Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

15 February, 2009

How to replace levels, part 2
Filed under: — Psychochild @ 4:00 AM

In my previous post, I discussed the history and design goals of levels. This time around, I’ll take a look at the pros and cons of using levels in an online RPG.

Pros

To some extent, levels work in online games, so they aren’t all bad. But, let’s take a look at some of the areas where levels shine.

Familiar – Even for players who haven’t encountered levels before, it’s easy to understand the concept: a level 10 character is more powerful than a level 5 character, in general. If your character goes from level 5 to level 6, that’s good! Bigger numbers are better! This concept doesn’t require much explanation to new players.

Simple – The big win is that levels are easier to implement than many alternatives. They’re much easier to implement and balance than a system that doesn’t have levels. Having a single number at the core of many calculations makes it much easier to create game mechanics that work as a whole.

Popular – Many online games have levels at the core of the gameplay, so the issues they can bring are well understood. The design transfers to many different settings. Most players already understand the concept and understand what they have to do. With so many people using levels, too, you have a lot of people working on how to improve the system and work around design problems.

Cons

However, levels have a number of problems that people regularly point out. Some of these problems have solutions which I will talk about later.

Oversimplification – One problem is that a level-based system can simplify things too much. In some older games the long, hard journey between levels meant that you didn’t get many upgrades. You also tend to be restricted in what you can do with your character based on level; no Priest in WoW can possibly get Shadowform before 40th level, for example.

Levels can also trivialize advancement. At level X I cast a fireball at a monster. At level Y, my fireball costs 30% more power (from a pool 30% larger) and does 30% more damage to a monster that has 30% more hit points. What have I gained other than seeing bigger numbers?

Segregation – No matter how hard you try, a high level character and a low level character are limited in how they can interact. A new character isn’t going on a raid, for example. A high level character killing things in a low level area just seems like an asshole, not someone really playing the game.

As an example, you have a max level character that you play with your guild and other friends. Your significant other decides that he/she wants to play the game, too. Your options are limited if there isn’t a sidekicking or mentoring system in the game. Do you roll another low-level character? Do you try to powerlevel your significant other with your main character? Do you just ignore your significant other and then risk a breakup or divorce?

Cockblocking – You start playing in a game world and decide you want to see a dragon! Sorry, kids, you have to be this high (Nth level) before you can go see a dragon. What about doing some crafting? Sorry, you have to be M levels in order to get that crafting ability. Go on a raid with friends? Start a guild? Travel to another zone? Sorry, all these require you to have a specific level on one game or another. Even if the game doesn’t explicitly have levels in it, some players may still judge based on levels; which guild would most people rather join: one where the guild leader is max level, or one where the guild leader is still very low?

Inappropriate – Sometimes a system of levels is just inappropriate for the game or setting. What is a level 15 Scientist, for example? Is that before or after studying for a PhD? Why does my character need to attain level 30 before learning to use staff weapons in a science fiction game? Why is an “Angry Bear” in one area level 11, while a “Wandering Bear” that looks identical to the first one is level 25 in another area? Levels don’t always fit into a game, even the types of games for which levels were originally designed.

Some Solutions

Before I advocate ripping out levels completely from a game, let’s look at some of the possible solutions that existing games have done to mitigate some of the problems.

Alternate Advancement – This was developed in EverQuest as one solution to the continual increase in the level cap. By gaining points from doing something beyond just murdering monsters, you can gain additional powers. In some ways, however, this is just another type of level.

Sidekicking or Mentoring – This allows one player to temporarily adjust their level to that of another player. City of Heroes allowed the lower level player to gain levels, while EverQuest 2 allowed the higher level player to drop down to the lower level player’s level. This allowed people to focus on a single character yet still play with different groups of friends. The downside here is that a character with an adjusted level doesn’t necessarily have “level appropriate” abilities. If space is limited, would you rather have a new player that just got jumped up several levels, or someone of the appropriate level that has all the powers for that type of character?

Talent and Skill Trees – This helps a player customize a character by selecting specific abilities based on points accumulated over time. This is a similar concept to Alternate Advancement, but it is usually more closely tied to the main level. The problem, especially with a “tree” type structure, is that the character is still limited by level. At lower levels, the choices often seem slim and nearly meaningless; the real power is usually at the higher levels where flexibility is important.

