One of the more contentious issues that have arisen in the early weeks of Guild Wars 2 – other than the highly debated butterscotch or buttercream dye choice – is the level curve.

Having explored Queensdale on my guardian with the wide eyed abandon of Homer Simpson in The Land of Chocolate, I had absolutely no problem with the level curve. I finished the first area at level 15 and a half, putting me bang on target to move onto Kessex Hills or Brisban Wildlands.

With this in mind, I was genuinely confused by the frustration expressed by players who said they were consistently falling behind the leveling curve before leaving Queensdale and other starter zones. Those same players were finding disparities very early in their progression.

So with my trusty gaming science hat on – it has a feather and a drop down monocle – in a piece I first did at, I decided to figure out what was going on.

My only rational hypothesis was that those renown hearts were proving to be problematic for players used to the quest hub style of leveling. As you know, in many games, you have an area rife with quests, you pick them up and then the expanses that lie before the next quest hub are packed with mobs to a) pick up the pieces you need for the quest and b) grind on.

The renown hearts differ greatly from that philosophy for a number of reasons:
• They provide only one hit of xp compared to the many quests you would get in a typical MMO hub.
• They are not repeatable
• Their main function is to guide you toward areas of more vital content – dynamic events – rather than provide the bulk of xp needed.

However, their prominence on the map – an issue we’ve spoken about repeatedly on GuildCast – does bear resemblance to quest hubs in other games. So was this “heart to heart” approach causing the problem?

From some responses I’d seen on message boards and from folks on twitter, it certainly looked a valid assumption. So I decided to test it out.

I made another human character and leveled it through Queensdale, this time not taking my merry, disorganized way but using the renown hearts as true points of reference to move between and plot my route across the map. I decided I would do no tradeskills – other than mining nodes that I would be bumping into – no personal story and absolutely no WvW.

You might think I was off my rocker – out of my mind, for you American types – but I had seen people respond to my questions of why they didn’t spread out into other content to make up the difference with answers of “I shouldn’t be forced to do content that I don’t want to do.” More on that argument later.

By taking this approach it would allow me to see what was on offer purely within the experience of taking a “questing” approach to the area.

I’ve embedded the video I made of this excursion above, but to sum up my findings:

Renown Hearts Alone Don’t Cut it

Very quickly it became obvious that renown hearts provide nowhere near the amount of experience need to level. This might seem wildly obvious to many, but there are definitely players who I have seen unhappy with the difference between the increase of level expectation for hearts and the amount of levels they provide to help you meet that curve.

It takes 6,489 xp to hit level three. Completing the renown hearts that have a “comfort level” up to three will yield 1,050 xp. In fact completing “Help Farmer Diah” up to “Help Cassie around the moa ranch” which is a level five heart, will see you complete five hearts for a total of 1,821 xp.

A Red Number Isn’t the End of the World

If you are just one level down on the expected level for each heart, its number turns red. This has the connotation of danger for the player but it actually isn’t a big deal. I found that as long as I was within three levels of the renown heart’s suggested level I had no real problems.

Your Dynamic Events Will Vary

Although the renown hearts did lead to dynamic events, the straight line approach of point A to point B that following them causes means you miss a lot of DEs. The very nature of going to the RHs to complete them before moving to the next one puts you in straight line traveling which cuts through the roving nature of some DEs causing you to only trip over them if you are there at precisely the right time.

Even the very first heart in Queensdale has a number of closely associated DEs. Help Farmer Diah has five that I did very early on, including the rabbit vs. watermelon event that you run across on the way after getting your vaunted Hero of Shaemoor title.

That cluster of dynamic events is obviously meant to introduce you to their concept and how important they are to your leveling, without them the xp from mobs simply is too tertiary to make a meaningful bridge between the gap from RH xp to level attainment.

Even so, I didn’t see all of them on my guardian on the first run through so you can’t expect to see all of them first time round. Particularly if you are not spending much time beyond completing the RH and moving on and especially if you don’t pay attention to what the friendly NPCs are doing as hints into further content.

When Focused on RHs, Walls Appear

I certainly hit points where I was getting into more trouble than I could handle when attempting to move on. I managed to complete the Hunter Block RH – level 9 – while at level 5 but the local drakes came at me in numbers when I tried to move in the direction of Fisherman Will or Brother Vince’s RHs.

The hearts themselves are arrange within certain level ranges with appropriately strengthened mobs around them, which is common sense of course, so if you fall four or so levels down you will be having problems if you come across packs when solo. In a group you’ll mainly be fine, but doing so means you will run out of hearts well before you hit level 15.

The “walls” appear when you miss the level curve by about four levels. Solo, the mobs become too difficult to do without danger of frequent repairs.

