Steinhauer’s Opinion: Breaking the Level Barrier, Part 1

“I have never seen such an incompetent and worthless work product, Fred! You’ll have it fixed by Friday or you’re fired!”

The conference room shook as Bob slammed the door. Fred sank down in his chair and looked at his project team. “There is no way we can finish this on time, I’m only a Level 23 analyst and this task is a Level 29 monster.”

George, the group’s newest member, leaned forward and smiled. “Don’t worry. I’m a Level 35 programmer with a specialization in ‘down-to-the-wire’. We’ll get it done on time.”

Much like the Killer Experience we discussed last time, gaming is transfixed on the classic concept of Character Levels. The use of levels in gaming results in two distinct flaws, one cosmetic and one technical.

The cosmetic shortcoming is simply one of classification. There is nothing comparable to levels in real life. The key here is that, in games, character levels provide a real and accurate measuring stick of an adventurer’s skill. As the opening story spoofs, you won’t find levels in the gaming sense on the job. One might argue that levels correlate roughly with job ranks, but that is inaccurate too. Occupational advancement is often based on who you know, time in position, or other factors completely unrelated to actual job skill. Nor do levels correlate with the life of a student. Advancing from grade to grade implies a certain gaining of skills, but there are some 10th graders who are more intelligent and more learned than some 12th graders. You might even argue that levels correlate with a person’s age, but I’m sure there is more than one 18 year old computer hackers out there who would argue their greater technical skills. So, while levels are a common tool in gaming, the precision of the concept breaks down whenever you try to transfer it to the real world.

Looking more into levels within games, we find that their use a broad statement of experience demands a certain rigidness of focus. Only a few rare exceptions (such as Neverwinter Nights where an adventurer can have more than one character class) allow for greater flexibility of experience. But if you were to twist character levels and actually measure real life experience, would it be absurd to find a man that is a Level 25 computer programmer, a Level 30 husband, a Level 10 bowler, and a Level 42 chef? Not at all.

As comical as it sounds, when analyzed closely, this aspect of levels is merely a stylistic devise. The more serious shortcoming is technical because levels are used, not only classify a character, but as a fundamental building block of defining what they are. Let’s look at the universal statistic of character health in order to understand this better. In almost every game, health is defined by some underlying statistic, such as Constitution, Vitality, or Endurance. This generally makes sense, but the problem is health growth occurs only at level shifts. As a character increases from Level 1 to Level 2, they also get a boost to their health. Sometimes this is through an increase in their underlying statistic (such as in Lord of the Rings Online) and sometimes it is a standard increase (such as in Neverwinter Nights). But the fundamental flaw is that it occurs all at once when the level changes. A character is Level 20 with 200 health and, at the very instant he jumps to Level 21, his health leaps to 250. Unfortunately, even my usual prime example on threshold breaking character design, Bethesda’s Elder Scrolls, fails this time.

There are, thankfully, a few games that do not follow this principle. One example is Asheron’s Call. While AC does use levels, it avoids most (but not all) of the common thresholds associated with them. As a character fights monsters, the experience earned is used to purchase improvements in skills and base statistics, including health, with the cost of each improvement growing more expensive each step. The benefit of this methodology is that all improvements are done gradually and it is theoretically possible to have a Level 100 character with only 5 health. Admittedly, the Asheron’s Call growth system does have its shortcomings, but those are outside the scope of this article.

Ultimately, however, you will be hard pressed to find a game that breaks completely out of the level mold. Asheron’s Call and Oblivion come closer than most, but not entirely. The reason for this is one we’ve discussed before.

When you look a little deeper at the thought process behind levels, you find that it has exactly the same root as the Killer Experience problem from the last article and the Equipment Threshold inaccuracy we looked at back in September. All three are built on a concept of growth through a period of jumps. The reasoning dates back to pen-and-paper games that demand simplicity because players and game masters have to calculate everything by hand. But few things in real life mimic this stair-step principle. Instead, growth is almost always more comparable to a slope where improvement is made gradually. Games have been stuck following this old mold because it functions, but with all the other improvements in gaming, doesn’t it follow that character growth should be further developed as well?

Next time we’ll look at ways to break out of the character level rut.

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