The Existential Crisis of Leveling Up

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Ding! Level Up!

For those who play RPG video games, whether from the days of Everquest or their more modern incarnations such as World of Warcraft, Diablo, Guild Wars or Star Trek Online, the one almost ubiquitous commonality is the concept of leveling up.

You know the experience. You’re beating up some poor, innocent rat or goblin, and as each victim of your mayhem falls beneath your feet you can see the experience point bar creep up…up…up until finally, at last, in a shower of light and triumphant crescendo you achieve that coveted accomplishment – the next level.

You get more hit points, perhaps. Maybe a new spell that does more damage, or perhaps simply the ability to slot a weapon or piece of gear that will give you one of those things.

And, truth be told, it feels good. You genuinely feel like you’ve hit a milestone, like a congressman who wins an election for the U.S. Senate or a Masters student who receives their PhD. You’re tougher. You’re better. You’re awesome.

There’s just one problem: It’s (mostly) a lie.

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At the same time you’ve gotten better, behind the scenes so did everything else.

Different games handle this a bit differently; most often, the stuff you’ve been murdering by the scores doesn’t get tougher, but you can now go to a new area with new things to kill, and those things are tougher.

It’s true, you can go back to old areas and “feel the power”, and some percentage of players do exactly this, but it’s not like even those players who do go back to visit past battlegrounds actually spend any substantial time there. And, why should they? It’s no longer a challenge, after all.

Even in professional game design circles, this mechanic is usually considered sacrosanct. Despite that it is a relic of pen-and-paper games designed around a human referee and a small handful of players sitting around a table, the leveling mechanic has become something akin to holy writ for the industry.

Objections of the leveling mechanic most often receive a blank stare or, at best an existential protest of, “But what would we replace it with?”

Ultima Online bucked this trend early on, and the first version of Guild Wars flirted heavily with leaving the leveling mechanic behind, but these were outliers that the industry as a whole never embraced, at least not for the mechanic in question.

Progression is important in a video game, but in most games leveling offers more illusion than reality, and as such I would argue it’s at best a placebo (for the sake of literary argument let’s leave aside the fact that the placebo effect actually does have a chemical effect in your brain, but…anyways, back to the subject at hand).

The problem is that when you level up, the player’s experience stays the same. Yes, most games are clever enough to give you a brief period of feeling more powerful in whatever new area you are fighting in, but inevitably the difficulty starts edging up until you are again about where you were: enemies will still be taking more or less the same amount of time to defeat; enemies will still be defeating you in more or less the same number of hits.

There are, to be sure, a number of overlying approaches that can – and are – applied: Enemies may use different (or simply more) mechanics. The overall difficulty may edge up a tad. Players may gain a wider (or at least different) selection of tactical options. From a design point of view, these are genuine points of advancement, but the underlying leveling mechanic tends to overshadow these, meaning that designers rarely feel the need to fully develop these changing mechanics.

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Ultimately, there are two questions that have to be answered:

  1. How does the incoming gameplay change?
  2. How does the outgoing gameplay change?

Incoming gameplay elements are all the factors that are exterior to the player – does it take longer on average for a player to defeat an enemy? Does the player have less of a margin for error due to enemies doing more damage? Does the gameplay demand a greater degree or player dexterity? Does the player have to track more enemies at the same time? Are the tactics employed by the player’s challenges more widely varying, or simply more difficult?

Outgoing gameplay elements are all the factors that are internal to the player – does the player have more tactical options at his or her disposal? Does the player have more (or better) ways of dealing with (or cheating) defeat? Does the player have additional allies that can be deployed?

Note that damage and health, per se, are not included anywhere above. Yes, there is mention of changes in time to defeat or time to be defeated, but the fact that a “1000” appears above an enemy’s head as opposed to a “900” does not by itself mean anything if all the other numbers are also changing.

In other words, the numbers are an illusion; what deserves to be focused on is the gameplay experience.

