In part one of this article, A Brief History of Leveling Systems, I talked about the problems that video games have had in implementing the D&D leveling system. While it may seem to have made sense to turn RPGs into video games, designers didn’t consider how different a social tabletop game and a single-player video game truly are. The game systems designers ended up making were clumsy and shallow, and they unwittingly paved the way for the skinner box apps of today. Rather than designing sophisticated game systems, designers accidentally got sidetracked by what seemed to work on audiences and thus sold many copies. The ultra-monetization of games has brought with it the need to continually produce commercially successful games regardless of the content, and it has probably done more harm to the art than good. It has certainly skewed our understanding of design as well as our priorities as developers. I certainly noticed a strangely happy vibe from the author of the Puzzle & Dragons breakdown.
That’s not to say that leveling systems should never be included in a video game. Indeed, computers are far more efficient at running complicated, number-based game systems than a human with paper and pencil could ever be. It does mean, however, that the game system needs to change in order to accommodate its new medium. If we take some time to really understand these game systems, we can make games that leverage our favorite genre tropes effectively while maintaining the integrity of the core game. In fact some games have even taken those first steps, though they are rarely given credit for their vision.
Power Scaling – Chrono Cross
The first problem that RPGs faced was maintaining adequate challenge through the course of the game. Monster power levels were confined to geographic areas, so a player who paced himself through the game would hit unintended difficulty spikes or accidentally make the game too easy. On top of this, players had no idea how to tell the difference between instances when they faced the intended challenge and when they’d strayed. Even worse was players’ tendency to seek the path of least resistance, even at the cost of fun. Often, players would grind out levels even if it bored them in order to maximize their chances of victory, a syndrome called the burden of optimal play. If doing something easy (although boring) looks like the way to surefire success, why shouldn’t you do it?
There’s a lot to talk about here. This problem is compounded by a lot of factors, and even solving one or two of them can net some quick gains. One factor is that the power scaling is left up to the player. However tedious, it’s completely within reach of the player to attain absurd levels in the earliest parts of the game. There are plenty of ways to control the power scaling of the player and keep the game play relevant at all times. In Chrono Cross, for example, player power was heavily gated. Character statistics rose over time but hit explicit limits very quickly. The only way to raise those limits was to complete the next boss and progress the game.
This approach bypasses the power-scaling problem entirely: the designer can absolutely rely on knowing your power level when you only level up when he lets you! Armed with this knowledge, he can craft progressive challenges that are every bit as finely tuned and balanced as any modern competitive game. Imagine seeing Starcraft-style patch notes for balance tweaks to a single-player RPG – that’s stuff that you can only do when player power is a known quantity.
Take a step further, and you can open up even more possibilities: if you also rigidly control the abilities and tools the player can access, you can make a much more refined challenge that’s built to test the player’s ability to solve crafted problems with specific tools and strength. While this might seem atypical for RPGs, it’s definitely not atypical for video games at all. The original Castlevania was so memorable and challenging because the player’s strength and capabilities were limited. The game gave the player a real sense that the design was intentional and planned. Moreover, when you leave the player to determine his own power level, as in the Symphony of the Night installment of the series, the sense of a specifically crafted and tuned experience goes away. You’re back to the feeling of accidental difficulty spikes and mindless stretches of effortless play. You lose the intensity and the feeling of fairness.
Do Random Battles Make Sense?
Chrono Cross also addresses another problem in the common RPG paradigm: random battles. This is another tradition that video game RPGs borrowed from Dungeons & Dragons without considering the impact it would have on the new format. In many formative video game RPGs, players progressed through dungeons, and every step could randomly thrust them into battle. This seems innocent enough, but already there are huge design implications. The designer can no longer predict how many battles the player will need to fight by the time they reach the end, doubly so because of the expectation that the dungeon be maze-like, with wrong turns and lots of doubling back.
