Whether it's the swell of an orchestra, the thunder of a distant war drum, a chorus of angels, a guitar riff, or a simple, distinct "ding" sound, everyone loves to hear it: the chime that signifies a level-up. Although it has its roots in role-playing games, the notion of leveling up abilities, characters, items, and more has crept its way into just about every facet of gaming - so much so that it's nearly impossible to find a game which doesn't have some sort of leveling, experience points, or an equivalent progression system realized and presented in a numeric fashion.
You'd think that, as a fan of role-playing games, I'd love all this talk of levels, stats and attributes, and relish in the chance to up those numbers no matter what the context - after all, there's nothing I don't enjoy more than a good RPG. On the contrary, however - the more games I play which involve leveling and progression in such strict, metered and discrete ways, the more and more I tire of leveling. In this article, I'll first outline my own general conceptualization of what levels represent, and then I'll get into exactly why I feel the move towards leveling up in just about every game genre out there has contributed to the devaluing of the concept.
Role-playing games, having their roots firmly in the tabletop space, borrow many of their conventions from the mechanics necessitated by the limitations of the tabletop itself. To put it plainly, there is no "hood" to look under in the tabletop realm - all of the gears, the machinery, the underlying operations are exposed for all to see, and any pretense of fantasy, fiction, and aesthetic come solely out of the imaginings of the players involved in the game. Effectively, a role-playing game is a set of raw mechanics which interact with one another, in order to facilitate cooperation, interaction and competition within a fictionalized world outlined with a set of natural and physical rules, i.e. the ruleset. All the elves, dwarves, and magic that so many players love are ultimately secondary to the mechanics of the game itself, despite the fact that it's those aesthetic elements which are so iconic of Dungeons & Dragons.
Traditionally in RPGs, leveling has been about expressing a set of rules about the world - not about the Drow Ranger in the character portrait.
Within this framework, and the numbers exposed, a concept like "leveling up" makes a lot more sense. Everything in a tabletop game is expressed in a numeric fashion, governed in a consistent and mostly predictable way, and leveling up is just one way of understanding the progression of characters and abilities. Furthermore, although we tend to think of leveling up in terms of character level, most pen and paper games have plenty of other ways to level up - feats that need to be purchased, attributes that need to be raised, etc. Many systems will allow players to freely level up in different classes, as well, allowing for a significant amount of variety and control over progression. These tie in with the aesthetic and our understanding of the game - the "I'm a half-elf sorcerer!" fantasy - but at their lowest level, these are merely mechanics.
What this all means is that leveling up is not an end in itself, but rather a way of understanding the progression of a character's ability and proficiency, not just in a vague and general way as it's realized in most videogames, but in very particular, controlled and specified ways, often along multiple paths simultaneously. The "leveling up" is just one aspect of a much larger system, and while perhaps one of the most rewarding of those aspects, is still ultimately only a very small part of what makes up that complex set of interactions and rules. Leveling up may tie into that fantasy, our sense of empowerment and progress, but like my half-elf wizard, that's all something built on top to provide meaning to the experience, rather than something integral to those operations.
Usually in videogames, progress can be expressed in some pretty intuitive and self-explanatory ways - completing a mission, gaining a new weapon, item or ability, killing a powerful boss, beginning another chapter in the story, moving from one environment to another, different one, and so on. All of these contribute to a feeling of movement through the game, an expansion of gameplay mechanics, and the overall sense of pacing that keeps the game interesting throughout its running time.
In The Legend of Zelda, we might emotionally respond to the acquisition of a new item, but what really matters is that we're able to move forward in the game - the Blue Candle, while snazzy and fun to think about, ultimately just grants us a new set of abilities that we can capitalize on. The same is largely true of getting a new weapon in Half-Life 2 - the SMG allows me to take on far more enemies than before, and the grenade launcher attached to the barrel is useful for clearing out rooms in one fell swoop, but those are functional things. The sound, the feel, the look of the weapon are all important, certainly, but again, it's what this new weapon allows us to do, what hole it fills in our repertoire, that really gives it its staying power and its gameplay function.
In Psychonauts, progression comes through acquisition of points and manifests as different abilities - is this all that different from the XP and levels that govern other games?
Of course, leveling up is just as much a form of measuring progress as acquiring a new weapon might be, so long as leveling up actually contributes to an increase in the player's abilities or provides new options in solving gameplay challenges. In fact, the difference between framing progress as "a new gun" or "boots that let me jump higher" and as a level up on a character sheet is actually much smaller than what might initially be apparent. In Psychonauts, for instance, I get new abilities by earning new merit badges via collecting arrowheads, imaginary figments and mental cobwebs, either via my own exploration or through story progress - if I called these "levels" and "experience points" instead, would I suddenly have a more compelling progression mechanic? I doubt it.
Some might argue that systems revolving around experience points and levels are inherently more open-ended, flexible and so on. It's true, certainly, that generally leveling up tends to be a bit more freeform than more traditional conceptualizations of progression - however, this is another case of aesthetics deceiving people. Rather, whether or not a game has a linear progression or an open-ended one is a structural concern, not anything that comes hand in hand with the system itself, even if we do tend to think about them in slightly different ways and conceptualize them accordingly. After all, there are plenty of linear RPGs with leveling mechanics built into them, just as there are plenty of non-linear action games without any real leveling to speak of - the difference is superficial no matter whether you're shooting gangsters or slaying bugbears, and earning gold or bullets.
The Degradation of Context
So, if leveling up is an expression of progress within a strict system of rules and mechanics, and if progress can be expressed in myriad ways without fundamentally changing the gameplay itself, exactly what's wrong with leveling? It's a bit of a complex answer, but generally it concerns the degradation of the context in which leveling up traditionally has taken place in - rather than existing within the bounds of a ruleset, instead, leveling has by and large been transformed into the sole measurement of progress within all games, regardless of genre, and the result is that leveling no longer feels significant to me in the same way it used to.