Don’t get me wrong – this is really fucking hard. It’s easy to slap a bigger visual effect and an objectively meaningless but psychologically satisfying bigger number on an attack. It’s damned hard to come up with actual new gameplay. It’s even harder to come up enough new gameplay to satisfy players for the length of time games now strive to hold players for.

Because this is really hard, most games lean heavily on psychological tricks to make players feel like they are progressing, even when they aren’t:

  • New environments that are visually different.
  • Enemies that are graphically different.
  • Reputation grinds.
  • Larger numbers.
  • Carefully timed carrots to give special incentive to log in on sequential days.

Part of this is simply the result of the market. As games have moved to a persistent online model, players are much less likely to play a game for ten or twenty hours and then put it down, but now expect to get hundreds of hours of gameplay out of the same development dollars.

Similarly, the rise of the microtransaction behemoth means that development studios are under increasing pressure to keep players playing – no longer is it enough just to have a snappy marketing plan and a cool TV commercial or great cover art – now you have to deal with the player asking, “Well, what now?”

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There are a lot of ways this problem can be approached; I am certainly not going to claim to have the silver bullet. Hell, if there was a silver bullet, someone would have found it by now – there are an enormous number of very smart people in the industry.

One possible line of inquiry might simply be to break down the walls between gameplay aspects traditionally viewed as content and aspects traditionally viewed as systems. Guild Wars and Skyrim both represent philosophical efforts in this direction, whether or not the studios in question were conscious of this.

Another – kind of scary – approach would be to start asking some dangerous questions: If the gameplay from, say, Level 1 to the level cap is essentially a completely different gameplay than the “End game” of raids or PvP or whatever, perhaps the solution is to simply do away with the former and make your entire game consist of the latter. Yes, this will require the solving of some very tricky problems, but it would serve to, perhaps, at last start to move the industry past this trap of illusionary advancement that ultimately serves neither players nor developers.

Comic credit to Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal. Check them out. They’re awesome.

11 thoughts on “The Existential Crisis of Leveling Up

  1. TRaGiK from marvel heroes here. awesome read man.

    Games need some form of progression, but I TOTTALLY have always viewed it from a player point of view. Development wise it must be tricky.

    I played Diablo for a few years. I probably played D2 off and on about 10 years.
    I also played WoW off and on for a few years… among many other games, but ill use these as examples.

    Diablo, for its time. was amazing. level by level (character wise) you felt your attributes.
    but LEVEL by LEVEL (environment level)… you REALLY felt the mob dmg increase.. for its time, it was great.

    but DIABLO 2… was amazing. I loved how EVERY chapter was like a LONG bread crumb… all connected. that you could literally walk from the hub… alllllllllll the way to the boss of each chapter. as a sequel, it really SHINED on keeping the progression in environment leveling.
    the skill trees were great… every point MATTERED, (and with no sort of “retcon”, redoing your build ment rerolling a new character, so every point REALLY MATTERED)….
    but what was great. was the end game.

    gearing and gearing and gearing, so the Ubers wouldn’t 1 shot you. hahah
    im in no way being sarcastic. I LOVED IT.

    then came wow. I had heard about it. kinda avoided it for many years… then it was given to me as a birthday present (the battle chest).
    The story was solid. but the quests… were sooooooooooooooooooooo repeatitive.
    so you would either… kill X amount of ____. gather X amount of ____. ect. all the way to lvl 80 (I joined just after wotlk launched).

    then finally.. after all of that. the endgame….

    DAILY REPETITIVE GRINDY QUESTS….
    to stay top pvp geared///raid geared… it would be like a full time job.

    I got bored fast.

    I really enjoy MH. ive played since launch… and im in AWE at the amount of work you guys have done since. cant wait to see whats up your sleeves next.

    but awesome article man.

    • Glad you found it a useful read.

      We’re continuing to work hard at evolving and refining the game, but that’s something that is not possible to any high degree of quality without the feedback and thoughts of people like you.

      Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts.

