So, Blizzard announces a new expansion to World of Warcraft: Warlods of Draenor. The expansion will take the game from level 90 to level 100. In order to get people up to speed, expansion will give everyone one free character at level 90. This isn't unprecedented, as previous promotions, such as the Scroll of Ressurection "refer a friend back" promo also gave a quick level up to 80 so players could enjoy Cataclysm and Pandaria.
What is unprecedented is that Blizzard will also sell additional level 90 boosts for $60 each. Pay a bit of cash and skip through the original game and four expansions worth of content. I guess Blizzard wants to compete with illicit real-money leveling services, though arguably those offer the better value of giving you a max level character rather than doing just 9/10ths of the job.
Not entirely unexpectedly, people are outraged (aren't they always? about everything?), generally about two things: that the service exists at all, or that the price is so high. If the expansion is $40 (the four prior ones were, but Blizzard hasn't announced WoD's price) and includes a level 90, why should subsequent ones be 50% more expensive?
Blizzard's response: they don't want to devalue leveling by making it too cheap. This despite the fact that Ars Technica's Kyle Orland has already pointed out that leveling is devalued because you get a free 90 when you buy the expansion. So it's really every additional insta-90 that's somehow more valuable than the first?
Value of Leveling?
The basic argument goes that if you spend dozens of hours to accomplish something, that something you have "accomplished" has value. And that if people pay money to go straight to a specific level, then that devalues the efforts put in by the people who do level up.
Case in point: some random commenter says something along the lines of "I leveled and geared up 7 characters to level 90 and I put in so much time and effort I don't want someone else to have the same benefit just by paying money."
So there's this vague sense out there that Time = Money and Money = Value so Time = Value. Or something. Look, I'm not going to argue against the basic premise that Time = Value, as it's something I've actually argued for in my many articles here at Gamasutra. But what I do want to argue is whether or not a high level character in an MMORPG actually has value.
Opportunity Costs in MMORPG Economics
I've argued before that the worth of anything in an MMORPG economy is the time it takes to get it, or the opportunity cost of that thing. If it takes you 10 minutes to get 10 gold or 10 herbs, then 1 herb = 1 gold. But that assumes you want the herb or the gold and that you're spending the time getting that thing. If you spend 10 minutes completing a quest and happen to find 10 herbs along the way, you haven't spent 10 minutes getting herbs: you got free herbs.
So, lets apply the same logic to leveling. If you spend some number of hours playing a game in order to experience fun and entertainment and happen to level up to 90 during that play time, you haven't spent those hours leveling, you spent those hours playing and happened to end up with a free level 90 character.
This is how games are supposed to work. You're supposed to play the game to have fun. This is why I've never even contemplated the concept of buying a max level character in FF7, as much as I've always wanted to unlock the Golden Chocobo.
I've also argued against power leveling in the past, pointing out that you're basically paying for the game, then paying for the priviledge of not actually playing it.
Unless, of course, there's a specific part of the game you want to play, and the designers have set up the game so that you can't really get to that part.
Game vs End-Game
I often see people refer to the game you play at max level as "end-game" like it's a different part of the game. And, really, it is. And that, really, is the problem.
It's like... Imagine if you had to beat the Half-Life single player campaign before you could "unlock" multiplayer mode to play Counter Strike. Then people would be paying "power levelers" to "level" them through Half-Life so they could to play Counter Strike. Pretty absurd, eh?
The real problem with a lot of MMORPGs is that people want to play the "end-game" part and are stuck having to get there. And getting there isn't an accomplishment any more than buying the damn game in the first place is as accomplishment.
Lets face it: leveling in WoW isn't hard. It's a fait accompli. You can't fail at leveling, the way you can fail to beat Half-Life. It's either a fun adventure, or a pure time-wasting grind.
The real problem with WoW is that game mechanics prohibit you from participating in many activities unless you are the maximum level. The entire level grind in WoW is really just a tutorial island you're stuck on and you can't get off until you ding whatever the max happens to be. And we've already slammed tutorial islands for downright sucking.
No More Leveling!
Maybe WoW needs to take a lesson from Elder Scrolls Online on this one, where they took out the tutorial island and made it optional. Maybe WoW should take out level mechanics from end-game content. Maybe everyone should be "level-synced" to the same level when doing things like raiding or PvP. Problem solved. Then you could level at your own pace, have fun with the leveling and the questing, and still be able to participate in the "end-game" whenever you wanted.
I think the need to be max level devalues leveling tremendously. Leveling can be a lot of fun, especially if you don't have that "I must be max NAO so I can raid" pressure looming over you. It's like building a model rather than buying an assembled toy: the building of it can be a lot of fun, so long as there isn't a huge crowd of friends with their built toys waiting on you to finish building yours so you can play with them.
I mean, Blizzard acknowledges this directly with their reason for including a level 90 with the new expansion:
To get everyone straight to the action, when you buy the expansion, it will come with a boost to level 90 for one character on your WoW account.
It's right there. You want to be in the action, you want to be playing the game, but you can't until you get to level 90. So they'll do it once. Once? Shouldn't they just set the base starting level for new characters to 90?
Or, even better, why not give players a drop-down box: whenever you make a new character, it can be any level between 1 and the highest other level character on your account? That way you can level if you want, or end-game if you want.