Ding! Now You Suck Less

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Ding! Now You Suck Less

Leveling: how to do it right, how to mess it up completely.

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Thank you for pointing out some issues that I have had with leveling systems. Some games just make it feel pointless now.

If there was one sound - one solitary sound that I could hear - above the din of the crowbar, the bounce of a grenade or the screams of an ignited citizen, it would have to be the DING.

Any game that doesn't have a ding just isn't trying.

The greatest example for all is Oblivion, was you burnt by it? Anywho, I must say, Borderlands follows your rules quite nicely. It even has achievements/trophies that say "Ding!" for levels.

I basically agreed with everything. Why don't they make levels easier to get and more numerous? Gaining levels is the only thing that's rewarding after plaing for hours on end. Plus it changes the gameplay. My favorite part of this system: in 2Moons around level 50 leveling became slow as hell. So I did the math and found out I would need to kill over 1000 of the monsters to level up. And that is why I don't play it anymore...
Another good example of games that make you make crucial decisions that you can't change early on is Diablo 2. That was the main problem with that game.

A perfect example of a bad leveling system: Sacred 2.

Great article.

Borderlands seems to hit the sweet spot of giving your levels often enough to feel like you're progressing, but not taking so long that you grow bored and stop playing (Looking at you WOW...)

Like others have said, Borderlands has a nice leveling system. Enemies stay the level their supposed to be, unless you are in co-op, then they get harder for obvious reasons.

I do wish I could go back and kill Sledge again, mainly because when my friends and I fought and defeated him we were a few levels lower than we were supposed to be, and we later found out that we could have done side missions to level us up and make the fight easier. I want to so badly go back and give Sledge the asswhooping he deserved, but I can't.

I could start a new character and defeat him, but it just wouldn't be the same...

Other games need a "ding" sound. Killzone 2 has a nice "chirp" sound when you kill someone, and a special one for headshots. Uncharted 2 also had a nice sound when you killed people.

Well, yes leveling systems can be bad, and I don't entirely disagree with you but a counterpoint is required (and if you value constructive criticism at all, its a change from the rest of the kiss-ass responses). Well, to start use more examples, its a lot more professional. Anyway, the number of problems you have with scalable levels are solved by the old trick of strictly linear progression. Yes, more and more (western) RPG'S are now open world and this wouldn't work, but scalable levels work just fine (usually) if kept in proportion to your own strength. As for the puzzles that can only be solved in one manner, those are either really, really uncommon, or encourage replay ability.As for the lack of enough levels as a whole, well, most people either beat the game by 30-50 or so when you CAN go to 99, which no one ever does. I suppose you should certainly have the option, but for games like Fallout 3 or WOW, where the intention is to increase the level cap in expansions (a practice I hate by the way), they do so for fiscal reasons. The article seems to discourse not at all on good leveling systems, say different kinds or where they can be found, what they work well with and so forth. Instead you focus on bad leveling systems, except not specific ones, just a conglomeration of generic RPG no-no's that have been ESTABLISHED as bad game design.

I'd like to add to number 1 that levels should be numerous and easy to gain, BUT one should be able to turn off experience or whatever for the reasons explained in number 5. Nothing like grinding away for that rare item only to realize you've gained so many levels in the meantime, the rest of the game is a cakewalk.

Also, not really sure of your point for 2. Was it ever any different than how you described it? Is there a better way to gauge an enemy's strength than the game basically telling you what level it is?

Good article and bang on right. I feel that Oblivion made a few of those mistakes, the worst being the auto-levelling enemies, whereas it's predecessor Morrowind really rewarded you for levelling, while giving you almost ultimate freedom. Don't like sneaking? Go Rambo with a mace. Those were the good days.
That and Diablo where the speed of levelling really took me by surprise when I went back to it after playing World of Warcraft.

nairb1582:
The article seems to discourse not at all on good leveling systems, say different kinds or where they can be found, what they work well with and so forth. Instead you focus on bad leveling systems, except not specific ones, just a conglomeration of generic RPG no-no's that have been ESTABLISHED as bad game design.

I believe that was the point of the article; not to list good levelling-systems but to list good levelling-system concepts that are either consistently ignored or implemented incredibly badly. And despite the apparent common sense of the listed concepts, there aren't many games that get very many of them right - if any at all.

