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Ruminations on Leveling
by Evan Jones on 01/16/12 12:22:00 am   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.


The system of experience points and leveling has quickly become one of the most widely-used game systems in recent memory. Once restricted solely to the domain of role-playing games, leveling can now be found in almost every kind of game, from business simulations to first-person shooters to strategy titles. It’s obvious why leveling is popular among designers: it provides a clear path to player advancement over the duration of the play experience that is evident to the player and easily predictable by the designer. But is leveling really the best tool for the job it’s trying to do?

In order to examine why leveling exists, we have to look at its origins: as a system invented for the pen-and-paper RPGs that emerged during the 1970s, most predominantly Dungeons & Dragons. The environment and setting of these games echoed the heroic fantasy works of J. R. R. Tolkien, Ursula Le Guin, and C.S. Lewis. These works are often centered around the themes of growth, progress, and self-mastery: ordinary people, by virtue of being exposed to great trials, are honed and tempered into extraordinary heroes. In order for a fantasy simulation game to feel true to the original stories, a system for character growth must be created and implemented.

In order for character growth to be meaningful, there have to be challenges that the player cannot surmount in the early game but can overcome in the late game. If the player is simply denied access to challenges he cannot overcome, a sense of growth is never really felt, because the player’s challenges are always at or near his level of ability to overcome and the player never feels any sense of true mastery. This also means that simply gating content based on level is not an ideal use of the leveling system - that decision turns the colorful continuum of character growth into a simple yes/no binary decision: “has the game decided to let me do this thing?”

A corollary to this rule is that “the world levels with you”-style systems such as those found in The Elder Scrolls games don’t often confer a sense of character growth because a middle-to-late-game player is likely to struggle more with challenges that appear identical to, or easier than, challenges already passed.

We also have to consider the way the character’s increasing abilities are communicated to the player. In most leveling systems, it’s common for numbers representing statistics to increase as the character grows in power. So, for example, a character who dealt 5 damage with an attack at level 1 might be dealing 20 damage with an attack at level 10. Of course, in order to prevent a loss of difficulty, challenges the player faces must scale up as well. The problem with this paradigm is that there’s no discernible difference to the player between dealing 5 damage to an enemy with 50 health and dealing 20 damage to an enemy with 200 health. Thus, simply scaling up numbers on abilities as the character’s level increases does not create a true sense of growth. It is instead preferable for the game to increase the number of abilities the player has at her disposal, as finesse and skill can be represented by versatility.

Furthermore, one of the early requirements of the leveling system was that it must be easily grokkable: the entire system must be able to be internalized by players in their heads without trouble. What this means is that the concept of leveling may be needlessly oversimplistic for video and computer games. If it’s possible to achieve the goals of indicating growth and funneling the player into appropriate challenges without a leveling system, the designer should investigate these alternatives and not assume that leveling is the right approach for her game. Perhaps the story of the player’s growth can be told in a way that’s more natural to the player than allowing changes in numbers to drive the narrative.

There are a few more things that leveling is very explicitly bad at. It creates unreasonable divisions between castes of players in MMOs, leading to situations where a player may have to “catch up” before he is able to enjoy the game with his friends. It has a tendency to create scenarios where the player feels arbitrarily locked out of certain parts of the game (“why do I have to be level 10 to open this door?”) It encourages the player to grind to surmount a new challenge rather than develop an independent solution to it. In the most destructive case, it is used as a method of creating a fixed reward schedule in order to perform operant conditioning on the player and extrinsically compel her to keep playing the game.

Of course, leveling has its advantages as well. It provides a very clear way to compare the relative power levels of two entities in the game (see a single match of League of Legends, for example.) It allows players to quantifiably measure their own growth and progress over a period of time, if this is design a requirement of the game. In a competitive game environment, it allows players to measure relative experience levels with a game without taking into account skill differences.

Like all tools available to designers, leveling is a useful system with many favorable purposes. However, its uses are few and specific, and its modern-day ubiquity might warrant intentionally reconsidering alternative mechanics in places where leveling would otherwise be used.


