Levels are a mainstay of most modern RPG games. And for a single-player game, I do think a leveling system can work well. I don’t think that is true for an online game, specifically for a MMORPG. The more I play them, the more I grow to hate leveling and the problems it creates.
Levels segregate players.
Games like World of Warcraft and Rift penalize players of different levels who want to play together by limiting the experience points gained by the lower level character. If you aren’t willing to carefully moderate your playing and experience income, you will be unable to play with your friends without penalizing them, or you will just need to wait till you are both at the level cap to play together. Net result here is that levels restrict who you can play with.
Levels break the 4th wall to control a players progress.
These games also use levels to prevent you from experiencing content before you are the appropriate level, and make previous content worthless once you have out-leveled it. There are plenty of other methods to restrict content to players by using thematic, in-game, in-character methods. Levels serve as an arbitrary throttle to players advancing through the world and exploring places. Some enemies are just “better” than others at killing you. Levels become an immersion breaking system of content consumption.
Levels go away regardless.
The irony of a level based game is that when most people are at the level cap, their level becomes irrelevant and they are basically playing a level-less game. This is the sweet spot for guilds and friends who want to play together. So why does it have to come at the end of a pointless level ladder climb? The game still offers power upgrades and growth, but sans levels.
Levels divide your game into two.
A game with levels will fall into two parts. Leveling game, and the post leveling game. These two games are played very differently. The leveling game is mostly played like a single player game, and the post leveling game is mostly played as a multiplayer cooperative game. Players who like one, might not like the other. Players who learn one, if they play long enough, will have to learn another to keep playing. Players who like your post leveling game, might not like playing your leveling game to get to the game they like. As a game creator, there seems to be little time to actually teach anything to a player except the leveling game. The post leveling game is often a “you’re on your own” game. Why make two games?
Levels beget level cap increases, which makes your game daunting to newer players and trivializes previous end-game content. A game with a level cap, that then increases that level cap, turns all of the end-game content for the previous level cap into pointless content. Why would a new player spend time trying to raid level 50 content when level 51 quest rewards (added from the previous expansion) are equivalent? It would be more efficient to create content that drives character growth rather than let character growth drive your content. Even without a level cap increase, parts of the leveled world become trivial content for players. There is no reason to ever return to a previous location to help other players or to re-visit for new challenges in a previously visited area. New content at lower levels can only be experienced by playing the leveling game anew.
The MMORPG genre is aging, and it’s not seeing a lot of innovation. Many conventions, such as levels, are included because “that’s how an MMORPG works.” A few games have abandoned levels as I describe them, and those games are better for it. Games like Planetside and EVE Online, for example. If game designers don’t re-examine mechanics like levels, the genre is doomed to repeat itself into obscurity.