A Brief History of Leveling Systems

Level Up

Dungeon Master: “On your way out of town, you catch sight of a strange flying ship, held aloft by propellers, making its way across the sky,”

Frye: “Woah, cool! We totally follow it!”

DM: “It was flying out past the bay inlet, and as you reach the water’s edge, you can only just see the airship as it heads for the horizon.”

Mary: “I wonder what that was all about. Maybe there’s more of them!”

DM: “As you wait on the beach for another ship, you hear a squishing noise behind you. You turn and see three disgusting slime creatures with faces creeping toward you.”

Greg: “Slimes? Whatever, we got this! Everyone roll initiative!”

DM: “Okay, looks like you go first. What do you do?”

Frye: “I roll a critical hit is what I do! Check it! Booyah!”

DM: “You do zero damage to the slime.”

Frye: “…what?”

DM: “Now it’s the slimes’ turn. Frye, you’re being attacked… The slime hits you for 136 damage!”

Frye: “That’s… triple my maximum hit points.”

DM: “The slime crawls away from the Frye’s lifeless body while a second one targets you, Mary.”

Mary: “You can’t be serious.”

DM: “Uh oh, looks like it crits you for 211.”

Mary: “…Welp. I’m dead!”

DM: “And the last one is approaching you, Greg.”

Greg: “No. Don’t even bother.”

DM: “Yeah… It’s not looking good for Greg.”

Frye: “What the hell, man? What was that all about?”

DM: “Well, that’s what monsters were there. I mean, that’s how it goes!”

Mary: “Yeah, speaking of ‘goes,’ I’m going to be going now.”

Greg: “Yeah, me too.”

DM: “Wait, guys! Um… let’s just go back to town and start over!”

Frye: “See you next week, guys. Maybe.”

Meanwhile, in the real world, little Timmy threw down his controller in frustration, turned off his NES and threw out his copy of Final Fantasy 2.

One of the oldest institutions in game design is the roleplaying game, a genre that instantly evokes images of fantasy warriors with awesome swords and flashy spells battling gigantic monsters. It also calls to mind systems of incremental upgrades to character strength through equipment and levels. Countless games have been made in this style and are beloved by gamers from every era of video games.

So, what if there was a fundamental problem with the genre from the start? That would be quite the claim. It would certainly call into question hundreds, maybe thousands of games. It would be a bold, maybe senseless thing to say. So that’s what I’m going to try to do here. I believe that there has never been a game mechanism so poorly understood and callously abused by game designers as the leveling system. For as often as it appears in video games, designers very rarely use it appropriately. Most times this is due to a naiveté of what the system does to a game and a casual acceptance of genre tropes. Other times the designer understands a leveling system’s effects all too well, and a cynical designer can even use it to manipulate players for profit. Am I crazy? Because this sure sounds dire!

What Makes an RPG?

Before we get there, though, we need some definitions. For as diverse and complicated as RPGs have become over the years, people can have trouble deciding what it is that even makes an RPG to begin with. Many people have tried, coming up with all manner of criteria: Some people think an RPG has to have a story. Others say it needs customization. There are die-hard RPG fans who say that RPGs ought to have an isometric camera angle or a hex grid. Some people take the genre name literally (Roleplaying Game) and say the main character must be a self-insert, the player himself. However, for nearly every criteria you can name, you can find an exception that is still commonly referred to as an RPG or name a game that shares that trait and is not an RPG. Portal has a distinctive narrative, but is never called an RPG. Early installments of Final Fantasy and Ultima have a top-down perspective on square tiles, while Legend of Grimrock and Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim are first-person. The earliest installments of both Final Fantasy and Dragon Warrior had only the barest hint of customization. It’s common knowledge that Japanese RPGs tend to be about pre-authored characters while western RPGs feature the player’s own, and yet both are called RPGs. RPGs are supposed to be single player, unless they’re being played as an MMORPG. They’re supposed to be set in a medieval fantasy world, unless they’re in a sci-fi world. There are so many different criteria and so many exceptions to each one – it’s an utter mess.

So what is it that silently compels us to identify a game as an RPG? Is it some mystical combination of these traits that lets us know one when we see one? Actually, it’s simpler than you think, and it ignores all of the surface-level elements like visuals, perspective, and theming. It gets to the heart of the game system at its ludological roots. When you really think about it, the only thing that RPGs have in common with each other is the ability to permanently increase your power. That might be a traditional leveling system, or that might be numerical upgrades to your existing equipment and abilities. Unlocking additional new abilities is less clear cut, but it swings toward being an RPG if the abilities are unlocked through an XP bar rather than as a matter of course through the game. Even games that aren’t typically called RPGs can still have what we call “RPG elements,” which inevitably end up being some kind of leveling system. Whatever form that system may take, all RPGs seem to have a way for the player to get stronger, often in raw power alone rather than diversity of skills. Everything else can vary.

Where did we get this idea? Where did this unifying factor originate? Unquestionably, it comes from the well-established Dungeons & Dragons, the game that put the term RPG on the map to begin with. The first Final Fantasy is in many ways identical to D&D. It has a “spells per day” magic system, it enforces armor proficiencies, levels grant additional attacks, all the staple character classes are represented (even Red Mages are just reskinned Bards), you can advance prestige classes, and of course it features both dungeons and dragons. Final Fantasy borrows so heavily from D&D that its influence is unmistakable, and Final Fantasy certainly wasn’t the first video game RPG. When video games first emerged, it made sense to take a long-standing, enjoyable tabletop game and automate it into a video game.

…or so it would seem. What nobody considered in the early days was that the design of D&D relied heavily on a certain social structure that every single-player RPG lacks and most multi-player RPGs (MMOs, generally) ignore as impractical. And now that genre traditions are well-established, most designers today don’t even think to question them.

Dungeons & Dragons: The War Game

Contrary to today’s common perception of the game, Dungeons & Dragons is ultimately a competitive game. For the game to function, it is necessary that one player, called the dungeon master, must oppose the other players and obstruct their goals. Of course, the DM may be lenient with his players if he chooses, but for the combat scenarios to be satisfying, there needs to be at least the illusion of challenge or there isn’t any tension. The notion that D&D is primarily a story-telling medium is new and largely projected onto the game, but D&D specifically is actually ill suited for story telling since its rules govern combat exclusively – there are virtually no rules to manage narrative elements or character relationships. This isn’t a slight against it – it’s just that D&D’s purpose of play is different from how a lot of people try to use it.

