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Ding! The Devaluing of the Level-Up
by Eric Schwarz on 10/17/11 02:16:00 pm   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

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.

Conceptualizing Leveling

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.

Defining Progress

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."

Conclusion

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.


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Comments


Robert Boyd
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Great article!



The example I like to give for this is that of a zombie survival horror RPG. In traditional XP systems, the player gets most (if not all) of their XP from fighting and killing enemies. However, in a zombie apocalypse RPG, you would want the player to be afraid of the zombies, not actively seeking them out for rewards! Hence, with that kind of game, the traditional XP/LVing system would be counterproductive to the game's design goals and should be changed to something else (maybe gain XP from achieving goals like surviving X days or reaching certain destinations rather than through combat).

Bart Stewart
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Nicely reasoned as always, Eric.



I think you're generally in the right here, but I wonder if you too quickly dismiss some aspects of RPGs that might help correct the problems you describe.



To start with, I believe what you're talking about here is just one more example of the pernicious consequences of "institutionalization." This is the process (common to every human organization) by which a solution to a problem is eventually perceived as a good in and of itself, regardless of whether the problem it was created to solve is either gone or worse than ever.



Solutions create constituencies who benefit. Over time, the constituencies prevent any change that would allow the system to alter its component behaviors to respond effectively to changes in its environment.



We see this daily in government agencies and boards that everyone (remarkably) agrees no longer serve any useful purpose but which cannot be terminated. The Georgetown professor of history and political science, Carroll Quigley, pointed out how the institutionalization of instruments of expansion can lead to the decay and destruction of entire civilizations.



And (to finally get to the point), even gameplay mechanics are prey to this natural effect. For example, I pointed out a couple of years ago here at http://www.gamasutra.com/blogs/BartStewart/20090902/2908/An_Alter
native_to_Aggro.php (as I'm sure others have) that "aggro management," invented as a cheap way to solve the problem of not having a human GM to decide what enemy NPCs do, has turned into an institution. The aggro management game has come to be The Game, despite having virtually zero connection to the forms of actual combat, to the point that some gamers (often younger gamers whose MMORPGs have always emphasized aggro management as core gameplay) will argue with remarkable passion that aggro management *defines* MMORPGs and therefore can't be changed.



I think the defense of character leveling is the same kind of constituency-driven protection of an institutionalized gameplay mechanic.



To return to Carroll Quigley, he points out that there are three ways to deal with an institution: accept it, reform it, or circumvent it. Where character leveling is concerned, my money's on circumvention -- finding some other way to keep players interested besides mechanical, numbers-driven progression.



I think you yourself touched on one good possibility, which is gear progression. Another would be story progression, which would be most appealing to gamers of a Narrativist inclination.



But I think you undercut both of these possible circumventive approaches when you say, "Everything in a tabletop game is expressed in a numeric fashion." What about the stories players create as a context for their characters, which help players decide what their characters do in a given situation (and why)? Why must anyone believe that this stopped being a completely valid definition of "roleplaying" in "roleplaying games" just because computer-mediated RPGs have so far invented no suitable replacement for adaptable and inventive human GMs?



Consider Traveller. Although there is a very minor mechanic for adding skills after an in-game year, the Traveller tabletop RPG  offers nothing like "character leveling" whatsoever. Yet Traveller is one of the most popular tabletop RPGs of all time, still played after 30 years. (A "lite" version, Traveller AR, is even being developed for iDevices as we speak.) How could this be if character leveling truly is a defining requirement for a game to be considered an RPG?



Obviously I don't think it is a requirement. I think RPGs can be very satisfying with some other means of allowing players to feel rewarded for their gameplay, and to feel that the characters they are playing are interesting people with real influence in the imaginary world of the game.



But that won't happen as long as CRPG/MMORPG developers continue to design only at the low level of institutionalized mechanics like character leveling and aggro management. When game designers start addressing the true high-level problem -- how to replace human GMs -- that's when we'll see computer-based RPGs start to approach the same levels and kinds of collaborative fun that tabletop RPGs have provided.



Thanks for letting me comment (at great and parenthetical length) on yet another of your excellent, thought-provoking essays.

Eric Schwarz
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I definitely know what you're getting at - and I suppose in some senses it'd even be easy to read what I've written and think "this guy just likes leveling in RPGs for the sake of it!" To a degree, we're all tied to convention... but I think more thought and finesse needs to be applied in how we breach, change or reappropriate those conventions.



Regarding MMOs - I've always hated aggro, and the fact that now it's going into single-player RPGs like Dragon Age means that the game is a lot less about strategy, per se, and more about kiting, about calculating "okay, how many hits can I get off before the bad guy goes after my mage?" Making a good AI is hard, of course, but I have to wonder if the concept of aggro has grown so readily because it can be effectively used in place of AI in the first place. A game like Knights of the Chalice, with some of the ugliest visuals I've ever seen, is still ridiculously captivating simply because the AI actually knows how to fight strategically, to counter your moves, to lay traps and toy with your expectations, etc. Like all AIs, it eventually can be exploited, but simply playing against a foe who can win not because of superior numbers, artificial mechanics, but because some semblance of real intelligence... that's where games need to go, instead of these band-aid solutions to much bigger problems.



The funny thing too, is that if you look back at earlier CRPGs, many of them had low level caps. Fallout caps out at 20, but you'll rarely ever get beyond 14 in a game unless you purposely try to grind (and there really is no point to doing so). D&D tends to cap out between 10 and 30 depending on the CRPG in question, meaning that leveling is just one facet of improving your party - things like strategy, item selection, spells, etc. are far more important than hitting the "level up" button and choosing a few proficiencies, yet in modern RPGs we're led to think that the meta-mechanics around leveling are somehow what define an RPG.



Of course, it's these meta-mechanics which have now infiltrated so many other genres and, without even a semblance of an RPG framework to hold up a shadow of integrity, they are exposed as the shallow things they really are.



Thanks for the kind words by the way. Truth be told, it was actually tough to put to text - I had a lot of ideas floating around, but articulating them in a coherent way proved challenging. I'm glad it apparently turned out well!

Luis Guimaraes
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So, we have this generic shooter game. When you kill enemies, they vanish with all their equipment. At the begining of each new stage, a new weapon or new equipment is given to the player. By that, we'll say that a new mechanic is introduced, wheather weapon or equipment. We'll also assume that the new mechanic makes old enemies easier to deal with, as new, stronger enemies are introduced as well. We'll also consider that this game's mechanics are introduced slowly so the player can enjoy and learn each one properly.



Then, we have this other generic shooter game. In this game, when an enemy dies, the player can collect all his equipment. In each new stage, a new type of foe, which carries an also new weapon or equipment, often stronger agaist both the player and his enemies, is introduced. We'll also assume that the new mechanic makes old enemies easier to deal with, as new, stronger enemies are introduced as well. We'll also consider that this game's mechanics are introduced slowly so the player can enjoy and learn each one properly.



Let's also call the new, next thing, as new, complexity-increasing cummulative mechanics, instead of "progression", this way we can think that new mechanics are all part of the sum and come to stay, not to simply get passed by.



In the first game, the "next new thing" is given straight to the player, as each new level begins. In the second game, the player fights, beats, then takes the "next new thing" by his own agency. In the end, both games have many mechanics that add lots of complexity when together, but which are possible to understand if introduced in a slower, gradual pace.



One way of implemeting this pace usualy feels more natural than the other.


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