I am in this place with SWTOR Knights of the Fallen Empire where I am honestly not sure what more I can say without my blog turning into a massive spoiler fest. There are a lot of events going on and many of them have surprised me. This is a little shocking given that I consume a lot of gaming media and that KotFE has been technically out since October 2015. I am not sure if I purposefully ignored SWTOR articles… or if I just didn’t come across that many. Whatever the case essentially everything from Shadows of Revan onward has been a completely new story experience for me without me knowing any of the elements ahead of time. So while I recognized characters like Theron Shan or Lana Beniko… I knew nothing about them going into this recent binge of playing the game. We’ve talked about this on the podcast before, but returning to an MMO and seeing years worth of content laid out in front of you is a pretty great thing. Especially in a situation like SWTOR where they have a reasonable level scaling system.
Yesterday Syp posted something over on his personal blog Bio Break talking about level scaling systems. His specific discussion centered around whether or not level scaling systems were good for games, which was brought on by his recent journeys in LOTRO. Over time my own feelings about the systems have changed. You can scan through the backlog of this blog and find me talking about Mentoring systems, where games allow high level player A to drop down to the level of player B and run content with them. This seemed to me like the most elegant solution to the problem of being able to run content with your friends. That was until I encountered Guild Wars 2, and the fact that no matter where you go your character is scaled down to the level of the world. The concept of evergreen content is a big one for me… because I like when a game expands over time rather than contracts. While Guild Wars 2 is not the best example of this… because of the fact that there is plenty of content that you will never be able to play again in that game… it did make me appreciate level scaling as a replacement for mentoring.
The only problem there is that when the world is constantly the same level as you, it robs you of one of the quintessential MMO experiences of leveling up and becoming more powerful. The world always feels the same to you, because you are functionally always the same relative ability levels to it as you level. In situations like that the levels themselves feel like a completely extraneous concept. Why even have a number that goes up if the world is always going to be functionally the same difficulty. When we started playing Final Fantasy XIV they had an extremely elegant solution for this in the form of their dungeon finder. Each dungeon had a functional level range from the moment you first were able to zone in… to the moment that it considered was the upper bound of levels. So if the average mob level in an area was 35, then functionally the maximum level the game would allow you to be was 40, scaling everyone over that level down to that point. The only negative here is that this ONLY applies to dungeons, and in truth it would have been interesting to see this same sort of system just work out in the world as a whole.
That I guess is functionally what is going on in Star Wars the Old Republic, and I am loving it. Each piece of content be it planet, flashpoint, or something else… has a functional level range attached to it. Once again it is functionally along the lines of being five or so levels over whatever the maximum level of encounter for that area. Then the game rewards you as though you were fighting something your own level in terms of both experience and loot drops. This means that you can go anywhere and do anything without feeling like you are getting nothing from it. At launch this was absolutely a problem with SWTOR and it was extremely easy to out level an area, and reach a point where the experience gain was no longer worth the time you spent on a planet. This was especially true as I remember on Tatooine which in itself was a huge planet with lots of side content. By the time I “did everything” I ended up several levels ahead of the curve and functionally kept getting more and more over-leveled as I went through the rest of the planets.
Now there is a certain measure of freedom in being able to just go and do the content without having to worry about level… and in many cases gear. While leveling my Imperial Agent, there were a few points where I went 10 levels without upgrading any of my gear… and really did not notice a significant amount of power drop off. Then again I did exit the class storyline at level 58… so there was some significant over-leveling going on there that might have been easing the transition. The thing with this system is however that while you are gaining power and you FEEL powerful… there is never a point where you are just waltzing through field of enemies gently tapping them and watching them explode. When you run someone through a low level dungeon in World of Warcraft for example on your level capped main… you can functionally breathe on mobs and they impale themselves in a shower of loot. SWTOR feels like a happy medium, of letting your power level increase without completely trivializing the game. Sure most of the time I am not actually afraid of death, but I still feel heroic doing content… because I am having to use my abilities to take things down rather than a single auto swing. As a result I have somewhat shifted my focus from user driven mentoring systems… to seeing more games adopt this sort of level scaling. The best part about Legion honestly was the way that content has scaled to the player while leveling through it, and if only Blizzard had applied this tech to the world as a whole… it would be a much more enjoyable experience. I like knowing that I can revisit those areas that I enjoyed so much in the past, and still having an interesting time.