It’s important to understand the context that led to the creation of the game. All of the founders of D&D were avid war gamers, players who participated in games that sought to recreate historic battles or imagine fantasy warfare. These war games hold a lot in common with D&D in that they pit representative miniatures with prescribed stats against each other in turn-based combat, sometimes with grids and often with dice. It should come as no surprise that someone from the war gaming community might eventually take some interest in combat on a smaller scale where you actually know the names of those fighting. But ultimately, the designers were primarily interested in how these named characters fought, and it’s reflected in the design – you’ll be hard pressed to find any meaningful character stats detailing non-combat traits.

The parent genre influenced the resultant game in other ways as well. A common feature of many war games is a method to construct a fair fight. Since forces are usually asymmetrical with huge power differences (e.g. battlefields that contain both riflemen and tanks), balancing armies against each other usually requires outside help. Sometimes a game may have a system that assigns point values to each unit based on power, and players “buy” units from a finite point bank meant to equalize the opposing armies. More directly, many games have predetermined scenarios written by a designer who has play-tested the balance of the armies they contained. D&D also has these very things. D&D had countless modules – professionally designed series of challenges and encounters – that served the exact same purpose as war gaming’s predetermined scenarios and whose quality was usually judged on how well balanced they were. For DMs who wanted to create their own battles, the XP values for creatures in the monster manual could be used to match the power level of the players. This is the reason that XP rewards were divided by the number of party members in the fight – with each addition to the player side, the balance of the conflict shifted toward the players. So, if a group of players played D&D like a traditional war game, a DM who successfully killed a party of adventurers could stand on the XP values in the books, and no one could claim that he’d won unfairly. This system eventually became challenge rating in later editions.

This characteristic of the XP system should sound familiar even to people who’ve never played D&D – countless single-player games from the early era of PC and console RPGs implemented the division of XP between group members without a second thought. What they didn’t consider, however, was the reason the XP system was there. For as similar as video game RPGs looked, D&D is still a completely different kind of game because of its social structure. Whether your DM style is to pave the way to victory for the players or to fight them tooth and nail, you’re still using the in-game system for its intended purpose: to measure relative power levels and ensure fair fights. So whether players decide to commit genocide on the ogre race, elope with the blacksmith’s daughter, or infiltrate nobility to influence foreign policy, when combat happens and the actual meat of the game is in full swing, there is a person on the other end of the system who can fairly generate those scenarios.

The human element is key here. Levels and XP are more than just a reward – they’re a metric by which to gauge difficulty. A savvy DM will ensure that no matter what the players are doing, they are presented with meaningful challenges that keep them engaged and anxious. He won’t repeatedly give them hordes of under-leveled cannon fodder to stomp on, nor will he crush them with a demigod without warning. It’s the DM’s job to design encounters that appropriately challenge the players, and he must tune the difficulty to the level of their characters and their own personal skill.

What Video Games Forgot

So what if he was gone? What if players just had to guess at what creatures were appropriate for them to fight with no guidance or prior experience? This is precisely the situation that video game RPGs find themselves in. Stat-based RPG combat is functionally identical to D&D in principle, so you still need a designer to curate whether an individual fight is easy, hard, or even possible. But when the designer is a machine, all sorts of rules get broken. The game system is an unfeeling slave to routine that only knows the static battles that the developer constructed for it. With no human to guide it, it will throw badly tuned combat at the player for as long as you let it. It also won’t hesitate to destroy a player who is both statistically and skillfully unprepared for it. That player is then left to wonder at the reason for the loss, unable to decide whether or not it was even his fault. On the other hand, the system might present battles that are trivially easy and merely time consuming, but note that both of these activities would be considered the mark of an inexperienced D&D dungeon master and, if severe enough, grounds for not playing with him anymore. For a carelessly constructed video game system, they are inevitabilities.

The problem statement of video game RPGs is one of difficulty management. The presence of a traditional leveling system in a game sets up players to have very different power levels as they make their way through the game, and it’s nearly impossible to predict where any given player will be on the power curve at any moment. It also establishes a strange relationship with the player: if he cannot clear an obstacle opposing him, he has two routes he can use to proceed. The first is to increase his knowledge and mastery of the system, which would seem appropriate for a system you can win or lose, but the second is to just assume that the obstacle is currently impossible and to level up some more. So the choices are “engage with and master the game” and “remain ignorant and overpower it.” Worse, the player usually has no context for what to choose, and why should he? The game hasn’t set a bar of necessary performance, so the player has a very fuzzy idea of what playing well actually is.

If Super Mario Bros. had been an RPG. Oh, wait...
If Super Mario Bros. had been an RPG. Oh, wait…

RPG makers have tried a number of solutions to this problem over the years, and the resultant evolution of design gave rise to a particular culture that surrounds the RPG to this day. Early RPGs simply scaled the difficulty too high to be reasonably tackled if you played straight through. The idea was that as soon as the game became too difficult, you would stop your progress and grind out some more levels to catch up with the power level of the battles you were facing. In a way, players were choosing their own difficulty setting, their own handicap if you will, which in principle maybe isn’t the worst thing in the world. But what it meant for the RPG was that players were asked to earn their handicap, and since they couldn’t do so using mastery and skill (hence the need for a handicap), they were asked to spend their time grinding, making the interactive part of the game more like a chore. Players caught on to this and became less and less tolerant of grinding over time. In order to remove it, developers were forced to remove its source and thus scaled back the difficulty. This not only answered but also fed a growing perception that the “random encounters” with ordinary throw-away creatures were indeed that: throw-away battles. Today’s average player of an RPG goes to battle with an expectation that he should win, a notion that is further reinforced by the way that the narrative elements such as cut scenes and character dialogue are withheld from players until they’ve slogged through enough throw-away battles. What had happened was that players began to see the gameplay for RPGs as a means to an end rather than engaging on its own, and instead of “earning” their handicap, today’s players “earn” their story.

