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r1ft Gaming Blog

A mirror of my gaming blog at The jaded game designer turned corporate lackey. Feedback is always welcome.

Author: Daedren

Skilled vs. Leveled Progression Systems

Posted by Daedren Friday June 8 2007 at 7:47AM
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In coming up with a next generation MMO, one thing we definitely want to avoid is the leveling treadmill that plagues (or is "featured") in today's MMO's. It's proven to be a good way to hook players in some games, if they're lucky, but to me, it seems just like a hamster hitting the little lever to receive his treat. And a radiated one, at that. Surely we can come up with something more imaginative than this!

Leveled Based Progression: Why it can work

Level progression is the simple progression of a character through "levels". You start at level 1, and the end goal is to reach the maximum level, at least for character progression/power purposes.

The benefits of this are:

  • A clear sense of what you need to do to progress; i.e, level up
  • A distinction of progression compared to other players (this is also a negative in many eyes)
  • A simple, static system that any kid that took a couple months of programming could probably do (player gets item A or skill Z at level X. Yay!)
  • An extremely simple scaling system that can tell players whether or not they should be in an area or attempting to do something (and what's the fun in that?) -- If something is X levels higher than you, it's too hard.

Why leveled progression sucks
And now for the good stuff, which is the negatives! As you may have noticed, my positives started turning into negatives. So let's cut through all the crap:

  • Level based systems are too static; something or someone is X levels below or higher than you, so you know that you can or cannot take an encounter.
  • Customization of character. It's hard to truly customize your character how you want it when you're on an unerring path to a pre-determined destination.
  • You have to kill stuff in a leveled base system. As a warrior, you could group up, do absolutely nothing and let your friends kill stuff, and you would advance and be better at your skills.
  • Lack of realism. Sure, we're in fantasy worlds toting around swords, throwing fireballs or shooting people with mini-guns. That doesn't mean it has to defy all logic. Heroes, as they get older and more seasoned, become harder to kill because they are better at what they do. Just because someone has been around the world a few times doesn't mean they shouldn't die with a dagger in their throat or a few bullets in their upper extremities.
  • Best of all, your skills (progression in this case) actually go up when you use them, or down if you let them atrophy. There's nothing wrong with a game actually making sense - at least in some ways!

And now, why does a Skill based system rock?

  • Allows full customization of a character. If you want to play a pacifist mad-scientist doctor merchant that would never harm a fly: you can! You may have to find ways to get specimens and such to work on (and test with and kill of course) - but you don't *have* to have any certain skills.
  • It adds a sense of adventure to the game. If you're still wet behind the ears, and feel like taking on an entire slaver ring, go for it! You'll probably die (or more likely get sold into slavery - more on that soon) - but you won't know by some "consider" system if someone or something is too powerful for you. Generally speaking, if you're a wimp, and you're looking at a huge man-eating whatever or a guy in a powersuit with a gatling gun: that's warning enough to not mess with these guys.
  • It allows for a much more interesting combination of skills than a leveled system could.
  • Most importantly: your skills increase or atrophy as you use them or don't use them. There is nothing wrong with a fantasy or sci-fi themed game to actually have hints of realism in them.

In the end, skill based progression just allows for a much more dynamic and unique experience. It's also much more in the 'spirit' of the Fallout world, in our opinion, to choose this route.

We don't want to limit the overall experience by choosing an industry standard just because it works in some games. Skill based systems are harder to implement, of course, but that's our job.

Isn't it hard to implement? A skill based system?


It is difficult. The majority of games out there today have leveled based systems because they are easy. However, the market is so saturated with these now that to try to make any game really standout is near impossible. This really just comes down to lack of vision within game developers.


The problem isn't the scenery we're looking at running on the treadmill. I believe we, as gamers, have just ran on too many treadmills and we're keen to view some scenery via a different mechanism. It will take some long hours and a real drive to make something revolutionary, but I believe it can be done.

cmagoun writes: One danger of an open-ended skill system is that it can lead to a "best way" to build a character depending on how well-balanced the games items are and how useful the various skills are in the game. So, if a certain weapon is just more useful, or if some skills pale at higher levels, you will see templated builds and not achieve the levels of customization you want. Fri Jun 08 2007 12:40PM Report
Paragus1 writes: Skill-based systems are great because it adds an infinite level of customization to your character. It's also good because it doesn't pigeon-hole people into these roles fomr which they can never escape. In many games people will often reroll an alt just to have a chance to break free of that hard predefined job. That's why in class-based games I always try the Hybrids so you can to gample a lot more and have more tools. Skill base can be dangerous though if not implimented right. If the balance and power level in the skills is off, everyone will flock to the same ones and you will have a world full of clones due to a lack of viable options. Sat Jun 09 2007 3:40PM Report
Panossian writes: I think the goal of any dev should be to allow players to create and UNIQUE avatar. There is nothing worse and more disheartening in an MMO then rounding the corner a town of a dungeon and come face to face with another player who looks and is skilled exactly as you are. A Skill based system is a great way to go but there needs to be a wide enough array of skills to support different types of viable skill specs. Inevitably in any pvp (which im hoping fallout will be) atmosphere certain skills setups will arise that are just more dominant then others and in tern the majority of players will gravitate toward that spec. Back in AC1 (which had a skill system) the majority of the top pvpers all had a very similar spec(I forget the name off the top of my head)but it got to he point where almost everyone you encountered was the same person other then the color of their armor and a few pieces here or there. I always liked the Idea of a Skill and Class system where players could choose a class or an archetype and then have a large assortment of skills within their chosen class/archetype. Sun Jun 10 2007 10:09AM Report
Panossian writes: LoL, just read the other two comments. We seem to be on the same page.... Sun Jun 10 2007 10:11AM Report
vajuras writes: Class based systems also can suffer from Flavor of the Month City of Heroes suffers from that bad. In the end, if the skills are well balanced then you won't have an 'uber template'. Balance issues usually popup due to lazy game devs or game designers not understanding the mathematical implementations too well. RTS games usually have designers dedicated towards balance. Anyway I'm all for skill based systems they work nicely for PVP. No rerolling jsut to experiment. Also no huge barrier hopefully between newbie and vet. Skill based is a bit riskier of course but I'm all for pure skill based or templates that limit my skills Wed Jun 20 2007 4:59AM Report
vajuras writes:

sorry guys when I wrote my post I was thinking of skill based systems that do not have 'atrophy' but rather was thinking of a sort of template. there are many variations and I was speaking out of context. realized this jsut now

Tue Jul 10 2007 8:57PM Report writes:
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