One thing is guaranteed when you play MMOs: You’ll start by seeing small numbers and end by seeing big ones. This is “growth” and “progress” for your character. We can grasp progress easily when it’s presented in the vocabulary of gradually increasing numbers. Ten damage is worse than 10,000. No one can contest that.
What is important to the game, though, is not that the numbers grow, but that there is a seeming disparity in power levels between characters (hence the term “level”). This disparity has to be significant between characters of different explicit levels to encourage people to continue playing so that they too can become so powerful.
How easily we forget that power is relative in MMORPGs. It’s not how many levels you have under your belt, but how well you can take advantage of those levels to make your character more powerful than the other ones of your level. You care about this because you are best rewarded for fighting battles where you are of lower or equal level with your opponent. This is especially the case in the ever-rapidly-approaching endgames of theme-park MMOs where level becomes irrelevant when you reach the meat of the game, the endgame.
My enjoyment is not sourced at seeing a character level up. I’ve seen that happen thousands of times in my life. I’ve built Dungeons and Dragons characters from scratch and planned their progression before. I’ve played characters that have gone from tavern brawler to god. The little carrot presented by leveling has lost its meaning. Now all I see are the mechanics before me: what abilities I need to unlock and what gear I’ll need to obtain so that I can execute whatever plan I have for my character.
In a game where there is no real story to go along with the long vertical climb of character progression, I lose interest as soon as the mechanics relevant to my class wear thin. There’s little to substantiate the long grinds I’ll have to endure in order to hit max level. The treadmill-like nature of this action becomes starkly apparent when I notice that the relative challenge of the game never really increases. The stakes never get higher. The rewards don’t get more meaningful. I’m running in place. That discourages me and gets me into a funk that leads to hitting the cancel button.
Players don’t need to waste their time running in place for 50 levels before hitting the real meat of the game. The players that MMOs make the most money off of spend much more time at max level than they do leveling. In World of Warcraft, leveling to max level doesn’t take more than a couple of months (or less) of serious play. I’ve known people who have played the game for five years. They’ve spent maybe three months leveling and at least twelve-fold more time in the endgame with their main.
After all this vitriol, you may be surprised that I do not wish to turn character advancement from a pyramid into a broad, flat plane lying orthogonal to the axis of power. There needs to be some vertical difference between characters with different specializations in order to allow players to mix and match abilities. If we have an on-off switch for each kind of ability in the game that indicates if the player is able to do that kind of ability, but there is only one “level” of each ability, there is no middle-ground where characters can have back-up abilities that they use if their mainstays aren’t useful. It doesn’t make sense to have abilities be “best” or “non-existent”. There needs to be some vertical, though it should not dwarf the horizontal.
I suggest between three and five tiers of power for important abilities. This limits vertical advancement enough that it is not a terrible grind, while allowing some differentiation between characters that want to do similar things but specialize in different places. To make this vertical advancement less grindy, I suggest severely reducing the maximum level attainable or removing levels from the game and allowing players to allocate XP to buy individual skills they want their character to have. Skills would naturally be in some kind of tree structure, but ability gain would only be gated by experience gained, not by level and some other limited resource (like talent points in WoW).
Naturally, in a less vertical system you will need to have caps on total experience points allowed for a character to have spent at one time. There are ways to make experience points above this cap meaningful. For example, once a character achieves max XP and spent it all on abilities, further XP could unlock below-cap XP to be respecced at will (preferably only out of combat). Let’s say the cap is 10,000 XP. Once a character reaches 10,000 XP, he starts gaining XP in a “respec pool”. The player can deallocate XP from abilities up to his respec pool amount and reassign them as he likes. As the character continues to accrue XP, each point of XP may no longer increase the respec pool by one point. Diminishing returns or a cap on respec pool gain can stop players from constantly shifting their characters to different FOTM builds. Or, if you want, you can allow all characters who have advanced this far to respec whenever they want. This would certainly make Mot happy.