Taking the Game Out of Video Games

This leads us to the current incarnation of leveling systems. Players were already used to earning XP and other rewards for winning trivial battles, so developers made the contemporary MMORPG, which was full of trivial battles and promises of rewards. Never before had the expectation of an automatic victory been so strong. If a creature’s level was roughly equal to the player’s, he could charge in and button mash his way to victory, often disregarding the abilities and strategies of the creature’s AI – in fact, he may not even be aware of what the creature was even doing for as little as it mattered. Gaining levels was not only trivial, but was also a requirement to access other aspects of the game, such as PvP or “end game” raiding content, turning the gameplay entirely into a chore. This also tended to have the effect of devaluing every other part of the game and introducing conflicts into the design (See my article on World of Warcraft, and note how many times that when a conflict enters the design, the culprit is the leveling system).

Developers also noticed that players who engaged with leveling systems would do so for the reward of the levels themselves. Often, the player would not be pursuing any goals other than to receive validation from the game that they were doing a good job, validation that came in the form of glowing lights, enthralling sounds, and congratulations on reaching level 53. Players had mistaken the XP game mechanism for the game itself. Developers followed suit as they started adding in more bars to fill up and overly dramatized reasons that they should be filled (“You are now exalted with the Darkmoon Faire!”) while giving players chores that wasted time and yielded nothing. Leveling systems also began to migrate away from RPGs, and now the practice of adding “RPG elements” into just about any game we can find is in full swing. Developers found that players would enthusiastically or even compulsively perform almost any task they were given, often for no more of a reward than an imaginary badge or medal. Competitive games such as Call of Duty began to add leveling systems that they called “prestige” systems. No longer would players have access to all the same weapons, abilities, or tools that their opponents did – now players had to “earn” the right to compete on a fair playing field by unlocking them over time. Even when they’ve finally unlocked everything, players are presented with an opportunity to start over from level one and do it all over again, which rewards them with an arbitrary “prestige” badge. This cycle is often repeatable many times and ensures that the playing field remains inequitable in perpetuity. Addicting players to chasing a meaningless participation trophy has taken priority over designing a balanced game.

It didn’t stop there. Other avenues caught on to leveling as well, and perhaps none so strongly as the mobile platform. Titles like Farmville gave players trivial, explicit tasks that put them on a leveling treadmill towards additional trivial, explicit tasks. There was no longer any gameplay to speak of, just pixels to click in a prescribed, obvious order. It didn’t recognize players’ ability or creativity – in fact, neither one could even be expressed within such a system. Instead, it rewarded them with praise for time invested, and then it made you wait. For those players who couldn’t stand waiting, paying money decreased the time between virtual pats on the back. It propagated itself by handing out additional rewards for referrals and encouraged players to announce their progress on social media. At no point were players actually engaged with a challenge worthy of human intelligence or a reason for their efforts – they were instead caught in layers of manipulation that took advantage of human nature to maximize profits from a cynical product. For its efforts, Farmville was lauded as Best New Social/Online Game at the 2010 Game Developers Conference.

The Simpsons: Tapped Out pretended to be a Farmville parody. They'll definitely take your money, though.
The Simpsons: Tapped Out pretended to be a Farmville parody. They’ll definitely take your money, though.

But Farmville soon came to be small potatoes. In Japan, the developer GungHo Online combined aspects of the JRPG, the dungeon crawler, Pokémon, and Match 3 games to create Puzzle & Dragons. This game had every appearance of being a game with strategy, but it was really a game about filling up XP bars. Players would play Match 3 to level up their monsters, only to be rewarded with new monsters to level up. Max level monsters could be evolved to unlock the ability to fill their XP bars again, and to do so required the sacrifice of other monsters. Players could at any time feed unwanted monsters to other monsters to further fill their XP bars, which was made more effective if the monster you were using as fodder had filled its XP bar. Puzzle & Dragons thrust players into a veritable black hole of grinding to no end other than to perpetuate itself. Additionally, the ostensibly free-to-play game limited how much players could grind each day without paying money, and as players made progress, the grind limitation held them back more and more, inevitably leading players to pay money to maintain the rate of progress they’d grown accustomed to in the beginning. Considering that this compulsive behavior is linked to the dopamine circuit of the brain (i.e. you seek it without actually liking it), this practice is not unlike a drug dealer giving a new customer their first line of cocaine for free. Add to the mix the Rare Egg Machine, a mechanism designed to turn a one-time in-app purchase into many failed (purchased!) pulls at a literal slot machine, and you have a game where the only one who wins is GungHo Online to the tune of, at its height, $4.9 million a day.

Still, it didn’t stop there. As video game players demonstrated what they would do for fake rewards and insidious validation, companies and marketers realized that video game players were just ordinary people – these tactics would work on anyone. After all, Farmville reached a significantly different audience than the Call of Duty crowd. Thus were leveling systems added to the grand tradition of marketing gimmicks, part of a growing trend called “gamification.” The initial idea behind gamification was simple: prescribe behavior that would make your business a lot of money, and give customers meaningless badges and awards for doing exactly what you said. The practice had all sorts of fringe benefits as well – customers would gladly take on the task of tracking their habits for you, and designing certain achievements to be competitive would not only drive further participation, but also make the behavior contagious as people informed friends of their progress. A notable example was the Foursquare platform, which awarded the arbitrary title of “mayor” to the person who visited a location most often. While Foursquare wasn’t strictly monetizing their location-tracking service, Starbucks leapt at the chance to give a token discount of $1 to only the mayor which placed every other one of their customers in the uncomfortable position of increasing their patronage for a loyalty incentive they would never reach.

Business Gamification for Dummies, a 2013 entry in the highly successful book series, encourages businesses to use leader boards as a motivator for patronage, which on the surface doesn’t sound like a leveling system. However, the book recommends essentially lying to customers by altering the presentation of the leader board to make customers seem to be in the middle of the rankings regardless of their actual rank. The idea was to make progress on the leader board seem just within reach through a series of attainable goals, despite the fact that customers were nowhere near the top. This turns leader boards into a meaningless leveling system, meaningless both in that the only purpose of the mini-goals is to obfuscate ranking, and also because this kind of leader board neither measures nor provides any actual value for highly ranked customers, only manipulation and corporate value. It was these sorts of practices, which had abandoned all but a token resemblance to actual games, that led game designer Ian Bogost to rename gamification as “exploitationware.”

