For a long time, progression in massively-multiplayer online role-playing games has been gated. Many have been based around the model established by Everquest and later perfected by Blizzard Entertainment's World of Warcraft. You do things to gain experience, which feeds into an overall character level, which determines where you can go into the world. Developers build zones for players of a specific level range and while they're in that level range, they're funnelled through a somewhat linear experience.
This week, Zenimax Online launched Elder Scrolls Online: Morrowind, which builds on a number of changes the developer made to its MMO with the One Tamriel update last year. One of the changes that made Morrowind so enjoyable was the new level-scaling mechanic. All content in Elder Scrolls Online now scales with the player: quests, monsters, world bosses, and rewards. If a monster is meant to be difficult, that difficulty is largely fixed. Every weapon you get is meant for someone at your level of strength.
The magical part of the level scaling mechanic is it means players can jump right into Morrowind from the beginning. Generally, MMO expansions require you to have completed previous content. If you're a human in World of Warcraft, you've likely gone from Elwynn Forest, to Westfall, to Redridge Mountains, to Duskwood, and on. You may occasionally have a multiple branches available, but that's the only option.
There's a linear story that the developer is telling, some times across multiple years, and there's no way you're skipping it. Static level ranges allow for developer control; a developer can differentiate the type of quests and monsters it allows at specific levels, with the understanding that a level 50 can survive more complex mechanics than a level 10.
In the case of the fairly strict Final Fantasy XIV, Square Enix knows exactly how much of the game's story you've completed. You can't play Heavensward until you finish all of the story quests for A Realm Reborn, which includes many of the MMO's dungeons and primal fights. This will be true for Stormblood as well, forcing many players to rush through any lingering story quests - or pay up - before the new expansion launches next week. The team at Square Enix can create content knowing that you're well-versed in concepts like the Primals, Beast Tribes, and the Garlean Empire, and characters like Cid, Minfilia, Thancred, and Yugiri. There's a certain amount of safety in that.
Instead of one overarching story, Elder Scrolls Online relies on multiple smaller stories. Sure, Morrowind has you working for the god Vivec to determine who's stealing his power, but that primary expansion quest is one that can be dropped at any point to focus on whatever smaller tales draw your fancy. If you want to table helping a living god to play Batman with a dude in scarlet armor, Elder Scrolls Online is more than willing to let you do that. If you want to leave Morrowind completely to go back and play old content, you can.
It allows for an amazing degree of player freedom to the game, something that honestly, I've missed in other MMOs. You go where you want, when you want. And you're always important. I fought one world boss in Elder Scrolls Online because I saw a scrum of other players heading in a direction and decided to follow them on a whim. And unlike a world boss in World of Warcraft, where my contribution is next to useless if I'm not at the correct level, in Elder Scrolls Online, I'm actually useful. Sure, I might not have all of the skills that a much higher-level player does, but I'm in the fight. I'm having fun.
I understand the desire for control, but why not trust your players a bit more? I understand wanting your userbase to understand the deep story you've created, but why not let the strength of that story carry them forward instead of a fairly-linear treadmill of content? Sure, there will be players who side-step or ignore the stuff you want them to play, but why is that such a huge problem? They're still playing, right? And what if players prefer a specific zone or area in the game? Why force them to abandon it because they've outleveled the content?
I've been against the idea of level-scaling in the past, but World of Warcraft has slowly been shifting over to the idea with the release of Legion. The four leveling zones of the current WoW expansion - Azsuna, Val'Sharah, Highmountain, and Stormheim - can be tackled in any order. Quests and loot scale to the player. Each zone has an overall tale it wants to tell, one that intersects with and enhances the overall story of the expansion.
Blizzard did stumble with the idea of level scaling earlier this year, when they secretly added a system wherein level 110 players would see equivalent mobs scaling with their gear. The issue there was two fold. One, Blizzard didn't say anything about the change to the users, it just quietly added it to a patch. That's always a bad idea. Two, World of Warcraft's gear scaling was fairly rigid and tied to item level, while Elder Scrolls Online allows players with higher-quality gear to have an edge over the mobs.
Overall though, I found I enjoyed leveling scaling in early World of Warcraft: Legion and love it in Elder Scrolls Online. While I love Final Fantasy XIV, I find with the upcoming Stormblood expansion I have friends who are rushing through to get ready for the expansion. They're not enjoying that content. They're not paying attention to the depth of the storytelling. They're moving as quickly as possible, because there's a deadline for the latest and greatest in the game.
I think that's a shame.
Level scaling has a couple of quirks and issues here and there, but I find myself, as a person with limited time for the various MMOs I enjoy, to prefer the freedom that leveling scaling offers. Trust your players developers.