How World of Warcraft Can Make Leveling Fun Again

With World of Warcraft: Legion out today, Blizzard has yet to find a solution to one of the game's biggest problems.

Even though World of Warcraft remains the most popular MMORPG in the gaming world, and is receiving a brand new expansion, Legion, more than a decade into its life cycle, the game isn’t without its problems. One of World of Warcraft’s biggest issues is its leveling system, which has become monotonous, boring, repetitive, and mind-numbingly simple in the years since the game first launched in 2004. And now that Legion is raising the level cap to 110, the chore of leveling a new character is indeed a chore—and not because combat is difficult or quests post unique challenges. Leveling your character has simply become mechanical, something you do to catch up to the higher level players. 

Even players new to WoW realize how stupidly simple leveling in the game has become. I’ve had more than a couple of friends new to WoW ask me questions like, “Why am I out-leveling my quests?” or “What’s the point of a 5-man dungeon when one player can solo it?” The best I can do to answer these questions is to tell them stories of the early WoW years, when these same quests and dungeons had purpose and expansions still treated leveling fairly.

Unfortunately, the road to Legion hasn’t completely convinced me that Blizzard can make conventional leveling fun again, either. Even the recent invasion pre-expansion event has been a glaring red flag proclaiming “leveling sucks!” Invasions grant silly levels of EXP and allow for AFK leveling, but more than that, they’re something different. Players ran their low level characters out to invasions like rabid dogs so they could gobble up levels without having to bother with the monotony of questing or repeated dungeon runs.

There have been other attempts to fix the leveling problem, too. With Warlords of Draenor in 2014, the developer attempted to fix leveling by creating Mythic raids. Basically, Mythic became the highest difficulty level for raiding, which would allow veteran players to tackle old raids without feeling like they could just steamroll through the challenge. Yes, before you ask—I have played through Mythic-difficulty raiding, and I did enjoy the experience. But Warlords of Draenor’s well-developed Mythic raids are only part of the solution and don’t excuse Blizzard for the sorry state of the game’s current leveling experience.

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Would things be different if World of Warcraft had a server on which the older quests took precedence, where new players could level up their characters while still enjoying the stories? Some fans sure thought so when they created a server called Nostalrius, a “Legacy” server that illegally (without the support of Blizzard) emulated Classic/Vanilla WoW. Regardless of whether they agreed with fans or not—so much of MMORPG development revolves around fan feedback these days—Blizzard shut down the server in April and is facing touch criticism for it. In fact, since April, many more players have come out in support of creating an optional, official Legacy server that emulates the Classic WoW experience in a completely legal way.

Private WoW servers are nothing new and have been around for years, but due to all the media attention this specific shutdown received, Blizzard was forced to publicly address the community. The company was in talks with the Nostalrius development team as well as considering eventually adding what they call a “Pristine” server. This would give players an option to have a fresh start on a server where most of the fast leveling conveniences like the looking for group dungeon finder, cross-realm server capabilities, heirloom equipment, EXP-boosting consumables, and the game’s Recruit-a-Friend features would be disabled.

I’ve personally tried a few of these private servers, even Nostalrius. None of them are as polished as the real thing, but after years of speed-tanking silent dungeons, it was satisfying to run a 5-man dungeon where we held conversations, talked strategy, used crowd control occasionally, and had to put forth a teeny bit of effort to see victory. As a tank I had to think about my spec, plan ahead for mana, and help my teammates. I had to actually try—we all did—and it made these runs 100% more enjoyable. Our victories felt real and well-deserved in these servers, and helped hone the team’s skills. Challenge builds bonds like nothing else in an MMORPG, after all.

Despite my frustrations and those of fellow veteran WoW players, players completely new to World of Warcraft are the ones who lose out the most from the lack of Legacy servers. They play for a week, think the game is ridiculously faceroll, and never come back again. The only real option to finding a lasting home in WoW these days is to join a welcoming guild from the start or hold out until endgame and play the “let’s get my item level up!” mini-game before finding a raid team.

So, what’s the solution? Blizzard’s definitely on the right track with the idea of an optional Pristine server. Personally, I’d much rather have a true, 100% legal Vanilla WoW Legacy server, but only time will tell if the dev team will be able to pull that off. Blizzard has stated that they would indeed like to create optional Legacy servers, but there would be a great deal of technical difficulties involved due to major differences in how data used to be stored in 2004. The team doesn’t want to rely on reverse engineering the Vanilla experience—the process by which the Nostalrius team devised their combat statistics, literally watching hours of YouTube videos to approximate things like hit points and then implementing that into their server.

Essentially, if Blizzard were to recreate the Vanilla experience, they’d want to ensure it’s 100% accurate. Nostalrius, as solid it was, didn’t provide a completely accurate version of Classic WoW. As much as I would love to hop into a Legacy server sooner as opposed to later, I have to admit that creating an accurate experience for players is important. Without the right difficulty tuning, a Legacy server risks making the same mistakes as retail WoW did with leveling, thereby tarnishing the actual Vanilla experience. It’s a tricky situation, to be sure.

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In the meantime, an optional Pristine server—the lack of most of our current-day leveling conveniences, that is—serves as a decent compromise, giving players a chance to slow the game down a bit and maybe even form communities while leveling. My only hope is that this server additionally includes a difficulty re-balance. If it’s just as easy to plow down mobs as as it is in current live servers, folks will quickly leave the entire idea in the dust.

On the bright side, it looks like Blizzard realizes that the game’s current early levels are far too easy to plow through. In a late May hotfix, the developers noted that they’re aiming to improve the “overall pacing and playability” of the low-level experience. So far, they’ve raised the difficulty slightly of the levels 1-20 experience in order to improve the pacing, but their overall goal is to continue to improve leveling in WoW. Legion’s pre-expansion patch also completely retuned some specs to bring back a little strategic gameplay.

Both of these moves were great steps. Continuing to monitor the early game leveling curve is a great way of gauging the community’s interest in taking these adjustments one step further and placing more effort and resources into Pristine/Legacy servers. So far, the team hasn’t announced any sort of timeline for future reconfigurations, but perhaps we’ll hear more once Legion launches.

Thanks to the fact that Legion’s Mythic dungeons will have customizable, varying difficulties at max level, it’s a perfect time to increase the difficulty of WoW’s leveling dungeons. This would help new players better prepare for endgame Mythic dungeons. There’s currently a bit of a stigma within the WoW community against Mythic dungeons. The word “Mythic” leads folks to believe they’re more difficult than they really are, I feel. Mythic dungeons are meant to be more than faceroll, but they’re certainly not overly difficult. Legion’s will be even easier until you get to Mythic+ difficulty.

When leveling content, areas, and dungeons are challenging and have difficulty curves that slope upwards gradually towards endgame, new players learn how to work with others and become better players. When communication is encouraged in order to figure out fight strategies, players learn how to embrace teamwork and not immediately give up when faced with a challenge. In turn, they feel like they’ve accomplished something and have more fun. These are the types of qualities any MMORPG or progression-based multiplayer game should embrace. World of Warcraft has definitely embraced these qualities in the past, but somewhere along the way, it feels like the game’s become a bit lost. Maybe it’s finally time for the developers to dip back into the past a bit and change this. Sometimes, nostalgia can be used as a beacon to guide us toward a brighter future.