Let Me Take a Step Back

When I started writing this blog, I always knew I would do an article like this. Leveling systems are such a core part of the video game space that writing about them was unavoidable. That said, in a way I wasn’t really looking forward to it. I plan to write about a lot of things going forward that really help people to stop and think about the games they play and reach some perhaps surprising conclusions. But I realized that before I got there, I needed to build a foundation first, a series of givens on which my work is predicated. In that way, I really couldn’t delay writing this article any longer, and it came far sooner than I’d hoped.

The reason I was dreading it was because I needed to get it right. I knew that I was essentially about to attack people’s entertainment, which is always risky business. It’s a thing that I wish I didn’t have to do. It’s much easier to be among fellow fans and sit around and talk about how great something is. It certainly feels much better, and it’s something I see a lot of on other game review sites. But I couldn’t do that here. Many times I felt an impulse to soften my language and pull punches, but I couldn’t do that either. I needed to call it like I saw it. The problem had grown too large to dance around it. But still, I found myself asking, “Have I built up enough credibility and intellectual trust to write something like this? And if this is the first article someone reads, would any of that even matter?” Well, too late now.

I’m not sure if I’ll ever know if I got this completely right, if I found the right balance between persuasiveness, reservedness, and brutal honesty, especially since the only real olive branch is down here. But I want you to know several things. First, rest assured that I am not the only one saying these things, and if you’ve been missing the conversation so far, now’s a good time to catch up. I realize I might sound as though I think the sky is falling, so you should know that people who are smarter than me came to these conclusions long before me. You don’t have to take my word alone on this. Further reading is literally all over this article.

The second thing you should know is that I don’t think you’re stupid. I’m not trying to be that guy on the street corner yelling at all the sheeple to wake up. It’s not my intention to make you feel bad about playing these games, nor should you. In fact, many games that feature leveling systems have a lot of other things to like, and it’s not my purpose to condemn such games (unless your game has no other things to like, in which case it definitely is my purpose). What I wanted to do was to take one of the most time-honored video game traditions, one that many gamers barely give a second thought, and convey it in a new light so people can see it for what it really is. I think that people should know what they’re consuming and what it does to them, no different from a “Nutrition Facts” label on food. People need to have all the information if they’re going to decide what’s best for themselves.

Also, I’m not happy that the article had to be so negative all the way through. For as dark of a picture as I paint, it would be totally unfair of me to assume that all game developers are doing this intentionally. Not all applications of leveling systems are even bad. Originally, I had hoped to write about the good things that leveling systems can do or how to fix some of the unintentional problems they cause, but the article was already stretching on forever. So the positivity will unfortunately have to wait for next article. Don’t worry, it’s not all doom and gloom.

And finally, you should know I’m aware that this opens up many more questions: Why does it matter if it’s fun? What about personal taste? Isn’t this a little extreme? What should we do instead? Is it really so bad? Why do all games need to be HARD? Isn’t it okay to have games that just lie down for you? These are all totally valid questions, things that I hope to answer in future articles or even in the comments for this one. So please, ask away! I know this article flies in the face of literally decades of common wisdom for video games, and I’m prepared to defend my position.

What I ask of you is that you consider what it would mean if these things were true. When I was younger and a staunch supporter of video games, my favorite hobby, I always got very defensive when people would say bad things about it, so it bothered me endlessly when I heard news stories on TV with inflammatory headlines like “Are Video Games Addictive?” I could only imagine the countless parents who didn’t know much about video games that would get the wrong idea about something I thought was so awesome. It was a big moment for me, one I consider part of gaining maturity, when I considered that those parents maybe weren’t getting the wrong idea after all. And while “Are video games addictive?” is probably too simplistic of a question, a better and certainly more useful question is “Which video games are addictive?” Societal acceptance of the video games medium is certainly higher than it was a decade or two ago, but there’s still a stigma that they’re ultimately a waste of time. It’s subtle, and in some ways you have to be looking for it, but it’s there, and maybe isn’t entirely undeserved.

That’s why I write this. Because video games can be so much more than that.

20 thoughts on “A Brief History of Leveling Systems

  1. Nachtfischer August 6, 2014 / 8:49 am

    Another great piece! Although I share a lot of your thoughts, I wasn’t even aware that leveling actually had a reasonable purpose in the original D&D. So thanks for letting me know about the fact that leveling systems weren’t always completely silly. 😉

    • The Ludite August 6, 2014 / 9:25 am

      Yes, it’s certainly not something your typical D&D player really has put together since socially the game has diverged from its original intent (though the rules haven’t!), and it certainly paints a much more fair picture of Gary Gygax. He’s nearly a figure of folklore already – people know he was a harsh DM who loved to kill player characters, but I’m betting that the more extreme tales have a lot of unsourced embellishment. Regardless, if you remember the context of Gygax being a war gamer first, he’s not the asshole DM that many people tend to deride him for being – he’s playing the game he made in the way he’d originally envisioned. Just because people today play it differently (maybe wrong?) is no justification to scoff at the way he played.

  2. Thomas Amundsen August 6, 2014 / 3:15 pm

    I am currently hooked on Brave Frontier, which is basically a Puzzle and Dragons clone. Honestly, I don’t really care if the game design has these flaws because I enjoy playing. It’s really cool to collect, explore, and try out new squads, items, etc. I do think that the gameplay could be a little more engaging, but the beautiful artwork makes up for it.

    What would be your recommendation to avoid these sytems? I fundamentally enjoy a game that has a persistent character or team that you are developing. How can you accommodate that without some sort of stat system and levling?

    • The Ludite August 6, 2014 / 5:29 pm

      When you say that you fundamentally enjoy developing a persistent character, stop for a bit and think about why you like it, and be as specific as possible. For every answer, you can probably delve down deeper with another instance of “Why?”

      Maybe you start with “I like to see the numbers go up!” But why? That might lead to “It lets me do things that I couldn’t do before!” But then you have to ask yourself why the numbers going up were necessary for you to do the new thing. Presumably, you already had the mental capability to take on the greater challenges, it’s just that the numbers were holding you back. So why were you gated by these numbers? Why can’t you just do the greater challenges right away? And if you’re answer to that is because you haven’t earned it, take another step back and think about how weird that really is. Think about why “earning” it is really required, and what you do to earn it. Usually it’s something you’ve already done, often many times, something you very quickly mastered. But here you are doing it again. Why?