  2. Hey I also got this link from Marvel Heroes 🙂

    Everything is the same, just dressed up differently, not just levelling. Take raids or any sort of encounter design. Sometimes something completely new, to that game at least, will come along. Most of it is just new art assets performing the same mechanics. Don’t stand in this, stand in that, interrupt this, cleanse that, tank swap here etc.

    It depends what you want from a game. I liked raiding, I liked the challenge of tackling a new boss and the rush when it finally went down.Yes we’d often seen the mechanics before but we needed practice on the timing and coordination. These bosses dropped gear, which would make us more powerful, and make tackling the later bosses easier. Then the next raid tier would drop and the gear treadmill would begin again. It was a relentless treadmill which falls apart at the last raid tier. Once the bosses are dead then the gear becomes useless. We’ll have to level up, quest greens will be better than the raid gear, so what’s the point? Every part of a game is a treadmill in some respect.

    I personally have always liked levelling as it’s very predictable. I’m not a fan of RNG. I like being able to track what I’ve accomplished and see how far I have left to go. Yes the power increase is illusionary and it means nothing. Warcraft is proving this actually with their stat squish. People are doing millions of damage and will only be doing thousands, but if the mobs take 10 seconds to die now, they’ll take 10 seconds to die post-squish. That’s the promise anyway.

    However, like I said while the power increase means nothing, the measure of progress doesn’t. I played a few hours of Marvel Heroes yesterday. I took Colossus from level 16 to level 43. I half half a bar left to level 44. It’s tangible progress. Yes combat is the same at 60 as it is at 30, apart from some abilities which don’t get unlocked till later. There’s still progress though. I can look at it and see that I went forward playing today. I don’t get anything for being a higher level but that doesn’t matter, I have proof of progress.

    That’s why I quit Warcraft because their progression model was so dependent on gear. They moved pretty much all the gear progression over to an RNG based system. They used to do points gear, so you’d play a while, rack up some points and then when you had enough you can buy some gear to get more powerful. There was slow and steady progress. You could see how many points you had, and knew how many points you needed. There was a purpose to playing.

    As I said at the beginning it depends on what you want from a game. I’ve been occasionally playing the Landmark Beta. There’s visual progress there too. You can see how many resources you’ve gathered, you can see how many you need to build whatever you want. Then you can build it and each time you login you can add to that build. You start from nothing and then at the end you have something concrete to show for it. It’s dependable, visual, predictable progress. It’s completely different from a combat based/levelling based game. A different method but the same result. A lot of fun too 🙂

    TLDR: I wouldn’t do away with levelling exactly. Maybe do away with the fallacy of getting more powerful. However, it’s one of the methods of progress, of showing that you’ve achieved something in a play session. It’s dependable, predictable and I like that. I like seeing how far I’ve come and how far I have to go.

    • I think it’s really important to separate out “progression” from “leveling”.

      I am emphatically not against progression or various measures of such; what I am against is illusions of advancement that split the playerbase and artificially limit players’ play options.

      A game that got rid of leveling would also need to find another explicit way(s) of allowing players to measure their progress in an explicit manner; perhaps a more systemically progressive version of a traditional achievement system might work for this.

      Like you, I liked WoW’s point-based model. More specifically, I like a deliberate combination of that – to ensure a feeling of steady progression – and RNG on top of that to ensure a jackpot feeling.

      • Progression could and perhaps should be measured by the parts of the story and areas of the world made available to the characters. Characters should first prove they are heroes and earn the right to face the big challenges. The “leveling” should be almost invisible with the story bringing the heroes back to earlier areas or facing non-scaling enemies to see how the heroes have grown in power. For example a petty thug should be a petty thug and pose an ever lessening challenge as the hero grows in power. Gear should be used to add versatility to characters and overcoming specific challenges, instead of as stat bumps. For example Spider-man may add something to his web shooters to better take on a vampire or Iron Man may replace a piece (or all) of his armor to better take on the Hulk. The main focus needs to move away from raising a slew of numbers, and instead move to completing specific challenges.