Therefore, making the battles actually challenging isn’t really an option, since enemies with the potential to defeat the player will certainly drain his resources even if they lose. The battles have to become throw-away, inconsequential affairs that only drain your resources a little bit: when hit points get low, the player will use magic points to restore them, and if magic points get low, he usually has items to restore those. Furthermore, the player is in an even worse position than the designer to estimate how many battles he’ll fight before he gets to the end of the maze, since he doesn’t know the layout. Therefore, it’s optimal to play far more conservatively than he needs to, which means taking even longer to get through the dungeon. And in the end, there’s usually a courtesy check-point right before the boss where you can recharge all your resources anyway, and it renders all the long-term resource management pointless. This model is totally broken.
Chrono Cross replaced it with a short-term resource management game which, ironically, ends up being deeper than long-term resource management. Rather than the traditional magic system where players could cast any spell from a single pool of magic points, spells and abilities were equipped into slots. Using them required a temporary resource that you built up only in battle and that went away when combat was finished. Most notably, when you used a particular spell or ability, you couldn’t do so again for the rest of the battle. After the fight, all those spells and abilities recharged for their one-time use in the next fight.
This model is a tremendous relief from the old. Since you can’t run out of resources, you’re free to use them when they’re useful, and the designer is free to require you to do so! When you start all battles at full power, they can be more challenging and engaging in their own right. In addition to this, Chrono Cross ditched the idea of battles triggering randomly and instead represented potential battles as creatures on the map. This generally meant that you could clear an area of monsters and traverse it at your leisure instead of fighting battles endlessly. It also meant that there was a known quantity of battles that needed be fought.
Refining Chrono Cross – On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness
But for all its improvements, Chrono Cross didn’t seem to really know what it had on its hands. The game was still steeped in over a decade of RPG traditions, and it showed. The battles themselves were still utter pushovers, as though they were from the old RPG paradigm. Only the boss battles actually required even basic strategy – all others felt like merely a formality. A lot of combat mechanisms, such as the elemental field, really didn’t matter very much, and players ignored them. Abilities themselves were usually just different flavors of dealing damage instead of tactical abilities.
So Chrono Cross’ core game play was ultimately very flat, despite having set the stage for something very deep. On top of that, some spells and abilities were arbitrarily classified as “consumables.” You could stockpile these over the long term and use them as often as you wanted, which flew in the face of the short-term resource management game the designers were trying to create. Defeated enemies respawned in areas after you left, meaning you had to fight them all over again, even if you utterly outclassed them. It says something about the game that players tried to dodge enemies to avoid battling them, even though that’s where all the game play is found. It was almost like players were saying, “Dammit, I don’t want to actually have to play the game!”
Although Chrono Cross failed to fully capitalize on its design, apparently someone was listening. In 2008, Hothead Games released the first in the series Penny Arcade Adventures: On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness, a series that was later continued by Zeboyd Games and now has four entries. The series has not only progressively taken more cues from Chrono Cross over time, but it also makes a conscious effort to properly leverage that design.
From game one, the series features a finite number of discrete battles which don’t respawn, making it impossible to grind. As each battle concludes, all party members heal to full, putting you at full strength for the next battle. And having set the stage to do so, the designers made failure a very real possibility when battling. However, if the player did lose, the designers did something very sensible: they let you try again. They didn’t send you back to the last save point, they didn’t make you get through unskippable cutscenes or conversation trees. If you lost a battle, you could get right back up where you were and try again, or even leave and try a different one.
There really wasn’t a reason not to let you try again, since the long-term resource game was largely not present. It was no different from retrying a level of Portal – you could simply try again with a different solution. On top of this, the series had a difficulty selector that could be changed at any time, which made it very clear what the intended challenge was supposed to be.
When Zeboyd took over for the third game in the series, they pushed even further into the short-term resource game. Items, which had previously stockpiled in the old RPG tradition, now had limited uses per battle that recharged afterward. The designers brought back magic points, but started characters at zero and gave them one magic point per turn. This created a strategic tension that presented players with questions like “Do I cash in my magic points early for more damage or do I save them for something to interrupt an upcoming enemy attack?” The battles could be tactical and dynamic instead of huge turtle-fests where players hoarded their resources.