      It’s telling that for as much as you seem to like the game, you don’t think the gameplay itself is all that engaging. So here’s another important question: if these activities in the game didn’t make your numbers go up or give you items or otherwise reward you for doing them, would you still do them? Put another way, is the gameplay itself actually worth doing for its own sake? Is that part of the game fun, even when you’re not being constantly rewarded? What is your motivation for each play session?

      If your motivation is “get stuff,” then you have to ask yourself how closely that motivation lines up with having to pay money.

      I’ll be talking about ways to fix this problem in part two, ways that don’t always just abolish the leveling system altogether. It’s not that leveling systems are inherently bad, but they need to be used correctly, for a purpose other than “Well, other games have leveling systems, so…”

      What would you say to a system that only powered up your character after a boss battle? And then the next stretch of the game is very tightly balanced against your new power level? What if you don’t get to just pump up your character infinitely whenever you want? Even better, what if you also only got stronger by way of new abilities that combo with your old abilities in different ways, and you have to be clever about how and when to combo your abilities to overcome the new challenges? What if the whole game was about learning and mastering these abilities and managing them as
      resources in game play that challenged you to think outside the box?

      And if you still say “But it wouldn’t be the same…” really think about what that means, and the reasons you’re playing.

      • Thomas Amundsen August 7, 2014 / 4:26 am

        “When you say that you fundamentally enjoy developing a persistent character, stop for a bit and think about why you like it, and be as specific as possible.”

        • I like games that progress over months and years.
        • I like getting to know characters and engaging with them over an extended period of time.
        • I like character development and a web of relationships that change over time.
        • I like the sense of achievement you feel when leveling, evolving, and awakening your avatar or units in the game.
        • I like a game complicated enough that I will discuss it with my friends and we will learn the best strategies over time. In some games there may be a metagame where the dominant strategies change over time because of new content or understandings of the game.
        • I like the collectible aspect of Brave Frontier because it engenders a sense of vast variety for customization

        “So why were you gated by these numbers? Why can’t you just do the greater challenges right away?”
        Gating can ensure an intended gameplay experience for users. If you want the game to be played with a story in specific order, you need to have some gating mechanism to prevent players from jumping to the end of the story.
        It also ensures a more balanced momentum in the metagame, because there will be less players advancing for exceptionally short or long periods of time.

        “It’s telling that for as much as you seem to like the game, you don’t think the gameplay itself is all that engaging.”
        That sounds a little stronger than I intended. I do find BF’s gameplay engaging; I”m just not saying that it is one of the most engaging games I’ve ever played.

        ” if these activities in the game didn’t make your numbers go up or give you items or otherwise reward you for doing them, would you still do them?”
        In Brave Frontier, no. In some Final Fantasy game, perhaps.

        “Put another way, is the gameplay itself actually worth doing for its own sake? ”
        The metagame is what I find most appealing. I definitely play the metagame for its own sake. Dungeons are purely utilitarian some of the time, but I can actually press “Auto Battle” and stick the game in my pocket and let it grind for me, so it isn’t like I have to actually slog through all of the ‘utilitarian’ dungeons.

        “Is that part of the game fun, even when you’re not being constantly rewarded?”
        When I am running a quest that I am barely qualified for, it is fun. When I am grinding, it isn’t fun but only beautiful to look at. Luckily, there is an “Auto Battle” button like I just mentioned that lets me bypass almost all of the grinding.

        “What is your motivation for each play session?”
        That is either:
        1. Grind dungeons for XP fodder, evolution materials, or other items
        2. Quest through the world: see its environments, learn about the characters or beings in those worlds, learn about the history, have exciting plot points and milestones

        “What would you say to a system that only powered up your character after a boss battle? And then the next stretch of the game is very tightly balanced against your new power level? ”
        That could be interesting. It seems a little more like a non-RPG that has a linear path that the player traverses over the course of the game. Maybe it feels more like an arcade game.

        “What if you don’t get to just pump up your character infinitely whenever you want?”
        Then the game might seem dull and static after a while. Variety and change over time can be good for most game mechanics and definitely works for your avatar or units.

        “what if you also only got stronger by way of new abilities that combo with your old abilities in different ways, and you have to be clever about how and when to combo your abilities to overcome the new challenges?”
        You actually do get this in RPGs with leveling: evolutions, awakenings, etc.

        ” What if the whole game was about learning and mastering these abilities and managing them as
        resources in game play that challenged you to think outside the box?”
        That would be cool! I am working on a game that is trying to do that.

        • The Ludite August 7, 2014 / 11:50 am

          There’s still a few more “why’s” buried in there.

          If auto-battle will fight the grindy parts for you, why doesn’t the game just give you those things immediately? It definitely can. It can skip all the animations (that you apparently aren’t watching while it’s in your pocket), run the numbers, and say “Here: 5000 XP!”

          And the why underneath that is “Why do I need this 5000 XP?” Why can’t you just go to the next place and take on the next fun challenge when your brain is ready? You can even go in the order the developer intended, there’s no problem there. They can lock that content any way they want.

          See, there’s a reason why your brain is liking this constant leveling and getting all the +1’s to your stats. It’s hitting a false positive of self-improvement, of learning and getting better, when in fact you’re staying the same. From how you describe it, there are also moments when the sense of improvement is real, when you do something legitimately challenging. But here’s another interesting question: if it’s fun to run a quest you’re barely qualified for because of the challenge, and you win, does it make sense that the next time you run it, it will be easier? That’s what levels are doing: they’re slowly taking away the parts that are truly challenging and satisfying. You can’t say “That was hard, but I won! How can I make it harder next time?” because your reward for doing it was more power.

          I hope you stick around to read part two when I finish it. I’ll be talking a little bit about intrinsic versus extrinsic motivators. Stay tuned.

          • Thomas Amundsen August 11, 2014 / 11:59 am

            “f auto-battle will fight the grindy parts for you, why doesn’t the game just give you those things immediately?”