Eliminating Experience PointsEVE Online has done this to some extent. Instead of going out and killing things for points to level up, you gain skills over time, even when offline. This means that you don’t have to mindlessly grind levels to get more powers. But, this still enforces a “time = power” paradigm that levels often enforce.

In a future post, we’ll get the payoff: I’ll present some of my own ideas for how to replace levels in a game.


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14 Comments »

  1. I think the key to the castle is the simplicity. Levels are a great coat rack on which to hang lots of other game systems, but you lose a good deal of flexibility by doing so. When is this not a problem?

    1) When progression is inherently linear. Every level has one exit, and it takes you to the next one.
    2) When replay value is high (and people therefore don’t mind hanging out in an area they’ve beaten already)
    3) When character immersion is not very important

    Case in point: Diablo 2. Leveling is loud and proud in that game, and by gum, it -works-.

    Comment by Bret — 15 February, 2009 @ 6:46 AM

  2. Brian wrote:

    Oversimplification – One problem is that a level-based system can simplify things too much. In some older games the long, hard journey between levels meant that you didn’t get many upgrades. You also tend to be restricted in what you can do with your character based on level; no Priest in WoW can possibly get Shadowform before 40th level, for example.

    That assumes you’re using a level based system where ability upgrades are tied to level. That’s the designer’s choice, not something inherent to the idea of levels.


    Levels can also trivialize advancement. At level X I cast a fireball at a monster. At level Y, my fireball costs 30% more power (from a pool 30% larger) and does 30% more damage to a monster that has 30% more hit points. What have I gained other than seeing bigger numbers?

    That’s not really anything to do with levels either. For instance, if I upgrade the engine on my car so that it can go faster, and then choose to race against other cards that are also faster, I haven’t “gained anything” either in the sense that you’re using gained. I have gained something though: I’ve got a faster car that can kick the crap out of cars that I was previously dead even with. This isn’t an issue that has anything to do with levels. It’s a function of choosing to increase your challenge level as your skill/power increases. How you measure that skill/power (levels or not) doesn’t really matter. It’s the seeking of challenges that approximately match your increase in power that produces the result you’re talking about above.


    Segregation – No matter how hard you try, a high level character and a low level character are limited in how they can interact. A new character isn’t going on a raid, for example. A high level character killing things in a low level area just seems like an asshole, not someone really playing the game.

    This is only true when applied to the conception of levels in DIKUs or D&D. It’s a design decision to create a game that functions this way. IRE’s text MUDs frequently see vastly different levels of characters cooperating.


    Cockblocking – You start playing in a game world and decide you want to see a dragon! Sorry, kids, you have to be this high (Nth level) before you can go see a dragon. What about doing some crafting? Sorry, you have to be M levels in order to get that crafting ability. Go on a raid with friends? Start a guild? Travel to another zone? Sorry, all these require you to have a specific level on one game or another. Even if the game doesn’t explicitly have levels in it, some players may still judge based on levels; which guild would most people rather join: one where the guild leader is max level, or one where the guild leader is still very low?

    This is another area where you’re not pointing out a problem with levels, just the consequences of specific implementations of levels, I think.

    —matt

    Comment by Matt Mihaly — 15 February, 2009 @ 11:17 AM

  3. This is another area where you’re not pointing out a problem with levels, just the consequences of specific implementations of levels, I think.

    I think it’s actually the point. There’s nothing wrong with levels, it’s how you implement them. It just seem that they are often implemented in the same fashion (higher level = more power) simply because of the pros written and it’s easier to use an existing “recipe” than try something new at the risk of completely failing.

    You could still use levels but instead of giving more power, give more options. You see this to some extent in Eve. You can pilot a certain type of frigate that have specific pros and cons but it doesn’t mean you can fly all frigates that have other pros and cons that might be more adapted to some situations. It’s true that “more options”=”more power” in a way but having less options doesn’t mean that you’re blocked from some content.

    So I don’t think the point is to argue to find a way to get rid of levels but how to implement a system that could avoid some of the cons in the way they are often implemented. Whatever if levels are involved or not (because you could have a system without levels that recreates the same cons).

    Comment by Over00 — 15 February, 2009 @ 12:43 PM

  4. @Matt

    “It’s the seeking of challenges that approximately match your increase in power that produces the result you’re talking about above.”

    It is a rare MMO with enough social depth that it has a system for players to found and practice Buddhism… ;)

    Comment by Bret — 15 February, 2009 @ 8:43 PM

  5. So the problem is not with levels, but due to the implementation?

    I would like to point out that an implementation of levels is most likely going to make the meaningless altogether.

