Thursday, March 17, 2016

The Current State of Leveling in WoW

The act of leveling is a staple of MMORPGs, serving as one of the most direct, tangible translations to an increase in character power. Over time, there has been a shift in World of Warcraft away from this as more and more players reached endgame faster and faster, causing content to be backloaded and the leveling experience to wither. This has effectively created a perception that leveling feels like a single step in the grand scheme which, while not wrong, leads to further dismissiveness of the leveling aspect of the game. The recent Hearthstone promotion has made it apparent how problematic that can be, especially for newer players (along with exposing massive flaws in WoW's F2P system), but on the other hand, unaddressed criticism regarding leveling has been mentioned for years.

The reason I highlight this as an issue now is because there's an upcoming opportunity to bring many players into the game through the Warcraft movie, meaning many players will be leveling. This means that addressing issues related to leveling can have an enormous impact on player retention, with other methods coming later to help with retention in the longer term (such as addressing unhealthy social interactions, particularly between veteran and new players). In this article, I will review the current state of WoW's leveling content with emphasis on solo content by pointing out several issues. In the following article (now posted), which should be published shortly after this one, I will suggest solutions to these issues.

The Problems of Leveling

As I've mentioned, there are several issues related to leveling that can be categorized as the following:

Outleveling Zones and Disconnection From Immersion

While outleveling zones with heirlooms isn't as much of an issue since Blizzard could add a way to disable experience bonuses on gear, thus providing the option to level fast or level a little less fast but enjoy the immersion a zone offers, outleveling zones without any form of experience gain bonus is inexcusable. I can understand if players slightly outlevel the zone by the time major quest chains are finished, but some zones are simply too excessive in their rewards to the point quests give almost no experience, such as in the Northern Barrens, Hillsbrad, etc. Some players think this is okay since quest rewards diminish once a player's level gets too high, which is reasonable. However, the fact that this issue tends to happen consistently to the point that excess experience isn't wiggle room to prevent players from being underleveled so much as a two level buffer discourages players from completing zones and generally messes with gameplay flow. This problem is compounded by excess experience affecting the questing experience in subsequent zones.

This is not the only issue when it comes to a disconnection from immersion, however. There's a few smaller issues that can affect immersion, which I consider a vital part of the gameplay experience especially for newer players where such immersion can leave a strong first impression. For example, there may be a bit too much of a convenience factor when it comes to traveling to unexplored zones, which discourages exploration especially when it comes to travel that isn't scenic. There's also weird plot quirks that result in the player jumping to different points in time while leveling. It also doesn't help that exploration isn't actively encouraged by the game by talking about the numerous rare spawns, treasures, and other potential goodies that one could find by taking detours from an otherwise relatively linear questing path.

The Difficulty Curve

A frequent statement I hear among veteran players is that World of Warcraft is a lot easier compared to the past. I personally am inclined to link this video every time I see said statement but it's not completely wrong, especially when it comes to leveling. With that said, the problem of the difficulty curve of leveling is a little more complex than "it got easier." For instance, refer to this statement I made regarding leveling along with a rough graphical representation of how the difficulty curve looks like at the moment in my opinion:
A very rough visual representation of how "difficult" the game is by level in Warlords of Draenor based on personal analysis. 
As one can observe, the difficulty gradually increases when leveling through older content up until Outland, where the difficulty seems to flatline until Cataclysm. Upon reaching Cataclysm content, mobs suddenly seem to gain a lot more damage, increasing the difficulty (albeit in an unhealthy manner).  Pandaria dials the difficulty back onto something similar to the original curve with some additional optional challenges. Draenor increases the difficulty, mostly with damage increases, with the difficulty finally spiking massively as the player reaches level cap.

