I was reading this excellent post by Rem which crystallised a bunch of ideas for me. Levels in games were first introduced way back when Dungeons & Dragons hit the market. As such they have always been a given in any RPG since that time. And when you are talking about table-top games or even single player video games, then they make perfect sense. You go up a level, you get more powerful and then the DM or game itself directs you to where would be the best place to go. But in an MMO this creates immense problems, because an MMO is supposed to be a playable world. To put it simply, your character level does not represent your power, it is your actual power. You might have a super awesome magic sword that can kill nasty undead things, but if you happen to meet an undead mob that is 10 levels above you then that sword is useless, even if the mob is a silly zombie. You are dead meat. Which means that your ability to play in the world is dictated by your level. You can only play with friends if you are around the same level. You can only go to certain zones if you are of the appropriate level or higher, although being of a higher level has its own issues as you are now a literal demi-god whom no living creature can possibly harm. It might be funny the first time to go back to Westfall and have the members of the Defias Brotherhood wail helplessly against you as your back is turned to them, but it gets old pretty quick.
Having levels also means that all the effort that game designers put into content is for the most part wasted. As soon as you begin any game which has a levelling process then the game itself turns to a mad rush to get to the level cap. Developers wonder why players blow through to the “end game” so quickly, but their own design is working against them. It is only at the level cap where players are on an even footing and able to play together, but by that time the only part of the game left to play is either raiding or organised PvP.
Imagine WoW without the levelling process, but replaced instead with skills and equipment. As you had experiences in game then your abilities improved. You could elect to put a great deal of effort into particular areas. What if equipment was actually rare itself, so that the crafting game took on a completely different importance. If the finding of a sword, any type of sword, from killing a mob was rare in itself, then that sense of gear fulfilment that presently players have to get from raiding or doing heroics could be had from the world itself. What if spells were not automatically learned but discovered in the world after killing other spellcasters? The act of killing a spellcaster could gift you with his spellbook, which would contain the spells that he would have used against you. Which would mean that some spells would be rare and not guaranteed to be had by all players.
But best of all this eliminates the end game. In this sense there is no end game as such. You simply keep working on your character, and the world itself is the game. You can go anywhere from the beginning and have a chance at killing any creature from the beginning. You can team up with anyone, and even though you may be low powered compared to others, your presence would still be a valuable asset to a group planning on taking out a creature that had resisted all previous efforts to be slain. And thus is eliminated the need for developers having to continually come up with new content. The whole wide world is the content and there is no rush to a pre ordained level cap. In this way you are truly existing in a playable world.