How to replace levels in MMOs

One of the common topics on how to "fix" online games is to get rid of levels. It's easy to say, but hard to do; especially if all you know is levels. Let's take a look at levels, their history, and the design goals they accomplish.

One of the common topics for how to "fix" online games is to get rid of levels. It's easy to say, but hard to do; especially if you're a developer and all you know is levels.

So, I figured I'd do some posts examining levels from a design perspective and see what it would really take to get rid of levels. I want to look at some historical perspective, what the goals are, and some thoughts on alternative designs. This will be spread out over multiple posts.

Today, let's take a look at some of the history and goals of levels in games.

The Brief History of Levels

The best known source for levels in games is Dungeons & Dragons. This was an offshoot of wargaming, where units participating in battles gained experience and more competence in battle. It's interesting to note that some of the predecessors to D&D, such as David Wesely's Braunstein, didn't have levels at all; they tended to focus more on interaction between the players in the scenario and had a definite end condition. More modern games, particularly GURPS or the World of Darkness settings have moved away from levels for various reasons, but you still have the concept of characters that grow in strength over time.

In addition, levels are a common mechanic in single-player RPGs. this includes both the PC and console variations of the games. It's relatively rare to find a computer RPG that doesn't use levels. Games that don't use levels tend to have some other mechanic to measure advancement.

The first online game to include levels is, of course, Trubshaw and Bartle's MUD. Dr. Bartle was primarily responsible for adding levels. He has said that the concept was borrowed from Dungeons & Dragons, but it was a reasoned design decision. It gave people a goal to achieve, and separated out the new player from those experienced and wise enough to handle being a "wizard" at the higher levels.

Design Goals

What are the design goals of levels? There are three primary goals for levels:

Achievement. Going up in levels means that you've achieved something. You've done what was required to advance, and the level is your reward to reinforce the sense of achievement. Levels also demonstrate to others what you have accomplished.

Information. Related to achievement, levels allow people to shorthand to information about the character. A level 10 Druid in WoW can shapeshift into bear, and at level 20 that character can assume the form of a cat. If you are grouped with a level 18 Druid, you won't expect him to be doing melee damage in cat form in the next encounter.

Pacing. In most games you only have a reasonable chance to affect an enemy that is somewhat close to your level. A level 1 character can't go into a level 60 raid, even if they could get stat bonuses to equal the stats of every other member of the raid. This requires that the player go through the "appropriate" locations before jumping into the higher level areas. This also allows for story pacing: introductory quests are at the lower levels, and the storyline progresses in higher level quests.

Next we'll take a look at the pros and cons of levels in MMOs.

(This post originally appeared at

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