Over the past twenty-five years of the “modern” RPG era in gaming, we’ve seen the genre advance tremendously. Rendered graphics, advanced skill systems, voice acting and ever more colors of chocobos are in the vanguard of innovation. But one thing we have not seen advance in any particularly cogent fashion is the experience system.
On the surface, the experience system is relatively straight forward. You kill monsters, you get stronger. This can take a variety of formats: from the basic experience system that leads to levels which grant automatic stat and ability increases, to systems where experience or a similar credit system are spent on customizable skills, to hybrid systems which do both. Gaining levels serves to complement the plot at a tactical level: as the story progresses, inevitably the farmer-turned-hero, imaginary-underwater-volleyball-player-turned-hero, or emo-sixteen-year-old-turned-hero will grow more powerful from a plot context. Therefore it is only logical your options go from basic attacks to complex spells, special moves, or the ability to dual wield double dildos. From a gameplay perspective, gaining levels (or “grinding” them) can also serve to get a player over the hump of a difficult boss by increasing characters’ stats to the point where they can have a larger margin of error for defeat. This tends to be less of an issue in today’s RPGs, as most are scaled in a way that supports minimal grinding. If you want a harsh reminder of what things were like in the “old days,” go play Final Fantasy I again and see how much grinding you’ll need to do. Protip: it will brutalize your pansy ass.
The introduction of a huge number of sidequests in RPGs and tactical RPGs has created an interesting dynamic shift. The greatest, and oldest example of this was apparent in the first Final Fantasy Tactics, where the abundance of random battles and interesting side quests would lead nearly every player to tremendously outlevel the plot battles, taking out any challenge from them as your overpowered whitemage/calculator/knight can two-shot any enemy in a story battle. Interestingly, Final Fantasy Tactics random battles did scale, but inexplicably plot battles did not. Having recently played Final Fantasy XII again, the same thing happens if you want to run around hunting marks or espers. I know that a fellow writer on this site has had the same problem in Devil Survivor on the DS, as he spent so much time leveling and fusing demons that he curb stomped the plot battles.
The first question to ask is “is this a problem?” I would answer that it is. RPGs may have become little more than elaborate story telling machines, but a good battle still has the capability to heighten the experience. For me, a total immersion ruiner in an RPG is when your characters are so overleveled that they annihilate any particular boss who was supposed to be the dark lord of ultimate evil-ness and king of badassery. This cognitive dissonance is amplified when it is followed up by some sort of cut scene which indicates that the fight was some epic conflict when actually my characters just took turns gang raping said dark lord while the other party members held the boss down. Leveling should make things easier, but it shouldn’t make things unrealistically easy.
Which brings us to the obvious solution which has been staring the RPG gaming industry in the face for decades. At least, it’s stared me in the face since I played the first FF Tactics. Leveling systems should be changed in games so that as you level, bosses gain power as well, but it occurs as an asymptotic function. That is to say, while you can close the gap of difficulty between you and the next boss, the next boss will always pose at least an even level (as opposed to cakewalk level) of difficulty. This can be done via an algorithm and then play tested to perfection. As an example, a boss fight might be intended that at a minimum, your party be at 5th level, and the boss is 10th level. If you level yourself up to level 8, the bosses level might rise to 12, and the encounter might cap with a 2 level gap between you and the boss once you hit level 12 (and he’s level 14, and so on). I use “level” as a loose term representing difficulty–it could be interchanged for hit points, damage, abilities, etc. Frankly, boss fights in most RPGs would be more interesting if the boss at least scaled up in hit points and damage so as to be a slightly longer lasting “epic” encounter instead of a race riot inciting beat down.
This concept could be extended to other functions of a game with varying effect: monsters in certain areas could scale–perhaps not the starting areas full of blue slimes, but the game’s harder dungeons or plot based dungeons. The games with the most to gain are the tactical RPGs, which see the most “optional” battles as a result of their enjoyable combat gameplay–level scaling is a no brainer for these games. It is past time for the industry to collectively innovate and create a more dynamic experience. Time for the industry to level up and spend some skill points on core game design instead of adding yet another level in meaningless aesthetics.