World of Warcraft’s level squish is not the solution

You would think that after 14 or 15 years of operation, World of Warcraft would understand itself and be comfortable in its own skin. But Blizzard seems like it has never arrived at this point and is constantly trying to make severe design changes in its core mechanics. It was probably one of my biggest beefs with the game, that you could never quite trust features and systems not to be yanked out from under you and completely redone at any moment.

Last week in a developer Q&A, Blizzard admitted that it just realized how not fun having 120 levels was with so little along the way in terms of character progression and power gain to show. Cue a collective “You’re only NOW realizing this?” from the incredulous community, which has been saying such things for 40 levels now. With the abolition of talent trees (and points), WoW simply stopped adding any new toys or options to character growth once you hit a certain point. Sure, you might be gaining more levels, but you’ll never get any new talents or skills. And with Battle for Azeroth’s bizarre leveling formula, you actually get weaker the higher up you go in relation with level-scaled beasties.

So Blizzard’s solution for this is its solution for any other feature that’s spiraling out of scope and control, and that’s to “squish” it. Too many talent tree options? Squish it into a smaller talent tree. Now squish it into even more limited talent frames. Damage numbers getting too high? Squish them stat points back down! Too many skills? Squish ’em into a fewer amount! So why not do this with 120 levels, squish ’em to 60 or so?

Well, because it solves absolutely nothing other than making the developers feel like they’re doing something to address the problem. First of all, you’re just going to end up adding more levels in the future, so eventually you’ll arrive back at the point you are now. This will, at best, just kick the can down the road.

Second, what players want is for levels and progression to be meaningful without making us wait forever between them. The original talent trees worked because players had that point every level to invest. Even if it was just a minor stat increase, it was a measure of player agency and choice, an important element that Blizzard seems to have forgotten. Yanking away every level except the ones where you get a rare talent point or a skill or a large stat chunk isn’t going to add anything of value to the game, it’s just a smokescreen.

Third, players want to see their characters progress, and I’m not just talking about statistically. It has been several expansions since we saw a new talent tier, nevermind additional skills. The character you have around level 60 or so is pretty much the same character and build you’re going to have for the rest of your game.

With the Legion expansion, the artifact weapon got people excited because it felt like a talent tree again, with steady progression and investment and choice. Then that was yanked away, a lesser version handed to us, and no assurances that that item wouldn’t be gone by the end of Battle for Azeroth. No wonder why everyone stopped caring about Azerite anything.

World of Warcraft needs to do a lot better than slap a band-aid on the leveling system by squishing it. It needs to examine useful and non-game breaking ways to give players choices and additional steps of character development in the mid- and late-game. Squishing is something little kids do to bugs, not what grown men and women should do to a premier MMORPG.

4 thoughts on “World of Warcraft’s level squish is not the solution

  1. Zippy March 25, 2019 / 9:16 am

    Well, it’s hard to imagine an ongoing RPG service that would be still be going and ever-expanding due to player demand.

    It’s uncharted territory and I think your post was dismissive and frankly ignorant to assume this should have been solved in the original design.

    You know why we have Windows 10? Because the first 9 versions didn’t take everything into account…

  2. Marathal March 25, 2019 / 9:19 am

    We go back in time to original Azeroth when the Titans and old gods were around, all previous talent choices are changed to passive with a few castable abilities. Our level is set at 20, and we are given the old talent tree setup, just revised to reflect new choices, and we level from 20 to 50 in the original Vanilla zones. Could even work it so the Zandalari are sending back the horde to a time when they had cities in Strangelthorn, where Grubashi was a fighting arena.

    Just a thought

  3. bhagpuss March 25, 2019 / 10:44 am

    @zippy WoW is very far from “ever-expanding due to player demand”. The opposite, in fact. When it was being developed, however, the “ongoing rpg service” upon which it was modelled, EverQuest, had indeed been growing continually for five years due to player demand, so the territory, even then, was both far from being either hard to imagine or uncharted. About the only thing Blizzard would have been unlikely to foresee would have been the scale of their success, but assuming they were planning for success similar to but greater than what they’d seen EverQuest achieve, these are very much problems they might have anticipated and designed the game to avoid.

  4. Zippy March 25, 2019 / 11:14 am

    Player demand based on paying, engaged players – and WoW had a lot of both. Far far more than EQ, of course. So yes, it expanded based on player demand – for more content, and more power.

    And lets not forget WoW was in development just after EQ released… Not like they had 5 years to watch before making decisions.

    Regardless, there’s no previous roadmap for how to plan for perpetual player power and progression. In a vertical progression game.

    Poor design from the start, for both EQ and WoW and every copycat since.

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