|December 22nd, 2005|
In the first post, I outlined my reasons for having disliked levels for about ten years now, and then marched through a discussion of how levels were distorted as they were adapted from pen and paper games into CRPGs and then MUDs. It seemed like a fairly damning case against levels, but it wasn’t the whole picture even of the bad parts. It was also far from a picture of the good parts, which present a compelling case for having levels anyway.
Levels and feedback
The usual case for having levels is made on the basis of feedback. Now, the very first thing we need to get out of the way here is to clarify that we are discussing here what the MUD-Dev mailing list terms “goal-oriented play.” This is what Bettelheim classifed as “games” rather than “play,” and it’s effectively the dominant mode for most games designed today. It’s not, however, the only mode. Games such as Animal Crossing and online games such as There demonstrate that free-form or low-pressure environments can succeed and attract an audience.
But since it’s the dominant mode, let’s consider what it means. One of the main things it means is that levels push towards cooperative rather than competitive play. The reasons really require another essay, but suffice it to say that disparate power levels are incompatible with fun competitive play. In just about every competitive game throughout history, players are given equal footing. The very few asymmetric games are ones where the metrics are not standard defeat, such as Fox and Geese, where the geese win by entrapping the fox, but the fox wins by attrition of geese.
In the world of software-based games, of course, asymmetric games are not only common, but are by far the most typical sort of game. Just about every videogame you play is likely asymmetric in its core mechanics. The player has different capabilities and different statistical traits than the challenges they seek to overcome.
Asymmetry is what really opened the door to levels. In symmetric games, it’s simply not a likely design to choose. But in a cooperative game (or a parallel game of competition, rather than one of direct competition) where one wants to track relative progress of multiple participants, it makes perfect sense, and hence the origin of levels in pen and paper games.
The notion of levels as feedback is important here. Many have claimed that contemporary MMO designers are consciously creating Skinner Boxes: that in effect designers are making conscious use of operant conditioning, most specifically with random reinforcement schedules. Frankly, I haven’t even been in a design meeting where that was discussed as a tactic to use, though I have frequently had conversations after the fact where designers have evaluated their designs and concluded that what they were doing had that effect.
Whether it’s intentional or not, there’s a host of powerful psychology effects that levels as currently implemented give, and it’s not all about Skinner Boxes:
- The aforementioned random reinforcement: you don’t know exactly when you’ll skill up, so you keep doing whatever gave you a little bit of reward
- What Robert Cialdini might call “the commitment fallacy” — once you have a few, you figure you’re in for the ride and may as well finish off the ladder. People don’t tend to like leaving things half-done.
- Another powerful tool of influence: social validation. Levels are publicly displayed, and serve as a significant social marker of status. And humans are hardwired to seek status and validation.
- The “gated community” effect. It’s been observed many many times that people want what they haven’t got. Just as clubs will intentionally create lines outside a door to drive traffic, and just as it’s a time-honored technique of retail and carnies to hire a claque of folks to make the business seem popular, exclusivity in online games is a powerful motivator. Levels effectively put content behind a velvet rope, which just makes us want to get inside.
- Finally, one of the most compelling aspects of levels is the lure of power. Levels promise increments to a player’s health, their damage per second, and so on. People like feeling more powerful — it’s not social validation, it’s the game system itself giving them validation.
Ironically, it’s this last one that causes all the other systemic problems in the game. You could have random reinforcement without upping hit points. You could have exclusive clubs, gated content, publicly displayed status, and a treadmill of ranks to climb, without changing the power differential between levels.
The worst thing is that in many cases, it’s a lie. Until the fairly recent advent of flat level curves, the common practice was for each level to require a bit more kills than the last. A typical way of balancing level systems is to say, “Level 2 will involve killing 20 even matches, Level 3 will involve killing 21 even matches,” and so on. The XP value is then set for each level based on formula that provides more XP for higher level mobs, but keeps to this boundary. When done correctly, it then provides a fixed and straightforward scalar factor you can use to reduce the amount of XP granted for kills of creatures of lower level. The result is no “hell levels,” a very gradual increase in “grind” with fairly rapid feedback at low levels, and (ironically) a net reduction in actual player power against even matches. In terms of the levelling game, an even match is worth less — to keep at the same pace of advancement, a player is put at an increasing disadvantage.
Another common way in which players get weaker as they go up in level is the difficulty of what is considered an even match. It is not uncommon for the targets intended as an even match to be groups of enemies (which means a force multiplier), to require groups to tackle; to have absurdly out of scale hit points; to have special attacks beyond the norm of the equivalent level player; and so on. Of such things are raids born, forced grouping bred, and guilds spawned.
The “grindier” games are ones where this level curve and accompanying power differential is more extreme; rather than a linear increase in number of kills required, they may actually involve an exponential rise. Even where the level curve is fairly flat, as in World of Warcraft, the use of increasing difficulty remains.
The reason, of course, is not feedback — it’s content.
Levels and content
Flatly, levels are a content multiplier.
Look at the dilemma faced by the level-based games which try to minimize the grind by providing a flat advancement curve. A player must engage in 20 kills of an even match to advance a level. The next level, they must engage in 20 kills of an even match. The next level, they must engage in 20 kills of an even match.
What the designer needs to change to make this fun is the definition of an even match. Because games are about learning, the player must be given an increasingly complex situation to handle. In a level-based situation, the increased variables are generally the following:
- The abilities the player can bring to bear on the problem: skills, spells, weapons, etc.
