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.”
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.
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.
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.