Evan Jones is a San Francisco-based game designer and programmer. You can email him at his first name It would make him very happy if you followed him on Twitter @chardish.

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Ryan Rigney
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I'm replaying through Pokémon Yellow Version at the moment, so this article jumped out at me. The design in Yellow (and, I suppose, most Pokémon games) puts you in a situation wherein you realize that you should spread experience points across a team, instead of over-leveling just one character. When you're playing Pokémon you're constantly thinking about the meta-game––"I need to have a powerful grass type, electric type, AND fighting type because I want to be able to face any challenge that comes at me."

The rock-paper-scissors elemental balance mechanic (fire beats grass, grass beats water, water beats fire, etc.) combines with the leveling mechanic to make leveling more meaningful. Players have to be mindful about how they allow experience points to be distributed. So, for instance, since I knew I was about to enter the water gym, I allowed my Pikachu to sit out for a bit while my Nidorino plowed through trainers. The Nidorino got to be a higher level than my Pikachu, but after I thundered and shocked my way through the water gym using only the Pikachu (which had an easy time of things, since it uses electrical attacks), my team was evenly leveled again. I did that because I was being mindful of the meta-game.

I think that when players level up in any game, they think of the meta-game. They ask themselves "how powerful will I be in 20 hours?" In other words, they see themselves playing the game 20 hours from that point. It's possible, I would argue, that leveling works as a way to keep players engaged for lengthier stretches of time. When you see the meta-game, you want to reach the meta-game.

Eric Schwarz
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I've touched on many of these ideas before in a few of my articles, but the thing that keeps sticking with me is the way in which leveling up has been so heavily devalued by its overuse. There are many, many ways to handle progression in games, and XP and leveling are just one... but the vast majority of titles don't treat it any differently than getting new abilities in, say, Banjo-Kazooie. We seem to differentiate leveling from other forms of progression conceptually, but unless a game has an explicit ruleset that the entire game world adheres to, there really is no difference other than the naming conventions. In the end it just becomes XP for XP's sake.

I do like your point about how leveling is effectively meaningless in games where the level of challenge stays relatively constant - in order to have a sense of real growth and progression, you need to be able to surmount challenges that were previously impossible. This can be done either through combat encounters or through gates requiring special abilities to pass, but since so many RPGs focus solely on the leveling side of things and not so much on giving the player new ways to solve problems, they tend to suffer far more from that feeling of monotony than straight-up action or platform games. The only thing left over to really measure progression is story... and while that can definitely work for some games, relying on it as a stand-in for real progression is never a good thing.

Steve Mallory
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"In order for character growth to be meaningful, there have to be challenges that the player cannot surmount in the early game but can overcome in the late game."

The real trick when it comes to providing challenges to the player early on that he cannot overcome is to do so in a way that the player is not expecting to win the challenge, and not beat their heads against it needlessly early on. Communicating the relative power and, more importantly, inability for the player to surmount that challenge before frustration sets in is paramount - if the player gets too close to defeating the entity, they may assume that they can actually defeat it, when it actually isn't possible. If the player doesn't stand a chance, but doesn't know he doesn't stand a chance, then there is equal amounts of surprise (What the heck, I'm only 2nd level, and they are throwing an Ancient Red Dragon at me!?!?) and frustration ( Now what am I supposed to do, there's an Ancient Red Dragon blocking my path!?!?!?) that can be destructive to player morale and reduce their desire to play your game again.

It's a fine line to walk, and definitely a more difficult one, which - as you illustrate - is why many games go with a "World Leveling System" ala Elder Scrolls.

John Flush
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I think of leveling as achievements without unlocking points on a metascore. But some games pop the level-up too often, and others not nearly enough. I know it is a lot more complex than that from game to game or person to person, but having bigger numbers pop by people you hit, because you are now at a higher level - or them hitting you harder and having enough HP to counter it might all seem like a wash - make you feel like you have done a lot more in a game than blow time and watch the same animations over and over.

