Good or Bad? Leveling Up in Video Games

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Well, it has been a while since I discussed game design on That’s All Games. Today’s topic is the level up system found in many video games. This feature, which was historically found in RPG’s, is a topic of debate these days. Some dislike the feature, while others accept it, at least in the RPG genre. Today I will do my best to take a more critical look at the feature, to help figure out if it is a good feature, or a bad feature.

What is the level up system?

First, I will cover some definitions of a level up system. In its most basic form, the level up system is a way for a player character to permanently become stronger in a video game. There are a few ways this can occur, but here are the most common ways it occurs:

  • The experience point system: The playable character earns experience points as the player plays the game, usually from defeating enemies or winning an online match. With enough experience points, the character gains a level, measured in a number that increases by one. When the character levels up, they get stronger in some way. The requirements to gain more levels increases the higher the character’s current level. Most games have a limit to this, such as a maximum level of 99 or 100. Online games can have limitless level ups, but may offer limited benefits beyond a certain point, and as such, this number is more of a measure of how long a player has played.
  • In game currency: After winning battles, the player usually gets in game currency. They can spend it on items, equipment, new abilities, or some other service in game that can make the game easier, or make the character stronger.
  • Abilities: These can be gained in a variety of ways. Abilities are new actions or passive bonuses that alter how strong the character is. In some games, the character gets them simply by reaching a certain level. Other times, the character gains ability or skill points that can be used to earn these new traits. Sometimes, in-game currency is used to purchase them.

It should be noted that all of these can be earned by winning battles in most games. While these systems are most common in RPGs, they can exist in other game genres as well.

Some Examples:

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So, how does this feature work in some games? Let’s look at some examples, and briefly look at if the system works well in them. Most games listed here use the experience point system unless otherwise noted. 

  • Dragon Quest: In this game, you gain levels from experience points from winning battles with enemies. You also gain money from these battles, which can buy new equipment and healing items. Reaching certain levels can have the playable character learn new spells to use. The maximum level here is 30. The main concern is that the main way to progress in the game is to become strong enough to defeat the tougher enemies in a new area. There aren’t any indicators that the random battles will get much tougher, and the first enemy is remarkably tough for an early game foe. Many useful pieces of equipment are pricey in Dragon Quest games, and the first game is no different here. This game, as popular as its series becomes, is a prime example of why some players dislike the level up system, or RPGs in general. It could take the better part of an hour just to get past the tough enemies in the next area.
  • Final Fantasy II: In this game, the stats, weapon proficiencies, and spell levels increase the more you use them. In the original release, increasing one stat decreases another. Some remakes remove this penalty. The game doesn’t use levels or experience points to help you figure out how strong you need to be, and there are no indicators that a stat is about to level up. Like the previous game on this list, if you wander too far in this game, you could encounter something you aren’t ready to fight yet, with little indication that a particular area is too tough. The real issue is that you can’t compare levels with a friend who got past an area before you did to know if you are strong enough to get past the next challenge.
  • Final Fantasy IV: At first glance, the system looks just like the first Dragon Quest game. Gain experience, gain levels, and gain money to get strong enough to progress. What sets this game apart is that if the player battles every random encounter they face along the way, they should be strong enough to progress through the next major challenge plus buy most of the new items and equipment worth getting at every point in the game. There are a few points where this isn’t the case (such as near the end of the game), but these points are few and far between, leading to a cleaner experience.
  • Super Mario Bros. 35 and Tetris 99: Both games reward the player with experience points that lead to leveling up, regardless if the win or lose. Better performances do reward more experience. If I am not mistaken, both games have unlimited levels to gain, though levels higher than 99 have a star next to a number. The reward for leveling here are new player icons, but the player stays just as strong. Both games are online games, so making some players much stronger based on the leveling system may be very unfair.
  • Splatoon and Splatoon 2: These games reward playing, win or lose, with experience, cash, and ability points towards upgrading gear. Each level up adds new weapons and gear in shops, up to level 20 in Splatoon, and level 30 in Splatoon 2. Higher levels don’t mean much in the first game, while Splatoon 2 offers a single super sea snail for each subsequent level up. These items can help you customize gear for making a better setup for your player character, but offer minimal advantages otherwise. Splatoon 2 has unlimited level ups with levels beyond 99 featuring a star next to the level, and the number resets after 99 is reached again. Like the previous two games on this list, too many benefits to leveling would make this online game very unfair. Also, higher-level characters can still use weapons from lower levels, and are balanced in such a way that some are preferred over some higher level weapons.
  • Octopath Traveler: This game allows you to travel in any direction you want. Before entering a new area, a notice shows you a danger level of the area, equal to the ideal level your active party should be. Characters earn job points that can be exchanged for new skills and passive abilities. The player can find new jobs to customize these characters further. This freedom still allows you to enter a new area even if you aren’t ready, but gives you a fair warning. Also, of note, the inactive party members do not get experience or job points, adding to the time needed to get stronger. This is the main weakness to this otherwise great game’s system.
  • Pokémon: The player catches any monster (called Pokémon) and adds them to the party. Leveling can add power, cause a Pokémon to evolve to a stronger form, or teach new moves to a Pokémon. If your party is too weak, or doesn’t match up well with the next opponent, the game could become hard. Inactive Pokémon do not gain experience points, but this is a technical and design limitation to having hundreds of characters in your collection. Of note, in recent versions of this game (particularly Sword and Shield), there is a fast way to gain levels, often after the game is beaten. Pokémon games also allow you to compete with other players, so it is no surprise that multiplayer has an optional “auto-leveling” feature, where both player’s teams are set to level 50, even if they are above or below that level, is also available. Both the fast method to earning levels and the auto leveling feature make multiplayer versus modes much more approachable than they had been in the past. The fast leveling, however, does have the risk of making the main game too easy if used.
  • Dragon Quest XI: This game grants skill points to playable characters every time they level up. These are used for new actions, stat bonuses, or passive abilities that they can acquire. The player chooses to use them right away, or to store them till they have enough for the ability they want. These abilities are on a chart where you need to have gained an adjacent ability before you get the ability you want, but the player has multiple options every time they gain skill points. This game has less leveling required, as the common encounters are avoidable, and are common enough that most leveling is needed to get a better healing spell to endure a fight with a mandatory tough foe. The adventures after the game is done is a much stricter exception, but not everyone will want to play that much.

