Tobold's Blog
Wednesday, May 11, 2011
Losing power through leveling

One of the defining characteristics of a role-playing game, as opposed to let’s say an adventure game, is that your character gets more powerful over time. Whether that is by some sort of skill system or a leveling system, there is always some sort of “character development” mechanic with some numbers going up in value. Games that aren’t RPGs, but still have some similar character development mechanic are said to “contain role-playing elements”, a phrase that makes the kind of people who think role-playing means “acting in character” cringe. So I was playing World of Tanks, which has such a level-gaining system, and would like to discuss the comparison with leveling in MMORPGs here.

In World of Tanks you start with a level 1 tank. You gain a form of experience points, called research points in this game, which you can spend to research better equipment for your tank, like a better gun, or a better engine. And once you researched the prerequisites, you can also research access to level 2 tanks. But unlike a MMORPG, the level 2 tank doesn’t replace the level 1 tank; you simply end up owning both of them, until you sell one to make room in your garage. Now there is really no reason to keep that level 1 tank, it is just plain bad, and every nation just has one sort of them. But at level 2 there are already different types: light tanks, medium tanks (heavies come higher up in level), SPGs (artillery), and tank destroyers. Thus keeping several different level 2 tanks while only developing one branch further to level 3 and beyond makes more sense.

That is what I did, and after switching back and forth between level 2 and level 3 tanks a lot for a while, I noticed something curious: The higher level tank was less successful than the lower level tank of the same type. This is due to World of Tanks’ pairing algorithm: A level 2 tank is most likely to end up in battle against level 1 and 2 tanks, while a level 3 tank is most likely to end up in battle against level 3 to 10 tanks. Which means my fully equipped level 2 tank is the best possible tank in the battle of the level 1 and 2 tanks, while my not fully researched level 3 tank is the worst possible tank in the higher level battle. I need to keep playing the level 3 tank to get up to the higher levels; but playing the lower level tanks is plain more fun, and as I’m still getting *some* reward (credits, free experience) from playing the lower levels, I’ll keep doing that too.

Losing power by leveling is less obvious in a MMORPG, as you don’t keep your lower level character around after leveling up. The higher level simply overwrites the lower level, so you have no opportunity to compare them. In principle your higher level character is more powerful, thus if you had problems with some particular mob at some level, you’ll have a better chance of killing that same mob after leveling up. Only that isn’t what is actually happening: While leveling up you usually also move to the next zone, and battle against different mobs, which are also more powerful. And most games work a bit like World of Tanks here: The power of your opponents goes up faster than your own. If you made a statistic of all the character deaths on a server on any given day, you would find that by far the most deaths are incurred at the level cap. Getting your level 1 character killed is nearly impossible in most modern games.

As I mentioned before, another game I am currently playing when it is up is Glitch, a MMORPG without combat, which uses a skill-system which resembles the one of EVE. Now as there is no combat, your character development isn’t measured in how hard a monster you can beat. But that doesn’t mean Glitch doesn’t have challenges. The fundamental challenge in Glitch is balancing your energy, “storing” energy by cooking food, and then using that energy for energy-draining activities like mining. And in Glitch increasing a skill really means life gets easier for you. If you increase your mining skill you consume less energy while mining, if you increase your cooking skill you can make better kinds of food, and if you increase the various harvesting skills you get more food ingredients for less energy. And I must say that actually getting more powerful through character development is more fun than losing power through leveling.

Of course in World of Tanks, once you get past level 3, you’re also getting more powerful through leveling. But MMORPGs seem to be stuck in a design where your character is unlikely to die while leveling up, leading to an endgame where you scrape his remains of the floor every half hour. Most endgame activities in modern MMORPGs would be not feasible in a game with permadeath. The highest level characters are the most likely to die, and somehow that doesn’t feel all that epic or heroic to me. Even the whole MMO blogosphere and game forums community is obsessed with a permanent discussion of failure. Most bickering about the state of the community, fail PuGs, and guild drama, is caused by this game design where your character loses power through leveling up, and him failing a dozen times before any success is considered normal. Makes you wonder why you bothered leveling that character up, only to turn him from a hero to a permanent failure.
The paradox (leveling / level cap) is because, as it's been posted too many times, MMOs are actually two completely different games packed into a single box. The leveling game, where your character develops (more abilities) and the endgame dungeons/raiding, which is the synchronized dance part.

