Hatholgur chuckled as his blade skewered another rabbit. Unlike most of the bunnies he’d killed that day, this one actually tried to run away. Despite their docility, the work was slow. The field behind him was swathed in the corpses of rabbits, foxes, and squirrels. Counting numbers in his head, Hatholgur tallied the total at five thousand, three hundred and twenty-six. It was a tough life, being a blademaster, but the only way to improve was on the field of battle. Long ago, he’d realized that the particulars of the melee didn’t matter. Hunting goblins or trolls had the tendency to reduce life expectancy and, while battling rabbits was slower work, he knew he’d return home safely each night with no more serious an injury that a blister from his sword grip. Besides, he was only a hundred and seventy-four rabbits away from gaining enough experience to learn the “Dreadful Whirling Blades of Death.” Perhaps then he’d upgrade to hunting chickens.
Why is it that the dominant method of character growth in almost every game in existence is through the killing of monsters and villains? Whether you are looking at the oldest of pen-and-paper games, your mainstream single-player RPG, or the newest MMO, character growth always seems to boil down to “I killed that goblin warlord so I get 100xp.” On the other hand, if the same goblin was hacked and beaten to an inch of its life and then left alone to recover (which usually averages less than thirty seconds), the same player would get zero experience from the battle.
This peculiar phenomenon is hardly compatible with real world experience. A construction worker doesn’t get better at his trade by killing wolves, pedestrians, or fellow workers. Nor does a waiter gain experience by killing customers or a doctor from killing patients! Or, to approach it from another angle, a construction doesn’t gain experience only when a building is completed or a doctor on when a patient gets well. By that logic, a construction worker wouldn’t get any better if they were reassigned mid-job or a doctor if he changed out patients in the middle of treatment. And what about failure? If you build a house and it falls down, it stands to reason that would be a learning experience. After all, that is how many of the spectacular gothic cathedrals of Medieval Europe were built. Trial and error. So why is the bedrock of character growth (and therefore RPG gaming of any sort) built on a foundation of killer xp?
The short answer, I expect, is that back in the good ol’ days, it was an easy method of tracking character progress. Can you imagine a pen-and-paper Game Master trying to calculate by stubby-pencil the experience for an adventurer based on the number of times the character hit or missed their attacks against an enemy? The image is absurd. But now, in the era of dual processor computers with multiple gigabytes of RAM, game designers still turn to the same simplistic killer xp model. I was amused a while back when I played Knights of the Old Republic II. Apparently, the designers also felt awkward about this experience conundrum because, as the plot approaches its climax, various Jedi Masters ask the player-character if he noticed that all of his experience and growth as a Jedi came from killing others. He was using a void in the Force to feed on others like some sort of “experience vampire.” But most games don’t attempt to justify the peculiar logic, they just carry it forward again and again.
True, there are other ways games let you generate experience, the most common being through quest completion. But this has the same shortcoming as the killer experience. You only get the quest experience when you’ve finished it. Say, for example, that Farmer Biff is looking for help killing those ten nasty wolves that are hunting his chickens. If you defeat nine of the ten wolves, you get experience for each kill, but none for the quest. Only after that last victory are you miraculously bestowed with a boost to wisdom and prowess.
In other words, experience has come to be treated just like money. You only get paid when you’ve completed the job, be it killing a monster or quest completion. There are no rewards for a work in progress.
But if gaming is to turn away from this thirty year old model, what other options do we have? Next time we’ll look at some games, old and new, that have pushed outside this classic envelope. I’ll conclude by taking a brief comparative step into the real world to see what other possibilities rise to the surface.