Zeboyd also inserted niceties, such as a timeline of the upcoming turn order, which ensured players had all the information they needed to construct strategy. They even gave battles special conditions that changed the rules in interesting and strategic ways, such as altering the rules for magic point regeneration. There were a lot of good ideas in the series, and the designers were implementing them in sensible ways.
Do Levels Make Sense?
And yet there’s still more to reconsider in the RPG paradigm. On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness still features ways to permanently increase hit point totals, attack damage, and other combat statistics through the course of the game. It’s something that RPGs have done forever, indeed the very thing I posited makes an RPG to begin with in my last article. But does it fit with the idea of explicitly crafted challenges?
See, the temptation for many RPG designers is to let the player feel powerful, and the way they usually do that is with avatar improvements. When the player gets that next big sword with crazy particle effects or a spell upgrade that’s a straight damage increase, it’s a pretty exciting time for the player as he starts to lay his new and improved smackdown on enemies.
But if this turns into an excuse to start turning up the knobs of the enemies’ statistics to close the power gap, you have to ask yourself what the point of it all is. If the player gets a new weapon that allows him to deal 25% of the enemy’s hit point bar instead of the 15% he was dealing before, isn’t it a bit strange to raise the enemies’ hit points so that the player is back to dealing 15% again? Isn’t it a whole lot of meaningless work to keep that cycle going throughout the whole game? And meanwhile, the player isn’t really learning or growing – he’s merely doing what he always did. The only significant changes he makes in strategy are when he has new tools.
So ultimately, RPGs still have a lot of room to grow and more bad habits to kick. Statistics like hit points and attack power give meaning to the game play and inform players how their actions work and interact. Constantly changing these numbers really obfuscates what they mean, especially when half of them (generally those of the enemy) aren’t known. It’s not really intuitively obvious what’s going to happen if a character with a strength of 63 attacks a foe with a defense of 89, and it’s even more confusing when your strength is a different number every twenty minutes or so.
Most players don’t even bother to grasp such a fickle and furtive system and instead guess wildly at how the numbers will play out. Often the challenge and ambiguity of an RPG isn’t due to how elegantly complex that it is, but rather from the game obscuring information from the player. Increasing clarity for the player, just as Zeboyd did with the turn order timeline, helps to inform him of how to play well instead of just taking a shot in the dark against opaque enemy stats. Understanding a game system and using your intuition to arrive at good moves is much more rewarding than merely guessing something wrong or right.
Alternative Leveling Systems – Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories
Rather than using levels as an excuse to create an arms race between the player and the enemies, why not tie level to something other than power? When developer Jupiter got a chance to make a game in the Kingdom Hearts franchise (sadly, the only one by them), they did something drastically different from the rest of the series and basically everyone else.
Rather than allowing the player to spam attack chains until everything was dead, Chain of Memories had players build a deck of cards. Each card represented an action that you can take, but the catch was that you still took actions in real time. The cards came up face-up in the order you placed them in the deck, and you pushed a button to perform each card’s action, even if it was something as simple a single swing of your weapon. Setting up flowing combat chains required structuring the deck in a way that made them flow easily, and you always had to worry about enemy cards and which cards took priority over yours. It’s an extremely non-traditional system that’s hard to explain, and is maybe better watched, but made more sense in practice.
Where Chain of Memories helps us with leveling systems is in the fact that upon level up, the player chose either an increase in max hit points or in max “card points.” The more card points you had, the more you had to spend on your deck when building it. This allowed for greater access to more diverse decks, higher numbered cards to prevent being interrupted, or simply more cards between reshuffles. The important thing wasn’t how high-level that you were, it was how well you could build and execute a deck. More card points didn’t automatically mean more power – they enabled more deck possibilities. Chain of Memories is another example of a game that limited the number of battles that could potentially be fought, ensuring that decks couldn’t eventually be infinitely large.
