Editorial: Leveled Out

Is leveling an outmoded concept?

The idea of “levels” in an RPG comes from that old progenitor of our art, Dungeons and Dragons. Leveling exists as a way of keeping players from starting out with more power than they can handle. Even in modern games like MMOs or console RPGs, players start out relatively weak (level one) and progress to gradually more powerful by accumulating a virtual representation of time spent in game (experience points). This (badly) mirrors real-world skill acquisition, where time and effort can be put in to learn any specific skill.

Games like EVE Online eschew much of the traditional notions of leveling, preferring instead to focus on emergent gameplay or a “sandbox” style of gaming where players write their own rules and conditions for victory. While this open-ended approach has its definite bonuses as far as satisfaction goes, it is more difficult to break into at a much more visceral level. Consider the difference between a game like Tetris and one like Super Mario Bros. The former is technically challenging, requires enormous amounts of strategy, but is ultimately endless and rewards the player with nothing more than some arbitrary metric of success. The latter, while much more constrained, has more defined conditions for victory and as such is more capable of rewarding the player forthright.

Still, perhaps we are too quick to segregate sandbox versus limited games. Maybe each game can learn from the other.

The focus of this column will be on how traditional MMOs, in the vein of Everquest and World of Warcraft, can learn from sandbox games.

The most basic problem to deal with is the concept of the level. Take the current situation of World of Warcraft. A new player picking up the game today has eighty “levels” of content to get through before beginning the process of obtaining the required gear to begin endgame play. For those of us playing the expansion at the level cap since its release, this is trivial: our professions are all maxed out in terms of skill, our gear is climbing toward the best available, all quests and achievements have been secured, and we are winding down to prepare for a new adventure.

It is, in short, too daunting a prospect to try and bring up someone new now.

The problem is the level. Currently, levels 1-79 are a minor hiccup along the way to the true meat and potatoes of the game, which is a shame, because there is so much in that wide expansive pre-endgame world that is worthwhile. But it gets seen and experienced maybe once.

Leveling comes to us from D&D
The character sheet is the effigy of leveling... burn it!

How is the problem of level solved? Two things must be achieved in order to adequately solve this problem: (1) progression must still be gated enough to extend playtime and lessen burnout and (2) player reward cannot be a function of time spent in-game.

To meet each of these criteria, I propose the following three changes.

3. Skill, Not Time

Player skill ought to count for more in MMOs. The current model of button-pressing and movement is far too simplistic to be effective at gauging skill. Platformers and action games have far surpassed RPGs in terms of actual skill required. If games are restructured to reward skill, solo viability goes up. Currently, it’s possible to do anything in a game as long as player power outweighs the content; it trivializes old content. Consider the case of the Ulduar raid in WoW. Take any 10 or 25 people and the vast majority of the fights are laughable in terms of difficulty… unless one attempts the “hard modes” where skill, more than the ability to use gear to achieve “big enough numbers,” is required.

How is this applied to our level-less game? Currently, a level two fighter character may gain some basic stat increases and a new attack. What if, instead of simply gaining that at level two, a player had to work and achieve specific goals? Instead of simply pressing “learn attack two” from a trainer, the player actually had to take take her character out into the wilderness, meet the ancient swordmaster, and perfect a series of button presses in order to learn a new attack?

In this way, players “progress” to the endgame not by spending the required amount of time doing endless “kill six snow moose!” quests, but by learning the intricacies of their class.

Knowledge, Not Gear

The current system (again, imported from Dungeons and Dragons) of new armor and weapons granting more powerful abilities also acts as an artificial gate to progression, but all too often, “good gear” becomes a substitute for “good skill.” The obvious fix (make good gear hard to get) does not alleviate the problem: then only good players with lots of time can get good gear. This leads to an artificial limitation of good gear and good players at the top, but excludes the masses.

The other extreme is equally unpalatable: when even the worst of the worst have access to good gear, it creates a false sense of achievement.