I find that a good approach would be to eliminate levels altogether, making the "leveling" part a sequence of quests which unlock abilities and give you a tutorial on how to use them (WoW contains a single quest chain doing this: the druid flight form chain). Your character would then really become more powerful (more abilities), and be able to face harder challenges, leading to the "ultimate challenge" of raiding.

At the same time, I'm not sure most players would appreciate this: the number inflation (I'm talking damage) seems to work a bit too well for player satisfaction.
However annoying, this is a common occurence in pretty much all MMORPGs, and actually, most cRPGs (and RPG as a whole) systems as well.
The problem is, as you mentioned, linked to a "level" system, which supposedly increases your heroes power by a certain factor every time, but also increases the level of the challenges you face.

Is there something MORE annoying than killing level 1 rats in 2 hits at level 1 and being nearly annihiliated by level 50 rats later on? I think not.
Likewise, a level 1 Shepard in ME could kill stuff quite nicely, often with much ease than the exact same stuff 15 levels later.

Note that, if you played Ultima Online at some point in time, this aspect was not present whatsoever. You gained skills over time, but the challenges did not evolve with you, they all were available right from the get go AND even a freshly created hero could, with bit of luck, skill, armor and weapon, survive an encounter with an elemental.

Personally, what always annoyed me with the "leveling system" is that it totally breaks any sense of immersion and logic in a game setting. If you take WoW as an example, every single creature in cata zones is level 80+ and there are thousands upon thousands of them, ranging from giant rats (or some other fluffy animals) to random_giant_being_xx. These guys could completely annihilate Azeroth, destroy SW or Ogri barely breaking a sweat.
With WoW up to 85 now, EQ2 up to..something like level 95 I think, I just don't see the point anymore as it all seems to be quite the same: bashing rats as if we were level 1...

With all that said, us humans are more easily hooked on the drug that is constant leveling and rewards than anything else, more now than ever before. I'm just wondering if we'll overdose at some point, or if we'll just keep going forever and see WoW with level 200 or something, still bashing rats and wooly badgers :)
I rather get more powerful by fighting more powerful enemies, than by becoming ever more powerful compared to my enemies.

The latter results in absurd one-hitting or ridiculously long fights against low level opponents.

The effect in WoT is just a side effect of a very gamey system. So I don't care that much.
The increase of difficulty as the game progresses is one of the enduring relics of the coin-op era. The motivation for that design has also remained the same: If the player can win easily, there's no point in continuing to pay for the game.

There's also a less cynical reason to gradually reduce the player's advantage. According to flow theory, too easy challenges and too difficult challenges both disrupt enjoyment. If the character's power increases faster than the opponents', the game becomes less difficult and that can lead to the player becoming bored. Likewise, if the player's skill can't keep up with the stricter difficulty tuning, the player can become disillusioned like you described.

That said, the gradually worsening odds and the eventual defeat could be reworked into an interesting narrative. Many tales have been told about buffoons being exposed in the face of a real threat, hubris leading to ruin, illusions of morality and civility shattering.. On the more upbeat side, concepts like heroic sacrifices or inherent goodness of people would shine brightly in darker setting.
Many tales have been told about buffoons being exposed in the face of a real threat, hubris leading to ruin, illusions of morality and civility shattering.

While one could say that modern MMORPGs do a rather good job in these aspects you mention, I can't help but think that exposing the buffoons and shattering civility isn't the best possible business model. :)
Which means my fully equipped level 2 tank is the best possible tank in the battle of the level 1 and 2 tanks, while my not fully researched level 3 tank is the worst possible tank in the higher level battle.

Your level 2 tank is essentially a twink.

A level 29 twinked out WoW character is far more powerful in 20-29 bracket than a level 30 character in 30-39 bracket.
THere is a lot to like about EVE (except for the fatal flaw of course.) In particular, you might still use your month three ship in year three. Another nice aspect is there isn't near the gear reset; you can come back to the game in a couple of years and there may be new FOTM but transport ships and destroyers still do about what they used to. Now the EJ min/max crowd might make fun of your ship but it is still far more useful than last expansion's gear in WoW.

