If you're an RPG player, then you know the joy of gaining a level. If you're not an RPG player, then you make me sad and we can't be friends.
By "RPG" I mean "game where you level up." I know there is something about roleplaying in that acronym, but let's just forget about that for now and talk about leveling up. Leveling up is fun. It's a very old game mechanic - older than computer games, actually - and it has all sorts of cool uses. Yet some game designers keep seeing these advantages as drawbacks and end up breaking the leveling system.
Here are some of the great things about leveling up, and how game designers continually bungle it:
1. Leveling up serves as a meaningful reward and mark of progress through the game."Yay! Another level!"
How game designers muck this up: They put in too few levels. Late in the game, levels will be many hours apart and the player can get restless as they go for long stretches without a reward or a new power to play with. In a pen-and-paper game, the level ladder is short to reduce paperwork. But when the CPU is doing the number crunching, there's no reason you can't just give the player more levels. Why stop at 20? Why not 50 or 100? There should be enough to see the player to the end of the game with a steady stream of level-ups so that the game feels fun and rewarding instead of grind-y. You don't want them coming up so often they feel like a nuisance, but unless you're making an MMOG, you probably don't want the player to go for more than an hour or so without giving them their level-up cookie.
2. It lets players gauge their strength and growth relative to the game world. "Oh, I'm level 10. Halfway through the game. I'm probably not ready to fight the dragon just yet, but I'm still getting to the point where I'm an above-average badass."
How game designers muck this up: They deny the player a way to judge how tough an enemy is. In an MMOG, you can examine a foe and know how far above or below you they are in level. Without this, you can't really get a sense of how you're doing or when you might be getting in over your head. Is this guy tough because he's a boss, because he's way above me in level or because I just suck at the game? Is it supposed to be this hard?
3.It lets game designers start simple and introduce new gameplay elements gradually instead of throwing new players into the deep end.
How game designers muck this up: They dump all abilities on you at level 1 or (even worse) during the character creation process. You end up making long-term decisions before you even know what you're doing, which leads to messing up your character and needing to start over once you understand the system. Oblivion offers a great example of this mistake.