It’s in the Math

From the 17 RHs in Queensdale there is a total of 8,134 xp when to hit level 15 you will need 58,687 xp. There is a difference in the first 15 levels in that there is a modified experience curve which means you will actually need less than advertised to hit 15. But it is still a much higher number than you will receive from RHs.

Therefore, if you want to level mainly by doing RHs it is blindingly obvious that such an approach is simply not what the game is designed to provide.

Resorting to Grinding

As I think I’ve demonstrated, following RHs around like you’re being led around by the nose is not only an inefficient way to level, it absolutely will lead to problems.

You have a choice, either adapt to what is being asked of you or try using the approaches you might resort to in other MMOs: grinding mobs.

Most mobs give a paltry amount of xp, though you can get decent bonuses for killing mobs that have been alive in the game world for a long time – which is why you will sometimes get a big xp bonus for a mob that looks just like any other.

Even taking that into account, only the masochistic would undertake leveling in Guild Wars 2 via grinding mobs, it’s simply not viable due to the extreme amount of time it would take.

Adapt or Die — or maybe get annoyed

It is clear that quest hubs and mob grinding are simply not a part of this game.

Complaints that “I’m being punished for playing the way I want to” – something I’ve had said to me directly in a discussion on the matter – seem to completely ignore the game you are actually playing.

If you play chess and only ever move pawns then I would say a) you will lose and b) you are not taking advantage of the tools the game is providing you. It is not the game’s fault that you prefer just to play with the second row on the board.

“But this is an MMO! I know MMOs!” I hear you cry, well yes it is, but not all MMOs are the same and I’m highly grateful that after a decade of incredible similarity — with some exceptions — we might have a move towards some differentiation.

The RHs are provided as guidance to areas of content, you can also use the Points of Interest, Vistas and Waypoints as similar pointers. By just stopping when I was hitting a leveling wall and seeking out the other PoIs and so on in that specific level range area, I soon gained parity to the level range by the XP given and from the many DEs I found due to those routes.

I still didn’t allow myself to wander around with the complete ignorance of the map that I did on my guardian. Yet I finished the map at 100% completion at level 13 on my engineer.

As I stated earlier, two levels is easily doable when tackling more difficult content. That means I was able to move onto Kessex Hills even though I had forced myself not to take up any one of the other options I could have used to gain experience.

Personal Story delivers a very good amount of XP, each tradeskill provides up to 10 levels each, WvW gives a lot of XP too.

Is it really too much to ask to dip into the content of a game which rewards XP in many more ways than the large majority of MMOs on the market?

If you are experiencing issues with leveling because you only want to travel from heart to heart, you don’t want to do Vistas, you don’t want to do tradeskills or WvW or Personal Story then there is a very easy explanation.

You are experiencing much less than 20% of the content available to you.

As soon as I started dipping into tradeskills, pursuing my personal story and some WvW I was well beyond the leveling curve, at times exceeding five levels. I actually think the leveling experience is the single best one available on the MMO market today.

There is a huge amount of content and all of it gives you XP. There are choices to make in what you enjoy and pursuing any of them fully, in conjunction with doing a little of other content streams, will ensure you are easily on track with the leveling curve.

Just look at the game design as the levels advance to see that RHs are meant to be an initial hand holder, not the prime delivery of XP or content. RHs decrease in number to the point they do not exist in Orr.

Those early levels are an education for the game, but they are done in a way where players are not being battered over the head with neon flashing signs constantly.

Here’s an RH, it obviously isn’t enough to level but look here’s an NPC who runs up to you and tells you of a DE which will give you a nice bit of XP – oh and it’s quite fun too! Perhaps it might be a good idea to watch out for those NPCs who move around and speak to you, they will be important later.

This is how ArenaNet created the PvE experience for Guild Wars 2, those 1-15 areas are meant to teach you that this isn’t the MMO you are used to. That adaptation to the game’s content ideology is needed to fully enjoy GW2 as you move through its world.

Initial friction between expectations from other MMOs and playing through Tyria is understandable, but a steadfast complaint that the game doesn’t provide enough leveling content is frankly, in my opinion, nonsensical.

There are small sections where some tuning might be needed, moving a DE here or there, making certain sections less dependant on them – the brewery in Queensdale springs to mind – will help fine tune the experience somewhat. But it is very much fine tuning, there are always alternatives to progress.

If a game that asks you to explore into find its content is something that you find completely off-putting then I just think Guild Wars 2 is not the game for you. That’s perfectly fine and a matter of taste.

What is obvious is how easy it is to become reliant on patterns of play set in systems from other games and how used to them we are. The MMO industry is still comparatively young and there is a huge amount of untapped territory in regards to its potential that remains unexplored.

I think Guild Wars 2’s PvE content is a very good example of that fact.

Thanks for reading.