By now, you probably know the drill: A new World of Warcraft expansion comes out, and the level cap soars to new heights. In the past of couple expansions, though, focus has shifted from traditional levelling to alternative forms of advancement like Keeps, Order Halls and Artifact Weapons. Zones have also become non-linear. Blizzard told me they have considered getting rid of regular levelling entirely.
"There are times where we've considered, 'What if we get rid of levelling altogether?'" replied WoW game director Ion Hazzikostas during an interview at BlizzCon. "And we've always found ourselves coming up with a new construct that sounded a whole lot like levels, but with a different name. So at that point, it's like, 'OK, let's keep doing levels.'"
What has changed, though, is the role of levelling in World of Warcraft. Once upon a time, it derived its importance from abilities. But WoW's been running for more than a decade, and it's not stopping any time soon. The result? Ability bars that spanned nations and oceans. Ability bars that could be seen from space.
"When you levelled from 60-70, at 61 you were getting rank seven Shadow Bolt or whatever," said Hazzikostas. "There was something that made every level feel meaningful. We've realised over the years that that's not sustainable. It was fine in the short term, but we can't just keep piling abilities onto your bar. We got to a point where you'd have 40-45 separate abilities, and that's insanity."
So Blizzard put the focus more on progression through zones, with levelling as a tape measure slowly unspooling behind you. But now that Legion's gone non-linear with its zones, that's not really what levelling is about either. Still, it continues to have a purpose, even as it drifts further and further from the spotlight.
"There used to be these five or six foundations that made levelling essential,"said Hazzikostas. "We've peeled away three or four of those over the years. Are the others still important enough? The answer has generally come down in the 'yes' column."
"Traditional levelling is still a useful benchmark to measure your progress as you're getting towards the endgame," he explained. "Even though we didn't have a rigid order to our zones and you could choose your path through Legion, at 102 you could seek out your second and third Artifacts. At 104 or 105, there are extra class order things. It gives a very clear, readable, familiar sort of pacing."
That said, while alternate advancement methods will probably never replace traditional levelling, but you should expect more of them. Blizzard has learned a lot from Artifact Weapons, and they're eyeing other systems for similar treatments.
"That feeling of alternate advancement that Artifact Weapons have given — especially at max level — is something that even if it's not expressed in that exact form, it's something we want to recapture and carry forward. It's great to always have a goal to work towards at max level," said Hazzikostas.
As for what'll be the equivalent of Artifact Weapons in the next expansion, well, that's still up in the air. But maybe, if we cross our fingers and hope hard enough, we'll finally get those dance studios everybody's been waiting for.