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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 @chardish.com. It would make him very happy if you followed him on Twitter @chardish.