I don't mind character levels per se. They're just a mechanism for accomplishing two goals:
- Minimize access to content so that players can't burn through all the content immediately.
- Provide short-, mid-, and long-term goals that players will keep playing to attain.
I think there might be a way to allow levels that doesn't create the situation where players grind out levels to rapidly reach the highest level. The key is to better define differently-focused but content-rich gameplay at low, mid and high levels, then allow players to choose the level of gameplay they most enjoy.
We can break this down into the following design features:
1. Gameplay changes as a character climbs the ranks of a profession, moving from tactical to operational to strategic. Each of these three levels requires a different way of playing the game, and each is supported with gameplay that's satisfying at that level.
2. Advancement is always optional -- if you're at a rank you enjoy, you can choose to stop advancing and enjoy that content.
3. With increasing rank comes more responsibility for insuring the enjoyable gameplay of others.
The result of these changes is twofold. First, gaining levels is no longer an unalloyed good -- now there's a cost as well as a benefit. As you increase in level, and your gameplay changes from tactical to operational to strategic, you become more responsible for the satisfaction of other players at the lower levels of your chosen profession or class. When power comes with responsibility, not everyone will choose to chase the "highest" levels.
Second, players are explicitly given the power to decide where they feel most comfortable on the cost/benefit scale. If you enjoy fast-paced squad level combat with few responsibilities, then you're free to remain playing at the tactical level. (Some people like being sergeants.) If you feel you know how group actions ought to be organized but you're not interested in trying to define high-level goals, then once you've been promoted to an operational role you can choose to keep playing at that level. And if you yearn to win large-scale engagements over the long term, and you're willing to accept responsibility for the consequences to large groups of players of your decisions, then you can seek and accept promotion to the highest levels which reward successful strategic gameplay. What level you want to play at should be your choice; you shouldn't be forced to play at levels you don't enjoy.
The result of these two effects should be that the burden of having to constantly chase levels is removed, as is the letdown of wondering "is this all the high-end content there is?" when the highest level is achieved. By designing content to satisfy tactical, operational, and strategic gameplay and providing plenty of content for each type, by designing professions with levels explicitly defined to provide those three gameplay types, and by allowing players to choose which gameplay type to enjoy, it seems to me that a lot of the good that levels offer is retained while a lot of the bad is designed out.
So do I have it right? Does this system offer most/any of the benefits of conventional level systems? Does it avoid most/any of the problems? What would prevent a design like this from being broadly successful? Could its flaws be corrected by minor tweaks, or is there some piece that dooms the whole if implemented to any degree?