        As for point based vs random, random only works when the player experiences a payout. There isn’t a “jackpot feeling” when the game never pays out or pays out far less than what the player has put in. While there can be sense of random, the game needs to be rigged so that it will eventually pay out for the player.

  3. Specific to your game, I think part of the issue is that the decision was made to make all heroes, essentially, have the same power level. Daredevil can beat Loki as easily as Thor. This really makes no sense. I understand why it’s done, but it still makes no sense.

    This game would make more sense if you could have 2-4 active heroes (similar to your team ups) where you could instantly switch out if things got too hairy. That would give people the incentive to use multiple heroes and find the best “group” that works for them. I think the recently released teamup system is really a huge lost opportunity. Each hero should have his own weakness that makes him less effective against various enemies or villains and more effective against others.

    In a more general sense; there is too much emphasis in “items” you loot increasing the power of your character. That doesn’t make a lot of sense either. What do you is what matters not the clothes you wear, right?

    In a more generic sense, is the problem with the term “leveling up” – if so, just call it “reputation” or whatever for each character and tie that value to what tech is available. I, for one, am not a fan of leveling up in games – where abilities are gated for predetermined points in time. Iron Man could have his called “tech level” or similar – where more points lets him add more functionality to the armor.

    I’d much rather have all abilities available from the start, but with limited options to use the powers. Say, when you start, spiderman can only shoot a web and punch/dodge. But as you play (kill bosses – I don’t think trash should matter), you open up more buttons to push to make your character more dynamic. Iron man begins with a beam, but gets the ability to add any other power he wants when he reaches his next tech level. Eventually, you could possibly gain access to every single power for that hero.

    Then again, Bosses should be far more difficult as well. That so many bosses have been exhausted already in this game is ridiculous if you ask me. They are more akin to ticks who explode when popped than a challenge.

    • I don’t think it’s just a semantic difference, actually.

      There are two basic problems as I see it:

      First, it artificially splits players from their friends requiring band aids like sidekicking.

      Second, it limits what content is available for use at any one time, a huge problem at the end game. Yes, you can get around this a bit with things like Marvel Heroes’ terminals or City of Heroes’ sidekicking, but these are fundamentally design band aids rather than integrated solutions, meaning they require very particular choices on the part of a player to even experience such an unlimbering of content availability.

      I do like your power progression idea, btw.

  4. Hey! Why the f.. heck am I discovering this site just now? Though you posted the article a while ago, I feel inclined to chime in as well. I agree, the level-mechanic as a whole is a relic from the Pen & Paper times and a lot of games/formats could work with other systems of progression just as well.
    Its just one of those core systems a lot of development teams use because they don’t risk to alienate new players with other forms of progression, which is, at least from a financial point of view a viable argument to stay with leveling as a means of vertical progression (although not creative by any means).
    A level based system has also the advantage that you have a lot of freedom in regards to gating content (newsflash here, i know) which also prepares the player for the stuff that comes during endgame, if a game has this distinctive difference between leveling up and the late-/endgame experience. As you mentioned WoW, it pretty much utilizes the leveling experience as some sort of tutorial for the stuff that comes with maxlevel. You’re going to learn the basics about your character during leveling and can concentrate on how to advance from these basics during PvP or PvE endgame apart from the other means of progression offered at maxlevel.

    You can see a strong gap between people who just boosted their chars up without really playing them and people who took the time level their chars in a classic way. The first ones are often a liability the first few hours to the first few days, because they have no clue how to get the most out of their characters.

    Its especially this ‘tutorial-aspect’ which is very often overlooked or undestimated, especially by the playerbase. Because not many people would say that they will suck at first, especially not in a competitive environment that World of Warcraft is now. I personally never liked the level-progression, but thats mostly because I kind of ‘grew up’ with ‘progression through use’ systems like UO used to have. It was always a different feeling of vertical progression, because I, as a player, had the choice in which area I wanted to improve. The game didn’t choose that for me by raising stats automatically for example – and that is my main gripe with classical leveling in most games today.

