Leveling up in RPGs

Matt_S

  • Posts: 46
Do you think most RPGs benefit from a level system?  There's clearly some good in it, otherwise it wouldn't be used over and over in just about every RPG in existence.  But I think it's generally a poor system, and game developers need the courage to try something different.

Nothing has more capability to destroy the pace of the game than levels. If a player's natural pace is too fast, then they'll probably be underleveled eventually, and nothing sucks more than hitting a boss where you have to level grind before you can move on.  Most of the time, players don't have to worry about leveling up, so it's a bit of a jolt when suddenly their goal becomes to level up. Some RPGs, for whatever reason and through whatever means, set things up so the player can't be underleveled, but then one has to question why there are levels in the first place if it's never useful.  On the other end of the spectrum, if a player's pace is too slow, then they can easily end up overleveled.  At that point, they can accept that the game is just going to be easier from that point, or they can speed themselves up so the game can catch up to their level.  Why should players go through this?

People sometimes say that levels give the player a sense of progress, something that verifies that their characters have grown stronger since they first started.  Except there is no net progress, since the enemies almost always get stronger as the game goes on.  Sure, if you go back to the early areas of the game, you can curb stomp everything, but the combat probably won't be any fun (if it ever was).  The game gets extra jerk points if the enemies level up with the player, or if the enemies in all locations get stronger after certain story points, completely killing any idea of progress.

To top things off, level ups really break suspension of disbelief for me.  Sometimes the main character is supposed to be a seasoned fighter, and yet he starts out in single digit levels.  Then he goes and kills 4 wolves, but he hasn't gotten any stronger - but then he kills a 5th wolf and he gains some muscle mass, gets a little faster, etc.  Yeah, I'm pretty picky, but it just bugs me.

So what do I propose to replace leveling up?  Well, I think the Legend of Zelda series has it pretty good, with equipment and life increases generally coming at the pace of the story.  Story-based power-ups should be able to do the job just fine in traditional RPGs.  A bigger question I have, why does something need to replace leveling up at all?  RPGs generally already have equipment; why do they need anything else?  Equipment can be obtained through the story, with money, through crafting, through random drops, through quests, etc.  There can also be strategic choices with equipment that you don't get with level ups.  And if you want an extra challenge,
a weak equipment run won't have running away from every battle as a requirement to continue the challenge, unlike a low-level run where you have to run away to keep your low levels.

Hastily written, but hopefully the point comes across.  Debate furiously.

Other RPG-related topics that I hope to rant about in the future: usable items and money  (summary: you get too much of it) , retreating (most underused feature ever?), difficulty (how does a developer even control the difficulty of turn-based games?), randomness and failure-success scale (combat outcomes fall on a good-bad scale, e.g. miss, hit, critical, where clearly a certain outcome is preferred, but the whole thing is out of your control once the battle starts), shortage of non-magic skills and general lack of alternatives to plain attacks (part of the reason why I believe tactics and strategy is weak in most RPGs), the sometimes downright horrible stories (and all those damn NPCs who generally don't help you save the world despite clearly being interested in the outcome, combined with the apparent ease of a random 16 year old boy picking up a sword and slaying monsters), hit points and such (maybe not quite as radical as this topic, but nothing is sacred), and probably much more.

« Last Edit: April 25, 2011, 09:43:10 pm by Matt_S »

Ceric

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Levels in games are a holdover from Dungeons and Dragons. The early game designers were familiar with D&D and from there the concept became a core part of most modern RPGs. That said, a great place to look for game system inspiration are other tabletop RPGs. I've been playing tabletop RPGs since I was 13, so going on 20 years now, and most of them have gone far beyond leveling as a mechanic.

As for whether they are effective in RPGs, I think it depends on what kind of game you want. Leveling systems are popular because, IMO, they give players two things:

1-A measurable sense of achievement as a game's characters gets stronger, and gains more gameplay options, through play

2-A straightforward way to benchmark character strength vs. the strength of opponents

That said, are there better systems than those that involve leveling? Sure, but I would argue that a game with a leveling system where players have to grind to make progress, or where the game is a total breeze, are badly balanced.

For example, just because there is a leveling system a game doesn't mean there are set amounts of stat growth at each level. A leveling system could instead represent the total value of a character's stats. The character achieves a new level when his/her/its stats get to certain values rather than the other way around, where the character receives stat boosts when they get to a higher experience level.

Beyond that, I would argue that whether or not a game has a leveling system totally depends on the gameplay experience you want the player to have. RPGs with levels and stats are often more "mechanical" in feel, and expect the player to be involved in optimizing character strength. If you look at games like Fable, though, the experience is designed to be more organic - e.g. you get experience points for stats for doing specific things in game related to a given stat.

