Leveling Systems Part Two: Where We Could Go From Here

Level Up Part 2

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.

Need healing? This is the only Cure spell you’ll get this battle.

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.

You’ll pretty much have to.

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.

"Yes, yes, sure, but how much damage does your Limit Break ability do?"
“Yes, yes, sure, but how much damage does your Limit Break ability do?”

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.

5 thoughts on “Leveling Systems Part Two: Where We Could Go From Here

  1. Ryan January 2, 2018 / 9:29 pm

    Nice blog! I’ve read all your posts now.

    With regards to leveling systems, let’s start with the stuff we agree on:
    1) Gamification and exploitation is bad, mmkay.
    2) Long-term resource management is broken is most RPGs.
    3) Most RPG battle systems could, and should, be a lot better.

    OK, now to the fun part, where we disagree!

    1) You say: “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.”

    In my experience, having a numeric level can solve this problem (if the player can see enemy levels). The Persona and Xenoblade games come immediately to mind, but I know there are more. You learn a pretty quickly what is a reasonable ratio of enemy level to player level. That particular ratio will depend on the player’s “skill” and tolerance for grinding, but I don’t see this as inherently bad.

    2) You say: “Just write a good story and it’ll be every bit as immersive as it needs to be.”

    Then why do we make movies? Because it results in a different experience. A movie is great when it has a great script and great acting and great cinemetography and a great score. In fact, a movie can probably still be great even if one of those elements is mediocre. If you strip an RPG down to only its gameplay, you will often be disappointed. In fact, I’d say this is true of many games, not just RPGs. I am aware of this, yet I play them anyway because the total experience is greater than the sum of its parts.

    I think one of the reasons videos games are popular is that they offer “a pleasant proxy for something unpleasant.” The amount of discipline and patience that a real-life ninja needed was probably unpleasant. But playing a game where I sit on a roof for a few minutes observing guard patterns is a great proxy for that unpleasantness, because it’s fun and I get to feel like a ninja! Or consider Minecraft. (I’m actually thinking about Dragon Quest Builders instead.) Building stuff in real life is difficult work. But Minecraft gives the player a pleasant proxy for that difficult work and the satisfaction of a job well done! (In a similar vein, Kubrick deliberately slowed the pace of 2001 A Space Odyssey as a proxy for the true boredom and loneliness of space travel. Theoretically, the viewer gets a more personal experience of that boredom and loneliness without having to spend months in space.)

    Under this “pleasant proxy” theory, I think my ideal RPG formula is “story + exploration + proxy for overcoming hardship”. You say: “Did J.R.R. Tolkien document every single footfall and meal and moment of travel from the Shire to Mordor?” No, and that’s exactly why I enjoyed Xenoblade more than LotR! I would never claim that Xenoblade is written better than LotR. But Tolkien can only tell me how heavy the ring was getting – he can’t give me a proxy for that experience.

    Nothing has ever made me feel like I experienced an epic journey more than Xenoblade. The story was great (if you can ignore the typical anime nonsense, which unfortunately I’ve gotten good at). The combat was good enough to be a fun proxy for real hardship. And the exploration was outstanding. There is no overworld map; all movement occurs at “footstep resolution.” I didn’t use fast travel at all (I assume it must have existed though). This means that I took every step of that journey through a very interesting and scenic world. This combination of story+combat+exploration gave me the “epic journey” experience better than anything else.

  2. Stephen September 4, 2014 / 6:08 am

    Hello, I’m back! I commented on Part One a couple of times, and after having read Part Two through three times now, I’m… skeptical. I don’t know that I have fully-formed thoughts to add to each of your points, but I’ll start with the things that came through my head as I was reading and see where we go from there.

