Yesterday I talked about endgame, and why it’s problematic. I’d like to go into a bit more detail about that.
Ask any devoted player of online multiplayer games with levelling systems, and you’re extremely likely to hear phrases like “the game really starts at X”, where X is a level (often max level), or “it really starts at endgame”. It’s a very common sentiment. Generally, this is paired with a disdain for the levelling process, because that isn’t the “real” game. Ask Kodra about levelling in games; he absolutely hates it, and the quickest way to get him to quit a game is to leave him a few levels behind and make him feel like he needs to catch up. He seeks the endgame, where the “real” content is. I also have a variety of friends who relish the levelling process, and for whom the endgame is mainly dead air, with little interesting going on. I understand (and agree with) both viewpoints.
Levelling, by which I mean the process in which you gain experience points that increase your “level” and therefore power by some arbitrary value, is generally thought of as the best way to show progress. You want to feel like you’re getting more powerful as you progress through the game, and “level” is a handy shorthand for this process. I believe it’s toxic.
In classic RPGs, little mattered other than your level. An increase in level raises your base stats, allowing you to hit harder, live longer, and do more. This eventually graduated to unlocking abilities– achieving a certain (again, largely arbitrary) level allowed you to use a new ability, which is always fun and can change how you play the game, sometimes drastically. This evolved further during the MMO era, where level became tied to equipment. Without achieving a certain level, equipment would be closed off to you. Any deviation from this level-based progression is almost always met with extreme hostility within the industry– “how do we make it clear that you’re progressing?” is the common question, with the undertone of “no answer you provide will satisfy, this discussion is over”.
It’s a valid concern, but I think an unfounded one. Levelling is merely shorthand for increased power. What we need is to ensure that playing the game makes you feel like your power is increasing, and that those increases in power are messaged clearly enough to make them feel meaningful. It’s worth noting, most games already do this, it’s just additionally locked behind this trapping of some overall “level”.
We want to increase in power on a variety of axes:
- Abilities: We want to do new, cool things.
- Equipment: We want to have newer, shinier equipment.
- Base Stats: We want to be stronger, smarter, faster, sturdier.
- Power Relative to Enemies: We want to fight harder enemies, and we want to see the enemies that were once hard become easy.
- Cosmetics: We want to look cooler (often tied to equipment).
- Customizability: We want to tailor ourselves to how we like to play, and differentiate ourselves from other players.
- Freedom: We want to be able to go more places and do more things.
Consider how many of these are tied to a single bar, a straight line from 1 to 50, or 20, or 90, whatever the maximum level is. Furthermore, consider that a major complaint of players is that there “isn’t enough to do”. This complaint doesn’t surprise me at all. We have these seven different things that don’t really have a lot to do with one another (with the exception of #4, which is inextricably tied to 1, 2, 3, and sometimes 6), and they’re pretty much all tied to a single bar. If they aren’t tied to that one bar, they’re tied to a different one: currency (where you see most of the cosmetic stuff).
We’re wasting our content by oversimplifying it to a single, unchanging slider. Each one of those could easily be a separate progression, where one day you’re working on a new sword, another day you’re increasing your strength, and the day after you’re practicing a new type of feint.
I spent a bunch of time blasting Destiny yesterday for what it does wrong, let me return to it and talk about what it does right. Progression in Destiny, to a point, is fantastic. Almost every weapon has a small progression path; as you use it it gets more powerful, and when you inevitably replace it, you have another set of (often different) unlocks to pursue. Your abilities increase independently of your level, and continue past maximum level– indeed, three-quarters of the way through the level progression, you unlock what is essentially an entirely different class with its own set of abilities that you can unlock, that can play very differently from your core class. As you unlock new abilities, you have more and more choices in terms of your customizability. The major weakness of this system is that the progression is entirely linear– you can’t choose what you want to work on next.
Levelling in Destiny is fun. You’re constantly unlocking upgrades, getting new abilities, getting the option to change the abilities you don’t like, and tweaking things as you get more powerful. All of this can be changed on the fly, so options = power. Equipment itself has a similar progression, and you
Final Fantasy games have been doing this for ages as well– FFX’s Sphere Grid, FF7’s Materia, essentially everything in FFTactics, all of these are progression paths that are much more interesting and engaging than the linear levelled path that passively increases raw stats.
Determining the overall “level” of the player can simply be a weighted average of their levels in everything else– some combination of their stats, their gear, their abilities, and how any or all of those things have been upgraded. It’s a more honest indicator of power anyway– how many MMO players have entered a dungeon at max level and seen the difference between a “fresh level 50” and a seasoned raiding vet? The difference is massive, and the level is (at that point) not an honest indicator of power.
There’s an additional bonus to this sort of philosophy, as well. Without a central, core “level” that dictates stats and player power, the overall power curve of the game can be a lot flatter. A level 1 enemy need not be effectively irrelevant to a level 60 player. Destiny does this rather well– a level 28 Warlock in legendary gear may flatten level 1 Dregs in the Cosmodrome with contemptuous ease, but enough of them will still force her to take cover, and their shots aren’t entirely irrelevant. She doesn’t need to play with as much skill to beat them, but she does need to play.
As a result of this, it’s entirely possible to play with players of varying level, and indeed, even find strong ways of normalizing level. Monsters can be min-maxed for their apparent level, giving depth to encounters, and players banding together can take down enemies stronger than they are but still be threatened by enemies weaker than they are, particularly depending on where they’ve focused their progression. Anything that reduces the barrier to players playing together with their friends is a good thing. EvE Online has a very interesting take on this– even very new players are valuable to the high-end EvE ecosystem because they can quickly specialize in useful skills– flying small fighters while other player pilot massive battlecruisers, but still contributing in interesting ways to the fight. A new player is not necessarily simply deadweight, and can play with their more experienced friends.
Note that nowhere here do I recommend abolishing progression; I’m looking for it to be broader, more nuanced, and more engaging.
Let’s abolish level as the core determinant of character power, and watch as our systems become deeper and more nuanced as a result.