Chain of Memories teaches us that there are more ways to use leveling systems than merely power escalation. That said, there was also an alternate mode in the game where you couldn’t build your own deck – you played through with a series of pre-constructed decks. When playing, I found the pre-constructed format to be much more interesting because the designers could give me specific challenges to work around with the decks they built for me. So maybe in the end, leveling systems don’t make sense here after all.
Do Stories Make Sense?
No, really, hear me out. As much as sweeping narratives are part of the grand RPG tradition, as much as people like a good story, we have to consider what they’re doing to RPGs. If we’ve learned anything from our analysis so far, it’s that very innocent-sounding design elements can have huge implications, and adding a story to a game has loads of them. The first and most obvious implication is that the game has an ending. Now, I don’t mean this just in the sense that the player won, in which case all of the battles in an RPG can be seen as perhaps a series of “matches” to be won or lost. No, this is an ending which is much broader and in fact cuts off future play entirely. It’s basically an ending to skill, to self-improvement.
If there’s a final boss in the game, presumably defeating the boss is the most difficult challenge in the game (though not always). This means that the game has a skill cap, a point at which a player can no longer explore and improve at the system and has utterly mastered it. Now maybe this is okay – after all, there are plenty of titles that are a series of depletable puzzles and challenges. But if you have a system with a lot of strategy and depth, it would be a shame to set a bar of performance and not let the design explore the depth above it. Even the Portal series lets people build additional challenges beyond those included in the game, and there’s really no reason that an RPG couldn’t also include a monster and battle designer. In fact, level editors such as the one included in the Warcraft and Starcraft series gave rise to very creative and interesting new arrangements of the original game systems.
Of course, if you want to explore strategic depth, it has to exist in the first place. Another design implication of adding a narrative is that it subtly puts pressure on the designer to hold the game play back. See, when you add story segments between the game play elements, you start to shift the motivation for play from intrinsic to extrinsic. Players start to become more impatient with learning how to play well when all they really want is the next cutscene.
Now, you might think that using a lure like story motivates players more than just the game play alone, a common and very old design trap. Really, it splits their motivations, putting them at odds with each other. The development of mastery over a system can be very fulfilling by itself, as can enjoyment of a good story. But putting them alongside each other creates a conflict of interest where the player has to decide which motivation is more important. If story is more important to the player, he will likely consult a walk-through or strategy guide to simply give him the answers rather than develop the mastery on his own. If mastery is more important to the player, he might not ever see the whole story should he get stuck in a challenging section. Either way, one of the motivators is actually lost. Rather than reinforcing each other and cooperating, the story and game compete for attention, and ultimately one of them must win.
In order to solve this problem, the temptation is to reduce the strategic complexity of the game in order to make sure that anyone can finish it, hopefully on the first try. If a player can complete a game without any help, he can feel like he’s playing well, and the game system can pretend that’s true. After all, what is a leveling system in most RPGs but an easy mode masquerading as strategy? It’s an easy design trap to fall into because if you’ve crafted this great story, you definitely want people to see it! Players want to see the story, too, and it just seems like the right thing to do to help everyone get what they want. This isn’t really the wrong way to think about it, either – if you’ve made art that you want to share with people, it’s a good thing to remove barriers between your art and its audience. It’s just that in this case, the barrier is strategic depth.
To make any progress, we need to divorce ourselves from the idea that requiring something of players is bad design. Requiring players to figure out a system and learn good play is what makes game systems even interesting in the first place. Watering down the game play so it doesn’t require anything of players turns the game play into nothing more than a task or chore as the player tours content. As much as it might seem that reducing challenge removes the barriers surrounding your art, if you still have these trivial chores that need to be accomplished before players “earn” their story, it’s still a barrier and a pretty arbitrary one.
You have to ask yourself if all the battling, all the walking around, all the futzing with menus really adds anything to the story when maybe 10% of it is relevant to the narrative. Did J.R.R. Tolkien document every single footfall and meal and moment of travel from the Shire to Mordor? Do movies ask you to play Bejeweled between each scene? For the player who’s only in it for the story, even easy and accessible game play is still a barrier to story.