I wonder if it is coincidence that WoT and EVE are about level 1 or level 3 vehicles as opposed to players? I.e., a level 85 player is always a level 85. But an EVE player could buy a 300,000,000 ship but decide their beginning destroyer that has 60% of the capabilities for 1% of the price will be fine.

So your vehicle not you "progressing" has the advantage of not replacing the old level and more specialization which makes "best deck" harder/impossible. And it is a decent game mechanic- and reasonable immersion-wise to have the tradeoffs & balances. I.e. a really expensive Battleship having a hard time hitting a new player's destroyer seems reasonable. And it certainly helps to keep away from the boring omgwtfpawnmobile I would want to have.

The downside is that some people, not I, are put off when it's not "you" that is getting more powerful and who you control but rather your vehicle.
While one could say that modern MMORPGs do a rather good job in these aspects you mention, I can't help but think that exposing the buffoons and shattering civility isn't the best possible business model. :)
Not necessarily. Warcraft 3 and Starcraft were big hits back in the day.
I feel bad for light tanks especially.

Looking at the chart, a tier 5 light tank can legitimately get matched up with tier 10 heavies. Which you literally can't even penetrate since they have 220+MM armor.

Tier 4 tanks can also get tier 9s, which is probably worse
In WoW, the power loss while levelling as a healer is very noticeable in the current game. I've been playing a resto druid alt through WOTLK content right now, and a big heal will take a tank from near-death to full there. Then you level up to 85 and that same heal will barely make a dent in a dying tank's health pool. I don't mind the latter model in principle, but it's quite a shock to the system after the way healing worked during your entire levelling career.
Also, filed under "If I made an MMO", my idea has always been leveling with diminishing returns and no cap. Have most of the growth take place up front, designate "tiers" of levels that can work together, and after the final tier where the "endgame" is, just start ramping up EXP to the next level and decreasing reward for each level. Let the level 100s be clearly better than the level 60s, but also only a margin better, and not completely outclassing them. And they can all team up. If you like grinding and leveling, you always can get out there and increase your power, but until there is a new content release, it is only going to have marginal returns.
Maybe part of the problem is that most MMOs aren't designed to showcase your power. I started out with Pen and Paper RPGs, and when I watch action/adventure movies of any stripe, that tends to color how I see them. So, for example, in a movie like the Mummy, I kind of give every one a class or role in my head, and think about how you could make it into a game, and man, that would be a fun game to play.

So, with that said, how do movies and books showcase the power level of their characters? Almost everything handles this the same way. They combine challenges which, by themselves would be trivial for the main characters, but together pose a significant threat. For example, running along the top of a moving train while dealing with multiple assailants, or the classic bar fight involving about 30 people attacking 1.

The problem with most computer games, is that, other than things like "don't stand in the fire", there is really no way for designers to make multiple challenges add together multiplicatively. Adding this type of element would allow for an increase in power to feel more real. For example, right now, a level 1 mob can't even hit a level 15 character. What if there was a mechanic though that for every mob past the first that was attacking you, their chance to hit went up by 5%, and they gain a bit of resistance to AOE effects? Suddenly, if the designers throw a swarm of low level mobs at the player, it actually is quite dangerous, even though the individuals alone are still trivial.
Wouldn't a better MMORPG comparison be PvP level brackets? In which case it sounds very similar.
The problem with most computer games, is that, other than things like "don't stand in the fire", there is really no way for designers to make multiple challenges add together multiplicatively.

Excuse me?
- don't stand in fire
- interrupt the boss if it casts spell X
- do your priority attack system of five spells.
- cast spell X if you get procc Y, but never cast spell X with procc Z
- run to the healer when the blue slime spawns
- attack the green slime when the boss target the yellow slime.
- ...

Really, I don't like the boss fight encounters focus of current MMORPGs. But this isn't the reason.

"The latter results in absurd one-hitting or ridiculously long fights against low level opponents."

You never played UO I take it? Or tried DarkFall (and to a lesser extend, EVE)?

