Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

27 July, 2006

Levels of domination
Filed under: — Psychochild @ 4:07 PM

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.

I said:

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?

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  1. but the obvious fact is that people who like offline role-playing have moved beyond levels.

    This is not obvious to me. The *vast* majority of people who play offline RPGs play D&D or D20. A level-based game.

    Perhaps only a minority of gamers actually prefer skill-based systems.

    Comment by GSH — 27 July, 2006 @ 4:51 PM

  2. Apart from a firm belief that MMORPGS do not exist, i don’t have a great deal to add. I think it’s true that P&P games are not level-oriented by design. Those that are still get referred to as “Monty Haul” campaigns and regarded as an inferior experience.

    On the other hand, a skill system is a class system with a huge and unbalanced set of classes. Once you remove the guiding hand of the GM, people need something.

    You already know my solution, but i’d be delighted to see others.

    Comment by Cael — 27 July, 2006 @ 7:07 PM

  3. Perhaps only a minority of gamers actually prefer skill-based systems.

    According to figures I’ve heard from panel discussions at paper RPG conferences, most people play skill-based games. The biggest ones are GURPs and White Wolf‘s various systems. Of course, I think this information might be based on surveys from before 3rd edition D&D; however, from anecdote it seems D&D resurgence was short-lived. If you take a look outside of conferences run by (or largely sponsored by) the creators of D&D, you’ll see a lot of people playing a lot of other types of games besides D&D.

    If you talk to people who do serious work in paper gaming, most of them will agree that skill-based systems get most of the interest. Getting away from strict levels is one step towards taking the focus off mechanics and putting more focus on interaction. At the extreme end of things you have diceless RPGs, which is essentially just collaborative storytelling. I don’t think online RPGs are ready for that quite yet.

    Perhaps I worded that a bit more strongly than necessary, since it might not be obvious to someone who isn’t as involved with the creation of games as I am. However, if you follow discussions at conferences and online, it would seem more obviously.

    And, just because a “only a minority” likes something does not invalidate it. At one point “only a minority” of people liked that silly thing called “role-playing”. Real men play wargames, doncha know?

    …a firm belief that MMORPGS do not exist….

    Certainly, and you’re not the first one to state this. Most people have said that computer role-playing games (CRPGs) don’t exist, either: they should be called “Kill Things and Take Their Stuff Games”, but KTaTTSG doesn’t roll off the tongue as well. Online RPGs have become an online extension of computer RPGs, although a lot of people have talked about how cool it would be to make online RPGs more like real paper RPGs. Unfortunately, this has proven to be difficult to achieve with any sort of reasonable budget.

    Therefore, I think there might be some baby steps required. Take the focus off of levels and loot. As the amazing Jonathan Baron once said, if we can take the focus off of individual achievement and put the focus on community advancement, we’ll have a game that will attract a wider audience. Or, take the focus off the “cumulative character”.

    My thoughts,

    Comment by Psychochild — 27 July, 2006 @ 9:06 PM

  4. I disagree with you about popularity. Sales figures alone will show that D&D vastly outstrips any other game. Now, maybe that implies that a lot of people play skill systems and don’t buy new material, but they’re not a good audience for a company looking to make money. :)

    I do agree with the idea that the gaming ‘literati’ may be very interested in skill-based systems, but I would be very hesitant to take them as a model for the gaming community as a whole.

    Anyways, one problem with skill-based systems is that gamers are crazy min-maxers. There is a large tendency to focus in one specific area. The problem is that if they step out of their area they become terribly weak.

    As an example, take a healer class. A skill-based player would probably maximize the healing and spend 0 points in combat. Then if a situation ever comes up where combat is necessary, the healer is useless. There is a great tendency to come up with ‘glass jaw’ characters. Level-based games allow you to increase all aspects of a class even if they seem unlikely to be used.

    This makes it somewhat hard to balance a game. If the challenge is in the area of skill, it’s a cakewake for the focused character. If it’s not, it’s a deathtrap. If it’s actually on the level of the focused character, it will destroy any balanced character. Level-based games bind characters with similar playtimes into a much smaller band of power.

