14/03/2019

One Tamriel vs. A Galaxy Far, Far Away - Thoughts on Level Sync

I've come to the realisation that I hold two rather contradictory opinions on the subject of levels.

One is that I absolutely love a meaningful levelling system, where what level you are makes a noticeable difference to the way you play and you genuinely feel your character increasing in power every time you level up. The thing that really drove this home for me was playing on a private World of Warcraft server that emulated the Vanilla version of the game. It made a noticeable difference there whether you fought a mob that was the same level as you, one that was lower, or one that was higher, and a single level could be the difference between failure and success. It made me realise just how watered down the levelling systems in many modern MMOs have become in comparison, which gives me one more reason to look forward to the release of Classic WoW.

On the other hand... I also love level sync, but for a completely different reason, namely that of immersion. Feeling more powerful every time I level up is great, but going back to the starter zone at max level is another matter. Yes, it makes sense for my character to have become more powerful, but not to the point where enemies that previously threatened me should fall over dead the moment I merely look at them funny. It's always made me feel awkward and out of place when returning to lower-level zones. (I talked about this a bit when I first started on the Loremaster achievement in WoW back in 2010.) Considering that SWTOR is a very immersion-driven game, I was super hyped when Bioware first announced that they were going to add level scaling with KotFE. Seriously, I can even remember where I was when I first read the announcement (I was in a shopping centre during my lunch break at work) and how much it excited me.


Soloing what was previously meant to be group content can be entertaining... but also kind of awkward.

The funny thing is that for the longest time I didn't even realise that these two things were at odds with each other. What finally did cause me to put two and two together was Elder Scrolls Online, which I'm still playing on the side right now. ESO also had a traditional levelling system at launch, but replaced this with "One Tamriel" in late 2016. One Tamriel introduced open world level scaling that works both upwards and downwards, so you can basically walk out of the starter zone and go wherever you want, to do things in any order you like.

I do have to say that this has been implemented in an extremely polished way. You really can go wherever you want right away, and a lower level friend can join the fun at any time without feeling like they are dragging the group down. The existence of such an expertly crafted level scaling system makes atrocities like Neverwinter's scaling look even worse than I already thought they were (though at least Cryptic is planning to address that in the next module).

However, it also made me realise that at least for me, there is such a thing as making level scaling too good. I've sometimes grumbled about how SWTOR's level sync makes you too powerful too quickly if you over-level content, but ESO showed me what a possible alternative to that looks like, and it actually has its downsides too.

Specifically, levelling in ESO feels incredibly boring and pointless to me. Now, don't get me wrong: I'm not saying that I'm not enjoying the game overall; I have absolutely been having a good time doing quests and other things. However, the act of increasing my character level by itself has been an exercise in tedium and futility - I pretty much end up having the most fun whenever I manage to ignore my character level entirely while playing. If I end up glancing up at that bar in the top left corner too many times, it just gets me down.

It was all right for the first couple of levels, because I actually wanted to earn some skill points to fill my action bar - however, with the game limiting you to five abilities at a time (ten later on, once you unlock the option to swap weapons in combat) and skill points also being awarded from other sources such as completing quests and doing dungeons, I found myself quickly running out of things I actually wanted to spend them on. I've actually rolled up a second character by now, and both of them routinely run around with a dozen unspent skill points or more because I just don't feel any particular urge to spend them on anything. It's all horizontal progression anyway: Most of my early skill point allocations have been desperate attempts to find some combination of abilities that I actually enjoyed using - and once I did, there was no real incentive to unlock any more.

So gaining new abilities doesn't make you feel more powerful, and your character level in itself doesn't really do anything either. (I'm told that the scaling does eventually stop once you get to a certain champion rank, which seems to be supported by the high-level players I occasionally see rampaging across the landscape two-shotting everything, but that strikes me as too little, too late.) If a boss is giving you trouble, you can't just level up and come back later either, though funnily enough, simple food and drink serve as alternative power-ups in such situations. Never mind levelling up; just eating a stale loaf of bread will basically turn you into Popeye after a can of spinach.

You don't get to look forward to being able to equip more powerful gear (though again, this might change once you hit champion rank territory), because for the most part, your gear doesn't feel like it matters much either. And you don't unlock any new content, because you can go anywhere from a low level anyway. (Except dungeons, strangely enough, which is an interesting reversal from the way SWTOR does it. In SWTOR, you still need to level to be able to access the quest content, but can do any instance/flashpoint once you're past the starter planet. In ESO, you can do any quest at any level, but for some reason each dungeon is still gated behind a minimum level. Would love to know how that came about.)

So you gain levels for nothing, and you gain them extremely slowly to boot. From what I gather there are certain ways to level very quickly, such as via random dungeons, but for some reason the rate at which you gain XP from simply doing quests and killing mobs - as I would expect most new players to level - is an absolute pittance compared to that.

All this has made me more appreciative of the way SWTOR does level scaling. I still think it has resulted in levelling being too quick and your character becoming too powerful too quickly, but I appreciate that you do feel more powerful as you go up in levels, and that doing so actually grants you access to more content. I like that mobs never lose the ability to do damage to you, yet you don't need to be a max-level character in top-end gear to notice a power difference once you're past the planet's recommended level. I may not want to feel god-like when I return to the starter zone, but I still prefer my levels to matter in some way at least.

9 comments :

  1. I see that you noticed how even the leveling scaling experience in ESO is, especially compared to other MMOs. And yes, I do get where you're coming from in that it's "too good". However, once you hit level 50, you start to gain (oh man, brain fart) Heroic or Champion "points", as if they're levels. There's an unlocked part of your toon's options where you can put those points in place and get extra bonuses during attacks, defense, and whatnot.

