a zone where you get level-scaled and you gain a level, your gear and thus your character actually gets a tiny bit weaker. This is hard to notice in normal gameplay, but it became very obvious when i tried to get a bit ahead on a character by using tomes of knowledge. After all, they come in at steady pace at the login rewards, so i tried to put them to good use. That’s where i found that a level 50 or so character in beginner gear is harder to play in the starting zone than an actually new character in the same equipment.

    But that’s a very specific curiosity and not a big problem.

    What changed my point of view lately was my experience in ESO. I consider its “level scaling” to be significally inferior. Please take this all with this grain of salt: i don’t play that game for long yet, i might be wrong in some aspects. But from what i gathered, my attributes there also get scaled “to size”. In contrast to GW2, everything is scaled up.

    When i asked about how this worked and spending attribute points doesn’t actually hurt my other attributes, i was told that on the aspect of attributes, the strongest character in ESO would be a level 3 character. Of course you still progress and gain power, by unlocking new abilities and leveling them, but in terms of attributes i was told that level three is as good as it gets, after that you actually just shift them around.

    I was told so when speaking about tanking, where i told my guild that i tanked a dungeon 10 levels ago and my health saw sufficient. So since then i spent points in the other attributes, to have better ressources, as my health apparently was enough. In turn i was told that it could be that i wouldn’t be able to tank the same content any more, as my percentage of health was reduced in favour of the other attributes, making me more vuleranle to be killed by big attacks.

    So this is the example of level scaling gone wrong in my eyes. If leveling up might actually end up with you not being able to do content any more, which you formerly were able to do, there is a problem. Despite all of this, i consider this a problem specific to ESO and it doing upscaling.

    I see how this immediately unlocks the whole world to the player and how this is important to allow players to join PvP soon, i consider it a weak solution for a lot of PvE Content and thus don’t like it too much.

    In the end i still like level-scaling done well, with GW2 remaining the best example for that. I don’t need the feeling to have “outgrown” an area. I don’t enjoy being a tourist. But i see a lot of benefit in keeping all zones to be challenging and thus being active and useable content. It has a lot of advantages, especially in terms of the value of created content, while i see little disadvantages in it. It just needs to be done properly.

  5. Belghast May 10, 2017 / 11:21 am

    What I have come to prefer is the system that SWTOR is doing with the world, and FFXIV is doing with dungeons. That is setting a maximum level cap for an area/dungeon/planet, then scale players down to whatever that maximum is. How this tends to work is if the maximum level of mob is in an area 35 then the cap might be 40. So that you can still feel powerful without getting into the realm of being able to just oneshot everything. I like that concept of feeling really powerful but running around and barely tapping mobs to watch them fall over gets boring really quickly.

  6. Tyler F.M. Edwards May 10, 2017 / 11:42 am

    I think level-scaling is by far the superior option in the large majority of situations. It’s more immersive, and it effectively increases the amount of content in a game by a large amount by keeping everything relevant.

    The only value I see in out-leveling things is that it can be a way to make some content more accessible (mostly thinking of being able to solo raids). But even then I have to think there’s better ways to make content accessible. Letting people out-level is the cheapest, laziest way to do it.

  7. Ocho May 10, 2017 / 12:13 pm

    I think it depends on the game, really, and how the scaling fits in overall. Your Elder Scrolls example is apt. Elder Scrolls has this difficulty curve that is quite unique: Easy-Medium in the beginning, curving to Really Difficult in the mid-game, then falling like a stone to Trivially Easy in the late game. It’s when all the mobs scale, but have caps somewhere, like a rat can’t be level 100. It’s unique.

    But it really depends on the game whether it fits. Star Trek Online, level scaling really works well as it’s more about the story missions, and you’d want people to not feel like they’re trivialized. Guild Wars 2 works well, too, as when you return to previous areas, even though you’re leveled your toolkit is much grander so they still have a relative easier feel.

    But the more expansive the game, the more I’d err on level-locking. LotRO, Rift, and WoW, for example, I don’t think level-locks work great. Elder Scrolls Online is a caveat as it’s scaling feels more in line with TES games, and it’s also zone-story focused. Essentially, the more the “story” relies on a larger storyline, the more scaling makes sense.

