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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 2:25PM
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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.

PrinnySquad writes:

Not only is it not needed, it's an inferior system. It's old, sure. It works, sure. But it's restrictive and outdated.

The only value it serves, or should serve, is as a museum display at this stage.

We can do better. In fact, it has been done and can be done quite simply. It isn't rocket science.

Keep in mind it will change the FEEL of the game. Some people may perfer the way levels FEEL. I have no idea why they would, though.

Wed Sep 10 2008 2:30PM Report
iriegecko writes:

Unless you are fronting the money for a game you have to use a "leveling" based system. You need to keep your customers paying to generate revenue for the company(s) that backed your product.

Pre-CU SWG had a skill based system to advance. What did that entail? Grinding skills to achieve a higher skill so that you could... repeat the cycle. This is the same thing as gaining levels, but they mask it by referring to it as gaining skill.

RPG, from pen-and-paper, to MUDs, Bard's Tale/Ultima, to Diablo, to WOW/EQ/LotR all have the same basic design, leveling. It is the staple of the RPG genre. It's the reason I play these games.

I thought you were going to have a solution instead of waxing philosophical about something that is a standard. If the game has any mention of RPG, it will have a level system or it really is not a RPG.

Wed Sep 10 2008 3:45PM Report
PrinnySquad writes:

The solution is content. Not the grind, iriegecko.

Levels aren't needed.

Wed Sep 10 2008 3:48PM Report
daeandor writes:

Levels aren't needed, but they make it easier for the achievers to comprehend the gameplay.  The solution, though, isn't just content.  It is more than that, there needs to be a goal or direction immediately evident in the game or a very high percentage of players lose interest.  When someone figures out what a large percentage of players (not just the sandbox junkies) need for motivation to play, then you will have a levelless game that is a winner.  Until then, we will have to live with levels.

Wed Sep 10 2008 4:17PM Report
Death1942 writes:

levels arent the big problem.  its how much power players are given.  in a "realistic" MMO a low level character should be able to do considerable damage to a high level character as they are both mortal and (in almost every MMO) human or humaniod.  players are given god like powers in MMO's.  gear that quadruple the base stats and swords that do 300dps.  if you actually use a system where Armour and stats are limited it would reduce the impact of levels and make the game much more fluid.  the one problem is some may find progression a tad boring or crap inwhich case its the devs chance to make decent skills, good zones and interesting content.

Wed Sep 10 2008 4:26PM Report
pileopoop writes:

Maybe lower levels character should be able come close to beat a higher level player ina a Casual MMO, but MMO's are not fun for me atleast if there are not elite players that just mow everyone down. People who play more should be way ahead of someone just starting.

Wed Sep 10 2008 8:29PM Report
hanshotfirst writes:

Where it's skills, levels, or equipment, you either like games with character progression or you don't. Sure there's room for some compromise, but you really can't please everyone.

Wed Sep 10 2008 9:43PM Report
hanshotfirst writes:

Woops, change that "Where" to "Whether" :D

Wed Sep 10 2008 9:44PM Report
zymurgeist writes:

There's nothing "elite" about someone being able to mow down noobs because he's logged more hours. Elite is a player who's better with a naked level zero toon than most people level 900 twinked out to the max. No you don't need levels but you do need a sense of progression and goals worthy of the effort. Oh and purely combat based MMOs are one dimensional crap. There's more to gaming than killing an endless succession of mobs or players.

Wed Sep 10 2008 11:53PM Report
nileq writes:

Levels are surley not needed, and as you state has become the "industry standard". But as you and some of the people above me states it is what keeps a player going, the emediate goal is to reach the next level, and the goal on the horizon is to reach max level.

This is surley needed in the "Theme park mmos" of today (no spite intended). To rid yourself of the need of levels (to keep players occupied) you need switch to a "sandbox"-gameplay, where the "goal" is much wider and will change from time to time (it is what YOU want it to be, not what the game-designer designed it to be).

I myself is eagerly awaiting the arrival of (mmrpg,com's bastard mmo) Darkfall online, witch has just those things you state.