Also, I'm somewhat confused. How does a puzzle with only one solution encourage replayability?

In any case, good article as usual, Shamus.

Great article, and spot on as well. As many people have said, Oblivion was the major culprit for me again; how do I know from turning on how i'd like the spells later on, or the bow-work?

I might also like to add that I prefer being able to do something there and then with whatever i've got, be it talent points or something. I don't want to wait until I go back to the town/trainer to get everything - give me something enjoyable at that point!

Shamus Young:
Leveling is an elegant and rewarding solution to all of these,

I honestly can not possibly agree with this... Really...

To my mind leveling systems are just lazy workarounds proper balancing and, generally, a decent combat system. They're ways to falsify and emulate real experience you should be getting by playing the game... Which doesn't matter if the gameplay is too "basic" to allow this(i.e: most mmorpgs). Honestly think "time" is an entirely arbitrary variable to give someone an advantage over someone else.

To me, they can be mildly acceptable if done properly in single player games (i.e: Prototype, Fallout 3. Easy, fast, and more of a way to work around character building and inherent balance issues than anything)... But it's absolutely intolerable in multiplayer games.

Then again, I'm not the biggest MMO fan around, so yeah.

THAT said, I agree that, if you're going to have levels, at the very least follow these guidelines... Things like "make the world level with you" makes the whole thing an exercise in futility...

world of warcraft gets ALL of it right, thank god, as its about two things - Leveling and gear.

it even has the DING...

borderlands and dragon age better not fuck this up (borderlands has yet to show its face around denmark), but the one level pr. hour thing doesn't sound appealing to me, i like the hard levels where you have to work for them, this is what people may call grinding but if that the case then the game sucks, grinding, at least to me means running around killing mobs for hours, a good game will provide interesting quests that makes you feel like the hero of the land instead of an insane person whit a sword and a grudge against animals.

and whit the one level pr. hour thing you will quickly become way to overpowered unless the game has an gigantic world whit several zones (ie wow if they just made all the alliances places into horde too) other wise it will become the oblivion problem again where by level 9 your invisible and shoot fire and arrows all around.

Dear Mr. Shamus,

I have no idea who you are. But every word you typed was right on with me. Thank you for this article, as I will be showing it to some friends of mine who are in the same boat as me.

Thanks Again.

Once again Mr. Young says what we're all thinking. I mean, sure, a few of these are nitpicking, but the man is probably paid by the word and he's gotta eat too. Plus, it's all completely worth it when you bring attention to the crime that is auto-leveling.

Why is it that a level 45 Knight in Oblivion can still be hurt by a freaking Goblin in some random cave? The greatest demons of hell have been felled by my hand and "Rotcrunch the Cowardly" is still a problem? Bull.

Locking in your character too early is also a justified complaint, its completely annoying to find you wasted 10 hours developing a character that will never be worth the expense. I would like to deny the opposing view as well though: letting you go back at anytime to fiddle with your stat point placement or power selection (for instance, in Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2) should only be done in the most casual of games. There can be a real reward to building a character in a smart fashion. Being able to "optimize" for every boss is not only completely unrewarding but also slows the game down as you spend 10 minutes of every hour juggling points.

Exponential growth of strength is also pretty rewarding, kind of annoying to see the same +10 your damage each time, much more rewarding to see that boost get larger every time.

Arcanum had one fo the best levelling systems I've seen and to date is the only game that geniunely allowed you to choose between being a gunslinger, mage, burly sword-swinger, sneaky thief and so on. It did, however, suffer from the reverse of point #3, vis a vis dumping points on the player near the start and forcing them to become dependent on skills from the start before they really understand what it means.

By making sure you had to be half-decent (in terms of points in a skill) to actually use something such as a gun, a bow or a melee weapon without either missing 9 times out of 10 or actually injuring yourself, it meant the player had to commit to using a weapon early on if they wanted to have a hope in hell of actually hitting an enemy and still have points left over for the other cool abilities (like crafting your own guns, armour, potions and stuff). For example, if I wanted to be a gunslinger, I would have to put lots of points in guns quite quickly otherwise the gun would be next to useless and a fight could drain you of 50+ bullets because you miss so often.

This was exemplified by the fact that you also had to put points into your physical stats such as dexterity, constitution, charisma etc. Don't have enough in these and your other skills can't be raised.