    Take a look at GUILD WARS, besides the first game (Prophecies) you get quickly raised to level 20 and the rest of the game is tailored to level 20 players, yet still gets more difficult. Unfortunately often very suddenly, so that people despair in some areas or missions. They unfortunately used the easy solution, they dumbed down the whole game and difficulty so that all tactical and strategical considerations are pretty much wasted, just go in and win.

    The worst part of the implementation of levels is that you “cannot” play together with a +/-5 levels higher friend, that the areas you can go to are limited and so on. The other would be the “zones corresponding to levels” in such a system.

    But how would a game without levels work? For sure not that a fresh character could straight away go to a dragon and kill it all alone. There would have to be challenges that require player groups, knowledge of the enemy and tactics needed to bring down the beast ideally. Maybe we also have to work on the player party, which is nowadays more of a “loot sharing organization” that gives you the right to loot a mob, and nobody else. I would like to see more dynamic grouping. The problem is again the loot. 100 players fight a dragon, who gets the loot? Will everyone get a token of participation, that he can exchange for items later on, a bit wow style? Who gets the loot, who is eligible? This is a major problem that also lead to constructs like the fixed party of some 5-8 players in most MMOs.

    To prevent power creep, make most monsters by default stronger than players. Let players lure them in traps, favorable spots to kill them, encourage them to team up spontaneously. A raid would then be something like a stoneage tribe setting up a trap for mammoths, driving them down cliffs or in gorges, killing them with rocks thrown from above…^^

    Anyways, running out of time, just sharing a few thoughts. :)

    Comment by Longasc — 16 February, 2009 @ 4:20 AM

  6. Matt wrote:

    [Y]ou’re not pointing out a problem with levels, just the consequences of specific implementations of levels, I think.

    I like Bret’s comment above about levels being a coat rack you can hang other mechanics off of. One of the problems here is that many game designers hang the same things on their coat racks as other designers do. Sure, what I describe is mostly from the realm of “DIKUs and D&D” as you say, but when the average person reading my blog thinks of levels, that’s exactly what they’re thinking of. In most cases, they’re probably thinking specifically of how WoW implemented levels (which is based on how EQ did it, ad infinitum).

    No, not everyone implements levels the same way. M59 doesn’t have a strict level-based system as I describe here, either. But, if it were as easy as telling people, “Go play an IRE game or Meridian 59“, then there wouldn’t be endless discussions about levels in games.

    Over00 has the right of it, too: part of the problem is the power curve that levels represent, as people have stated in many other places before. The problem isn’t just that there’s a numeric representation of a character’s relative power, but that it comes with a lot of other baggage as implemented in most of the larger games out there.

    Comment by Psychochild — 16 February, 2009 @ 4:44 AM

  7. I thought of another con I didn’t consider when I was writing. It goes with Segregation:

    Obsolescence – You don’t gain points if you tackle content that is too low for your current level. You are therefore encouraged to find a more appropriate challenge. However, if the game world supports a strong story, you may not have completed all the interesting bits you wanted to. This is mostly a case of poor pacing.

    Something else to consider.

    Comment by Psychochild — 16 February, 2009 @ 4:50 AM

  8. As noted in the last article, levels and the loot lust treadmill in modern MMOs are built to keep people logging in and paying sub fees. They aren’t typically based on good *game design*.

    Considering pacing, the best implementation of “levels” that I’ve seen is in Chrono Cross. There is a party-based “star level” that allows characters within the party to grow to a certain cap, but no more. Stars are gained by defeating storyline bosses. Character advancement and story advancement are joined at the hip. You can still grind away killing random critters, gaining money and loot, but character power is very carefully metered and paced with the story.

    Yes, it is frustrating for the gamer accustomed to overleveling to compensate for lack of player skill or lack of avatar skill/gear/whatever. Overleveling that way isn’t necessarily a bad thing, since more often than not it’s done because the designer didn’t do their job pacing and devising appropriate challenges. It’s just that the pacing in Chrono Cross works because the designers had a good idea what the player power would be at any given time, and designed smartly around it, hitting the sweet spot of “not too hard, not too easy” the vast majority of the time. That pacing was based on “levels”, but levels themselves weren’t the reason for the player to play.