            A number of reasons:
            – There is strategy to building the right squad to each dungeon. Using different units, items, and/or gear will result in different loot collected and possibly unsuccessful completion of the dungeon. You can’t just assume that every team will get through the dungeon and give the player points.
            – Doing this would drastically affect how the game is played in a practical sense. Timed events are now about who can click through menus fastest to complete the most number of dungeons in a certain time and collect the loot. It’s still like that, but now it is constant menu navigating instead of having a relaxing break in between.
            – Watching the auto-battle is actually satisfying because the animations are awesome.

            “And the why underneath that is “Why do I need this 5000 XP?” Why can’t you just go to the next place and take on the next fun challenge when your brain is ready? ”

            You’re not just adding XP to a PC. You have a collection of units and you have to strategically decide which ones to assign that XP to. This is a non-trivial decision and greatly affects your progression through the game.

            ” It’s hitting a false positive of self-improvement, of learning and getting better, when in fact you’re staying the same”
            I’d argue that there is improvement, due to what I just explained. You need to strategize which units to level and evolve to build the right team. If you level up the wrong units, it will take longer to be able to complete a specific quest. So, there is something to be learned: how team composition affects gameplay. There is a deep meta-game strategy of which units to have and what items and gear to equip them with.

            “I hope you stick around to read part two when I finish it. I’ll be talking a little bit about intrinsic versus extrinsic motivators. Stay tuned.”

            For sure, I’m interested in what you will say next 🙂

  3. Stephen August 7, 2014 / 7:47 am

    I’m very much looking forward to the next article. As a designer, DM, and JRPG fan for most of my life, I have seen a fair number of XP bars fill. I’d like to propose a few points that may align with the points you will make in the next installment:

    1) It’s always a good idea to ensure that your players have competence with their current abilities before you introduce new mechanics. Many games in modern design have separated the acquisition of new abilities from the leveling system entirely, instead granting them after a boss fight or other skill-based challenge, or during story beats. Xenoblade Saga is a good example of this.

    Castlevania: Symphony of the Night is a good example of a parallel system of level advancement to show power growth and allow players to adjust the skill barrier for boss fights [by grinding], and a second system where previous abilities needed to be used competently to acquire new abilities. [In my opinion, only the second system is really important for that game.]

    2) In my DMing days, it became more and more obvious to me that leveling up should not happen when the XP says it should, but rather always at the end of a session and fairly regularly in relation to the real calendar and not the fantasy game world progress. This gives players maximum time to make the choices about character customization, and staves off boredom that comes from stagnant character development. Of course, our story and the villains did their part to keep interest high, but having new powers and feats to use in combat was another [often more important] motivation for the players.

    3) RPGs and mobile games are long. We expect them to be, and deride those that aren’t as ‘incomplete’. A 20-hour main plot is a good guess as to the bare minimum length that will be accepted by your fans, and most expect much more content. However, that much bespoke content would drive development costs up, and without a certain amount of less-than-critical content, the player loses the ability to ‘zone out’ and enjoy a session of combats, or to experiment with creative builds or strategies [if the game system allows for these things]. The same players will have different motivations for further sessions of the same game, especially MMORPGs or single-player RPGs with crafting or exploration systems.

    4) Finally, if the game gives other reasons to replay content [collecting drops, trying different choices, increased difficulty], those can stand in for, or prop up a grind with other occasional reward loops. If the player feels efficient for accomplishing many goals at once [even if one or more of them are banal], this is always a win for the game.

    Check out The World Ends With You if you have never played it. I’ll be interested in your thoughts.

    • The Ludite August 7, 2014 / 11:36 am

      Thanks for reading!

      I think you’re likely to find me saying something similar to your first point when part two comes out. I’d say you are correct in that the level advancement in Symphony of the Night was not really necessary to the game. In fact, it probably trivialized some otherwise challenging enemies. But then again, at what point are enemies the right level of challenging? This is the question that RPGs consistently fail to answer, instead leaving their players to grind and optimize toward boredom, a behavior that we constantly see in players.

      Your findings about leveling schedules in tabletop RPGs make sense to me. It sounds like your players, at least from a game system perspective, get bored of the way their characters play without the injection of new mechanisms and combinations. That triggers me to think that your players are extracting all of the learning that they can get out of the game system very quickly, especially early on when things are generally much simpler. In some ways, the low levels of table top RPGs are the game in tutorial mode, where players can practice and get a feel for basic tactics and smaller spell lists. Of course, if tutorial mode is too short, they’re likely to get confused, but if it’s too long, they get bored. The perennial problem of many D&D groups is when people learn at different rates – some players are struggling to grasp the basics, while others are chafing at a system they’ve already mastered. I firmly believe that you’re being a better judge of when to introduce new game mechanisms and abilities than a one-size-fits-all XP system could ever be.

      One thing that’s bothered me about video games with stories is that they often brag about how many hours of content that they have. Can you imagine a movie bragging about how it’s eighty hours long? How about a TV show that boasts of its 500 episodes? These days, something saying it has a lot of content is actually a turn off to me. I have limited time to spend on these things. Forget my daily schedule – I have limited time on this earth. The big thing that I ask of games, movies, TV, or any art really, is not that it has a lot of content but that it has quality content. It should be just as long as it needs to be and no longer. I’d rather that something respected my time instead of just taking up a lot of it. Asking developers to make long games is a bad habit that gamers will need to grow out of. In fact, charging players $60 a title is a bad habit that developers are currently growing out of.

      Your point on giving players reasons to replay content has merit, but be careful that you don’t replace one addictive cycle with another. Random items drops actually have a lot in common with slot machines. It’s one of the reasons that MMORPGs or P&D clones use them – they layer several addictive cycles over each other. There’s a leveling system to satisfy the regular reward schedule, they have item drops to satisfy the random rewards schedule, they incentivize daily logins, they get you to bring your friends in and often give those friends obligations to play with you, and they generally hang as many extrinsic motivators as possible to get you to play far longer than you would choose to do so intrinsically on your own.

      I looked into The World Ends With You, and what I’ve seen of it looks to be an interesting system on the surface. To me, it seems really weird that you would throw a leveling system on top of it – it’s just so totally unnecessary. It’s certainly a system you could learn from if the game ramps up how much it challenges you. Does the game have a time attack mode, or a score attack mode, or something other than story mode? Because if it doesn’t, it desperately needs one. What would be a tremendous shame for that system is if the potential skill ceiling of that game was capped off by the expectation that everyone needs to “finish” it.

