During today's "World of Warcraft: What's Next" panel at Blizzcon 2017, game director Ion Hazzikostas announced that level scaling would be seeing changes very soon. Like, "before the expansion" soon. It's probably one of the biggest changes the game has seen in some time and it's a sorely needed one.
Hazzikostas noted that even with the changes in leveling over the years, there's been an push-and-pull for players. Players will sometimes outlevel story content in a zone, meaning they're not getting full benefit from continuing to do those quests.
"On the one hand, all the mechanics of the game are telling you to get out of there, to move along for better rewards, more experience, a place where you belong, while the story is telling you to stay. You want to see what happens next," he explained. "We want to solve that."
As part of the last expansion, World of Warcraft: Legion, Blizzard Entertainment introduced level scaling. No matter where you went in any of the four leveling zones, the game would scale encounters and rewards to your level. This meant that players could do zones in any order, without worrying about getting too far ahead or behind.
"Another consequence of this new system is a feeling of freedom and exploration to leveling that hasn't existed before," said former USgamer editor Jaz Rignall in our review. "Wherever you venture, there are quests to find, and while each zone does a fairly good job of laying down a breadcrumb trail of activities that leads you around the map, I've enjoyed being able to mix things up by simply getting on my mount and going to look for interesting places and things to do. Even with my somewhat chaotic path through Legion's leveling zones, my character has evolved quickly and efficiently as I head towards the level cap of 110."
Level scaling had a few other benefits. One, it made the experience more social, as you're more likely to help a player out if you know that everyone can contribute to a situation. Making groups of characters with mixed levels was possible and encouraged while leveling in Legion. Two, every zone remained active even after players reached the level cap, as quests could send you back to regions with the knowledge that enemies would still offer a challenge. This made zones feel a bit more lively than they were in previous expansions after the leveling rush.
"We are looking to take that tech and expand it to the entirety of World of Warcraft," said Hazzikostas, in reference to Legion level scaling.
The implementation is slightly different than it was in Legion. Within regions and expansions, there will be level ranges with minimums and maximums. The system isn't complete yet, but Hazzikostas offered an example of a zone like Westfall scaling from 10-60, which would retain that feeling of trepidation towards entering later Azeroth zones. Expansions would also be bundled together in level ranges. The Burning Crusade and Wrath of the Lich King will share the 60-80 level range, while Cataclysm and Mists of Pandaria would be in the 80-90 range.
This scaling would also apply to dungeons and rewards; if you prefer the look and feel of everything in Wrath of the Lich King, then you can just level up there. It also allows leveling players to skip zones that they dislike; if I ever have to see Hellfire Peninsula again, it'll be too soon.
You won't have to wait until Battle of Azeroth's eventual launch in order to experience the system though. Blizzard is going to set the change live in Patch 7.3.5, which is just down the line. That means we'll be seeing these new level ranges and the new leveling experience very soon.
I've been a big fan of level scaling in MMOs. I noted that in our World of Warcraft: Legion review. "These changes are huge from a moment-to-moment play perspective and I've wanted them for a very long time," I wrote at the time. Level scaling popped up again in The Elder Scrolls Online's Morrowind expansion, where it was expanded to encompass the entire game.
"You're unshackled from a linear level treadmill, so you can do quests because you want to, not because you're on a quest line. If you want leave behind the region you're currently questing in, you can ride in a direction until you find something more interesting," I said in our Morrowind review. "What you want to do is ultimately up to you, leading to a bit more exploration and wanderlust than many MMOs offer."
My feelings remain the same. I understand why some folks may enjoy the hard level ranges of classic MMOs—there's more differentiation between different levels in terms of power—but I think Blizzard's concept of level mix-and-maxes solves that problem. Instead, I prefer the ability to freely wander and only take in the quests and story content that interests me. I'm horribly efficient in MMOs, so any quests below my level are ignored, leading to the internal struggle Hazzikostas mentioned.
More importantly, the bundling of expansions into specific ranges will allow players to completely avoid some of the old content that just doesn't age well. A few years ago, I played World of Warcraft again from level 1 to level 90. What I found is that Burning Crusade, which is now the oldest content available, isn't all that enjoyable anymore. Blizzard has learned so much in terms of quest design that BC is just a painful slog.
"If any expansion fares poorly due to the old world changes in Cataclysm, it's Burning Crusade. The entirety of Outlands felt like a museum of old quest design and storytelling," I wrote back then. "If it wasn't for the Dungeon Finder, Burning Crusade would've been a complete wash for me. If you want to know how much Blizzard has improved over the years, the transition for Cataclysm to Burning Crusade is the teachable moment."
Now, I might dive into a few of Burning Crusades zones, but I see myself jumping straight to Wrath of the Lich King at 60. And why shouldn't I? It's not about tying me to the expansion story, because in Burning Crusade's case, you miss a lot of that if you're not running the raids. That leaves me with the simple reply of "Because I had to do it in the past," and that's just not a good answer.
I'm looking forward to leveling a new character through post-Patch 7.3.5 and World of Warcraft: Battle for Azeroth. This level scaling change, along with the new PVP toggle, means a vastly different experience through the earlier parts of the game. I want these kinds of bold changes; World of Warcraft should be about moving forward. If you want to move backwards, Blizzard just announced World of Warcraft: Classic. I want WoW to continue on for years, which means it has to change with the times. The level scaling shift is just one example of that.