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6:16pm on Saturday, 30th July, 2016:

Level Thinking


I've been replaying Pillars of Eternity this week, and have made my usual mistake of going somewhere meant for higher-level characters. I'd much prefer an open world, in which I could go where I liked when I liked, but there are few RPGs where that can happen. The reason is simple: levels.

Levels are typically used by designers because they give players goals, rewards, a sense of power, and choices over how to develop their characters. This is fair enough, because levels do have those properties. Unfortunately, if your character becomes more powerful, then your enemies also have to become more powerful or the game becomes too easy. This is usually implemented by having tougher enemies in parts of the game world that you'll come across just at the right time if you follow the proper path (which is what Pillars of Eternity does, or by having the enemies level up at the same time as you do so it doesn't matter when you find them, they're always going to be as hard/easy to beat (which is what Skyrim does).

In an open world, you can't control where players are going to go. Either (static difficulty) they're going to come across enemies they can't yet beat from time to time or (dynamic difficulty) they're going to come across ones they can't beat ever (alternatively, that they can't not beat unless they try really hard to lose). I much prefer static difficulty to dynamic difficulty, but that's not what I'm going to rant about at the moment. I'm going to rant about levels: specifically, I'm going to rant about how too few designers know what the theory behind them is.

In role-playing games, levels are not only a mechanic for driving forward gameplay. They are a reflection in the game world of something the game world has no access to: the player's self-image. When people play a content-heavy game, they improve at it; the point of levels is to recognise this in the game world. It's not that your character is improving, it's that you are improving; the character is merely going up a level to acknowledge that you, the player, are more experienced.

If a designer understands this, then when a character goes up a level there doesn't have to be much of a gameplay-relevant reward at all. You can have the extrinsic, columns of golden light and annointment music if you think the players are expecting it, but there's no need to add new spells or access to new weapons or more health or anything else like that. You can do it while the player is still learning the ropes, tutorial-style, but after then you can really cut back. The effect is that you can have levels, but they don't really do much to the character.

This isn't to say they don't do much to the game world, though. Through the character's level, the game can recognise the player's level of expertise and react appropriately. Thugs and cutpurses won't attack you because they know you can beat them through skill (rather than because you have a sword with a dozen enchantments on it). Merchants and nobles will ask you to do things because they know you can handle yourself (rather than because you're basically a Dalek with legs). You can wear armour because it fits, not because you're now suddenly strong enough to put it on. You can wield a sword because you can wield a sword, not because you've tripped the switch that turns it from being a useless piece of metal into being a finely-honed fighting blade. An open world can be open without having to have end-game enemies that could kill early-game enemies with a sneeze, or by having every enemy be an end-game enemy when you reach the end game.

In MUD1, the stats for high-level characters were the same as for mid-level characters. There were a couple of extra abilities, but nothing that really made a lot of difference. Low-level players left high-level players alone because the high-level players were high-level players and would roundly thrash them; they didn't leave them alone because they were playing high-level characters that came with extra stats and abilities.

If today's RPGs flattened out their level curves more, we could have the open worlds we want without having either to gatekeep areas off using narrative or to level-up the game to fit the characters.

I'm still enjoying Pillars of Eternity, though. I just wish I'd chosen to play a barbarian this time round.

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Copyright © 2016 Richard Bartle (richard@mud.co.uk).