27 July, 2006
I made a mildly controversial comment over on Raph’s blog that use-based systems kinda suck for achievers. Levels make it much easier to compare e-peens and see who has more time to spend.
If I tell you I’m a 24th level Necromancer in EverQuest 2, anyone who has played the game for a while has a decent idea of what the character can do, within certain variations. I’ve described my character in essentially 3 words. Even if you don’t play EQ2, you can guess what a Necromancer is like based on experience from other games.
If I want to talk about a UO character, I have to list out the skills and the skill level. Even if all my skills are at GM, I still have to use at least twice the words. And, if you have never played UO, good luck trying to figure out what some of the skills do.
After Raph disagreed with me and said “Achievers want status, and there’s a lot of ways to grant status.” I replied:
Taking EQ2 as an example: the harvesting system is use based, but you don’t see many people getting all misty-eyed talking about their 150 trapping character. It’s the adventuring and/or crafting classes with experienced-based advancement that takes front stage. Being an effective harvester could gain you some amount of status, but it seems people are much more interested in bragging about the level-based status.
I figured it might be interesting to spend a bit more time to take a closer look at levels, why they dominate, and why they kinda suck. :)
Levels, of course, are an old thing in terms of modern gaming. The original MUD had levels back at the dawn of online gaming. Levels were a main part of many computer role-playing games; the number of RPGs that I can remember without levels can be counted on one hand. Of course, most people look at D&D as the granddaddy of level-based RPGs. These days, most modern RPGs focus more on skills rather than levels. Levels are seen as an oversimplification that lump character advancement into huge chunks. Of course, the d20 system is still a dominant force and uses levels.
Well, that’s where levels came from, but why do we continue to use levels? As I mentioned in my post on Raph’s site, I think the biggest reason is to make it easier for Achievers to measure their achievement and their status compared to other people. It’s easy to know that a level 48 Necromancer is more powerful than a level 16 Bard in the same game, and you can make a lot of assumptions; for example, it’s reasonable to assume that the level 48 character has spent significantly more time in the game than the level 16 character (although the players may have spent differing amounts of time in the game.) No matter what the differences in classes are, you can still measure relative power with ease. Contrast this with a game like Meridian 59 where you can’t make that determination as easily. Is a character with level 5 in each of the Riija, Jala, Shal’ille, and Faren spell schools more powerful than a character with level 6 in Weaponcraft and Kraanan? Maybe, but it really depends on the skill of the player using the character. Also, most non-M59 players may not be familiar with the spell schools in the game, so this type of character description is useless outside the game.
Levels are nice because they’re easy, discrete, and easily comparable. The Achiever type likes levels for this reason, because the higher number confers more status upon them thorough game mechanics. That higher level character simply is more powerful than your newbie character, no matter how you slice it. This is a type of status in the game that is simply undeniable. Note that when levels fail to indicate status (such as at level cap), the focus moves to other ways to display power: better equipment gained from more difficult raiding situations, etc. Once you get to the level cap, however, I think you really get to the realm of the hard-core achiever where many people start losing interest. However, that level cap makes a nice first stop in the fantasy we promise in our games. In Meridian 59, where the maximum amount of stuff you can learn is variable, determined by your stats, it can be hard to really get a feel for what the most impressive achievement is, and therefore who deserves admiration and status.
Measuring achievement through levels is really a hold out from other types of computer RPGs where the goal was just to get the highest level possible to defeat the main boss. Note that in the world of paper RPGs, the Achiever type (often called a “Munchkin“) is looked down upon as undesirable. Anyone who focuses so much on “winning” by achieving the highest levels, most magical items, whatever, tends to ruin the fun for other people. You hear similar tales in current online RPGs of people backstabbing others, betraying friends, etc, all in the name of getting a better piece of equipment. It’s very interesting to note that most current paper RPGs tend to discourage this type of play while online RPGs are showing a trend toward catering to it.
So, what are the alternatives? As I mentioned above, paper RPGs have moved to a more skill-based system. This is a system where ability in individual skills is tracked instead of an overall “level”. The character increases individual skills to advance, usually by a points system. Characters are sometimes measured by overall points spent, but this isn’t quite as fine-tuned as levels are. In addition, these types of games tend to allow for more fine-tuning of the character; for example, your fighter doesn’t have to be proficient in bows, and might spend more points getting extra proficiency at using swords instead. Most skill-based systems tend to eschew classes, because you have more flexibility in creating a character. Instead, there are restrictions in the game mechanics to “balance” things out: mages simply cannot cast in metal armor, so making a character with high skill in magic casting and heavy armor might be less than optimal.
Personally, I tend to enjoy skill-based systems a lot more because they allow me to build a character that I like and that I want to play. Perhaps I want to be a generalist and have average ability in a number of skills. Or, I might want to be a specialist, with high focus in a few areas. This type of system gives more flexibility and power to the player to make a character they are really happy with.
But, it’s not all sunshine and roses. From a development point of view, having a skill-based system can be hard to balance. Everyone knows that the level 50 is supposed to trounce the level 30 character, so that’s easier to balance (even if not necessarily fair or interesting). But, is the 200 point character supposed to win against the 100 point character? What if the 100 points are all in combat abilities, whereas the 200 point character has 150 points of tradeskill ability? You also get other problems will a skill-based system, most notably the “flavor of the week” templates. It’s human nature to want to declare something “the best”, and people will pick a particular ability as “the best”. In an open system, most people can get this ability and it may come to dominate the game. Or, people can become trapped in “groupthink” and not really be interested in trying alternatives. You do get the same thing with classes, where people declare one particular class to be “better” than others, but people are trapped into what they picked at character creation. Therefore, they may try to convince the developers that their class deserves more power. As Scott Jennings quoted Matt Firor: “Everybody that wants their character to be more powerful, raise their hands! (gleefully waves arms in air)”
Some online RPGs actually use a hybrid system between levels and skills. For example, EverQuest 2 has levels, but each individual spell or combat art has a rating associated with it; increasing this rating increases the power of the ability. So, it’s like a level-based system with some aspect of skill mechanics. Meridian 59 is on the other end of the spectrum: you have a bunch of individual spells and skills measured by percent. However, these abilities are grouped within different “schools” and segmented into levels. You have to earn enough points in the first level to get access to the second level in each school, and so on. So, it’s a skill-based system with a concept of levels.
It’s interesting to note that one high-profile game started out mostly skill-based, but it has since been changed into a class and level-based system: Star Wars Galaxies. In a recent (and seemingly unpopular update), the game was changed to be more like other games. This simplified the system, but it did upset the majority of players that enjoyed the older system. I’m certain the motivation to change the game mechanics so radically was probably motivated by the fact that many current online RPG fans prefer a level-based system, and they were trying to capture a larger part of that market.
Yet, I think that moving away from a level-based system might be a significant step towards attracting a different audience. Many people lament the fact that there is very little real “role-playing” in our online RPGs, but the obvious fact is that people who like offline role-playing have moved beyond levels. Instead of focusing on individual achievement, paper games have focused more on working together as a group. To this end, characters are more flexible. On the other hand, levels are much easier to understand for most people. The mythical non-gamer that we can trick into playing an online RPG might be overwhelmed with a skill-based system with tons of options.
What are your thoughts? Are levels here to stay? Are there other alternatives that might work better or give more focus beyond primarily Achievers?