    1) RSPoD3: I think that Zeboyd was deliberately going for many of the things you mention in this article, and so the fact that you call them out shows that he succeeded. However, the system is too… sparse[?] at the beginning to hold my attention. If memory serves, there’s a timeline for turn order, but no mechanic to affect or take advantage of it in the beginning of the game. The MP system is similar to limit break systems [which are great when done right, as in FFXIV or Skies of Arcadia], but the player is thrown into combat with no expectation of what the resource attacks do, no real need to use them [since the early fights can be completed without them], and no opportunity to experiment [since you can only fight each battle once]. Suddenly the challenge spikes and those attacks are necessary, but now the player is ill-informed and underskilled to use them correctly, leaving them feeling stupid or unprepared for the first boss fight – but with no alternative of grinding or practice to increase their chances of success the next time.

    Additionally, the resetting of HP and MP between fights makes each of them feel consequence-less. the player isn’t hurt, they not more powerful than they was before [unless they leveled], and they don’t know if they did any better than they did in the last fight.

    Persistence of HP and MP gives each performance context within the overall setting of the dungeon, and allows the player to take learnings from one fight and use them to improve the chances of success in future fights. I’m not saying that the current systems are perfect, or that RSPoD3 didn’t get anything right, but it certainly didn’t get it all right.

    2) Levels: Yes, levels make sense. They give the player a single point of reference to gauge progress and show that they have grown in power or capability from the start of the game. If a game has a level cap, it also helps the player set expectations for the future of the gaming experience. Giving a player a wall of stats to examine is a common feature of games that ask players to min-max and specialize their characters, but asking the player to decide “I guess my guy is pretty good because all of these stats seem higher” isn’t going to be nearly as satisfying.

    Levels also serve as points of progress verification and reward in games that are not set to the same tempo as the plot line or the size of the dungeons. This second rhythm is a good counterpoint to the others, and adds more ‘attaboy’ moments to the game experience. They could be replaced, certainly, but they do serve an important purpose of providing feedback and validation to the player.

    3) Stories: It would be very difficult to convince the majority of your players that the end of the story is not the end of your game. Even if challenge modes and randomized or procedural content exists after the story, the likelihood that the player base judges your overall game length based on the length of the story is very, very high. It would take a ton of messaging and the game should require the player to take sojourns away from the story to play some of that challenge content in order to help the player recognize that the story is not the crux of the experience. This is true even for roguelikes, where the story may be an afterthought, and only a setup for presenting the payer with initial motivation to explore the randomized content.

    4) Freeing game / audience: I’m going to take the point of this section to be “if you are going to write storylines to hang gameplay on, avoid filler as much as possible, overlapping and modifying the ultimate objectives over the course of play is far more engaging.”

    I think the real issue here is that RPGs, and video games in general, are pretty terrible ways to tell stories. If a director of a film or the author of a book has a scenario that they want to viewer to experience, they can put it before the viewer font and center, and engage the audience directly. If games are about interaction and motivation and choice, then the story writer of a game that embraces those tenants has no idea if their important points will be picked up by the player at all. The other option is to forcibly halt gameplay while you show the player a story, which means parts of your game are not a game.

    This is something much larger than the genre, or than the mechanic of leveling systems, that the industry needs to work harder on addressing. It has not been solved satisfactorily by the medium in general, and perhaps only a few special games have come close.

    5) Letting players lose: Hardcore modes are called that for a reason. Gaming includes lots of gamer archetypes, but the hardcore players that are willing to accept defeat and replay large sections of a game are in the minority. Certainly, any free-to-play game on the market today would see 100% churn if the player’s progress were wiped clean on a loss, even if the value of their purchases was not completely erased.

    I think a better question is asking game designers to force players to accept a different definition of success than ‘total domination.’ It should be possible to engage enemies and ‘succeed’ without utterly destruction of one side or the other. this should also be possible without forcing the battle to end in a cut scene as the villain runs away before the player can deliver the final blow.

    For all of the ‘roles’ present in RPG games, players are rarely explicitly told the motivations of their characters. If the player is engaging the world in ways that advance the player’s or player character’s objectives, this should be seen as a win. Not every character wants to personally kill every goblin on the planet, and I agree that the potential for infinite random battles implicitly passes on that objective. Let’s find ways to let the player move the plots and progressions of the characters along at the pace they choose, and to feel rewarded for those choices.