If you take the Legend of Zelda as an example, that game's focus is really on exploration. The more you explore, the more likely you are to find magical items that allow you to explore more of the world (the raft, the whistle, the power bracelet, etc). A leveling system doesn't work because that wouldn't encourage a player to go explore - the player would stay in a few areas where there are enemies that give a lot of experience and kill them over and over again.

Still, even my last example there is a sign of bad design with regard to thinking about a leveling system. To merge a leveling system and encourage exploration, you could give experience points for exploring the world rather than killing monsters. There is no reason experience and levels have to be tied to killing stuff.

So, what are levels good for? If your game is about fighting and growing stronger, then levels can make sense, as they show steady progression in skill and strength and allow a character to take on stronger and stronger opponents. I'm not sure I would implement them in the standard way, but I can see how they work in that game.

What if you had a leveling system where instead of getting more stat points you instead learned new maneuvers and combinations of maneuvers? What if you got more XP by pulling off successful chains of maneuvers? That would be great for a fighting game of some kind, but you could apply that to a sports game or something like a snowboarding game.

As for why leveling vs. equipment? I would say it again depends on the kind of gameplay experience you want. If you have a game set in a world where everybody uses magic for everything (and you can't enchant items), why would equipment be more important than magic, for example?

The mechanics and "reality" you create for a given game world should depend on the setting and fun gameplay elements you want to implement. Whether you use levels or not should depend on how you design those two elements.

« Last Edit: April 25, 2011, 10:25:49 pm by Ceric »

RandomJibberish

  • Posts: 82
This is one of the main reasons I dislike most classic RPGs. There's no reason why the character's ability should be limited to less than the player's actual skill level, as it just gets frustrating. The sense of progress should come from improving at the game, beating levels and bosses that you wouldn't have been able to beat before, not the amount of time you're willing to grind.

Randomness also really irritates me. Random encounters are annoying, and "critical hit" type systems are frustrating as it can come down to complete chance whether you lose a battle, or how much health you come out of the battle with.

I also don't generally see the point in turn based battle systems at all, seeing as I've never seen anyone sitting around waiting for the other person to attack them before attacking them themselves. It makes the battles seem kinda anticlimactic. I guess I just don't like elements in games with no real reason or explanation, since I'd say a real time battle would usually be much more exciting and more based on the player's actual skill (like the World Ends with You, which is an RPG I really enjoyed).

Epic428

  • Posts: 1118
Ugh I had a ton of text typed and upon sending it took me to my profile page and I lost it all.

Anyway. I used to play MUD games when I was younger. One I really liked was called "Realm of Magic." What was great about it was the fact that it was a very early version of an MMORPG. This means that there were new changes always being added, whether it be new locations, weapons, NPC's, etc. Often times the newer places would get harder and harder to account for the increase in levels, other times it was because of a certain occasion, like a holiday.

The best part about MUD games is the fact that they were "Multi-User Dungeons" so some places you would travel to, you would still get your ass kicked even if you were level 500. This meant that in order to get through the places, you had to group up with anywhere between 5 and 15 people if you wanted to get through the area. You would also have to have everyone focus on different things such as healing, magic, and power users.

MMORPG's do the leveling system the best. They make it so that new places become challenging and require you to level up to get to some places, they also force you to become competitive rather than repetitive. You may want to engage in PvP so you would need to fine tune your skills, magic, and eq, as well as be a higher level than your opponent if you want to win the fight.

Anyway, A long time ago I wanted to make a MUD and I attempted it, but I also wanted to make a Visual MUD that retained all the qualities a MUD offered. I hope one day this can be done with Stencyl as that would be amazing.
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Duckaiser

  • Posts: 97
Quote from: RandomJibberish
Randomness also really irritates me.

That looks funny, with your username...


Anyway, I agree that levels are one of those things that just really don't make much sense in RPGs. But you know what? I usually don't care. It's one feature that really makes them stand out from other genres...

As for turn-based battle systems...consider this: How many games can you play at your own pace, without having to worry about reaction time at all? Turn-based RPGs are one of the only kinds of games that you can play like that, and for that, I appreciate that type of gameplay.

Hectate

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I'd invented a system to replace leveling but still retain that "increasing in ability" feeling that levels give to the player. I called it the Incremental system. While it was originally designed as a sort of d20 (D&D, for example) alternative rule-set, it's useful for anything where you want to progress the character(s) to show that they've become stronger and there's no reason why they should lose to a weak enemy. It was incomplete when I ceased working on it and the text has long since vanished - but I'll give you an example of it.

Essentially, any statistic, skill, or action that you required for your game would be added to the character, and they could assign a few points so that it wasn't zero. When using the skill - ranged combat, for example - the raw value of that skill, plus a dice roll, was compared against the skill required of the action - such as an enemy's defensive skill value (possibly plus a roll also) - and the difference between the values calculated to determine not only the hit/miss but also the damage dealt upon success.