    Of course, in an MMO, that sort of thing is a bit trickier since you’ll always be dealing with people of widely varied skill and time commitment. Just like strong RPG storytelling isn’t possible in static MMO worlds (nothing changes because change makes people unhappy) *or* in sandbox MMOs (players tell their own stories), we’re just not going to be able to leverage the good parts of levels without getting the bad parts. (Social stratification, cockblocking, etc.) The mechanical nature of an MMO inherently limits the usefulness of levels.

    Puzzle Pirates handles things differently by completely eliminating avatar “levels”, basing character advancement completely on *player* skill. There are social ranks within crews (guilds) that unlock certain mechanical privileges, but player skill is the heart of the game. Players of all skill levels can play with each other. Players at either end of the skill bell curve might not compare favorably, but in the PvE content, anyone can make useful contributions. As such, the game becomes more of a quest to better your own abilities, rather than grind out your avatar’s skills. Of course, it’s a sandbox game, with little in the way of narrative, but I’ve found that it realizes the potential of an MMO “world” far better than a DIKU model.

    As such, I suspect that one of the biggest obstacles to MMORPG design is trying to make them into giant multiplayer D&D campaigns, rather than designing living worlds with niches for any and all. Though, perhaps ironically, the narrower power band of D&D, as compared to EQ or WoW, is one thing that some one got right: Guild Wars. The smaller discrepancy between low and high end avatars and the easily capped “perfect gear” tends to alleviate a great deal of the more polarizing effects of DIKU flavored levels.

    Comment by Tesh — 16 February, 2009 @ 10:27 AM

  9. A level is an arbitrary number, used to notate a player’s progress. I don’t think the problem is having that number, but what you as a developer do with it. Should content be intertwined with your level.

    In most role-playing games, you’re given a handful of customization options. Talents, skills, etc. You’re building a character. Where as in a game similar to Thief, Mount & Blade or Call of Duty, your character didn’t necessarily improve, but your skills as a player did.

    In Battlefield 2, a medic is not a secondary support class. Everyone in a group should provide a function, but I don’t think those functions need to be cut and die. In Asheron’s Call, you might have War Magic and Life Magic specialized. You have the ability to do damage, as well as cast buffs and heal players. Someone else might have Axe and Crossbow specialized. Offering options against creatures that are weaker to one or the other.

    Another thing you don’t see much anymore, is to let players use the enviroment to their advantage. Instead of focusing on invisible walls and ways to restrict the player, offer insight on how to overcome a tactic a player uses. If a player perches on a tree, let humanoid creatures climb the tree. Offer ranged attacks to other creatures.

    Dungeons & Dragons Online had something going for it with it’s twitch-style combat, but being D&D, there were still dice being rolled. Take it one step further and use a hit box and actual physics.

    No more kill tasks and delivery tasks. Easy to implement in mass quantities, this is an issue of quality vs. quantity. Quests shouldn’t be a dime a dozen. They’re quests, not afternoon with Fanny-Mae in the Shire, delivering pies.

    Achievements are essentially quests, given to the play automaticly and logged permanently. Most of them, in Lord of the Rings Online, are kill tasks. It isn’t that different to get a reward for slaying 90 more orcs, than it is to get it via a quest or level.

    I think Asheron’s Call had it spot on when they handed players a bunch of skill points, and let them build custom character templates. You can limit this with classes, which provides focus for development and balance, but that added freedom adds to the appeal of the game. You don’t need to be a rogue, who picks locks and uses daggers. You can be a sword and board warrior, who can also pick locks and use a bow. Your character depends entirely on your own choices.

    We are a little afraid of change. The most wildly successful MMOG on the market was a re-hash of what was previously available. It was done on a grand scale, but the foundation of World of Warcraft was built on ideas implemented in Dark Age of Camelot, Asheron’s Call 2, EverQuest and to a lesser extent Ultima Online.

    How do you create a world that is living. Weather systems. Seasons. Natural disasters. Don’t create a shell for a player to explore, create a world for them to experience. Use funds from monthly fees to update content on a monthly schedule. Something not easily done, but well worth the effort.

    I’m sick of leveling off of seven different types of boar and elk. Put in a wild game hunting system that is interactive. If I’m out in the woods, a bear might charge at me to protect her cubs. A cub might run away. A deer will run away. The key world here being, that the experience is interactive. The player has a direct hand in the outcome of the situation and the situation itself.