    Overall, I enjoyed this exploration, and I think the questions asked in Part One are valid and engaging. While the suggestions presented in Part 2 may serve as interesting springboards for conversation, it would be quite difficult to be confident about any of them in practice.

    • Nachtfischer September 5, 2014 / 8:54 am

      “RSPoD3: I think that Zeboyd was deliberately going for many of the things you mention in this article, and so the fact that you call them out shows that he succeeded.”

      I don’t know the game too well, but I just want to point out that that specific fact, even if it is true, doesn’t really say all that much (which you somehow imply by mentioning it). You can “go for” creating crap that brings horror to the world, and then “succeeding” is actually a bad thing. Yes, it’s reasonable to judge a work by the intention of the author, but then we also have to judge the intention itself by how valuable it generally is!

      Yes, levels make sense. They give the player a single point of reference to gauge progress and show that they have grown in power or capability from the start of the game.

      I assume you mean in-game capability? Then sure, levels are numbers going up that make your characters more powerful. But the question remains: Have you as a player actually learned something in the process? Does the increase in levels reflect your increase in skill? In many, many games that’s not the case. Levels are used to distract our brains from the fact that we actually have acquired (almost) no new skills whatsoever. The natural reaction to an unproductive state of mind would be boredom. Now, when the game pretends that we’re incredibly productive (just look at FarmVille and how often it compliments you or shows you all kinds of stuff that’s growing), we can sometimes get tricked into believing that we are in reality. That’s the psychological hook of leveling up. Further, we might also ask the question: If we were actually acquiring new skills as a player (and a good game would in fact let us witness our own growing ingenuity constantly), why would we need the doubling (and quite probably distortion in terms of clarity) of this progress in the form of in-game levels?

      It would be very difficult to convince the majority of your players that the end of the story is not the end of your game.

      Which would actually be an argument to completely stay away from stories then. But anways, you’re right that it would currently be very difficult, because people are so incredibly used to “story games”. But it’s not too hard to understand that you can get used to poorly made things. And if you manage to rid yourself of these irrational arguments of habit, nostalgia and whatnot (wich I recommend everyone to try as best as possible, not only in games but in life), then you might be open for genuinely good arguments. It’s an utter shame that people are judging games by “how long they last” today, that they expect every game to be a “completeable”, linear puzzle, that they see the story as “the crux” of the experience and not the actual learning process of going through the gameplay loops. These total misinterpretations of the medium were obviously induced by clueless game creators, in trying to adhere to what makes good movies, for decades now. So yes, they will be hard to get rid of. But nevertheless, it’s a worthwhile, necessary and already happening process. It’s really the stone age of game design. It’s only been over the last 10 years that we’ve slowly started to see some signs of academization of the art. But that’s also why it’s so exciting to witness!

      This is something much larger than the genre, or than the mechanic of leveling systems, that the industry needs to work harder on addressing.

      Yeah, I mean, to many serious game designers the answer has actually been given: Don’t tell linear stories in your games! At all!

      Hardcore modes are called that for a reason. Gaming includes lots of gamer archetypes, but the hardcore players that are willing to accept defeat and replay large sections of a game are in the minority. Certainly, any free-to-play game on the market today would see 100% churn if the player’s progress were wiped clean on a loss, even if the value of their purchases was not completely erased.

      Interesting point. First of, I’m quite sure this blog is not really concerned with the question of: “How can I, right now, make a game that will sell the maximum amount of copies and please most of today’s so-called gamers?” It’s instead focussed on quality, on what makes good games and good game design. Secondly, it’s not all just a matter of taste. Maybe players are sometimes just wrong, because they’re so incredibly used to bad stuff. I recently read a negative review of Invisible Inc that essentially said: “Man, you can’t even wait around and take your time forever like in XCOM!” So you see, to the players less interested in deeply thinking about games and what they’re actually doing in them, something is “bad”, because it’s not like what they already know.