This meant a significant portion of your skill points had to be spent on your physical stats in addition to your fighting, social and miscellaneous skills such as lockpicking.

Arcanum's system was still, in my opinion the single greatest example of a levelling system and skill system ever, but there is such a thing as pricing the ability to survive a fight a little too high for a player whos just starting out.

Oblivion and Fallout 3 are the biggest violators of these rules, but they're good games nonetheless. Regardless, I agree; they would have been so much more fun if they adopted a similar levelling system to games like Legend of Dragoon or Final Fantasy.

I did find an issue trying to get into the Elder Scrolls games. Morrowind was my first foray into "RPG"s, and I didn't have any clue as to what my character would end up as, or even how I wanted to play the game. I ended up playing several hours with an awkward stealth-based Orc character before I finally figured out that I would rather have a race more suited to my interests.
Haven't made that mistake since, as I generally know that I like stealth-based characters, and I look at the skills I want before starting a game.

I'd be really interested in an RPG system where you don't level up per-se, but doing certain action make you better at those. What I mean is you gain stats from performing actions, rather then when your experience hits a predetermined mark. For example instead of killing a monster so you level up and all stats improve, killing that monster just made you slightly better with the weapon you killed it with. As skills improve, rather than seeing a number go up, you start to notice your character improving. For example, maybe your not so clumsy with that sword now that you have the skills to wield it. Maybe running and fighting improves your characters physical stature, thereby showing improve power and endurence. I feel that such a system (if done properly of course) would make your character and the game world seem more real.

Fantastic. I'm glad someone finally said it.

(You beat me to it, you %*^&$&!)

You can't really play a class in Oblivion. If you want to be an archer then the enemies will charge in and hack you up in close combat, if you want to be a warrior then archers and mages attacking you run at the speed of light and have laser guided munitions. And if you have a follower they always get in the way of your fireballs and/or arrows, even if you move to circle around, they will follow you. It's worse that they don't level up with you, kinda cripples the whole "Band of adventurers dungeon raiding"

Atleast Alpha Protocol (it promises to anyway...) will let you handle a situation in several different ways with different results.

the only sound I enjoy more than a leveling ding is the classic metroid item find noise.

I guess you could consider that an archaic sort of level-up...

I've always hated the elder scrolls system. I play it, I use it, but good lord it is not intuitive.

Remember putting your major skill in athletics and acrobatics and running and jumping your way to level 20?

archvile93:
I'd be really interested in an RPG system where you don't level up per-se, but doing certain action make you better at those. What I mean is you gain stats from performing actions, rather then when your experience hits a predetermined mark. For example instead of killing a monster so you level up and all stats improve, killing that monster just made you slightly better with the weapon you killed it with. As skills improve, rather than seeing a number go up, you start to notice your character improving. For example, maybe your not so clumsy with that sword now that you have the skills to wield it. Maybe running and fighting improves your characters physical stature, thereby showing improve power and endurence. I feel that such a system (if done properly of course) would make your character and the game world seem more real.

http://www.rpgwo.com/

Best leveling system ever. Exactly what you described. And I agree that more games need to be like that. The cool twist is that the experience you gain from leveling your skills (weapons, magic, crafting, etc.) go towards a pool of exp used to buy your base stats. Still uses exp to guage how far you are form skill level X, but I think that just goes towards clearly defining how long until your next skill up.

I encourage everyone to check out the RPG system at least once.

Irridium:
Like others have said, Borderlands has a nice leveling system. Enemies stay the level their supposed to be, unless you are in co-op, then they get harder for obvious reasons.

I do wish I could go back and kill Sledge again, mainly because when my friends and I fought and defeated him we were a few levels lower than we were supposed to be, and we later found out that we could have done side missions to level us up and make the fight easier. I want to so badly go back and give Sledge the asswhooping he deserved, but I can't.

I could start a new character and defeat him, but it just wouldn't be the same...

Other games need a "ding" sound. Killzone 2 has a nice "chirp" sound when you kill someone, and a special one for headshots. Uncharted 2 also had a nice sound when you killed people.

Hey in case your wondering, you can fight bosses again. The bosses respawn every new "session" which means if you want to fight Sledge again all you need to do is save and go to the main menu then go back to Sledge's hide out and beat the hell out of him. (I overleveled by about 2 levels when I fought Sledge and also had a Epic revolver that shoots 7 concentrated shots of 115 damage with a good rate of fire... basically he died in 4 seconds)

Loved the article Shamus, all of those things you mentioned have annoyed me previously. Especially having too many long-term choices early on in the game.

