SWTOR Endless Levelling

It’s E3 week, but as someone who doesn’t play console games or (most) first person shooters I wasn’t expecting a whole lot in the way of exciting announcements. As it turns out there was a gameplay trailer for next year’s Sim City, but aside from that generally nothing so far has really caught my eye. However, yesterday Bioware/EA gave their conference presentation and included details about upcoming SWTOR patches, and while I’m not personally interested in returning to the game I do find their plans thought-provoking.
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There are the expected additions of a new planet, new operations, and new warzones, the slightly unexpected addition of new companions and a new playable race, and the totally bizarre bit: new levels. Now keep in mind that I do not have the longest or widest MMO history, but introducing a level cap increase inbetween expansions seems like a totally new and possibly crazy concept. After some reflection I think it could be really neat, but I’m not sure SWTOR is the game to make this idea happen successfully.

What are the downsides to a level cap increase? The most obvious one is that it can invalidate hours of content. Level 50 flashpoints and operations are at best a lot easier and at worst rendered pointless when you’re 5 or 10 levels above the bosses. It can also invalidate gear and collections — suddenly the PvP gear that you’ve been grinding for months to obtain is less potent than a minor quest drop. On a personal note, as someone who traditionally prefers the end-game to the levelling game level cap increases just seem like an irritant between me and what I want to do.

Of course most MMO players face these issues with every expansion, and my attitude is usually “that’s the way expansions go, so suck it up and get levelling!”. (See the RIFT official forum right now for examples of complaining about this in action.) Between expansions though? That’s a new one.

So why is Bioware taking this rather extraordinary measure? They seem like smart dudes, and I suspect they have a good reason. Based on my totally anecdotal survey, the folks who really enjoy SWTOR are folks who put more emphasis on levelling, alts, and story. If, in theory, SWTOR were to change their focus slightly away from entrenched level cap activites and more to story and levels … it bucks the current MMO design theory, but I think it would be a hit with their core playerbase. And why not! The idea of an MMO where the levelling journey only takes brief breaks is an intriguing one and seems sufficiently different from other AAA offerings.

Unfortunately I don’t think SWTOR has the right infrastructure to make this properly happen. If nothing else the voice acting, while one of the game’s strongest selling points, makes churning out regular leveling content expensive and difficult. I wish Bioware/EA had thought about this more ahead of time and really focused on continuing that casual, story-driven, alt-based gameplay that I think they did so well instead of bolting on a buggy version of WoW’s end game and telling us early adopters to have fun.

I’m not sure I’d personally play a game that was focused on providing a regular storyline and level increase, but it’s a unique idea in big money MMOs. Bioware is going to have to be very careful about how they implement this patch-based level cap so as to not alienate the established 50s, and I’m not sure they have the right setup to make this happen properly, but I can kind of see what they’re thinking (I think) and I’d be interested to see where a different company could take this idea in the future.