      Also, you’re of course right about these F2P games of the FarmVille style that throw persistent nonsense at you all the time. They are essentially matters of “waste your time to collect all the shiny stuff”. Are you really saying that it would be bad if they were gone? They are engines designed to take your time and, if you’re sufficiently susceptible to elaborate skinner box mechanisms, your money. They are devious and add no actual value to the world whatsoever, beyond the financial aspects of course.

      While the suggestions presented in Part 2 may serve as interesting springboards for conversation, it would be quite difficult to be confident about any of them in practice.

      What do you mean “in practice”? I again have to assume what you’re concerned with here is “How many copies can I sell?”. Sure, with most players deeply rooted in the AAA nonsense they’ve been confronted with for the last 20 years, you won’t make as much money as Ubisoft or EA. But the last years especially have shown that these days you can be succesful with genuinely new, interesting and challenging systems of gameplay again. The “roguelike renaissance” followed by roguelike-inspired offshoots like Spelunky, Binding of Isaaac, FTL, 868-HACK etc. New spawns are constantly popping up on steam (most recently Road Not Taken and Crypt of the Necrodancer). These games allow people to make a decent amount of money, to live on making games. And that’s great. Many players have started to see it not only as acceptable that games deeply challenge you and that you can lose, but It’s even seen as a good feature. Imagine this, these games go ahead and use these things as a marketing slogan! It’s almost the antithesis of the modern AAA movie-game, where you never (really) lose, you don’t have to do much beyond pressing X and watching incredibly difficult looking animations play out, mostly all on their own. The shift is happening, and more and more people will understand it. And even if genuinely good games will rarely be big “blockbusters” (just like it is in movies or music or any art form probably), they will have their place and they will keep making rapid progress in terms of diving deep into what makes gameplay interesting, in contrast to the AAA world, where we will simply continue to see better graphics, more spectacle and nothing of any sort of (lasting) value. So you see, it’s a good time to be a “serious gamer”! 🙂

    • The Ludite September 5, 2014 / 9:17 am

      Thanks for the comment, Stephen!

      I think the skepticism you have is because my suggestions are quite a bit different from the historical traditions of RPGs. In the context of an 80-hour long game, of course making players start over makes no sense. I would never advocate for “permadeath” in Final Fantasy or Dragon Age since strategic depth isn’t the primary element of the experience. In order to realize my suggestions in a practical design, a lot of things need to change. It’s not a simple matter of reversing MP to count up rather than down – each individual design change has a rippling effect that changes a lot of things, and the design needs to also change to accommodate. The end result will look almost nothing like the current RPG paradigm. So trying to rationalize them in the context of the games we have now is going to look weird.

      For example, you said that when the difficulty spikes in Precipice of Darkness, players didn’t have a chance to experiment or practice with the tools they had available. But they absolutely do – right in the midst of that difficult fight! They’re free to try whatever they need to in order to win since they can repeat the battle if they lose – it’s not like the game is going to make them replay the last hour of the game. In fact, in that context, difficult battles are the perfect place to practice and experiment since players get very clear feedback for good and bad moves: if they won, then they made good moves. By contrast, the popcorn fights of traditional RPGs don’t encourage experimentation: if a battle isn’t meant to kill you, just drain a small amount of your resources, why should the player believe that anything he did in the fight was good or bad? How much of his resources “should” he have lost? How many more fights are there anyway? Should he be a higher level? Should he have brought more healing potions? There’s just so much ambiguity, and none of it ever resolves into “you did well/poorly.” This sort of dynamic actually discourages players from exploring the game system – if they don’t have context for which of their moves were good, why should they try anything else?

      You say that healing HP and MP after each battle makes the battles lack consequences, but you haven’t considered that traditional RPGs do the exact same thing, just in longer arcs. Any time the game allows the party to regain all HP and MP, it’s just undone the “consequences” of all the battles that the player has fought in the last stretch. It’s not a question of which battles have “consequences” – losing resources is meaningful no matter how long the arc is. But in the short-term arc, like in Precipice of Darkness, the meaning of the consequences is far more immediate and clear: if I’m running out of HP, I’m going to lose. Meanwhile, in the maze-dungeons of Final Fantasy, I lost 40 hit points in a battle. Is that good or bad? How many more fights are there? Am I going to last until the end of the dungeon? When is that? The challenge of preserving resources through the whole dungeon is largely imagined. Running out of HP in Final Fantasy may produce a lose condition, but it’s not realistically going to happen. The game is relying on the unknown length of the dungeon to fool the player into thinking that risk exists. And the irony is that if Final Fantasy gives the player a save point and recovery of HP/MP before a boss battle, it’s actually doing the exact same thing as Precipice of Darkness, just with a bunch of pointless fluff battles in between.