With a correct power curve, you don't end up one-hitting mobs or bashing something that can't hurt you but still takes 20min to kill, you just end up being able to kill them a bit faster/safer/with-less-gear, increasing your profit rate/margin. Very different mindframe overall, and IMO, far superior to the issue of leveling in a themepark.
Syncaine, I agree with you. I was stating that I like the one thing more than the other in a WoW-like game.

Of course, there are other, and better ways, to handle things. I wrote about that extensively on my blog.
This phenomenon of losing power through levelling is not just a feature of mmorpgs. It also applies in most single player games. In a shooter game you get more powerful weapons as you advance through the game but the enemies get stronger and more numerous. In a strategy game you advance along the tech tree but your AI opponent still manages to stay one step ahead of you.

I guess we gamers like to feel more powerful while at the same time enjoying ever increasing challenges in game-play. A game where you got more powerful while the mobs stayed the same would quickly lose interest.

Nevertheless I have often wondered about making a parody of this model where you start out as a level capped character who loses levels rather than gains them as you advance. Assuming the mobs stay the same the challenge would be to see how low you could get and still survive.
Nils, you are right, I didn't make my point very clearly. Developers can clearly add together challenges, but none of the challenges that they use are really exclusive to any particular power level. There is really no reason why a level 1 character couldn't overcome any of the challenges you listed (assuming they were tuned for that level of course), because they don't relate to the power level of the character, but to the skill of the player.

What I was failing to express was a desire to see tools that allow characters to become more powerful than individual opponents, but for those opponents to consistently still pose a threat to the character.
I'm reminded of the problem in Elder Scrolls: Oblivion. I didn't know that NPCs leveled up with me, so I just went on hopping around and sneaking and leveling up. Skills cap at 100, so eventually I wasn't putting points in my most useful skills, instead "diversifying", which really just meant spending points on skills that I could barely benefit from. Meanwhile enemies just kept getting stronger. I was hitting diminishing returns while my enemies cackled with glee at their new-found power. I found myself very grateful for the difficulty slider.

How do you feel that the DIKU MMO model could be changed without alienating a -very- large percentage of the MMO playerbase, who have been conditioned by what they have experienced in DIKU MMO's such as EQ and WoW?

My understanding of game design is rudimentary at best, but I also dont think it takes hands-on experience in MMO developement to be able to recognize the importance of the "carrot on a stick" approach used by a majority of mmo devs.

If you look at what is being done in ANY game, a developer can take any arbitrary aspect of a game and add as many zeros to the stat/level/spec/talent/skills/experience/whatever, and it automatically becomes a progression element, which translates into it also becoming -static content- that players must overcome.

Makes you wonder why you bothered leveling that character up, only to turn him from a hero to a permanent failure.

It doesnt make me wonder. I assume that the static nature of the leveling game should coexist with dynamic content that supports the choices I made as I leveled my character up, thereby offering a challenge by which I am able to weight the success of the choices I made during the leveling phase. The problems with most MMO's is that the dynamic content isnt dynamic at all, with the exception of PvP where you play against other players, and we end up in a game of one-upmanship against the developers, where strategy and min-max sites serve to pollute the gaming experience - while scripted and AI based encounters are very short lived in enjoyment.

I tend to think that the next big wave in DIKU based MMO's will be the inclusion of pure and Dynamic content, that is generated on the fly, and will serve to strengthen the support mechanism between whatever level/stat/spec/ect. system developers use in future MMO's.
One thing I don't get though is WHY should our characters always become more powerful though levels.

Think about it, in our "world", how do we become "more powerful"?
- Power over others (physical/mental)
- Power over our environment (physical/technical)
- Skill development (experience/study)

We have, in our "reality" of things, very, very powerful men, both physically (strenght, money, etc) and mentally. We also have powerful men mostly because of their domination socially (over others).
Also, in our "reality", we all have challenges, some we set, some forced upon us. However your "power", you face different challenges, and common ones.

My point is, why is it that we apparently need "levels" to represent power in our games while it's completely abstract, completely foreign to anything know, has no logical value, no connection to anything even remotely human. There is NEVER EVER a point in nature when someone or something suddenly becomes twice what he was before a given challenge.