    Comment by GSH — 27 July, 2006 @ 9:34 PM

  5. I gotta say, I have seen plenty of people get misty-eyed over having high-skill-level characters. *shrug* :)

    Comment by Raph — 27 July, 2006 @ 10:58 PM

  6. I gotta say, I have seen plenty of people get misty-eyed over having high-skill-level characters. *shrug* :)

    Sure, people do get misty-eyed talking about skill-based characters as well. But, as a rule people get more misty-eyed talking about level-based characters. Let’s consider EQ2 once again. Which is a more common character description?

    “I have a level 31 Necromancer/32 Sage.”


    “I have a Necromancer with 168/168 Focus, 155/156 Piercing, 156/156 Disruption, 60/156 Ministration, 69/156 Ordination, 89/156 Subjugation who is also a Sage with 160/161 Scribing, 68/161 in Fishing, and 151/161 in all other harvesting skills.”

    Both say the same thing, but one is more common than the other. Why is that? I still say because it’s easier to measure levels than to recount all those skills. It’s easier to tell where I fit on the status totem pole as an Achiever by comparing level.

    In games with only skill-based options, you’ll find people bragging about their 7xGM characters or WC5 Kran6 Qor6 characters. But, in a game with different possibilities they’ll choose levels because it’s easier. So, I think that games with levels will tend to attract Achievers easier because it’s easier to see how they measure up against other people. I’d love to hear an alternate theory, Raph, so that we could discuss it. :) That’s why I post this stuff, because I want to hear other people’s thoughts.

    Have fun,

    Comment by Psychochild — 28 July, 2006 @ 1:35 AM

  7. That depends on the people. I still get misty-eyed over a smuggler/merchant (can you say “utterly broken gimp”?) who ruled Mos Eisley with an iron fist through sheer force of personality in SWG for a surprisingly long time.

    It actually became a point of pride that he had no valuable combat skills – in fact, scratch that, no valuable skills whatsoever. And i know i’m not alone in that.

    Comment by Cael — 28 July, 2006 @ 2:48 AM

  8. Still not decided on this yet. I can’t argue with the “I have a lvl 24 genie” being used a lot more than “I have 400 jewelmaking, 200 bobsleighing, and 1 fishing.” Is that because levels are a better description of achievement though? Or just an easier one to make in games that contain levels? It could be down to simplicity of expression. Not so much that the system sucks for achievers, just that it sucks for them to express it.

    Take the talent system in WoW. People can express a strong detail about their ability in a simple -number- -tree- form. So they do. “21/10 beast/marks” a hunter might say. So you know they can use a pet to tank somewhat. It becomes a sense of comparison just by being easy to express. Maybe this sort of system can transmute into an achievement one.

    Here’s a rough ‘idea’ for doing that system based outside level or skill. A ‘badge’ system. A number of badges, earned through achievements such as killing a boss or (for crafters) making a difficult item, or even reaching a certain skill level, make up a ‘set’. Sets are categorised by concept. Completing a set or maybe even just earning certain numbers of badges in a set might get you some neat extras. I think you would start to see people showing off their badge achievements just as much as their lvl. (It’s basically just like showing off how many pieces of ‘Bob’s Lost Armour 3/6″ you have. )

    I think if you just embody more complex skill systems and wrap them up a bit in nice easy to reference abstractions, it might be nicer for achievers to express themselves. Who knows, they might still just say “DING!” and be happy with that.

    Comment by Jpoku — 28 July, 2006 @ 2:51 AM

  9. I don’t care what your game system is, the munchkins will always powergame it to min/max the situation. It’s how they are wired. I think it would be foolish to think that one could design a game system that avoids this totally — as Psychochild noted the munchkins just jump in and min/max the new system. That is what entertains them. Want to keep those players around for a long time? Make a system that is compelling enough to stick with, but hard to master (min/max) so they spend extra subscription months trying to learn the ‘best configuration’ or whatever.

