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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.