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WoWSep 24, 2020 4:00 pm CT

Did World of Warcraft need a level squish?

Back in March of 2019, based on statements by Ion “Watcher” Hazzikostas, I predicted the level squish in Shadowlands even though we didn’t know it would be Shadowlands yet. I should point out this was no feat of prognostication, as Ion hinted heavily that they were considering a serious overhaul to leveling and even mentioned squishing levels several times. It’s like predicting that your dog wants to go for a walk based on the dog pawing at the door — it’s not exactly much of a display of acumen.

I mention it to point out that we’ve known we were going to end up here for almost two years now, and yet it’s still a huge change to World of Warcraft that we’re somehow still surprised by how different the game looks. Characters that are currently level 120 will end up level 50 as soon as the pre-expansion patch for Shadowlands drops. And for a few weeks, the highest level attainable in WoW will be level 50 — characters in WoW Classic will technically outlevel characters in the retail game.

So it feels fair to ask — was this necessary? Was leveling so broken that we needed such a drastic solution? When we talked about how a level squish could work, we didn’t imagine they’d scale all of WoW’s current content, but they did. You can now level from 10 to 50 in either the original game or any of the current expansions, letting you experience an expansion’s full story.

With these changes, is it fair to say that Ion and the World of Warcraft development team have solved that problem of leveling not feeling meaningful anymore?

Leveling was broken and had to change

I think we have to admit up front, even if we argue that a level squish wasn’t necessary, something was. It wasn’t just a few disgruntled players saying that leveling in WoW didn’t feel meaningful anymore, it was the Game Director. And it must be admitted the sheer elegance of the new leveling system far exceeds solutions proposed by armchair developers like myself — the system is simple, it brings all of WoW’s content back to relevance, and does away with many of the problems people anticipated with the process. In short, while a level squish itself might not have been necessary, something was that needed to do what this has done.

Moreover, the way this has been implemented, each new expansion can go into the leveling rotation — after Shadowlands is no longer max level content, it can go into the pool of 10 to max level expansions and the next expansion can become the 60 to whatever-max-level-ends-up-being content. This continues the modular design of the new leveling system and allows for a smooth transition to each subsequent expansion.

Was a level squish the right solution?

But it is fair to say that a level squish wasn’t strictly speaking the only way Blizzard could have fixed leveling in WoW.  For example, the rest of the system could have been implemented, with all expansions and original WoW content (or at least the Cataclysm revamp of it) now scaling to level 120, and Shadowlands going from 120 to 125 or 120 to 130. There’s nothing intrinsically bad about being a level 120 or 130 character — numbers aren’t actually scary, and honestly, if you’re arguing that being level 120 is really high then why have a game that levels to 60 at all? Dungeons and Dragons levels to 20, and even in its most ambitious version the max level was 36 before you literally could decide to become a god. World of Warcraft will still be asking players to absorb a fairly high level count after the squish, why do it at all?

Part of it feels like it’s a callback to the original game, of course. We’re going back to 60 in Shadowlands because it’s familiar, because it was max level back in the day. There’s absolutely no reason, mechanically, why it had to be 60 and not 40 or 80 or any other number you’d choose. But while it is an arbitrary number choice, it’s one that had to be made.

Blizzard took the opportunity to squish the levels now, alongside all of these other changes. Once they made the call to change the leveling system, there were a lot of compelling reasons to change the leveling system — albeit ones that aren’t at all mechanically based.

But I think the squish was the right call

Now, I’m not sitting in Irvine with all the data the WoW team has, so I can’t really say whether players are that put-off by high levels. But for a new player coming into WoW, starting at level 1 and looking up at 119 levels to go until they can start to play the game with my friends, or make friends to run the new content with, I can understand why people would find that daunting. The psychological impact of that many levels for new players has to be considered. We’re used to it because we’ve been playing over the years, we’ve been here as each expansion lay down a new stretch of levels like train tracks to the endgame. But for a new player? I think it’s very fair to say that’s daunting.

In the end, I’d argue that the level system in WoW definitely needed a major overhaul, that the system we’re getting in Shadowlands fixes almost all of the problems leveling had, and that while the level squish itself may not have been strictly speaking a necessary one it comes along with much that was and is absolutely needed by the game. If World of Warcraft is to continue, leveling needed to be more consistent, more important, and more fun. If we drop 70 levels to achieve that, well, it’s a reasonably cost.

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