      Thanks for your insights, I’m sure they’ll help me shape up part two!

      • Stephen August 8, 2014 / 3:41 am

        If you ave only read / watched videos on TWEWY, I highly recommend playing it. It at least tries to solve all of your problems with leveling systems in a way I really want to see other projects explore:

        -Finding difficulty: Players can reduce their level and forfeit the benefits of gaining levels to keep the game difficulty where they prefer. In exchange for giving up levels, the player increases the drop rate of items rewarded by defeating enemies. They also then have an answer to a hard boss fight that doesn’t require stopping to grind up a few more levels – they can simply slide the bar back up toward their max level.

        -Completionism: Enemies have 1 drop per difficulty level, and the player can change the enemy strength between 4 difficulty settings at any time. This means that the player has lots of agency and information when trying to get all the drops for an area. Most importantly, they know when they are done.

        -Opt-in fights: the player has access to unlimited combats throughout the game, but opts-in to most of them [all but boss and story gate combats]. The combat is fun and interesting on its own, so players who want to sit back and enjoy a session of combat without wanting to try a boss or advance the story can do so to their heart’s content without munging the balance of the rest of the game [see point 1].

        -Stat progression is not tied to levels: The player eats food and crafts gear to increase their stats, and the access to these items is based on story progression, not level. This way, the boss fights and other challenges can be tuned to the combat potential of the player regardless of level. HP is the only stat tied to level, so there is a small benefit to overleveling, but the level slider and difficulty setting are far more impactful.

        -The player’s weapons are subject to their own leveling system, but social interaction with other players and even simply passage of time contribute to leveling them. The player never needs to grind to progress, only to complete collections.

        -Temporary benefits: The rewards for repeated combats are not all permanent: the player can change the ‘attunement’ of a zone to match their weapons / gear, thereby gaining a bonus in that area. This requires at most 2-3 extra combats, but is specific to the zone. This way, the player who needs a boost to get past a hurdle can get it quickly, but that boost doesn’t slant future challenges.

        -There is/are a boss rush tower, optional bosses, and minigames, and every combat gives you a competence rating at the end. The player is rewarded for their skill and encouraged to continually increase it through and after the storyline.

        • The Ludite August 8, 2014 / 11:30 am

          The explicit implementation of the leveling system instantly made me think of Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories, and go figure: both games have the same development team. Also of note is the fact that Jupiter did NOT make any of the other Kingdom Hearts games in the franchise, which explains why it was so different. In the past, I’ve actually cited CoM as an example of making a leveling system that didn’t break the game, so expect to hear about this in part two. Thanks again for bringing this game up!

  4. Gorogorosama August 8, 2014 / 10:02 am

    Very interesting article! But now how to act upon it? I would break this into two sets of problems:

    1. Designers who include these problems unintentionally.
      • Can the game exist without a leveling up system?
      • In what ways does the leveling system improve the game? (players feeling a sense of growth, etc)
      • What can be done to minimize the problems with the system (walling off certain areas before the player is ready, etc)
    2. Designers who intentionally use these tools to exploit their user bases
      • Since producers / investors know these tools exist and work, very well, what is a well-meaning designer to do when assigned to maximize a game’s profits?
      • Could you ban or regulate such practices? Does that run the risk of having the entire gaming industry come under harsher scrutiny as the gambling industry?
      • Could you educate more people to make these exploitations less effective?
    • The Ludite August 8, 2014 / 11:07 am

      Great questions! I’ll be going into solutions in part two, but I definitely want to briefly answer some of these right now.

      I totally agree that there are designers who do this stuff by accident. In fact, it was an unintentional side-affect of our early design efforts that we learned how to make today’s skinner box designs. Focus group testing reported that these things made the game “more fun,” and while developers didn’t really know why, they definitely decided to go with it. The first two Diablo games are probably incredible examples of this (Is the third one still unintentional? A question for the ages.).

      I’m definitely of the mind that the vast majority of games can exist without a leveling system and would actually be greatly improved as systems for it. There’s a lot of common wisdom among developers and players alike that is actually pretty questionable. Players don’t need a leveling system to feel a sense of growth – a game system that adequately challenges them lets players feel actual growth just inherently. The only reason a developer would need to resort to avatar improvement as a source of “the feeling of growth” would be if he was worried that his game didn’t actually provide opportunities for player improvement.

      Now, there are other good ways to include a leveling system that are more or less necessary to the function of the game – Defense of the Ancients and its clones comes to mind, but the reason leveling works there is because those are systems you can win or lose, and how and when to level up is a critical decision in the game that will effect the outcome. So it’s not that leveling systems are inherently a problem – it’s the way they’re implemented that causes such damage.

      Now, there’s a lot of potential situations if you’re part of a development team for Zynga or something. Sometimes you’re just the programmer and nobody asks for your input on what’s going into the game (although you still exist there and theoretically could talk to your co-workers in a respectful and professional way about the games that are being made). Now, if you’re the guy who is making decisions about what to put into the game, I think there’s certainly ways you could design games to be of mutual benefit to both the player and the company, or at least ways to tone down the exploitative nature of what’s happening in the game. Either way, it definitely comes down to making an ethical decision for yourself about how comfortable you are even associating with that kind of stuff if you know it’s being made. Jonathon Blow has a great panel on this very question – definitely check it out.

      I won’t go into the legal ramifications of potential bans or regulations on these kinds of games, as that comes down to your personal politics and is a different (though worthy) discussion. The thing is, I’m not sure that we’re even ready to have that discussion yet because so many people, even within the video games community, don’t even think there is a problem. The discussion about how to fix a problem needs to be predicated on the admittance that it is one.

      I do think, however, that education is a fantastic tool to help people make good decisions for themselves. It’s not very much different from learning how to eat healthy foods. Human beings work a certain way biologically, and knowing how the body works can help us to master ourselves and improve our quality of life. That’s a huge reason I wrote this piece in the first place.

      More answers coming in part two!