A controller
Manual dexterity is not something that is the province of the console any longer; now MMO players must familiarize themselves with the button combo

Instead of tying player potency to gear, a good designer could instead tie potency to how well a class synergizes with the others in the group. New armor and weapons could provide unique effects that are not necessarily directly related to the main skills. Instead, a more powerful sword swing could be achieved by properly timing the button combination necessary to activate it. Knowing which attacks go well with a player’s fellow members could provide group buffs. Instead of forcing players to go all-out seeking “big numbers,” strategy could come in to play. One player could distract a boss by a quick hit followed by running away, while others ambushed that boss.

In this way, even new players could attempt the higher levels of content, provided they (1) had the skills and (2) knew what they were doing.

People, Not Mechanics

Current top-end players achieve what they do by spending lots of time getting to know their class and playstyle intimately, then spending a lot of time practicing the encounters, and finally by attempting to exploit the rules of the game in such a way as to maximize the chance of victory while minimizing liabilities. While this is well and good for large, dedicated groups, more casual players will often have to sacrifice “ideal” party setups for the party setups available.

The easy fix is again the wrong one: homogenization takes the flavor and fun out of the game, and forces players into narrowly defined roles for the sake of encounter tuning. If developers tune the encounter to a perfectly-balanced group, then it is impossible without such a group. If they tune it down from that kind of group, a well-balanced group can power through the encounter.

A Party!
If rigid party make-up is necessary, developers should force party designs, like in FFIV. Otherwise, more flexibility must be built in to the game.

Instead of then giving each class a toolset that sometimes counters certain types of effects and denying those effects to others, each class needs to be able to do a certain amount of times: each class needs to provide a buff to like classes (a synergy), a buff unique to its role (a group buff), a specific debuff to place on the enemy, and two or three abilities tailored to its role. For instance, all tanks need some way of generating both single-target and area-of-effect threat, and to mitigate damage. All damage dealers need both single-target and area-of-effect damage abilities, and healers likewise need both single-target and group heals.

Now, within this basic framework is a large amount of room for innovation, particularly in the focus of the class. There is nothing wrong, from a design perspective, with one spellcaster having an area-of-effect focus, while another has a single-target focus… as long as these “niche” roles do not exclude them from performing other roles.


As long as the game is focused around forcing players to earn their abilities through skill and perseverance; performance is based on knowledge of class, environment and encounter; and people are allowed to form parties with some flexibility, traditional games can extend their playability and player base by providing an easier entry point, but still provide sufficient challenge that those who are truly excellent players can distinguish themselves from those with merely a lot of time.


  1. Thank God for Lane Haygood, whose erudite displays of applied thought demonstrate to the rest of the world how an examination of gaming philosophy should be conducted.

  2. this right here is why Lane is awesome. the longer I played rpgs the more I realized that I hate the whole concept of “leveling”. while these are all great ideas I don’t see them bein used in mmos anytime soon. they’re designed to be addictive and that always-be-grinding mentality is a big part of that. not to mention there ain’t nearly enough people who complain about this. I’m not seein this happenin in too many single player rpgs either. both eastern and western developers tend to be very set in their ways when it comes to rpgs. the fact that alternate methods usually have as many flaws as the old one doesn’t help either. I can’t speak for different development systems in the west but in the east the only developer that I know of that even tried to change things up was Kawazu and I we all know how his games usually end up…

  3. @ Breaka — lots of games are starting to innovate. As I said, all of EVE’s skill ups are offline. Age of Conan (a game I desperately want to see succeed, because I love the Conan IP) recently introduced offline leveling. Final Fantasy XIV, for all its “oh let’s let console people play too!” faults for an MMO looks to be attempting to ameliorate some of these leveling issues. Change is gradual. Still, I’d like to see a flagship title like WoW let people create characters at maximum level and go through a series of quests to learn the basics of their classes’ gameplay… different specs, spells, abilities, and how to play in a group. That way, designers could focus on churning out awesome endgame raids instead of devoting time to a lot of pretty, lore-filled scenery that people bypass in the fury to level up.