Free Your Game, Your Story, and Your Audience
Does this mean we can’t put stories into video games or can’t have game play in stories? Not precisely – it just means that we have to take special considerations when doing so. We need to sort out what it is we’re trying to do instead of trying to have a video game that has all the things.
A very simple way to solve many of these problems at once is by making a story mode for the game that acts like a tutorial. After you “graduate” from tutorial mode, you can play the main “challenge” mode of the game and try increasingly harder game play. This accomplishes the goal of making the story accessible by way of easier game play while still maintaining the depth of play as players start gaining advanced skill. Players can take the game as far as they want to go, stopping after story completion or seeing how skilled they can actually get.
This approach comes with a number of side benefits as well. You don’t have to insert an artificial end to game play like a final boss if your game plays better without one. You don’t have to pad out the story with pointless filler in order to give your game length – the player has the challenge mode to get as many hours out of the game as he wants. And if your player doesn’t care at all about the story, he can skip right to the game play. The challenge mode can take any number of forms depending on the format of your game from the previously mentioned scenario editor to procedurally generated levels.
Now, if you’re worried that your game play doesn’t really have the depth to hold up against constant play and increasing challenges, this should really be a signal to you that maybe the game play is the weakest part of your experience. As hard as it may be to bring yourself to do it, many times the best thing to do is to remove game play entirely. Before you write that solution off as too extreme, you should consider that there’s a growing classification of “video games” that are successfully doing just that. I’m talking about visual novels.
While it’s hard to call them “games” in the strictest sense, that’s not really a value judgement against them. What they have going for them is a unity of purpose: to tell a story. There’s no pretension of being a strategy game and no pressure to make the game play artificially easy – there’s simply no game play at all. Players can experience a story with nothing to interrupt or distract them, the same as they would with a good book or movie.
Stories separated from game play have room to be better stories. They don’t need to center their plots around constant martial conflict just for the sake of having constant game play. Even more significantly, conflicts that the story does have can’t be “gamed” by the player – that is, a player doesn’t automatically know how a conflict ends by virtue of the combat having a win condition. Conflicts freed from game play can maintain their tension, since the player doesn’t have an artificial context with which to divine the outcome. Visual novels teach us that having game play merely for the sake of calling something a game can be destructive if all we actually wanted to do was tell a story. Don’t give players busywork and pretend that it helps to immerse them – just write a good story and it’ll be every bit as immersive as it needs to be.
Letting Players Lose
So far I’ve talked about how to make game play that asks learning and growth from players instead of simply taking up their time between story segments. So I’ve already played around with the concept of making failure a very real danger for players – after all, learning good play actually necessitates the possibility of failure or else there’s no such thing as good or bad play.
At the moment, however, I’ve only discussed losing in the sense of making players retry a challenge. So why couldn’t we actually give players a possibility of losing entirely and starting from the beginning? Yet again, this sounds like an extreme, unreasonable solution, but only because of the current leveling system paradigm which is mainly focused on eighty-hour long RPGs. There are successful games with leveling systems already letting players lose, and there’s a lot to learn from them.
Roguelikes began as a “hardcore” extension of video game RPGs, but the formula ended up being strong enough to form its own genre. Roguelikes are unique among RPGs in that if the game avatar dies even once, the whole game is over and must be restarted from the beginning. Randomized dungeons ensure that the player can’t memorize the layout and formulate a single strategy – all strategy must be spontaneously invented on the spot. The system found in Roguelikes is one where a player prepares for later while he deals with now. That magic sword sure looks great, but is it worth dealing with a room already overgrown with duplicating worm masses?
As the genre grew more refined, deeper strategy emerged: Instead of spawning infinite monsters and thus allowing players to grind until they could easily beat the game, Roguelikes limited how many monsters spawned on each floor and did not let you backtrack to previous ones. This turned monsters into a resource of sorts since killing them, while often dangerous, was the only way to become high enough in level to survive later on. Hunger was added in some games, not for the sake of realism, but to drive you forward. Food was limited and found only in the dungeon, so if you spent too much time killing even what monsters there were or setting up a time-consuming strategy, you might run out of food and die later anyway (for this reason, it’s often called a food clock).