-No levels
-Skill based

Now DFO is marketed as a PvP game and might not be for everyone, but my hope is that it will shift the "industry standard" and show the "MONEY" that there is a mature MMORPG customer-crowd out there that would like to have some propper games to play.

Thu Sep 11 2008 2:06AM Report
xmojo1 writes:

Fallout and Fallout 2 were fine examples of RPGs that were skill-based. As an old-skool gamer who cut his RPG teeth on D&D I can appreciate the level-based formula but MMOs have reached a point where the basic formula stays the same for each new MMO that is released. Gamers are ready for something different, something new that captures the popular imagination. I played Asheron's Call for 7 years but since 2005 I've tried numerous other MMOs and have not stayed for more than 8 months with any of them. I'm sure there are many others like me who are feeling jaded with the state of MMOs at current and are waiting and hoping for that one game that will make us stay loyal for years.

Thu Sep 11 2008 2:23AM Report
PrinnySquad writes:

Nileq, you make some good points about Darkfall, but twitch-focus gameplay with manual aiming and full loot PvP are just awful. Very few people like that stuff (* I know FPS fans like twitch, but they can play BF2 for free). The PvP full loot especially, which is why Ultima changed.

They'll have to if they want to complete. Same with Earthrise, which correct me if I'm wrong, is going down the same path. But like Darkfall, it also has the same virtues.

If both games deliver a solid story progression AS WELL AS keeping strong sandbox elements, and not having to worry about stupid itemization or wasting time with "class balance" or levels, more power to them. I'm not against "theme-park-ness" of solid, fun storyline quests. But why can't you have a strong storyline like that, while still having heavy sandbox elements? If you didn't waste time with making 50,000 different swords, I wager you'd have time to focus on things to do rather than a forced-progression of swords to pick up. If you ask me, strong "World/Sandbox" elements, social elements, RP elements combined with a good combat system (still waiting for that, Atlantica and Matrix are closest, it's not freakin' hard here people) combined with killer storylines and constant new content? Do you really need a sword with +5 more strength? Come on! This is the:

Though if it comes down to the two, I'll play Earthrise, since I'd rather play a sci-fi game after playing so many fantasy ones. Though once someone kills me and loots me, I'll switch to Darkfall. Until someone does it there. Then I have to wait for one or both of them to give up the ghost and fix that. Won't take long, unless they are really stubborn and hate money. I support skill-based, but PvPers are douchebags. It's like playing with that crazy German kid:  He lurvs PvP (he actually is playing Unreal Tournament)!

I can't believe the level-system is so ... ingrained in people that they are defending it. Then again, why should I be surprised? It's classic. Which confuses me since Ultima was skill-based ... why didn't WoW copy them? I'd rather have Ultima-style-clones than EQ-style-clones.

Anyway, that's the prinny take on it. Maybe I'm just crazy, dood. Time to go, Etna is calling.

Thu Sep 11 2008 4:30AM Report
nileq writes:

PrinnySquad: I began to write an answer around your fear about "Full loot" in DFO, it ended up being so long, that I created a new blog and put it up there instead.

Here ->

Thu Sep 11 2008 7:33AM Report
smstexan writes:

Ultima Online was awesome in its day and it wasn't level based either.  I miss that type of system.

Thu Sep 11 2008 8:18AM Report
DaX.9 writes:


- no levels

-skill based


Thu Sep 11 2008 9:35AM Report
Borme22 writes:

I may just be stubbern, However, I feel that Levels in MMOs are a Good thing!

Skill based is nice, but, Some times, I just feel like it's not for me..


Thu Sep 11 2008 11:16AM Report
dominyanno writes:

 I played this MUD called Vampire Wars and i think this is a pretty common setup for levelless MUDs.  You would gain experience through killing and all but not level up, you'd spend the experience on your Health, Mana and Endurance and that and gear determined how strong you were compared to other players in the game.  It would be nice to see this in a graphical MMO.

Thu Sep 11 2008 11:17AM Report writes:
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