In tabletop RPG (and most cRPG as well), I rarely have as much fun as when I'm low level. My chars then are as close to "human" as they ever will be and am therefore forced to REALLY think things through to avoid penalty (and death).
As my chars gain level, that "grip" on reality and logic just turns into non fireballing machinguns, godlike powers to solve everything and make coffee while at it. That's also why I enjoy GURPS way more than DnD for example: in GURPS, even with a lot of adventures behind you, you can get hurt VERY quickly and VERY badly by pretty much anything holding a knife while in DnD, a level 10 character will need like 50 stabs to get hurt somewhat.

Sorry for the wall of text, it's hard to explain :)
Chris: That's already happening actually.

1) Randomly generated magical items dropping from random mobs.
2) Random events without any point, story, goal to replace actual content (Rift anyone?)

It's very to do and since apparently the "mass" is pretty much braindead as long as it gets it's daily fixe of "rewards", it's surely the future of gaming.
I wonder why anyone bothers to learn in school then, or why parents put their kids through school. These kids will aspire to do more and more and more, but they'll rarely ever reach those goals. Wouldn't it be better if those kids could just stay in kindergarten and be successful forever?

Parents these days are just growing their kids to become permanent failures.

TOTALLY agree. I loved designing and playing low-level D&D adventures, but not higher level ones for the exact reason you stated. Despite my years of playing, I never had a character over 8th level.

And although I prefer fantasy MMO role-playing games, I want most of the fantasy to be external to my own character. The more relatable my own struggles are, the more immersive the game is to me.

I would like to try a game in which leveling is a bit more obscure, less quantitative and more qualitative, and the milieu is more historically medieval.

That said, there is no denying that the popularity of MMO's among the dominant demographic is at least partly due to that insatiable desire to track and minipulate statistics.

There was nothing more satisfying in D&D than studying my character sheet, and imagining those numbers getting bigger and bigger.
I wonder why anyone bothers to learn in school then

Probably because leveling up in a game only leads to you still doing meaningless stuff in a game, while leveling up at school leads to you earning money and leading a real life. Maybe you should give it a try once.
Interesting theory on power. I will have to take this up in depth with a blog post of my own but quick points:

1. More deaths occur at the level cap because you can't get to a higher level to die. In other words, you spend most of your time at the cap, hence you have more deaths at that level.

2. Levels in most RPGs (single player) don't really care about your experience. You can "beat" the game at any high level, not just the cap. Dragon Age is the most recent example. So your power is always relative and your tactics are much more important. However, in fantasy MMORPGs, you can only gain enough power to "beat" the game at the level cap. That is to say, you don't start getting to the point of the game until you are at the point of the game. Level 1-9 doesn't matter; only level 10 matters.

I haven't played World of Tanks, but I'm familiar with the kind of leveling you describe. It's the same with all automobile games (namely racing games). You've got a garage full of vehicles, some faster, some more agile, and some heavy. There's no leveling involved there, not even abstractly. There is only collecting equipment. It only becomes leveling when player experience is measured linearly from one inferior point to the next superior point in their career.

I don't know if this is what you mean about how World of Tanks is, but it's the closest experience I have to what you describe, in race car games. I wouldn't call that leveling.
@Red Sky:

Hmm, I'd quite disagree there.

1) Death stopped meaning anything in games years ago. Nobody cares about dying in games anymore. Go on a classic EQEmu server if you want to see people caring about death, from 1 to cap level :)

2) For cRPGs, that's like saying levels don't matter, since challenges always scale. I quite agree, and it makes, I think, the level system stupid :)
For MMORPGs, that's why I usually stop playing as soon as my character (or a couple of them) get to max level. The whole endgame is just silly to me and apart from the social aspect of raiding, it's boring.

3) I don't think it's the same. Sure there is some kind of "equipment" leveling in racing games, but if you're a great driver with a mini "level 1" car, you'll be a great driver with a "level 10" uber turbocharged car. There is no "level" difference between kart racing and F1 racing. That of course stops being true when the AIs start cheating :)

From what Tobold mentioned, even if you're "good" (I don't even know if you can be) at level 1, level 2 becomes harder, then level 3 even harder, etc.
The challenge is increasing difficulty as player skill increases, while giving the player meaningful rewards for progressing through the game. Unfortunately, if we remove character power from the game, that leaves social rewards (titles, achievements, announcements, etc) and the infamous "4th pillar" (3rd in this case I guess), where players progress to find out what happens next.