    I do think non-leveled based systems reward the non-achievers because they allow people to be good at something in the game, at their own choice. Let’s say I can only play a game for 10 hours a week, I can build a one trick pony that can contribute something to the populace of the game at large. Perhaps I become a super bowman so I can do some damage and help my combat oriented friends, or I become a master brewer and work ‘shifts’ in the local player tavern facilitating the social elements of play I prefer? Yes this is also ‘munchkin’ behavior because I’m still trying to find the ‘best’ set of conditions for my style of play, but it at least expands the focus beyond levels and to the point where all players can choose their points of interest.

    Oh, and as to the popularity of a particular gaming system in the table top world… you try to start a non D&D game up without going to your friends and tell me how far you get? When I was in high school, the gaming geeks were pre-identified and we played everything. AD&D (1E), GURPS, TOON, Paranoia, Battletech, WarHammer (and 40K and Epic), Traveller, and everything else we could buy. It was fun. Four times in my adult life I’ve moved and had to find/build a gaming group to play at the table with. Four times I’ve had to find the local hobby shops and read the ‘looking for gamers’ board (or put my own note up). Even in the last two times with the expanded power of the internet… D&D is still the game that you can find players with. Tell people you want to run a FUDGE game and they will pass… tell them it’s D&D and they will sit down and play.

    I’m tired of 3.5D&D, but see it as a bit of a ‘gateway game’ in that it can be used to build a gaming group and once those people are your friends and not ‘those guys who come over and eat chips every other Friday’ they are more willing to try new systems because they know your gaming style and that they can have fun with you as a GM.

    YMMV and whatnot, perhaps it’s just my luck, but I’ve had no success finding anything other than D&D groups in different regions of the country — D&D is king — even if people aren’t shopping any more. Why are RPG sales down then? For many of us this is the third time we have fully embraced a system and then watched it sourcebooked beyond control (and budget). You can’t run the game and please every player who comes in with a sourcebook they just bought that you never even read. There are too many features… which means it’s time for 4E in the D&D world… and I’m not so sure the adoption will be a resurgence this time. Strange days.

    Comment by Grimwell — 28 July, 2006 @ 7:21 AM

  10. Looking at the abandoned SWG system, I’d have a hard time calling this a true “skill” system. The skills were categorized by profession, and while advancing in each ‘branch’ of that profession granted different rewards, the game was structured in a way that strongly encouraged you to complete most branches.

    Each basic profession cost 15 points to begin, then cost 2,3,4,5 through each of the 4 branches. Then an “elite profession” costing 6 to start and 5,4,3,2 through each of the branches. Even though the cost went down, the reward for the cost actually went up, making it foolish not to complete.

    It was more of a profession-based system with selective-advancement.

    Skill based systems do have all the risks Psychochild mentioned- in-game and in pen-n-paper. GURPS is an excellent example of a skill system, but there’s a reason why its publisher also makes the powergamer’s parody card game “Munchkin.” GURPS can be min/maxed to ridiculous levels.

    I don’t have any answers to this. I’m well aware of my natural bias against the min/max crowd. Too many of my “counters” to min/maxing would be designed more to frustrate the min/maxer, not make the game more enjoyable.

    For example: A system where the more frequently a power / spell / attack is used in combat (as a % of total attacks), the higher of a defense bonus the AI’s have against that attack. As one skill dominates, the foes “adapt” and learn, subtly reducing the effectiveness of that attack. Infrequently-used spells could even be subtly buffed. That’s right! AUTO-NERF built in! Boy, I can see the players beating a path to THAT game!

    Comment by Chas — 28 July, 2006 @ 8:25 AM

  11. I gotta agree with Raph here, based on your own game, PC. I’ve seen plenty of pride come from having a 150hp character with 99% this, this, this, that, that, that, and those. Also there’s plenty of pride to be had from Caramo telling you and everyone present how many kills you had and how many of those kills were cold-blooded murders.

