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Leveling up the Experience System

posted on September 29th, 2009 by golden jew

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.

6 Comments

  1. christian said on September 29, 2009:

    A few of my own suggestions:

    – Give us better feedback One reason I quit playing Devil Survivor is because I was going along, having no troubles with random battles, and then just barely beating a major fight. Then I’d try grinding some more, only to find out I’m not even strong enough to survive the “Hard” random battles. I don’t like when strategy RPGs have such uneven difficulty that you find yourself in an impossible battle because you neglected to do certain things that the game never let on to. Another classic example from FF Tactics – I’ll never forget being stuck on certain story battles, hitting an FAQ, and seeing “use a ninja and this will be a piece of cake”. I didn’t have any ninjas though – I didn’t even have anyone who could become one. Was I supposed to have access to the Job at that point? In what other ways was I lagging behind? Will the game ever tell me?

    – Make battles shorter. It become even more challenging to experiment with or tweak your party when a lost battle can equal lots of lost time. Make things snappy, so that I have incentive to take risks or experiment. If story battles want to be drawn out, fine.

    – Don’t make us grind. If you fight only a couple random battles between story missions in Final Fantasy Tactics, you still may find certain characters lagging behind and becoming useless, and your party in shambles. You have to spend a lot of time with it, either grinding or examining your party at a glacial pace. I want to see more games wherein success leads not from how high my numbers are, but from how good my plans are. I want to lose because I didn’t use my archers or mages properly, not because I had none of them.

    Essentially, the genre is being held back by stupid decisions that have some how become traditions. If we could get rid of some of them, and just streamline the proceedings a bit, then we could see a lot of improvements. Right now, sRPGs feel like a game of chess wherein I am responsible for carving my own pieces, and the quality of said pieces affects how well they fare in play.

  2. Cunzy1 1 said on September 30, 2009:

    I think we’ve all said it around the place but levelling really is both the laziest game mechanic yet also the one that keeps the players coming back.

    Anyone aware of an RPG where you start at level 100 then level down throughout the game? That would be a good challenge because you would have to try to keep the number of fights you get into to a minimum so you aren’t level 5 when you reach the bad guy. Potentially game breaking though for obvious reasons but hey JUST ANOTHER FREE IDEA FROM VIDEOLAMER.

    Games industry is a fucking charity.

  3. christian said on September 30, 2009:

    Don’t know of any game like that, but I like the idea in Final Fantasy 8 that you buff up your stats via junctioning, and stay at a very low level, and kick the game’s ass. Problem is doing so still requires some initial grinding and other stupid shit.

  4. GoldenJew said on October 1, 2009:

    Weird Christian, I had some of the opposite experience in Devil Survivor, where I overleveled on hard battles and still struggled with some of the plot battles. Of course I’m lazy as it comes and retooling my party for “strategy” in this “strategic RPG” is too much for me. Loved the game though.

    Cunzy, if a game designer wanted to be a real bastard, you could have a dungeon where reverse leveling occurs, but some of the best loot in the game drops. People would just reset a lot, so you’d get around that by having the loot increase based on how many levels you sacrificed to the dungeon.

    Of course, then you’d have to grind them back up, and that’d just be douchy. Maybe make it so not only you lose the levels, but you lose them from the max cap (so if cap for the game is 99, and you sacrifice 5 levels, you can max at 94). That’d REALLY fuck with the min-maxing/perfectionist squad.

    VIDEOLAMER: Where underpaid industry game designers go to do even less work.

  5. christian said on October 1, 2009:

    Keep in mind that when I say Hard battles, I mean the very first time a Hard battle comes up. Which means the hardest story battle I’ve fought is Wendigo. Which means that if I got farther, I’d have trouble in both the Hard battles and Story battles.

  6. Andrew Pelt said on January 29, 2010:

    Nice web site man, picked up a few nuggets here…can’t wait for Cataclysm, I found a rumor that it is being coming out November 2010, though with Blizz you never know :/

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