You could unlock types of content in the game. Traditional games have done this with replayable mini-games. Maybe you can't play the Peggle add-on (but not as an add-on) until you complete a specific questline?

But then you get back into the problems generated by instance attunements, assuming multiplayer content instead of single player, and Blizzard doesn't show any signs (that I'm aware of) of suggesting those should return.

The analogy is false until schooling becomes optional. Parents and governments make the choice, not the children. When the children are given the choice, you see exactly that happening. Some will go on to many years of university and loans, others will start a family, and others will live single and carefree.

Though you could make a comparison of how we treat a child's age (or a characters level) as the most important attribute when deciding what education (what game content) to offer them, and how absurd that is.

@Red Skies:
I think that's probably very close, except you spend your experience on car upgrades. Each car comes a certain way stock, but you can upgrade specific pieces. Some outside limitation on what upgrades you can get and how much they cost (you can't put a tank engine in a Ferrari, or spoilers on your tank).

Most racing games I've played do allow this, but they use money earned from matches instead of experience or research points. At the end of the day, it's just an arbitrary name for in game tokens used to buy upgrades.
Hey Tobold. A factor I couldn't see included/elaborated on: The role of skill in one's relative power.

It's not hard-coded, but rather assumed that as you grow in familiarity and practice with your character/class, you will better learn which techniques are more effective, and become more skilled in using what you have.

If your hard-coded 'numbers' power increases and your skill-affected power/efficiency increases at the same time, but enemy difficulty only increases to compensate for the numbers power-increase without factoring the skill increase, then one's relative power is clearly growing... To the point that some may complain that it is too easy, not challenging.

Games balance this three-way vector according to different tastes. MMOs seem to trend toward accommodating the challenge-seekers rather than the vicarious power-trippers.
I liked this post... outside the box thinking

There appears to be a deep need in the human condition to improve oneself. Gygax hit gold when he took LARP and introduced leveling and power scaling in Chainmail. I don't think we are going back to preleveling concepts.

Your assertion that no die leveling sets the wrong expectations for frequent dying in end-game is valid. But you can't make a game intro (which leveling is basically) and add to frustration.

Leveling is practice
End-game is performance

Leveling is to provide a pleasant game experience for the user to see more game content thus drive playing time. More Playing time starts the player investment cycle which yields (we hope) brand loyalty.

End game is an add on to games where the hope is to keep existing players at max progression busy until new expansion and new levels appear.

We make end game harder due to the expectation that learning and practice time is over. It has been expected by players (at least it seems so) that end game should involve more risk, be less forgiving and be mult-player.

Side note- wow scaling in cata appears to make this weaker argument really stand out since 80 to 85 the slope of power gain is less than 1 to 80.

So... I guess the idea here is that leveling where no die is the norm... sets wrong expectations for end game and thus because dying is a staple in end game... this in turn makes charicters "weaker" than leveling charicters.

And so if getting to an area where your toons are weaker is end-game... why bother?

What about a paradigm where you risk great failure (dying repeatedly) but yield great reward (phat loots)? I think I'm sensing a relative disenchantment with paltry normal rewards 13 points in herioc mode!

VS an out of the box stupendous reward for doing the really hard and getting BIG PHAT LOOTS as a reward... rewards so powerful that you are strong again in the end game?

Would that work?
I don't know if I look at this as a necessarily 'negative' thing. Think of it this way; your character isn't really getting stronger or weaker in comparison to what you'd consider to be challenging content for him. Instead, at least in good games, the 'challenge' goes up with your hero's level, thus allowing you to prove yourself 'heroic' more often. I don't find my level 1 character's near immortality to be heroic at all. I do find my max-level character's tactical options, statistical superiority, and sheer survivability to be heroic - especially because my enemies are that much more challenging for me, and require me (again, in good games) to pay more attention.
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