    Because of this, skills kind of languish for me. I've got a ton of skill points that I don't use because I've got a rotation that I like and I really don't need more skill points because they're already allocated. I do collect Skyshards, however, because it's a completionist thing, but not because I need more skill points. (When I was leveling, however, I sure did want them.)

    But yes, I do like being able to whallop baddies like you could in the old days, and SWTORs scaling isn't so good as ESOs that you're forced into decent fights with every trash mob you encounter in the wild. I do kind of like that about SWTOR, even though on an intellectual level it drives me nuts.

    I may have to see if I can get on the European Megaserver just to track you down, Shintar!

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  2. The SWTOR implementation is very functional especially for group play, which matters to me. Since when I last played with friends I was subbed and they weren't, our levels diverged pretty quickly as the rested bonus my character had pushed me ever ahead of them in levels. As the DPS character I didn't find myself pulling aggro from the tank in dungeons particularly badly so the power scaling seemed ok (between a level 50 warrior tank and my level 65ish powertech).

    We didn't get to test it in ESO as our characters stayed in sync.

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  3. Interesting observations. I think I find myself in furious agreement with most of your points. ESO, where I have 10 alt characters of low-but-i-cant-remember-what levels, makes level gains almost irrelevant. SWTOR has them still be a bit meaningful but I'm almost always at max for any planet because I've completed too many side quests. My current character is level 70 and only just finishing off the original character arc stuff. The level scaling in Assassins Creed Odyssey sees me always 2 levels above the content, yet most of it is still challenging enough to keep things interesting as my gear isn't too overpowered yet.

    I do miss the ability to go into lower level dungeons and simply slaughter everything in the instance in one shot and be standing in a pile of corpses as my Sorc used to be able to do in SWTOR before scaling.

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    1. I won't lie, I've also at times enjoyed rounding up lots of weak mobs and AoEing them down. Like I said in the post though, it's basically a trade-off between gameplay and immersion for me, and I prefer to see the positive side either way.

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  4. I prefer games where there is no automatic level scaling, but you have the ability to artificially lower your level to get Xp from low level content if you want to. City of Heroes had the best such system I've encountered, but EQ II and a few others still live have it.

    Current WoW sounds like the worst possible implementation of level scaling. Supposedly the last ten or so levels are almost utterly pointless in the current game, with no new abilities and no effective increase in power levels in relation to mobs you usually fight. Among games that have all level scaling, all the time everywhere whether you want it or not, I'd agree that SWTOR lilely has the best implementation I've experienced.

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    1. To me optional level-scaling isn't that appealing because it only has a limited effect on immersion. Sure, you can lower your own level to match the zone you're in, but another high-level player could still run through un-scaled and murder everything in the area by one-shotting things, making it a bit of a moot exercise.

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  5. For me the level scaling in SWTOR is horrible, even with no gear other than weapons the leveling content is trivial. I understand that they don't want to block anyone's progress through story but I wish there was an option to choose the difficulty. The current planet max+2 is too easy; an option to set it yourself from say max-5 to max+5 would be top of my wishlist of things I'd like to see. I never thought I'd say this but I'm actually looking forward to my current toon getting to KotFE so I can play through it on veteran and have some challenge with my story.

    In ESO I can add challenge to levelling by not using CP, not using buff food, not allocating attribute points, not placing skill points in passives. In SWTOR even when I try to nerf myself with no gear or buffs, mobs still die in 2-3 button presses.

    I'm not quite sure how you can level in ESO and have enough skill points. I always need more for new skills, morphs, passives and crafting.

    The ESO the dungeons are gated by level because originally with One Tamriel dungeon group finder could put lowbies into ones originally designed for higher level characters. People complained that they were too hard since lowbies may have the boosted stats but they didn't have the skills the dungeons were designed for, ZOS listened and reintroduced the gates. You can still form a group and walk into them underleveled if you want, you just can't queue for them.

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    1. Well, I still agree that overall combat in SWTOR is too easy these days, and I think I said before that I quite like your idea. As you said, it's currently tricky to create challenge for yourself even intentionally. Though I seem to remember hearing that companion-less levelling can be interesting...

      As for the skill point thing in ESO, it's simple psychology: I'm not someone who particularly enjoys experimenting with different builds, so once I've found 5 skills that work for me, why would I want to buy any more that aren't clearly and objectively better? After all they are not additive; any new one would require me to remove an old one from my bar first. I'm sure that from a min-maxing perspective there are good reasons to have different skills available for different situations, but I'm talking simple levelling as a first-timer here. Likewise there's no reason to put points in passives for skills that I never use.

      And thanks for the heads-up about the dungeons; that's good to know!

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  6. I'm mostly happy with SWTOR's level sync. If you are above a planet's level cap and have a companion who likes you even a little, I'm cool with destroying trash mobs. You should feel tough when fighting those types of enemies. The system does break down it comes to major bosses from the story, especially if you're returning to a low level planet to fight them. Vash, Baras, the Emperor and others just melt before us now, and it feels anti-climatic to see major villains unable to put up a fight.

    I can’t say I fought many world bosses while leveling, but the level 50 ones do feel easier. A small group can beat any of the original World Bosses outside of Nightmare Pilgrim these days. I think I’m okay with that. Having to form a full ops group just to kill Gargath seems like more trouble than it’s worth.

    I’d tweek level sync to toughen up some characters, maybe make major villains Champion mobs instead of Elite, and I’d also cap Companion influence when synced, but that might cause another uproar.

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