Pros and cons of this system:

OctopathSkills

Pros:

  • Encourages players to fight enemies for new rewards.
  • Can add surprises by earning new abilities.
  • Allows the game to become more complex.
  • Adds a sense of growth and progress.

Cons:

  • If leveling is a mandatory and lengthy process in a particular game, the game can take much longer to complete than it should.
  • If the player doesn’t see or feel that their characters are stronger, then it can feel like a waste of time.
  • If leveling is mandatory, it can be unclear how long the player needs to keep at it in order to progress in a game.
  • Challenges can become too easy if the player “over levels”.
  • The player doesn’t necessarily need skill to win these sort of games, just enough time to make the win possible or much easier.

Of particular note, these cons are an issue if the system isn’t executed well. With that in mind, let’s look at what kind of design decisions make for better leveling systems, based on the information we have so far.

Best practices:

  • A main goal for games with random encounters: If the player fights every random foe before a mandatory fight, they should be able to handle that fight without gaining more levels.
  • Similarly, the amount of money the player gains should be enough to buy enough upgrades to progress further in the game.
  • Without random encounters: Enough enemies should successfully catch up to the player so that if they fight them, they gain enough experience, levels, and money to progress through the game.
  • If the game has an ability point system, the player should see what options they have for new abilities. Descriptions are ideal for these sorts of games.
  • Online games where players compete with each other should grant limited advantages to higher level players.
  • This can include auto-leveling such as in Pokémon.
  • Or can include no concrete advantages after a certain level, such as in Splatoon.
  • Alternately, you can grant cosmetic benefits to higher levels, such as in Super Mario Bros. 35 or in Tetris 99.
  • Online games can also have a workaround for unlimited level ups. Use an icon to show that they surpassed a particular level such as level 99 or 100, and have a number next to these levels to indicate how much higher the player has gotten. have that number reset to 1 after reaching 99 or 100 again. The experience required should stop increasing per level if this occurs. Give few if no advantages to players after a certain level in these cases.
  • Do not give “be level X to enter” barriers of progress. It is better to make a challenge too hard for lower-level characters than to prevent the player from attempting a task.
  • Leveling should not be mandatory, unless the player is avoiding all optional fights. This can backfire for some players, so be sure to leave some manageable challenges somewhere in the game.
  • Early opponents should be fairly easy, but give small, but helpful rewards early on.
  • Tougher opponents should give higher rewards, so that there are faster ways to level.
  • Passive experience points for inactive party members are a good idea, unless there are complex micromanaging involved with leveling that could slow down the game. 
  • If there are a large number of playable characters, then passive experience for inactive party members could also slow down the game.
  • Not all games need a leveling system, particularly action games!

Conclusion:

Using experience points to level up characters and make them stronger is a tool in a game designer’s toolkit. It can be a bad feature if gaining extra levels is both a mandatory and slow process in a particular game. Leveling can be a good thing if it leads to perceivable rewards, and if not gaining enough levels doesn’t prevent progress. It can be good in online games to encourage play assuming it doesn’t give unfair advantages in competitive games. Like any gameplay element, this feature needs to be balanced with the rest of the game’s components. If the level up process takes too long, then it isn’t executed properly. As such, this feature, although disliked by some, is not entirely good or bad on its own, but depends on everything else surrounding it. In other words, it is a matter of execution.


And that wraps up my analysis of level up systems in video games. Do you know of any games not mentioned that do this well, or poorly? Can you figure out what that game did well, or poorly? Do you like this feature or not and why? Let me know in the comments below! If you liked this article, then click that like button and share on social media! If you want to keep up with That’s All Games, then subscribe via email or WordPress. until next time, have fun gaming!

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