    Comment by Norin — 28 July, 2006 @ 11:31 AM

  12. It’s the whole “tell people about your character” trait that is stereotypical of the hard-core P&P gamer. In EQ, WoW, or any other level based game you say “I’m an X level whatever” and you’re done… people do know exactly what you have and what you can do.

    Games with a little more depth of character planning give you the chance to argue the merits of going Kraanan over Riija, or why you should never have higher than a 40 aim and use those 10 points you just saved to get 2 more levels of shalille…

    IMO there’s way more bragging to be done over things like than than there is over “I got more levels than u”

    Comment by Norin — 28 July, 2006 @ 11:36 AM

  13. Grimwell wrote:
    a ‘gateway game’

    That’s what D&D has always been, though. I started serious paper RPGing with AD&D 2nd ed. I played a bit of AD&D 1st ed as well as some GURPs before that, though. GURPs didn’t do it for me as a newbie, the character creation process was too involved for my younger self; of course, now I like really in-depth character creation, so my tastes changed. I also enjoy a wide variety of other games, although (A)D&D still has a place on my self. Just the books get a bit dustier than the others.

    Norin wrote:
    I’ve seen plenty of pride come from having a 150hp character with 99% this, this, this, that, that, that, and those.

    Again, I’m not saying that people can’t get overenthusiastic about skill-based characters. I’ve obviously seen people get excited about M59, including you, Norin. I’m not saying that people can’t get excited about skill-based characters.

    Let me be a little elitist here: Your typical button-mashing, bottom-feeding Achiever type in most big games probably wouldn’t be comfortable with Meridian’s character creation and advancement system. It’s the Killers that enjoy hearing their kill stats and it’s the Explorers that enjoy working out the advantages of Kraanan vs. Riija. (Take a look at my most recent blog post to see a bit more discussion about the grim future of PvP games.)

    It is interesting to note that the biggest skill-based games have also had a big focus on PvP. This could be a flaw with PvP-based games instead of purely level-based games: Shadowbane didn’t do as well as other games despite having a (heavily de-emphasized) level-based system. So, who is willing to make an Achiever-based game that focuses more on skills than levels? This would be a nice way to prove or disprove my theories.

    My further thoughts,

    Comment by Psychochild — 28 July, 2006 @ 6:02 PM

  14. I personally think hybrid systems work well, as it has something for everyone.

    The system we are using in Ilyrias(here and the updated version) is a hybrid one. Players will be able to advance up to 110 levels, and part of doing so they will gain the ability to train their skills sets. Increasing a skill set(each player will be able to have 13 total, 10 general and 3 combat/trade) will unlock more powers. What skill sets they can use(classless system) is based off what other skill sets they have already chosen. In addition to that, most “active” abilities(ie those that they have to use, such as harvesting herbs or swinging a sword) will have an effectiveness rating attached to it. The rating, in the current design, is basically hidden from the player. With use the effectiveness goes up, disuse causes it to go down. The effectiveness of an ability will effect things such as damage, duration or other effect(for herbalism it effects how many herbs they find to harvest).

    This gives flexibility to the player, as Brain said, to create the character they want. At the same time levels are still an important part of it, which will make it easier to brag about the size of your e-peen.

    The only downside is that it does take more work during character creation, and many of today’s players just want to get into the game. To solve this we offer three options at creation. First is basic package, which will preselect them their 10 general skills from the most commonly used ones. The second is role related, a list of about 10 “classes” they can choose to use such as thief or mage. This will pick general and professional(combat/trade) skills that fit that type of character. The third is a blank slate, which lets them pick all their skills on their own. During play they can forget and learn new skills, but are stuck with 10 general and 3 combat/trade.

    I personally like this type of system, because I prefer to have more control and make the character that I want to play, instead of fitting into a cookie cutter class. By offering a few basic packages at creation, I’m hoping it will allow newer players that just want to pick a class to still get into the game and enjoy it.

    Comment by Joseph Monk — 29 July, 2006 @ 2:46 AM

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