    I’m just not a fan of trivializing content, I always hated “Grey and Green Questing” in WoW, so I generally stay away from games that do this, making me choose between the short-stories and progression. I don’t play LotRO, Rift, or WoW for this reason.

  8. paeroka May 10, 2017 / 1:47 pm

    I like the system in Rift where I can choose to down-level if I want to. That way, I can have both. But if I had to choose… well, tough. As you say, it’s like “tourist mode”. And sometimes, I just want to view a corner of the world without having to constantly fight against mobs. On the other hand, helping a friend level who has a much lower level character is no fun if you’re much too powerful. So downscaling is nice for these situations – or just when I feel like revisiting a lower level zone myself.

  9. Isey May 10, 2017 / 3:14 pm

    I believe in choice in down-levelling. I love that I can go do old raids in WoW to see them as a tourist, and same with zones and named that made your MMO-life hard. I appreciate the scaling part only when it is to group with friends. So maybe that is the trigger – you end up the lowest level of the person you group with. That way, solo you can be the champ you are, but when helping a friend you can hit the content as it was designed.

  10. Hawkinson May 10, 2017 / 3:23 pm

    I dislike static zone levels, as far too often there is no reason to go back. Sure you can throw in some event in the area but if it doesnt scale it makes the zone too dangerous for leveling player.

  11. ScytheNoire (@ScytheNoire) May 10, 2017 / 3:35 pm

    I used to enjoy crushing an old zone in WoW and being able to out-level the content to make things easier. I could level via dungeons, and then go back and do the zone content.

    Recently I’ve been playing ESO, and I like the content that levels up to your level, however it does cap out at 160 CP, so you can out level the enemies. So far nothing has come across as too challenging, but I have noticed higher zones do have harder enemies, even if at the same level in all zones. There is just more to the enemies, such as their skills, and how many appear at a time. It’s just more of a constant challenge, no walking around with enemies dying just by hitting you.

    Both work, both have their pros and cons, and depending on a persons mood, both can be enjoyable. Giving more options is always better.

  12. Shintar May 11, 2017 / 3:02 am

    I used to be fine with outlevelling things back when levelling took a lot longer in most MMOs; it actually felt like an achievement then. Now that so many games have sped up the levelling process, it’s gone from an achievement to almost feeling like a punishment as it’s way too easy to accidentally outlevel a quest chain that you were enjoying for example. When the power curve is very steep, I also find it depressing when high-level characters start to one-shot monsters that used to be classified as raid bosses.

    So I enjoy down-levelling in general. Up-levelling is too easy to do badly, I know in Neverwinter for example it always leaves you way too weak to actually fight mobs of your synced level, but even if it works it can make levelling up feel a bit irrelevant.

  13. baldwinp May 11, 2017 / 8:35 am

    I am just going on Lotro and ESO, but I like the fixed levels much more. In Lotro, if I have to go back to an area that I’ve already passed through, it’s no big deal as the creatures pretty much leave me alone. In ESO, however, it feels like there is really no reward for “clearing” zones. In fact, I dropped noticeably in power when I hit level 50. Everything started taking much longer to kill. Of course, I think I am only about cp160, so I was glad to read above that the monsters shouldn’t get any harder from this point on.

  14. Telwyn May 11, 2017 / 11:30 am

    It seems to work well enough in GW2 and ESO, but I’d not really want forced syncing in every game. Imagine the rage in LOTRO if deeding had to be done “on level” effectively? Sure it’s possible but a heck of a lot more effort if you do it that way..I like manual syncing systems like in Rift or EQ2 – the latter has a nice little lore tie in but is way less convenient compared to Rift’s portrait right-click option.Level-syncing isn’t just good for keepng zones/content relevant at different levels – it makes grouping up with friends so much easier…

  15. Cobweb Wood May 11, 2017 / 2:42 pm

    I actually love EQ2’s mentor system, (and you can mentor yourself now, I believe) so you can scale down your level to any zone you want to go to. I’m in games for the story, though; I’ve already killed thousands, maybe millions, of monsters in MMOs, and there’s really not much challenge in them any more, but there can be great new bits of story I need to see. There’s no difference to me between red quests and gray/green quests except that one just takes a bit longer.

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