Warning: A big rant without much of a point. Buckle up.
Oh levels. You old buddy. You old pal. You old so-and-so. Always around. No MMO feels complete without you. Even if we aren't always sure why you're here. But we're always chasing after another one of you.
Levels are on the mind. Everquest 2 increased it's by ten levels, even if they go by so quick as to make one wonder why. World of Warcraft Retail will be undergoing it's customary reinvention of the wheel by crunching theirs down to 60 again. Black Desert Mobile has them, and yet a gear score-esque number called Combat Power seems to be the vastly more important number to raise. As I'm leveling a necromancer through EQ2, the most exciting power gains seem to come from Alternate Advancements, not levels.
I've never cared less about levels. It's a thing I've done, leveling. I've gained all sorts of levels. I'm gaining levels in genres that aren't even RPGs. I'm getting meta levels; I'm now level 8 on my PlayStation trophy thing. A spam email wants me to 'level up life' with some of their dick pills. I think my bank account has levels now.
D&D had them and thus forever it will be. But levels signified actual meaning in D&D (at least all the versions I played). Level 1 said something about your character. Level 5 and things start getting interesting. A level 20 is nearing the power of a small God.
But levels in MMOs are in a weird place. Battle for Azeroth had the inexplicable power downgrade from levels 110 to 120 because of content scaling. But that's in addition to standard new expansion leveling paradox, a fresh level 120 feels like a peon relative to a fully Antorus raid-geared 110. We go from punching out Cthulhu and his minions to being mauled by random wildlife.
We pay to bypass levels. DC Universe Online is giving away a max-level character to everyone for its own birthday. Mobile games include a button to let the AI level for you.
It's turned levels into a frivolous, meaningless thing. Which, granted, levels were always mostly a frivolous, meaningless thing. But it was a thing you could attach a meaning to. A level 60 in WoW was an impressive feat for a long time. Now max level is just the standard. Get to max level so you can increase your item Level instead.
It's an arms race by every MMO to shortcut it's own design. Playing Black Desert Mobile is just a constant stream of scrolling text, flashing buttons, and layered game mechanics all trying to shove as many Skinner boxes in front of your eyes as your 3.5 inch screen can handle. I have no idea what level my character is in Black Desert Mobile, and the game doesn't seem interested in making me care either.
It's gotten to the point where it's now difficult to walk into a MMO, new or old, fresh to me or an old favorite, and figure out which of the billion numbers on my UI matters. Hearing the old school Everquest ding was the ultimate dopamine rush, now it's just part of the game's background noise.
I know this is a rant, but I miss every level mattering. WoW Classic brought this feeling back for me. It was fundamentally built from the ground up to make a level gained feel like a level earned. At worst you got a talent point to be chucked into a meh passive. At best you got new skills or an increase in movement speed. But they did feel like they all mattered. I don't think it was 100% the novelty of it all. I had played plenty of RPGs before before WoW, and I've played plenty since.
EQ2 used to be the same as well. You didn't even get your proper class until level 20. You were a commoner until level 10. The game had its unpleasantness back then but the levels did matter. I've talked with someone who gained nearly 2 levels just on zoning into the new expansion. Why bother raising the level cap at that point? If were going to have a system of progression, let's actually make it feel like progression. Not every game needs to be a grind, but the number going up really ought to mean something.
It's complicated. How an MMO handles levels is indicative to the dev's overall strategy on a number of fronts: player retention, new player attraction, power scaling, how to sell new expansions, etc. But I'm advocating making levels a little bit more important than just a bullet point on a game's Steam page. I'm asking to bring back the journey to the top level and to make reaching max level mean something special again. Maybe the answer is a level crunch. Maybe it's more progression servers. Maybe meaningful levels are just a relic.
I keep a bell on my desk. I've had it for well over a decade now. I hit it everytime I gain a level. As I was leveling through the Freeport sewers yesterday I didn't remember to hit it once. Give me my dings back, dammit!