With the announcement of Warlords of Draenor, there was a bit of buzz around the MMO-sphere about the role of the leveling process. I was struck by a post on Healing the Masses suggesting that it’s time to remove the leveling game entirely from MMOs so that we no longer segregate the players into groups that can’t play together.
> … an ideology that is slowly dying, an ideology that never really belonged much in the first place in this genre.
"Never really belonged much?" I feel like one of the things that defines the RPG genre is leveling–starting out in rags and building up over time with new abilities and gear.
Now to be clear I’d be fine with a well-done level-less MMORPG (actually TSW doesn’t have traditional levels, and in some ways GW2 forces everyone onto the same playing field), but if you take away progression entirely I’m not sure that what you have left is an "MMORPG" any more.
If you start the player with everything he needs to go anywhere and do anything with his friends, then you’ve basically just got a variation of an old school shooter where everybody spawns with the same health and a shotgun. Even shooters today have progression in them (which I find incredibly annoying, personally – get your RPG peanut butter out of my shooter chocolate).
On the specific, very valid point of not being able to play with friends at different levels, I like the way that some MMOs (Rift, EQ2 I think?, GW2 in a way) have solved this by implementing a "mentoring" type of thing where you can lower your level down to match your friends. Personally I think that should be a standard MMO feature going forward, along with the ability to turn off experience gain. I actually prefer doing low-level dungeons with PUGs more than high-level dungeons. At the higher levels, particularly in the expert or heroic dungeons, people are far more likely to yell at you if you blink wrong. In the lower levels, people are usually just interested in exploring and having fun, and haven’t yet had their spirits crushed under the numbing weight of grinding out gear or marks or whatever.
I agree with Tobold that we will be seeing more pay-to-level options from developers soon. There’s obviously a demand for it since the gold farmers have been selling power-leveling services since the beginning. (I assume they still do, but anti-spam tools are so good now that I don’t see their ads any more.) No matter how fun and engaging you make the leveling process, there’s always going to be a segment of the MMO audience who just wants to raid with basically stock, pre-built characters. I don’t really see a problem with that. You can’t force someone to like leveling.
I think this discussion exposes one of the biggest problems in the genre right now. MMO gamers have evolved into at least three different non-overlapping sub-types. Some people want to level, some people want to raid, some people want to PvP. And some people just want to play dress-up. (It feels like that last one is the direction MMOs are going in with all the sandbox games.) It’s almost impossible to make one game that satisfies all of those niches, so maybe it’s time for developers to make entirely different games for each playstyle. (That will probably never happen, though, since it’s obviously too expensive to make three games when you can cram it all into one.)