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.
4.It lets the player customize both their character and the gameplay to focus on the parts they enjoy the most. “I hate sneaking around in the dark. I’d much rather just lob fireballs at these guys, so I’ll put more points into magic.”
How game designers muck this up: Too often, games will offer single-solution challenges. This lock must be picked. This guard must be charmed out of the way by your speech skill. This puzzle can only be solved with a fireball. A good game will let you choose any way you like to solve a problem. You can talk the guard into giving you the key, pick the lock or burn the door down with a fireball. A bad game will make you do a little of everything according to the wishes of the totalitarian designer. See also: forced stealth gameplay sections.
5. If done right, leveling can let players seek their own challenge level without needing to fuss with the difficulty slider. “Whew. These guys are really hard. Maybe I should level a bit before moving on.” Or “Man, these guys are a cakewalk. I think I’ll skip this dungeon and find something a little tougher and more rewarding.”
How game designers muck this up: The biggest way to mess this up is with auto-leveling foes. Did you just ding level 7? Guess what? So did every single monster in the game world. Congratulations on gaining absolutely nothing! The other way designers mess this up is by applying hard level caps to areas of the game. Maybe you must be level 7 to enter the jungle. Maybe you can’t go above level 7 until you leave the jungle.
Either that, or they add one-way doors to the game world so that you can’t revisit old areas. It feels good to go back to the troll that gave you so much trouble at level 5 and give him his comeuppance when you hit level 10. When designers don’t let you do this, you feel like you’re running in place instead of climbing in power.
Either way, it puts leveling on rails and takes away your freedom to experience the game at your own pace and skill level.
Game designers are always worried about calibrating difficulty, introducing complexity and offering freedom. Leveling is an elegant and rewarding solution to all of these, as long as the designer lets the system work the way it should without walling it off with arbitrary limits.
Also – and this is probably the most important thing – the level-up sound really needs to make a nice, satisfying “ding.”
Oh yeah. Love that sound.