Misha Icaev
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I think that problem with leveling is that it underused where it required and overused in other areas.

When you tie level to world (content gating or world scaling) it's overuse.

When you make leveling one-way ride it's underuse.

Just look at it like another kind of gear - something you can drop and even trade.

Also leveling should be directly related to character's role: Merchant must receive experience ONLY by spending money (something like that) - it doesn't make sense when merchant becomes better at bargaining by killing rats.

Louis Png
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That issue was pretty prevalent in games developed by Bethestha, namely Elder Scrolls IV : Oblivion and Fallout 3.

In Oblivion, the game encourages leveling by using a system that players level by using skills related to their job, such as the mage leveling only by improving his magic levels. However, the issue is that players have to stick to a certain build and manage their levels carefully. Even more so when the "world leveling with you" system in play.

In contrast, Fallout 3 uses a less dynamic leveling when players accumulate a certain amount of EXP, they level and get to choose where their skill points go to. Whilst the game world levels with you, the player still had a choice every level, how to face the challenges.

Thus, I feel that when we design, it's also important to consider, realism versus experience. We can remove realism, and still achieve a substainable play experience, the opposite is true as well.

Jakub Majewski
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They went kinda with that in Skyrim as well - while, like in Oblivion, you gain a level when you have improved your skills enough, in Skyrim you are not limited to only the skills related to your class (in fact, there is no class in Skyrim... I'm still making my mind up if I hate or like that).

It's actually a somewhat dangerous approach, when the world levels with you. A player can level himself into a corner, effectively, by choosing to concentrate on non-combat abilities. The risk is that the game will treat you like a level X character, where in fact your combat abilities are only as good as level Y, so you cannot handle what's thrown at you. I'd hate to be the poor sod who finds himself restarting Skyrim after twenty hours of gameplay, because he finds the game unplayable with the skill development choices he made...

Louis Png
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True, the leveling system being bound with your skills being a double-edged sword.

While it does make sense when I train combat or magic skills and face tougher enemies, I find that if I train my levels via non-combat skills, such as smithing or enchanting, it's certainly unfair that I have to fight tougher enemies as well.

Nathaniel Marlow
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Skyrim might operate under the assumption that having a higher smithing or enchanting skill will grant access to better equipment. Though, anyone who's played it can tell you this doesn't hold much water. There's also the problem of rationalizing pickpocketing and lockpicking raising enemy levels. I guess you could claim you'll be able to steal more money to buy better stuff with, but that's even flimsier than the smithing thing I suggested.

There's quite a few obvious ways to solve the problem so I'm a little surprised the developers ended up going this route.

Misha Icaev
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@Louis Png: "I find that if I train my levels via non-combat skills, such as smithing or enchanting, it's certainly unfair that I have to fight tougher enemies as well."

That is your choice to make, think about it as a 'challenge': if you can overcome it and if you can effectively integrate non-combat skills in your play style? In a wider sense it's about putting 'R' into 'RPG'.

Jakub Majewski
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Misha - I don't think it's putting "R" into "RPG", I think it's more like putting "M" - like, metagame :). The knowledge that becoming a better pickpocket will result in a tougher enemy in the next dungeon does not draw me further into the game world, nor does it encourage me to get into my character more - it actually draws me out of my character and out of the game world, into the world of game mechanics. I may want to roleplay a pickpocket character, but the game tells me that I need to strive for balanced character development and learn combat skills together with pickpocketing.

Tora Teig
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I thought the levelling system in Fable II was interesting, again, like many others mentioned here - you got "XP" related only to the abilities that you used. I found it satisfying and rewarding all up to the point I was asked to use a skill with which I had paid no attention, and suddenly it was compulsory for a certain part of the game. It wasn't impossble to overcome if I remember correctly. It just struck me as a little odd that the player is first encouraged to choose on her own, and then suddenly required to have made certain choices - completely uninformed.

Buuut, I suppose discussing the design of Fable II could take weeks, so I'm just going to say thanks for a thought-provoking article and for many insightful comments :)