Lvl 64 Klutz:
I'd like to add to number 1 that levels should be numerous and easy to gain, BUT one should be able to turn off experience or whatever for the reasons explained in number 5. Nothing like grinding away for that rare item only to realize you've gained so many levels in the meantime, the rest of the game is a cakewalk.

Disgaea has a better solution: let the players increase/decrease the enemies' levels between battles. Kind of like Diablo's Nightmare/Hell modes, except you can change it midgame. Actually, Disgaea had a lot of small tweaks that made leveling extremely fun. It might be interesting to go through & list them all.

HellsingerAngel:

archvile93:
I'd be really interested in an RPG system where you don't level up per-se, but doing certain action make you better at those. What I mean is you gain stats from performing actions, rather then when your experience hits a predetermined mark. For example instead of killing a monster so you level up and all stats improve, killing that monster just made you slightly better with the weapon you killed it with. As skills improve, rather than seeing a number go up, you start to notice your character improving. For example, maybe your not so clumsy with that sword now that you have the skills to wield it. Maybe running and fighting improves your characters physical stature, thereby showing improve power and endurence. I feel that such a system (if done properly of course) would make your character and the game world seem more real.

http://www.rpgwo.com/

Best leveling system ever. Exactly what you described. And I agree that more games need to be like that. The cool twist is that the experience you gain from leveling your skills (weapons, magic, crafting, etc.) go towards a pool of exp used to buy your base stats. Still uses exp to guage how far you are form skill level X, but I think that just goes towards clearly defining how long until your next skill up.

I encourage everyone to check out the RPG system at least once.

Well that is similar, but I also meant that base stat are controlled by this system. You wouldn't buy your own stats. I feel that makes the game seem more real since I don't recall choosing to improve my speed and agility because I mangaed to fight off the school bully (that was eight years ago).

Yeah auto levelling monsters suck. Auto levelling ones you haven't encountered yet isn't so bad. As Shamus said going back and getting revenge on a monster that gave your great trouble early can be bloody good fun. Was one of the things I did when I was max level in wow actually. Went and slaughtered a whole heap of those lighting lizards outside Orgrimmar.

nairb1582:
Well, yes leveling systems can be bad, and I don't entirely disagree with you but a counterpoint is required (and if you value constructive criticism at all, its a change from the rest of the kiss-ass responses). Well, to start use more examples, its a lot more professional. Anyway, the number of problems you have with scalable levels are solved by the old trick of strictly linear progression. Yes, more and more (western) RPG'S are now open world and this wouldn't work, but scalable levels work just fine (usually) if kept in proportion to your own strength. As for the puzzles that can only be solved in one manner, those are either really, really uncommon, or encourage replay ability.As for the lack of enough levels as a whole, well, most people either beat the game by 30-50 or so when you CAN go to 99, which no one ever does. I suppose you should certainly have the option, but for games like Fallout 3 or WOW, where the intention is to increase the level cap in expansions (a practice I hate by the way), they do so for fiscal reasons. The article seems to discourse not at all on good leveling systems, say different kinds or where they can be found, what they work well with and so forth. Instead you focus on bad leveling systems, except not specific ones, just a conglomeration of generic RPG no-no's that have been ESTABLISHED as bad game design.

Wall of text lacks grammar.

If you're going to constructively criticize people, make it so my eyes don't start bleeding before I get to the second sentence.

Lord Krunk:
Oblivion and Fallout 3 are the biggest violators of these rules, but they're good games nonetheless. Regardless, I agree; they would have been so much more fun if they adopted a similar levelling system to games like Legend of Dragoon or Final Fantasy.

Which FF?
Now, I am no big FF fan (don't hate it though), but I found the leveling system in 12 to be just plain stupid. When you gained a lvl, you got more HP and MP. That's it (I think). You then had to spend LP to buy the right to use spells/weapons/armor.
I prefer the Mw/Ob/Fo3 style, where the skills you use got better. Although I do not mind a classic system like KOTOR.

In a nutshell: Bethesda games.

Well said, Seamus.

Next week, we'll discuss the benefits and downsides to upgradeable/power scaling weapons.

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