Re: the LEGION Leveling Paradigm

One of the revelations from the first LEGION panel that really stuck with me is the idea that players will be able to choose how to advance through the leveling zones instead of having a strict order to work with. So once you finish the Broken Shore starting experience, you’ll choose one of four leveling zones to go through, and then continue however you like until you reach max level, when Suramar, the endgame zone, will unlock and provide the gateway into raiding content.

What I love about this paradigm is that it allows for the zone stories to really stand on their own, making them modular adventures in and of themselves. This feeds into the idea that the expansion is really more similar to a sourcebook or campaign setting from the old D&D days, which provides a set of locations and plot hooks to engage your players without specifically saying “you can’t go here until your characters are this tall.” It makes the expansion into more of a true “expansion set” that augments the existing world of the game and gives new landscapes where stories can be told.

Of course, one of the first things I came across after hearing this announced was players commenting that “only four leveling zones demonstrates how little content will be in this expansion.” What that made me think of is wondering what past expansions would have looked like if the same paradigm had been applied, where you had bookend experiences in the form of a starting experience and at least one endgame zone, and everything else was modular and complete-able in any order.

That ends up looking something like this:

Burning Crusade

  1. Introduction: Hellfire Peninsula
  2. Leveling Zones: Zangarmarsh, Terokkar Forest, Nagrand, Blade’s Edge Mountains
  3. Endgame: Netherstorm, Shadowmoon Valley, Isle of Quel’danas

Wrath of the Lich King

  1. Introduction: Borean Tundra or Howling Fjord
  2. Leveling Zones: Dragonblight, Grizzly Hills, Sholazar Basin, Zul’Drak
  3. Endgame: Storm Peaks, Icecrown, Hrothgar’s Landing

Cataclysm

  1. Introduction: Mount Hyjal or Vashj’ir
  2. Leveling Zones: Deepholm, Uldum
  3. Endgame: Twilight Highlands, Mount Hyjal (Molten Front Remix)

Mists of Pandaria

  1. Introduction: Jade Forest
  2. Leveling Zones: Valley of the Four Winds, Krasarang Wilds, Kun-Lai Summit, Townlong Steppes, Dread Wastes
  3. Endgame: Vale of Eternal Blossoms, Isle of Giants, Isle of Thunder, Timeless Isle

Warlords of Draenor

  1. Introduction: Assault the Dark Portal –> Frostfire Ridge or Shadowmoon Valley
  2. Leveling Zones: Gorgrond, Talador, Spires of Arak, Nagrand
  3. Endgame: Tanaan Jungle

Now, clearly there are differences when you compare this directly to the LEGION model.

LEGION

  1. Introduction: The Broken Shore
  2. Leveling Zones: Val’sharah, Stormheim, Azsuna, Highmountain
  3. Endgame: Suramar, Thal’dranath

First off, we know that the Broken Shore is going to be a scenario-like experience, similar to the Assault the Dark Portal experience from WoD. That doesn’t compare 1:1 with a full questing zone like Jade Forest or Vashj’ir, but at the same time, if you compare something like Jade Forest with Vashj’ir, the former has much more content and a more fragmented story rather than the very linear experience of the latter, and that difference is important, since it also shows that not all questing zones are created equal.

Second off, we’ve got situations where you have two complete zones that are used as the entry point into the expansion. Borean Tundra and Howling Fjord are both very thick zones, on par with what Hellfire Peninsula was in BC. The difference between that and the experience in WoD, where Frostfire Ridge and Shadowmoon Valley were faction-exclusive zones, also means that strictly counting up the number of zones isn’t really a fair comparison.

And it’s important to point out that while it appears that Cataclysm really lacked for zone content (PS: it really did) the fact that so much of Eastern Kingdoms and Kalimdor were also altered dramatically means that it just wasn’t brand-new content that was added. That doesn’t forgive the dearth of the content, but it really has to be noted that there’s a reason why it happened.

Now, taking all of that into consideration, and also knowing that Blizzard could conceivably add additional patch content beyond Thal’dranath in LEGION, what can we conclude?

  1. Four leveling zones isn’t exactly unheard of. If you discount the opening zone of the game, then BC, Wrath, MoP, and WoD all had at least four zones dedicated to advancing from the starting level to the level cap.
  2. Having two endgame zones was more common than having one. In BC, both Netherstorm and Shadowmoon Valley set up the endgame raids, while Wrath did the same thing with Storm Peaks and Icecrown. The Molten Front addition to Mount Hyjal in 4.2 of Cataclysm doesn’t really match up with an entire zone, but as patch content it’s on par with something like the Isle of Quel’danas or the Timeless Isle in terms of intent. In MoP, Dread Wastes feels more like a leveling zone rather than an endgame zone, even though it does set up Heart of Fear rather meaningfully.
  3. Yes, it’s reasonable to argue that LEGION will only ship with five questing zones and doesn’t have the problems of Cataclysm‘s Azeroth revamp to blame for it, but WoD was effectively only five zones if you didn’t choose to play a character of the opposing faction.
  4. However, comparing any of the zones in WoD (and it’s reasonable to assume that Broken Isles zones will be more similar to Draenor zones than to anything prior) to older content isn’t a 1:1 comparison: bonus objectives, rare spawns, and discoverable treasures are all content that simply weren’t used in older zone design paradigms. So while it’s reasonable to say that LEGION might not have as many zones, the fact that the zones will likely be more content heavy per square foot than other zones will likely be true as well. And the statements made by the devs that this gives them greater opportunities to employ the leveling zones as endgame content (without having some area of it cordoned off for endgame, as was done in WoD, sounds pretty compelling in and of itself.
  5. If past expansions had used the LEGION paradigm, it probably wouldn’t have looked that different, but you’d have had lots of content still around to be endgame content. Remember the Venture Bay PVP area in Grizzly Hills? Imagine if that had stayed relevant in Wrath‘s endgame.
  6. And maybe LEGION has less questing content per square foot, but it’s entirely possible that the reason for that is Order Halls, profession quests, and Artifact quests, which unlike Cataclysm‘s issues are actually all relevant endgame content.

I think given the struggles we saw with content saturation in WoD, it’s reasonable to be skeptical of Blizzard’s professed intentions with LEGION. But as always, where I draw the line is when one property of the design (in this case, the number of zones) is removed from the context of the rest of the design and used to bludgeon the devs. Players were convinced that having only five experience levels to advance through in Cataclysm and MoP meant that there was less content than in BC/Wrath, which had ten levels, and yet the experience wasn’t the reason for that. Numbers mean different things once you consider them in context.

I’ll never say no to more content in the game, or to more player choice and agency in the game. But I’m willing to grant the devs some grace when the car looks smaller but I haven’t had more than a glimpse at it.

But y’know, that’s me, acting like the devs are people again. *shrug*

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