I’ve been playing a decent amount of Destiny 2 over the past few days, and while trying to figure out its particular blend of MMO and “shared world”, I’ve found something interesting about its progression system: the actual player level is mostly insignificant. This is first noticeable in a gameplay sense where, best I can tell, enemies and loot scale exactly to the player’s level. Destiny isn’t the first game to experiment with level scaling by any stretch of the imagination (in fact, I’d say it’s more similar to Guild Wars 2 than World of WarCraft in that regard), but the intensity of the level scaling had some interesting outcomes: by the end of my play session last night, I had no idea what level my character was. I didn’t know what level the friends I played with last night were either. It just never came up, never really factored into any of the decisions we were making. I looked it up later, and I was level 12 while my friends were level 6. Despite being double the level of my friends, it just didn’t affect our experience at all. Now, on the one hand, this level scaling meant that I could still play with my friends and make progress even though they were lower level than me, and I appreciate that design tradeoff. But if the level doesn’t play into my decision making at any time except when I am picking skill points (of which, at level 12, I had already spent all the ones I needed for my build), what was the point of including it? It’s pretty easy to breeze through in a few hours, so it serves more as an extended tutorial than a real marker of progression.
Strangely enough, the experience this reminded me of the most was that of picking up a new World of WarCraft expansion. My character was already at max level, so the five to ten extra levels that each expansion provided served as an introduction to the content rather than the bulk of the game’s content itself. People used to joke, “The game starts at 60” (or whatever the current level cap was at the time), but that was much more of a joke back in 2005 than it is today. Now, WoW really does start at level 110. The vast majority (like 90%) of new content released affects the max level experience. The endgame isn’t an “end”, it’s really just the “game”. And I see how WoW is stuck in that position now, the game has been out for years and they can’t exactly ask people to start over from level 1, but it’s interesting to see Destiny following that same concept with a new game. Because in the original launch of World of WarCraft and it’s first expansion, there wasn’t an expectation that everyone was at the level cap. Getting from level to level took *much* longer than it does today, leading to more grinding than anyone was comfortable with, and a player base spread out across a wide range of levels. This had some benefits, for example, it was much easier to tell at a glance if a player was a threat just by looking at their level. Now, if you want to see how powerful a player is, you have to inspect them and check their item level, which is the real measure of power. And this highlights something important about the problem with WoW, Destiny, and other MMOs/MMO-likes: if everyone is expected to be max level, to the point where WoW is even selling level boosts, why bother with the leveling system at all? Just to satisfy antiquated RPG conventions?
However, I think the solution to this problem could be much more interesting, though it is incompatible with the current, content muncher approach to multiplayer design. Fortunately, this solution gives me an excuse to talk about one of my favorite MMOs, RuneScape. In Runescape, hardly anyone is at the level cap, because, when mapping out the leveling systems, the designers never intended anyone to actually reach the per-skill cap of 99. Each of the game’s 27 skills has its own level, independent of any of the others. Leveling them works the same for each one, regardless if you’re leveling your attack skill or your farming skill. However, the game does approximate a player’s combat effectiveness through a combat level that gives a rough sense of how tough they might be. But, most importantly, other skills, items and strategies can be used to circumvent this. In WarCraft, if you are a level 60 character fighting a level 70 character, you are going to lose. No matter what. It is mathematically impossible for you to do any damage to them because of the math behind the hit rating stat. Doesn’t matter if you’re the best player in the game, if they’re literally naked and you’ve got the best level-available gear, you will lose. In Runescape, a combat level 60 character could wipe the floor with a combat level 70 character if they had 1) better gear 2) better food 3) a better prayer stat 4) a better sense of the combat and movement statistics or 5) a high magic or ranged stat. Higher levels do undeniably increase combat effectiveness, but it doesn’t make it mathematically impossible for you to lose. This allows for more creative solutions to combat problems other than “do they have higher numbers than me, if yes, I lose, if no, I win.” So, this solution solves both problems: players can get a rough estimate of an enemy’s power by looking at combat level in a way they couldn’t by looking at character level in WoW or Destiny, but that level also doesn’t mathematically guarantee a victory. It improves player knowledge and increases variety.
Ultimately, I don’t expect this solution to be used at any point. MMOs/shared world games seem to be following the same design principles that require all players to be at the same level of power and adjust their content to match it accordingly. And I get that, designers want fights to be balanced to the player’s power level, and don’t want fights to be too easy. But I feel like that kind of design doesn’t fully explore the potential of MMOs in the same way Runescape’s or a similar one does. Runescape has a myriad of problems, not the least of which being that it doesn’t really work as a multiplayer game (which is kind of a deal-breaker for a Massively MULTIPLAYER Online game). But I still think the way it plays with leveling systems to do something other than creating a nicely-balanced treadmill of numbers could be used to create much more interesting experiences.