Regardless of what you may think of my (frankly flawed) data, it is clear that there's a huge issue when it comes to difficulty while leveling compared to difficulty at the level cap. Furthermore, there's deeper issues such as a lack of mechanical difficulty compared to the relatively typical damage and health tweaking that one might turn to in order to resolve issues with the difficulty curve. I'll get more into specifics later when reviewing solutions, but here's some observations I had related to leveling difficulty:
  • Quest boss health is generally quite underwhelming. This is a big deal since such mobs tend to have meaningful mechanics compared to normal mobs that a newer player could learn from.
  • Mechanical difficulty while leveling doesn't seem to increase much overall. Normal enemies still seem quite generic even in Draenor.
  • Outland and Northrend have yet to receive much of an update since they were first implemented, which would explain the difficulty disparity there compared to other areas.
  • Numbers-wise, the squish alleviated the problem of an inconsistent difficulty curve somewhat, but did little to address level cap difficulty compared to leveling.
  • Many mechanics and concepts seem to be backloaded along with content at the level cap.
The difficulty curve of World of Warcraft is one of the most important aspects of the game in terms of making it enjoyable for all players. When done wrong, it can drive players away due to insufficient preparation for a challenge, a sheer lack of difficulty, and so on. At the moment, the game's suffering from a little bit of both in the sense that at higher levels, the difficulty isn't that high and is thus insufficient for preparing new players for level cap gameplay. The lack of a sufficient amount of challenge in the difficulty curve also makes leveling feel even more like a chore for veteran players interesting in raising up alts. Why should "step one" be so unsatisfactory by design? It should engage the player, hooking them in with not only the aforementioned immersion factor, but gameplay that unfolds into a deep trip down the rabbit hole as the player progresses.

A Lack of Mentoring

World of Warcraft is a game that has aged to the point that along with its normal power creep issues, it has had something of a power creep in terms of the burden of knowledge required to fully understand it. While new players will gradually understand over time, especially thanks to online resources and possible past gaming experience, they will have to fight a constant uphill battle against elitist veteran players and a general vocal discouragement of assisting players. While I personally value self-help a lot to the point I would love to extoll its value to new players, there is a bit of an art in doing so tactfully considering how snarky remarks like "Just Google it" are. I could probably rant about this issue for hours and hours on end, but ultimately what I'm trying to say is one shouldn't normally expect mentoring from more experienced players.

The problem goes deeper than this, however, as through outdated systems like the broken Guild Finder and discontinued programs, Blizzard has practically abandoned the idea of mentoring players as well. The Guild Finder in particular is cluttered with dead guilds that for some reason aren't removed after a certain period of inactivity, making it difficult for new players to find a small community that provide assistance. In the case of the mentoring program, it seemed to drift into obscurity. I consider such programs important because while Blizzard does provide some information and resources, it would be unreasonable to ask them to account for every possible inquiry a new player might have. There's also other issues that cause a seeming lack of mentoring, such as:
  • A lack of fansite listings (especially Wowhead) on the main site, the client, or the game client.
  • A general lack of outreach from Blizzard to its playerbase in terms of communicating vital information. For example, while patch notes are listed on the client, hotfixes aren't as prominent and neither addition is made in game in such a way as to prompt newer players to read it when they really should.
  • There's not much promotion of utilizing self-help in general. For instance, there's few loading screen tips and as mentioned above, a lack of exposure to frequently used online resources.
    • This could also be said in the case of mechanics, which I'll describe more in detail when I talk about solutions.
In an ideal world we shouldn't need initiatives for mentoring and players would be more welcoming of newbs. However, in lieu of that unicorn of a concept coalescing into reality, there could at least be more ways to new players to be able to help themselves. All they need is a gentle nudge that, at the moment, doesn't really exist.

"Final" Statements

This concludes my general overview of the current state of leveling in World of Warcraft. As I've stated and implied throughout the article, the outlook isn't pretty and movie-goers and Hearthstone players trying out the game for the first time are in for a daunting task and the current state of climate of the game serves more to exacerbate the issue of the burden of knowledge. In what will hopefully be a week of publishing this article, I'll propose some solutions to prepare the game for being more receptive of newer players. I will also provide some deeper analysis of issues I've mentioned here while proposing solutions due to the sheer specificity of some of the solutions.

And before you ask, no, I'm not planning on making the game easier and more convenient. The game has a sufficient amount of convenience (through relayed information such as from quest objectives showing on the map) which contributes to its approachability and if the difficulty curve is anything worth judging, the game needs to be a bit more difficult but in an appropriately balanced manner.

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