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On game features from a student game developer

As a second year bachelor student of game programming and development, there is nothing that interests me more than exploring game features, and discussing the effect they have on games and gamers.

Author: Dreamstrider

Level based gameplay, do we really need it?

Posted by Dreamstrider Wednesday September 10 2008 at 3:25PM
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Hello again, it's been a while since I last had the time to write a blog entry here.
School is taking up pretty much all my wake time, and the little I have left is usually spent prodding some of the new games coming out these days.

An imensly interesting topic, and very popular around these parts. The level based system has been used in pretty much any Massive Online game since they were first released. The level system was another part of the MMORPG genre taken directly from it's pen and paper counterparts, which made a lot of sense at the time, considering that it was the Dungeons and Dragons crowd the games were aimed at. Even though many years have passed since the first Massively Multiplayer Game was released, levels are still the norm, and no one seems to be interested in this tested, and proven setup. Is this really the way to progress forward though?

There are many reasons why one would want to have a level based system in place in your game:

Leves limit the content the player has access to at game startup. You might find this to be a very strange positive, but the truth is, that no one would enjoy a game where they could jump right in and slay the arch demon of badness rfrom the very start. The truth is that by limiting the players access to content you can tailor his gameplay experience with more detail. This is very helpfull when it comes to storytelling, itemization and so on.

Levels are great for player motivation. There is nothing just like finally hitting that next level and being rewarded with new powers, stats and even titles. Players need goals, both the easy to reach, and those far in the horizon, to keep them going. There is very little point in playing a game if you don't feel like you are getting anything back from it.

Levels are a great way for players to judge their own strength. This might be listed as both a pro and a con. Comparing your level to that of a monster is a very good way for a new player to see if it is possible to beat or not. 

These are some of the positive features about levels. It is very important to note that these are very good reasons to stick with this system, and not just things that are "nice" but actually are a "must". There are probably many other reasons why one would include levels in their games, but I hope that I have covered the most important ones above. If I have forgotten an important reason to have levels in a game, please feel free to remind me by a comment below.

Now, from what you read above, it might seem to you that I am saying there is no way around the level solution. This is far from the case. It is my firm belief that removing the need for a skill based system has to do with proper game design. I believe that using levels to track character progression is a well proven solution, but it is also the "easy way out". 

Games like Planetside and Starwars Galaxies proved well that you do not need a level based power system, even though one might argue that both had levels to some extent, it is still far from the systems used by games such as World of Warcraft, Age of Conan, Vanguard and most other MMOGs. I believe that levels are a great solution for some games, but that they should in no way be the solution used for all the games out there.

Why should players be constantly pushed through content he is still enjoying because he has "outleveled the zone" ? Why should I not be able to play with my friend because he has been playing for longer than me? Does it make sense that a naked high level player should be able to easely defeat a player wearing proper armor at a lower level?

I say no. I believe that we need to find a game solution that allows players to feel that they are progressing, without having to represent this by an artificial bar slowly ticking away towards the next level.
What do you think? Do you have an idea to how this could be solved? Please post a comment below.
Once again, thank you for your time.

-The Dreamstrider.