      Your point about levels speaks to the common wisdom of today’s game designers, but an aspect of it that I have serious problems with. Design discussions often talk about how games should be “rewarding,” but many designers are critically wrong about what that means. Many of today’s games (in fact, I suspect most) have explicit rewards, most often in the form of leveling systems, achievements, or unlocks. In a certain light, though, you could see these things as a form of coercion, as an incentive to play a game. Why would a game need this extrinsic motivation to get players to play if it’s supposedly this fun game? An actually interesting and fun game system doesn’t need “attaboy” moments explicitly built into the game – it’s just naturally rewarding as you improve and see what you’re capable of. The moments of fulfillment become your own as you find your way out of tense situations or line up an incredibly good move that happens just the way you hoped it would. If a game has to rely on extrinsic rewards to keep players into the game, one has to wonder how good the game play actually is on its own. There’s a spectrum for games that relates to how heavily they rely on intrinsic value and extrinsic rewards, and the farther you get to the latter, the more your game starts to become abusive in that Farmville fashion. In case you didn’t watch it earlier, check out this talk by Jonathon Blow for a new perspective on this incredibly common design practice.

      I agree that video games are really bad as a medium at telling traditional narratives. The loss of linearity you mention is a huge reason for it. RPGs are a symptom of the awkward solutions we’ve applied, usually things like interrupting game play with cut scenes and interrupting story with chores. A lot of people are trying to consider how to tell stories with games, and I think it’s very telling that the solutions that they are slowly migrating toward are getting progressively less linear and more exploratory. At that point, it’s only a “story” in the colloquial sense – it has basically nothing in common with the experience of a book or movie. Even then, adding game play that you can lose probably adds nothing to the experience.

      One thing that’s holding us back in game design is this perception that there are “hardcore” players, and then there are regular players. Maybe if a game is “punishing,” maybe that’s actually bad design! Maybe it’s not a quality of players to like being punished, only a status they can claim. But we have to ask what punishing means. We have some words to describe it, but the most telling, I feel, is “losing progress.” That implies that the game can be progressed, which in turn implies that the game is linear and static. I think games that make you replay static content are usually misguided. The more that a player has to replay, and the more of it that the player has no trouble with until they make their mistake and fail, the worse it is. We should note that players have significantly less aversion to losing and starting a game over if 1). the game isn’t a static, unchanging format and 2). the game isn’t absurdly long. People accept starting over in Spelunky because most runs take less than an hour, and the new run will be different from the last. The same is true of Realm of the Mad God, which is (Gotcha!) a free-to-play game that wipes your “progress” on death. Adding permadeath to static, linear content is misusing the mechanism since the available strategic depth of a single configuration is extremely limited, and making players play it all over again after they’ve utterly mastered it adds nothing to their experience. It makes far more sense to add the “ultimate lose condition” to games that change every time you play them, and players are actually responding quite well to it.

      That said, all of the games I’ve mentioned, here and in the article, are more inspirations than designs to be copied. Angband the Roguelike is actually quite bad due to how incredibly long the game is and how much of that time is spent on autopilot just eating every monster that comes your way without a second thought. Realm of the Mad God suffers from having a failure state, but not an explicit win state. Again, we often need to look past the status quo of the current video game paradigm and see what possibilities exist in undiscovered designs. We should be willing to accept that what we’ve done so far might actually be really terrible in comparison to what we will make. This has been true of every art form ever, and it shouldn’t surprise us nor discourage us in video games.

      Thanks for reading!

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