The game maintains its tension as you make decisions about how to balance your various resources (hit points, magic points, experience points, food, etc) with imperfect information about what is to come, and it holds up as an interesting system all by itself without a constant narrative, without heavy theming, without even any graphics beyond an ASCII tile set.
A colossal trend in game design that you cannot possibly have missed is Defense of the Ancients (you did know that’s what DotA stands for, right?). At first, the similarities between Dotalikes and RPGs aren’t obvious, and the biggest reason for that is the fundamental shift in format.
This type of game has players compete to level up faster than their opponents. There are many player interactions whereby players can interfere with opponents’ power acquisition, whether it be in the form of experience points or gold for items. Leveling up isn’t really grinding when time is an extremely limited resource, and even killing trivially easy jungle creatures carries with it a time commitment where you’re not available to help your team nor able to oppose the enemy. The rate at which you gain power and prevent your opponents from doing the same informs strategy and plays a large role in whether you win or lose.
Notice that here again the game doesn’t allow players to grind safely and infinitely. If it did, it would destroy the entire early part of the game where players are vying to eke out power advantages for the late game. In that case, the game might as well start everyone at the maximum power level, because that would be the only meaningful game play left.
Another RPG type game that lets players lose is X-COM: UFO Defense. Soldiers that you can deploy to fight aliens also gain experience points and eventually levels for doing so. High level soldiers are highly effective, but can also die and become permanently lost, which makes using them highly risky. The game makes players measure the tradeoffs between sharing experience points between many soldiers or pumping up just a few, weighing the benefits of having a reasonably solid army versus a few super soldiers.
See, there’s a common theme in games that use leveling systems to inform strategy: the player needs to manage level as its own resource and balance it against other resources such as game time, limited use abilities, or even hit points. If a player can spend infinite real time to gain infinite levels, he’ll have infinite power, and the game will break. Trusting players to only grind as much as they need to is naïve in the face of the burden of optimal play.
“This Sounds Too Hard”
More has been done with leveling systems beyond what I’ve described here, and there’s certainly much more design space to explore. However, exploring that space effectively means that we have to acknowledge that there are wrong ways to do it. I realize that a lot of this advice basically amounts to “Don’t make an RPG,” at least in the sense that we traditionally know them. It wasn’t something I set out to specifically do, but I think it says something about the traditional RPG model that so many components need fixing or flat-out removal. RPGs have thrived for decades on their stories, their music, their graphic artwork, their cut-scene videos, everything but the actual game play, which was only good at addicting players to avatar improvement rather than self improvement. It’s time for that to change.
The thing that lots of people are afraid of, though, is this concept of “hard” games. People look at Roguelikes with permadeath and competitive games like DotA, and they wring their hands because they’re worried about excluding people due to difficulty. But really, it’s not about making games that are hard – it’s about owning your purpose in your art. Visual novels don’t have to be “hard” to be good at their stories because they’re not (usually) pretending to be games. Adding in game play that’s designed to only pretend that the player is skilled is dishonest, and there’s a growing population that is going to see right through it.
Game systems with win and loss conditions, on the other hand, need to require something of the player in order to be worth his time. Players will quickly discard a game if it has no such thing as bad play because there’s nothing to learn or master – such systems have to be kept afloat by extrinsic motivators like story and skinner boxes, and even those give out when the new, shinier thing comes out. A game system needs intrinsic value to hold up in the long term, and to have that, it needs to allow for the realistic possibility of failure.
Great games are being made, and people who are too caught up in “too hard” are going to miss them because they don’t understand them and they’re not used to games like them. In actuality, it may just be that these games don’t have the instant-gratification drugs that are endemic in most modern video games. These are games that are intrinsically rewarding, games worth playing for their game play alone. Such games are a lot harder to make, since you can’t simply follow the skinner box formula that many designers are copying endlessly. But if we want to make progress in video games, if we want to make games that are enriching for players, we’re going to need to make more of those. It’s for our own good.