    But well, I think it comes down to people like you (hehe :p) to not only come up with better means of progression, but also to keep the gameplay itself entertaining enough so that people don’t miss any means of vertical progression. Regardless of how players progress to a certain point, it is always a huge timesink and a way to keep people invested and, after all hooked, to the game. As dumb as it sounds, but this mindless grinding level for level, as simple as it may be, can be enough for a player to feel attached to a certain character.

    Too bad there are enough pro arguments I can still find for the old-fashioned leveling. As long as alternative systems can not outweigh those points or accomplish similar things, I doubt we will see more creative ways of progression – be it by horizontal or vertical means.

    • My one hesitation about the tutorial argument – and to be sure, it’s something I have been involved in discussions about before – is that while there is some commonality in play skill between sub-cap and cap gameplay, how much commonality is there?

      In other words, even if one is willing to support that it is good training (and honestly, I think it’s tepid training at best, for most games centered around use of powers) are there better, more efficient ways of achieving this end of good training?

      To be honest, I really don’t think the arguments in favor of leveling outweigh those against it. In fact, the only argument in favor of them that I find at all convincing is the desire to make a familiar environment for new players. Some games have, as well, cut the difference in (to me) tolerable (albeit barely) ways; Skyrim had levels, but since content leveled (somewhat) in your direction, and because your “level” was an aggregation of a set of skill levels it kind of got the better part of both worlds.

      Part of the problem is that some people have a really hard time separating out in their minds the concepts of “level” and “progression” – they are not the same thing. Games need progression – they don’t need levels.

      As a convention, it’s easy to fall back on as a default position, and it’s certainly true that risk makes large studios nervous. That being said, if its strongest argument is that it is a familiar convention, it should eventually fade.

      • The only commonality I see, is the expansion of basic abilities through leveling/training in the late game. I agree with you – if there are better ways to achieve this, I’d prefer that over the level-progress in an instant. As I said above, I prefer other means of vertical progression, the ‘on use’ progression for example. I just think that nobody came up with a revolutionary approach to get rid of leveling while producing a mainstream title, yet.

        While it isn’t a necessity to be mainstream, it is the only field where the probability of falling back into ‘proven core systems’ is the highest. Because players, as you pointed out, are more familiar with those and, to reiterate, the chance of financial backing is higher because lower risk is involved.

        An interesting approach that I saw at ‘Albion Online’ was the fact that they tied the progression in regards to power completely to gear. Not only statwise: You have to slot abilities into your gear which then become available to your character, which also means that the progression comes mostly from obtaining new powers through crafting/fighting/looting and experimenting on possible combinations. The metagame involved, group dynamics and personal skill have a much larger impact on the outcame of fights as well.

        Not a bad idea in my opinion, since most games progress through gear advancement after hitting the levelcap anyways. Connecting this with a freeform/classless character system seems like something that can really work.

        Ideas like those have a real chance of bringing more variety in regards to progression into the genre. And by improving on those, level progression may become a lesser preferred way of progression for players and developers alike.

  5. There is a magic bullet, although silver for slaying the large scary monster might be more appropriate. It’s simply called fun. Yes that’s anti climatic, but I’ll give you some examples from Marvel Heroes the best I can. First, there’s the character. Take Cyclops for instance. He squishy, yet mobile. His damage is not that great at all, it’s actually downright bad to terrible compaired against the majority of released characters to date. Yet leveling him up…it’s FUN. Does he have a lot of replay ability, yes and no. He’s fun in playstyle vs enemies. He’s also sub par in most other categories. In this case though, the fun playstyle just edges out how inefficient he is. You level him to 60, and shelf him, or tool off on him if just need another reality check. I know you can say something like, well it’s a balancing thing, technical, this changes that and blah blah blah. At the end of the day though he’s either fun, or not. Besides, what business model ever failed by having characters fun and powerful? I can’t think of one. Take otheres like Ghost Rider, I can’t tell you the last time I’ve seen him played. I know people play him, but not many. Again, he damage is sub par, way to much work, and although he is tough….he NOT fun! You can over tool him, people will use him more. But not very long, it’s just not fun.