Example;
Hectate attacks with an arrow (20 skill + 10 roll) at 30 points.
Orc has defense of 20 (10 skill + 10 roll). Orc takes 10 damage.

Finally, by using the attack skills, Hectate is rewarded with experience points that he is able to apply in increments to his attack skill value. So next time, perhaps his attack could be 21 skill + d20.

The skills themselves branched out to let characters specialize as they wanted without being locked into particular classes. For example, everyone starts with basic Offensive and Defensive skills, but as they increment their points/experience into those skills they might go into "Unarmed Combat" and "Magical Defenses" with each branch getting more specific as it goes along.

The Incremental system was inspired by both The Saga of Ryzom and Dungeon Seige's experience systems where you gain experience in a skill by using it.

RPGs and I have a love/hate relationship with me because I usually suck at them but I always want to find out the story behind it. So, that's my little random blurb about RPG elements.
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Greg

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I haven't had a chance to read through the other responses yet, but I generally don't like the grinding type of leveling up that you have to do just to beat the next boss.  Rare exceptions are some Final Fantasy games that I'm totally immersed in that I don't really care. 

For me, the best leveling up system happened in Chrono Cross.  You were able to level up by defeating enemies, but only up to a certain cap until you faced the next "boss".  That way the game designers could really fine tune the difficulty of the bosses because they had a general idea of how "leveled up" your player would be.  I always found all of the boss fights challenging, but you always knew that it was "doable" because it had to be. 

Luyren

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I'm the type of player that don't stop for level grinding. Only on a second playthrough, or because the game makes level griding less boring. Crisis Core has all those extra missions, and once I saw that, I though "I must complete them all!". Then I realised I became to overpowered.

Actually, I noticed that a game can be enjoyed in a completely different way depending on how you grind. Power leveling, and everything is easy. Underlevel, and everything is way to hard. But if you just follow the story, you get the "right" amount of challenge. Heck, defeating Braska's Final Aeon in Final Fantasy X took me over 4 hours trying. My friend spent these 4 hours powerleveling so he could kill the boss with one overdrive. To each his own, I guess.

The same thing happens with a Zelda game. You can get one type of difficulty if you get 100% of the items, if you only get the items on your way or if you try to skip as much as possible.

So to me a leveling system of sorts is also an option for the player on how he'll play the game.
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HNF

  • Posts: 232
Levels in RPGs can be likened to grades in a school. Graduating from one grade to the next doesn't automatically make you smarter, or more mature, but it allows you to visualize progress.

Some RPGs do have more rewards for levels than the added statistics. Some RPGs like Final Fantasy have new spells that you unlock as you level up. Some MMORPGs require a certain level in order to unlock a certain event.

The leveling system isn't perfect, and grinding can be tedious. Though I think Hectate has an interesting idea for an experience system. I hope more game developers can be creative about experience.

Derek

  • Posts: 163
Well, I more or less came up with a variation, so here it goes:

It's actually a class system that acts like a traditional level up system where you pick any of the five elements (the same ones in EC) that represent classes (Fire: Wizard, Water: Cleric, Wood: Scout, Earth: Thief, Metal: Footman). You can have to three elements allocated and result in some ''interesting'' classes. The first element chosen requires 10 Talent Points (I prefer that term over EXP), the second requires 25 Talent Points, and the third requires 50. The allocated combinations do the usual alteration of skills and abilities.
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CodeGeorge

  • Posts: 14
I think it's only an issue when you become under or over leveled.  But honestly I still very much enjoy tons of games with leveling so I have no issue with it.  From Pokemon to whatever...  I have absolutely no problem with leveling.  I have big problems with random and too frequent battles though.

Benefits are that it gives a constant sense of advancement.  With most games you get access to new stuff through leveling which is just more nifty gifties.  Heck, in MMOs I usually like the leveling the best because by the time you're done there's no much story left and most MMOs don't have much end game.

I don't think the general crowds will get sick of leveling in a long time. Sure, it can be done poorly in games but I don't play poorly done games.  :P

Matt_S

  • Posts: 46
So many large replies!

As for turn-based battle systems...consider this: How many games can you play at your own pace, without having to worry about reaction time at all? Turn-based RPGs are one of the only kinds of games that you can play like that, and for that, I appreciate that type of gameplay.
And then there's systems like Final Fantasy (or most of the ones I'm familiar with; FFX is the main exception I know of) where it's turn-based but you still have to act quickly.  The real-time/turn-based thing is something else I'd like to talk about some day, along with something that I'll call character autonomy.