Largely as a result of games like Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare and Gears of War, but also partially due to overarching online networks such as Xbox LIVE, over the last several years, is that the idea of leveling up and metagame progress has begun to supersede the focus on progress within the game itself. Now, just beating the game and getting a good record in the multiplayer component isn't enough - you've got to level up to 60, max out those weapon challenges, and have the biggest, baddest profile around. Is there a particular reason why leveling is in the game? I really don't think so - sure, it keeps players playing because the numbers keep going up, but the act of leveling feels completely divorced from and even contrary to the game itself.
Call of Duty has more ways to grind XP than Final Fantasy, but what relation does this progression system have to the gameplay itself?
Put simply, the leveling which has ended up in shooters, beat-em-ups, action games, and so on, rarely has any direct relationship with the game mechanics. In RPGs, leveling up is just one way in which the rules of the world are expressed - when I've become sufficiently experienced with something, I am able to gain new talents and improve my attributes, simulating the natural incline of ability over time that anyone in a given profession can attest to. In leveling up, I improve my character, and I do so in a way that makes sense within the game world - and in a way that the game world is able to summarily respond to. This is even more evident in more open RPGs, like Fallout, where improving, say, the stealth skill can open up an entirely new path to complete a task, which the game then acknowledges.
But what about a shooter - exactly how does getting 1,000 kills have anything to do with unlocking a new scope for a particular gun? Sure, you can try to justify this in some way that the player has now "earned the right" to use better equipment, but this is rarely if ever formalized in the game, except perhaps in some vague suggestions of rank along with those character levels. The fact is that these unlocks, these "levels" gained by the player, do not really have any direct correlation to any consistent simulation of the world - they are arbitrary in the extreme, existing only as a carrot to keep the player moving forward on the treadmill, with the only end either boredom, or the inevitable sequel.
What's more, these arbitrary and contextless mechanics tends to tie into the achievement and trophy systems found on persistent online networks like Xbox LIVE, PlayStation Network, and Steam. It's gotten to the point where challenges in games exist for their own sake and not necessarily because it's really fun for the player, because they add anything to the game mechanics, etc. Do the collection quests in Gears of War tie into the storyline much, if at all, or do they give the player new abilities or bonuses? No, not really, but... well, here's a little badge to tell the world you scrounged in the dirt like a moron for an extra ten hours! While achievements can sometimes be inspired, by slapping an experience mechanic onto a shooter, you also give yourself a lazy excuse to just turn those achievements into milestones - so now not only is experience divorced from the context of the game, it also exists to satisfy a system entirely outside of the game itself.
Leveling as an End in Itself
Worst, however, is that the new understand of leveling up as a treadmill, rather than a logical outcropping of the rules of the game world, has also begun to define modern RPGs as well, not just shooters and action titles which hold up leveling as a pretense of depth. One of the most telling quotes I've heard about RPGs in recent years, regardless of the original context, comes from a Torchlight developer: "RPGs are always best when the numbers are going up." I think, in a certain sense, I can agree with this - it's always good for the player to be making progress in the game and moving forward, and that's true in pretty much any game genre whatsoever. Giving strong feedback on that progress is also one of the bigger parts of the art - after all, the derogatory term "corridor crawler", if nothing else, implies a static experience.
Torchlight may have a million numbers, but that's all they are - there's no real justification or meaning behind them.
Where this mentality breaks down is that it begins to forget exactly what purpose leveling up serves in the first place. I've already touched on the appropriate context of leveling mechanics, so I won't go into that again, but suffice is to say that there needs to be a consistent and strong basis for including such a mechanic in your game. As a designer, one shouldn't be content to say things like "well, it's an RPG, therefore we've got to have leveling up." It's both practical and good design sense to look at those mechanics and question exactly what role they serve within the game, and adjust them accordingly. Sure, it's good to make progress in a game, but is doing so through discrete XP gain, leveling up, and new skill points always a good thing? I can't answer that question definitively, because it's inherently subjective, but the important thing is to ask in the first place, and genuinely try to provide an answer - otherwise, creatively, you are running on the very same treadmill you've given your player.
The sad truth of the matter is that, at this point, I don't think leveling up in games, and RPGs especially, really has much at all to do with leveling in the more traditional sense that I discussed above, where the goal is to understand and articulate character progression within a strict, organized framework. Rather, it's based on one thing: the desire to see those numbers keep going up, and up, and up... to where? Considering the constant demands by players to see level caps raised in expansions, patches and DLC (to the point where that is now a selling point in and of itself, i.e. World of Warcraft), the desire for more perks and skill and weapons which end up breaking the game balance even more beyond what a maxed-out player could previously pull off (another DLC fodder item), and the tie-in to persistent online personas, achievements, and multiplayer profiles, the only true answer I can give is "to nowhere... at least, until the sequel comes out."
Again, I like leveling up as much as the next person. The prospect of gaining a new ability to play with, of being able to wield a new weapon, or just knowing my character is even better in a fight, all of that appeals to me. At the same time, to me it feels as if leveling up has lost meaning - an abstracted, context-less ideal of progression without actually being situated logically within a game world or ruleset. Ultimately, the choirs of angels, war drums, and guitar leads are, in today's games, functionally equivalent to the "ding" of a Pavlovian dinner bell... and in reducing such a mechanic to a carrot on a stick, a stimulus-response algorithm, we in turn degrade not only the fabric of role-playing games, but the depth and breadth of which we understand progression in all games as well.