    Then there’s content. Is the content fun? Hard, challenging, and all that sould be asked second. Or even made for another area. A great example is X-Def. X-Def was amazingly fun, for a few reasons. 1 was loot. See if we only had 1 character to equip, loot should reflect that. But we do not, we have multiple toons, some over 16. So every time we enter that area it was fun and exciting to see what might drop because every boss you fought was a walking chest of loot. Good loot with a reasonable chance for a unique. 2 The learning curve was not to steep. This is important for a few reasons. Players new could enjoy it, enjoy the prospect of fighting arch villains with their favorite heroes at a slower pace with the loot better every wave. This is a great concept because you see other heroes, powers, and not only does it help the novice learn about their powers and build but he’s them decide who to play next. It also made you want to play because it was FUN! Older players had the chance to gear up toons they shelved, and refine builds they did not like, or found FUN!! It’s also a great way to market new heroes while making it rewarding for new players, so they want to play more heroes.

    Current X-Def is no where near as fun. Bosses on each wave drop little to nothing, the learning curve is far far harder, far steeper! If you do happen to get a unique, 9/10 times it’s off a trash mob. It’s in no way anywhere near as fun or rewarding. It’s following the model it should not be. As a player, its not close to rewarding now. It’s 50% punishing, 20% choir, 15% new purple loot, maybe a cosmic if I’m lucky, 15 % to see a newly released character. It’s no longer fun, or I should say no where near as fun or rewarding because ….the magic bullet – FUN – was removed.

    Gearing for a single chacter when it comes to very rare items should take a little while. That’s pretty much universally acceptable. But things like uniques should not. I’ll tell you why. Simply, it’s for the enhancement of your FUN! See things like rare artifacts tweak overall power, and are used to fine tune your character. So that’s reasonable to chase, while it’s fun. Now again…with 16+ characters it’s not fun to have them all 60 before I see my first Gem of Kursed. That’s not only not fun, it’s designed as if I only play 1 character. There is nothing fun about that. It’s close to the same with a lot of rare items. Rules for the common game designe do not apply when you have so many characters.

    Let’s be honest to, if your character is a bit over powered, who is it really hurting? See with X-Def designe one you have a fun factor that motivates you to play, and try new characters. Under designe 2 it’s punishing, and not rewarding. Why would I want to play any game, no mater how much I like a comic book character in the medium? Then want to buy another character and do it again because …..it was not FUN. Why not (example) make Cyclops as effective damage wise, as say Iron Man. Honestly who do you hurt? Not the game, or the player, and what’s the worst that will happen? Wouldent I just get that much more excited when I moved to another of my favorite heroes?

    Btw, if your worried that content might get to easy for most advanced players, then it’s a simple solution. Everything in the game has tiers. Just add another tier to existing content, create new simple content like mirror image fighting as a boss on a already made terminal. Or how about civical war style, NPC heroes. You pick a terminal to world X where all Heroes are villains. The only enemy in this portion of the game (besides budget and time) is you own imagination

    You have solid gold, you have Marvel Heroes!! That’s probably the hottest media content in the world! Not to mention the video game platform is very hot also.

    People who enjoy content, and find it fun return another day. People who are …well struggle with little to no reward, or feel like its a choir to do something, or are checking a mark in the box, or level miserable – non FUN – character mechanics up …..do not return!

    If we play paintball, and we have the higher ground, full auto paintball guns, better cover, and anti fog masks while the other team has the exact opposite. You will not say you did not like it because it was not balanced and you did not struggle enough. You’ll say it was awesome, and you had a great time. You’ll have so much FUN you’ll want to do it again!

    I do not see how a game that’s attempting to put out a great product while staying profitable is any different. The first question you should always ask is not if its balanced, or if it’s fair. Who cares if it’s slightly over powered, the first question should be…..is it FUN!

    Your product sells itself, period. You just need to put the magic silver bullet back into the designe itself…..FUN!

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