    In short, I think MMOG design has sort of become a band-aid business.

    Comment by Septa Scarabae — 16 February, 2009 @ 11:42 PM

  10. “Use funds from monthly fees to update content on a monthly schedule. Something not easily done, but well worth the effort.”

    Right. Blizzard HAS the money. If they could get away from the item-centric gameplay… hmm probably not in WoW. Guild Wars 2 unfortunately got delayed till 2010/2011, maybe they will have to compete with Blizzard’s “NextGen MMO”.

    I can imagine a more dynamic world with new dungeons and quests being placed without announcements now and then. Some would only be available for some time, and as the rewards are basically not necessarily, as dictated by item-driven gameplay, bigger and better, just different, players could get unique items without giving other players a disadvantage. Your sword could have a special story besides being a standard sword with a somewhat fancier skin and a rune socket.

    And of course we would get away from quests like “Bring me 10 rat tails!” “For what?” “Umm…”. ;)

    Comment by Longasc — 17 February, 2009 @ 8:49 AM

  11. This question of levels is a bone I’ve been gnawing on for some years now, so it’s fun to see it come up again here.

    The big “pro” I see for levels is that they’re a marker of achievement that has utility. That’s two types of value provided by one feature. Firstly, levels are a special kind of collectible similar to a badge — they signal to other players the amount of achievement one has collected. And secondly, each increase in level confers tangible in-game benefits on a character in the form of new and enhanced capabilities.

    This two-for-one effect makes levels particularly tasty to game developers. I believe it’s the reason why we’ve seen “level inflation” — the gradual ramping-up of the number of levels in games versus the 12-15 levels that were the practical maximum in D&D. The more levels you offer, the more frequent your *dings* can be; it’s a higher reward schedule.

    But this is also what creates a “con” for levels: when there are so many of them that they come frequently, players naturally start shifting their play toward consciously seeking the next level.

    In a game like the original D&D (or AD&D), attaining a new level typically required several extended play sessions. Gaining a new level was usually an event so far in the future that, rather than thinking about some magic number of points to collect, players focused on actually enjoying the content of the gameworld — the places, the people, the puzzles, the action, the adventure.

    Radically increasing the number of levels has led to the opposite effect: players become conscious of the “next level” number and deliberately focus their gameplay on grinding out cheap XP to hit that next magic number as quickly as possible. This, I think it’s fair to say, has had a distorting effect on how many of today’s MMOG players define the very word “gameplay.” They can only imagine it to mean repeatedly performing rote mechanical actions to satisfy an artificial requirement that provides frequent small rewards…

    …but what does that have to do with adventure?

    So that points to another way to modify a level system to address some of the problems that emerge from it: offer fewer levels, not more.

    I’d actually prefer to see someone offer a large-scale, high-quality MMORPG that has no level-based character advancement at all. I think there’s reason to believe this could be successful. But that can wait for the final installment of this series. :)

    Comment by Bart Stewart — 18 February, 2009 @ 10:53 AM

  12. Levels are an archaic remnant of pen&paper style RPG games, and have no place in modern 3-D computer MMO’s. Fighting level 10 bears at level 10, then fighting level 50 bears at level 50 to grind exp is ridiculous. Replace leveling with a skill system (want to be better at sword-fighting? use a sword. want to have better stamina/cardio? run. want to be tougher? exert your character to increase his strength.), and use actual physics and *common sense* to design mob difficulty. A bear is, and should always be, a [b]goddamn bear[/b]. No matter how skilled/armored/armed your character is, a bear should never be an easy fight. Same with wolves, same with dragons(a giant flying scale-armored reptile should be a pretty tough fight, right?). Levels take away from immersion, and make new players completely worthless to the “endgame,” and any friends that have been playing before them. I think pre-defined classes are just as limiting as levels, but that’s for another day.

    Comment by Ackleton — 20 February, 2009 @ 12:42 AM

  13. How to replace levels, part 3

    [...] my previous post about levels, I detailed some of the pros and cons of levels. I promised that I’d propose some solutions to the [...]

    Pingback by Psychochild’s Blog — 23 February, 2009 @ 5:42 AM

  14. This was cross-posted on my Gamasutra expert blog: http://www.gamasutra.com/blogs/BrianPsychochildGreen/20090312/861/How_To_Replace_Levels_In_MMOs_Part_2.php

    Comment by Psychochild — 28 April, 2009 @ 1:35 PM

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