    @SN: the reason it does so is because WoW has mastered the work/reward balance. People play WoW and stick with it because it provides visible, fulfilling rewards for even short spurts of play. Where WoW misses out is that it can create burnout because the new content development cycle lags behind just slightly enough to cause people to get a little burned out with current play, but provides such a staggeringly high barrier to bringing up a new character or experiencing a new facet of the game by having too long of a leveling process.

    @Lusipurr: I’d love to have a game studio, but alas, I could only be a writer/idea man. I lack programming skills. Or business management skills.

  4. -IMO it also does so because they trapped lightning in a bottle in the right time and place to essentially capture the entire market. Now whenever a new one is released there is never enough people to break away from WoW to ensure their long-term viability, and thus sick of sparsely populated worlds everyone eventually returns to WoW like a self-fulfilling prophecy, because that’s where all the people are.

  5. -I know that you were primarily focusing on MMOs, but with regards to rewarding skill not grinding time, Ar Tonelico 2 incorporated some skill/timing systems into battle so that you could improve your chances against much higher level foes by dodging at the right time, etc. You could gain the same effects by leveling up extensively and buying much better gear, but if you were skilled enough, you could take out enemies at much lower levels. If you’ve played it, are those the types of systems you had in mind?

    -I really hate grindfests, too, unless that’s really the goal of the game (e.g., Disgaea). If I’m playing a game for the story experience, I don’t want to be pulled out of that world by having to stop and level up for 2 hours before I get more story.

  6. Good read. While your points do seem most applicable to MMOs, and I’m a sucker for level-grinding, I have to admit that I respect games like Fallout 3 that – while incorporating traditional leveling – rewards strategy, especially in the beginning of the game. If you are good, you will have a significantly easier time.

  7. i really hate “mandatory grindings before every
    single boss fight (Ys series, Dragon Quest,etc).Its so boring and repetive and it consumes
    several hours of my precious time. Boss fights should be about preparation and not about grinding.

  8. Without some form of grinding for reward fights tend to feel pointless, and thus frustrating.

  9. yes, but for some boss fights, not for every single one of them. it artifialy increases the lenght of the game.

  10. @DCS — I have not played Ar Tonelico, but it was one of the systems I read about researching this column (yes, I research). Mass Effect (and 2) and Fallout also have similar ideas: it’s not just virtual dice rolls that go into whether one wins.

    The balance is that RPGs can’t become twitchy platformer/FPS hybrids with epic storylines: the player still needs to have control over character development, including the choice of skills. But if skills are not something doled out regularly with levels, but rather something you consciously choose to seek out. Like in the real world, choosing to learn one skill well often means you must put aside time to the exclusion of other skills. Thus the monk who seeks martial prowess and inner calm may find little time to study healing prayers, etc.

    @SN: a win after grinding is only a reward by comparison, as is the cessation of pain after torture. The reward should be advancement of the storyline (or in the case of an MMO, shared victory of accomplishing a boss kill).

    @Juan: mandatory grinds are what keeps me from going back and playing games I rather enjoy, like FFVI. I just don’t have time to walk in a circle killing goblins for money and cheap EXP. If, instead of having to do that, I got to go out, maneuver through enemy territory and accomplish some objective, the end reward of which is that I learn the “stealth” skill, I would feel my time was better spent.

    But you’re absolutely right on why grinds exist: they are a substitute for content and artificially lengthen playtimes, resulting in mo’money for the game publishers, which is why they exist.

  11. A reward for fighting every battle is necessary if you want battles to have meaning, case and point the beginning of XIII does not allow for any character development, which turns fights into nuisances. Similarly try playing the game+ for any RPG, if your characters are already sufficiently developed it becomes incredibly frustrating to be bogged down by enemy encounters. RPGs don’t necessarily require traditional levels, but they do need their functional equivalent if they wish their combat to work.