  5. Viaro August 8, 2014 / 12:17 pm

    I know the skinner-box impulse to chase after leveling-up systems, and superficial progress, and I dislike that it works on me. The cognitive dissonance from that made me stop playing Hearthstone, for instance. I was trying to enjoy the game for its own sake, but the external motivators kept getting in the way. And I can’t go back to the blissful ignorance of not realizing the external motivators are different and separate from the game itself. It may not have been the designers’ intent at all, but I got an overwhelming sense that they didn’t trust me with all of the tools, as if I would get bored without new shiny cards every couple of days. You can’t separate the message from the medium. If you package your game in superficial leveling systems, artificial progress, and pointless grindy goals, it inevitably affects the players’ experience of the game. Even if they aren’t actual parts of the mechanical game.

    • The Ludite August 8, 2014 / 6:09 pm

      Agreed. It’s a sad thing that as all these pure skinner box apps rise to prominence, and as their tactics get meticulously documented, their influence tends to spread to other games. And all these developers are put in a tough spot: if these extrinsic motivators work, are they hurting themselves by not putting them in the game? Are they shirking on their responsibilities to shareholders who certainly don’t know or maybe don’t care about the damage that’s done to the product? There’s a certain cynicism that goes into the decision to compromise a game’s integrity in order to add in psychological hooks, as though players wouldn’t enjoy the game otherwise. And there’s tremendous pressure to distinguish their game from the enormous glut of available games these days, many of which are using these extrinsic motivators themselves.

      You’re also correct in that there’s kind of a “cannot be unseen” property to these psychological hooks. Once you’re aware of them, they nag at you and bother you, and you stop being able to play games that overuse them. It then becomes difficult to actually find a game to play at all with so many of them relying on these tactics. But that’s the situation we find ourselves in: when there’s so many available games that are so desperate to compete that they’re willing to give themselves away for free, every little bit helps the bottom line, even if it means compromising the game.

      So even outside the pure skinner box apps, developers aren’t happy using these tactics, players aren’t happy dealing with these tactics, and in the end nobody is happy. This is not the direction we want games to go.

  6. Daralliel August 17, 2014 / 1:58 pm

    Neat article.

    I knew that D&D was developed to be a competitive tournament game, but the origin of XP systems is a new thought. There seems to be a lot of conflict between RPG enthusiasts who see RPGs as a competitive experience, and those that see it as a social one. But in the original context, Role Playing implies to me playing a singular role within a larger unit – a single character in a party of adventurers for example. Anyways, you’re dead right that increasing power (as well a strong “character” theme) is only real criteria for something being an RPG – but I disagree regarding the permanent increase part. D&D itself has creatures that sap levels, decreasing the supposedly “permanent” power!

    It’s also not necessary for there to be a duality between “engaging with and mastering the game” and “remaining ignorant and overpowering it.” There are several game that do have RPG elements, but they solve the issue by making proper leveling a skill necessary to master the game. This is usually achieved by giving the player limited opportunities to increase her power, and limited attempts at a specific challenge. Most roguelikes have this feature, XCOM and Jagged Alliance have this feature as well, and so does Desktop Dungeons, and DotA and League of Legends and Smite.

    • The Ludite August 17, 2014 / 4:01 pm

      Way to beat me to the punch on the good applications of leveling systems! Expect to hear about those and more in part two.

      I agree with the mention of the strong “character” theme as part of being an RPG, though to me it seems sort of incidental. I mean, if you’re going to increase the power of a thing, it basically makes a thematic kind of sense to increase the power of a person, or at least equipment the person is using. Also, the “permanency” of the power increase is maybe sort of a clumsy word on my part. D&D (and RPGs in general) give you power increases that you generally get to keep. The ability to take levels away is more or less an optional feature of such a system, sort of an edge case if you will. Level drain is a mechanism that is dependent on the permanent level mechanism to begin with, and I think whether or not level drain is present, you still call things RPGs when you see that “power increase you generally get to keep.” In fact, evolved versions of level drain tend to shy away from an actual permanent drain, so the whole idea of level drain provides kind of an curious duality of permanency.

      You speak of a conflict between players who like to actually “role play” and those who want to play the game system well (often derisively referred to as “roll” playing). It’s a conflict that has fascinated me for many years, especially the extreme snootiness that I sometimes see in the “role players.” It’s really bizarre to me that role players often brag about how they go for entire sessions without rolling a single die, essentially saying, “We play the game without actually playing the game!” I think the biggest source of the conflict is the fact that D&D is the most well-known RPG system in use, and the resultant supposition that if you want to get a game together with your friends, you all have to play D&D because it’s the one everyone knows. So even though D&D doesn’t really do the sort of thing that role players want to do (hence never rolling any dice or interfacing with the rules in any way), they still have the books and dice around for the sake of tradition. If you haven’t already watched the previously linked GeekNights video Beyond Dungeons & Dragons, there’s some really great systems out there that I think would better suit such people if they only knew they existed.

      Thanks for reading!

      • daralliel August 18, 2014 / 9:43 am

        When I was really into Elder Scrolls games, I’ve played around with the idea of modding the game to atrophy skills over time, to create an emergent skill cap as well as a respec mechanism (you are never the best at everything, but you are not locked into a single role). And the best part is it would avoid the annoying, analysis-paralysis level up/respec screen – you level up by naturally doing what you are doing. Sadly that never happened, since by the time I become proficient enough with the modding tools, I realized that modding Skyrim/Oblivion/Morrowind into an interesting game would take more time and effort than making my own game from scratch.

        My point though is that even though such a system would be very fluid and dynamic and totally non-permanent, I would still consider it an RPG-style leveling mechanic. If I ever sat down to make an RPG (unlikely), it would definitely be a central mechanism for the game.

        The thing about role playing is that you can actually role play anything. I used to play free-for-all Age of Empires 2 games at LAN parties, and even though it misses pretty much everything you would expect in an RPG, we were still role-playing it. We played out historical scenarios, pretended to have blood feuds over stolen sheep that gradually escalated into all out war, the dominating player would establish an empire and demand tribute from us all – and everyone else would set up diversions, rebellions and blame it one another. So, politics as usual. But I would still not call AoE2 a roleplaying game. There are certain features that tend to provoke a role playing mindset, and we were basically going against the grain, having fun with a rather broken system (I mean RTSes in general – AoE2 is one of the best in genre). The interesting thing about Dungeons&Dragons is that it has those features that evoke a roleplaying mindset, but it’s system actually do not facilitate role-playing at all! What a strange game it is. I might write on this subject on my own blog, since role-playing systems fascinated me before I ever seen one.

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