For me, the best leveling up system happened in Chrono Cross.  You were able to level up by defeating enemies, but only up to a certain cap until you faced the next "boss".  That way the game designers could really fine tune the difficulty of the bosses because they had a general idea of how "leveled up" your player would be.  I always found all of the boss fights challenging, but you always knew that it was "doable" because it had to be.
I'm not personally familiar with the game, but I have heard that before.  The question that comes to my mind is, why not just immediately power the characters up when they defeat the boss?  There'd obviously be a different feel to it, but it's practically the same effect.

I'm the type of player that don't stop for level grinding. Only on a second playthrough, or because the game makes level griding less boring. Crisis Core has all those extra missions, and once I saw that, I though "I must complete them all!". Then I realised I became to overpowered.

Actually, I noticed that a game can be enjoyed in a completely different way depending on how you grind. Power leveling, and everything is easy. Underlevel, and everything is way to hard. But if you just follow the story, you get the "right" amount of challenge. Heck, defeating Braska's Final Aeon in Final Fantasy X took me over 4 hours trying. My friend spent these 4 hours powerleveling so he could kill the boss with one overdrive. To each his own, I guess.

The same thing happens with a Zelda game. You can get one type of difficulty if you get 100% of the items, if you only get the items on your way or if you try to skip as much as possible.

So to me a leveling system of sorts is also an option for the player on how he'll play the game.
Indeed, I think it's comparable, but I think there's a key difference: intentionally playing the game underleveled requires avoiding combat.  That really makes it less enjoyable, in my opinion.

Gutsy question: why should characters get stronger over the course of the game?

Ceric

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Quote
Gutsy question: why should characters get stronger over the course of the game?

They shouldn't necessarily. It depends on the game. In many games the players just get weapons they can swap out (FPS games) and not much else. Same goes for shooters. Puzzle games don't generally have any sense of progression for the player that makes the game easier. In fact that's a genre where the "player" gets weaker as the game progresses because the levels keep getting harder without any appreciable increase in player options.

Older Nintendo games didn't have any sense of progression beyond the occasional (always temporary) power up, which in many cases provided a few more options but didn't make the character markedly stronger (Super Mario Bros).

For RPGs, getting stronger generally depends on the story being told. If it's a coming-of-age story, or a game where the player has to get better to defeat some great evil in an epic story, then getting stronger makes sense because it works in the context of the story.

One thing to keep in mind is that if the player character doesn't change and gets no new options throughout gameplay, you're relying entirely on your level design, and the flexibility of your character's abilities at game start, to keep the player playing. If you're cool with that, no need for the player character to get stronger.

At the end of the day whatever mechanism, levels or otherwise, provides the most fun and generates long-term interest are what you want. Games where you have to grind for levels often fail this test and would be better without levels.

Hectate

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Yep, basically it's just a common - perhaps cliched - gameplay element.
That being said, it is also a motivational factor for the players (although not every player). Examine the glut of Facebook games that revolve entirely around what is essentially levels and unlocks based on levels. There's a lot of psychology behind it that I won't pretend to be educated in, but there's some good articles to be found on Gamasutra about it. People want to feel like they've accomplished something and a simple increasing number is an easy way to increment that for them.
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Luyren

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Quote from: Matt_S
I'm the type of player that don't stop for level grinding. Only on a second playthrough, or because the game makes level griding less boring. Crisis Core has all those extra missions, and once I saw that, I though "I must complete them all!". Then I realised I became to overpowered.

Actually, I noticed that a game can be enjoyed in a completely different way depending on how you grind. Power leveling, and everything is easy. Underlevel, and everything is way to hard. But if you just follow the story, you get the "right" amount of challenge. Heck, defeating Braska's Final Aeon in Final Fantasy X took me over 4 hours trying. My friend spent these 4 hours powerleveling so he could kill the boss with one overdrive. To each his own, I guess.

The same thing happens with a Zelda game. You can get one type of difficulty if you get 100% of the items, if you only get the items on your way or if you try to skip as much as possible.

So to me a leveling system of sorts is also an option for the player on how he'll play the game.
Indeed, I think it's comparable, but I think there's a key difference: intentionally playing the game underleveled requires avoiding combat.  That really makes it less enjoyable, in my opinion.

Gutsy question: why should characters get stronger over the course of the game?

Yeah, for RPGs the avoid combat thing in a underlevel playthrough seems boring. But for a game around item collecting (Metroid, or Zelda) it's very challenging, and if you don't mind dying a lot, extremely fun! I still couldn't beat Ridley in Super Metroid in my "underpowered" playthrough. D:

I think characters level up as a form of reward for the player. To give him a sense that he's getting better at the game. This and because, in some games, you are rewarded with new skills as you level up, giving you more options to fight enemies with more complex patterns/different kinds of attacks. To tell you the truth I never tought about this.
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