What started as a conversation about Aion's level grind and their promotional Double Experience Weekends, quickly turned into a conversation about end game and leveling. I recalled FFXI, my first MMORPG, as evidence of how things used to be before World of Warcraft, and how this generation of MMORPGs tend to be about getting to max level as quickly as possible. This urgency to hit level cap is very off-putting.
This post is going to get extremely anecdotal, but bare with me. I never hit level cap in FFXI (level 75). I had a few jobs in the level 50-55 range after playing for about 3 years. But I did not mind hovering at those middle levels because there was stuff to do. The world wasn't devoid of interesting quests and fights for low- and mid-level players. Gaining experience simply opened more doors. This is in contrast to WoW's model where you don't even get a key to the building until you max out.
The mechanic FFXI employed to make this low level stuff interesting was level caps. This wasn't a "use it or lose it", loss aversion technique, wherein you locked yourself out of content if you leveled beyond the cap. It was an explicit lowering of a player's current job level to at most the cap (you remained at your level if you were under or at the cap).
One piece of capped content was also an excellent way to make money. Mobs in the world had a chance to drop Beast Seals. Collecting these non-tradable items gave you a non-tradable token, called an Orb. Gathering a party, you went to the zone entrance and used the Orb to start an instanced arena fight against special monsters. As soon as your party zoned in, you were immediately reduced to the appropriate level. All your buffs were removed, and any gear above your new level was immediately removed. With a 55 Bard, I would do BCNM 40 fights. I had my gear for level 55, but I also kept a set of level 40 gear for this particular fight.
You got one attempt per orb. If everyone died, tough. If you won, a treasure chest appeared which had tons of goodies in it. These were slowly sold on the Auction House, and all participants were given an even cut. (This amount of trust speaks volumes about the community in FFXI, but that's another topic.) Spending a few hours on a Saturday, running half a dozen BCNM netted you a few hundred thousand gil, certainly not chump change. This would be equivalent to a few hundred gold in WoW. At level 40.
Other BCNM fights were capped at various levels from 20 to 75 (uncapped).
There are Garrison fights capped at level 20. These are open-world fights where waves of monsters attack an Alliance (3 parties of 6 players = 18); the last wave contains a boss which drops loot.
The Mission for Rank 3 (Missions were FFXI's way of communicating the main story to the players and are otherwise indistinguishable from Quests) was capped at level 25. Another Mission fight was capped at 50. One of the expansions had tons of level 30 capped Missions until you got near the end of the arc.
FFXI had a realm event where Giant Treants spawned all over the world. They reduced the players to level 20, 30, or 50 depending on which one you fought.
Crafting training didn't require levels. Exploring, and thus mining, logging, or fishing from, any part of the world required spells like Invisible and Sneak so you did not aggro mobs (these were available as a level 25 White Mage or you could purchase consumables which gave the same status effects).
So even though FFXI's forced grouping leveling system is sometimes called Draconian or grindy, or simply took too long, you were not at a loss for things to do. I managed to get 3 years out of the game without even hitting level cap. Today's MMORPGs don't even start until cap, which is such a shame.
In WoW all signs point to leveling. Players cannot even craft without leveling. The only low- and mid- level stuff to do are instances, which are really just quest locations and group leveling sessions.
What could be done to WoW to make those other levels interesting? An idea which immediately comes to mind thanks to FFXI is low level capped raids. Create a 10- or 25-man raid for level 50s. Loot that drops can be both soulbound and sellable. Cap Deadmines at 20. Cap SM cathedral at 40. Remove the level restrictions to crafting training. Write some epic questlines like Scepter of the Shifting Sands, but cap players at 60. Possibilities are endless.
At the end of the day, players just want interesting things to do in the world. There is no reason to require them to hit level cap for those interesting things to occur. The question players ask of developers should not be "What is there to do at level cap?" but rather, "What is there to do?". Players have forced developers' hands by simply demanding shorter leveling curves. Why would designers spend months trying to balance content for mid-levels if the average time a player spends at any one level is 8 hours? Might as well funnel everyone to max ASAP and make the content there. I personally hope for the return of longer levels and less cap-centric content.