- The tactical situation surrounding the problem: other enemies who might assist, the landscape, coordinating friends in your party, etc.
- The abilities that the enemy brings to the challenge: special attacks, increased damage per second, etc.
- The amount of correct choices the player must make to win the challenge (which is expressed by increasing the enemy’s hit points by a factor larger than the increase in player’s damage per second). You can think of this as directly analogous to making you have to remember more and more colors when playing Simon.
Compare to Tetris, where only one variable increases: speed. Or compare to typical symmetric competitive games, where the sole variable is the skill of the opponent in using the abilities they have, and where tactical situations are emergent. This is almost an embarrassment of changes to make. The fact that so many variables are required speaks to the poverty of the basic combat model to serve as an entertaining game in its own right.
If you think I am saying that typical RPG combat sucks as a game, you’re right.
So now the designer is obliged to create scenario after scenario with all these variables. This is the process of creating content. What exacerbates it, however, is those pesky power differentials that levels generally imply.
In order to prevent players from doing the sensible thing and maximizing their return on time invested by minimizing deaths and maximizing predictable advancement (also known as “bottomfeeding”), developers of level-based systems must create their content in bands. It’s typical to see that for a given player level, the available dataset of challenges is +/- a few levels from the level they are on. A level 10 character may be able to fight a level 6 for minimal XP gain, and may be able to tackle as high as a level 15 and get lucky. Everything else is out of reach either from a reward or a feasibility standpoint.
This would be the point at which I suggest you read another old thing I wrote. Go on, this will still be here when you get back.
OK, now, what you just read contained a number of points about how these games are played:
- Players will be playing content in parallel. You’ve got multiple users, so you need to provide available content for each of them.
- You as a given player will have competition for content resources only within your rough level range.
- You will need to provide content bands proportional to the amount of power differential between your highest and your lowest player.
- Each content band must contain sufficient content to keep the player entertained, or they will term that level “boring.”
- Since a level band cannot offer significant statistical variation (by definition, since otherwise the content would be in another band), this means that the content variaitons within a band will likely have to be in the form of narrative, tactical situations, or something else — something that is not merely power differential.
- Lots of games fail at providing this, which is why each content band consists of killing 5000 orcs or crafting 7000 blaster barrels.
Now, the amount of content required is driven, in the end, by your player population and distribution across levels. Time to pull out that graph again…
What we see here is that in order to alleviate competition, you’ll need to provide a huge amount of content at the highest level band in your game. The effort you went to in order to provide a lack of competition to account for the initial surge of players moving through the middle levels will become obsolete, as the simultaneous population in the midlevels will drop over time. The single largest wave of mid-level players you will ever have, most likely, is in the first few months after launch. After that, you’ll have something like 50 times the “bandwidth” for mid-level players as you will actually need.
This is a massive overspend. You can think of it this way: When the initial population of players came into the game, it was a little higher than the level of the red box. There was some attrition and some slow levelers and some reaslly fast ones, but these distribute along a bell curve. Then the bell curve moves through the levels just like a wave. The red box is the “high water mark” of this wave of players moving through the levels. In order to provide a lack of competition for resources throughout the leveling process, the developer will have had to provide content that fills the volume shown in the red box, so that the peak population of a level band was always accomodated. But the mature playerbase’s need is only the area under the curve. Compare the area of the two spaces.
This is why there are vast echoingly empty adventuring spaces in most mature MMOs. It’s also why the pressure to add solely at the top is so overwhelming: to reduce contention, you have to keep adding variations. Pretty soon, the only way to do that is to add more levels, because you’ve exhausted all the other ways to provide ongoing learning and therefore ongoing fun. Hello, mudflation.
Now you see why I call it “database deflation”. Not only do you end up rendering the expended time players have invested thus far worth less as a proportion of their total advancement, you are also letting the air out of your accumulated content. You are pushing players through a learning process which renders each level band less challenging for them. You are likely introducing new ranges to the power differential in the game, often attached to items which trickle down and effectively shrink the lower content bands, often to nothing.
You also see why remorting into a different class, and “altoholism,” are so common. They allow re-use of this content in a manner that presents different puzzles by giving different abilities to the player, thus rendering every problem somewhat fresh (not totally, mind you). The more diverse the tactics available to classes, the better this will work.
There is one very nice side effect of this, though. Player segmentation.
Levels and cozy worlds
One of the things that works the best in level-based games is the sense of camaraderie with players who are levelling at the same rate as you are and started at around the same time. World of Warcraft makes excellent use of this, as did EverQuest in the early days. In a nutshell, the segmentation in player power caused by levels also meant that a given zone was a cozy world: a welcoming, reasonably sized community where most everyone knew each other. By isolating players both geographically as well as with power differentials, a “movable feast” community was created.
At the higher levels, this breaks down, of course, as the population at max exceeds the capacity of any one place. But if you’re not in a guild at that point, you’re unable to enjoy the content anyway, and the guilds become the cozy worlds instead.
So it is that the greatest weakness of levels — the fact that they prevent people from playing with one another — can also be their greatest strength; arguably more powerful than any of the Skinner Box sort of bits of psychology. Group identity is routinely cited by players as the most powerful retention factor in online games.
The question is whether one needs levels to accomplish this. Let’s consider the factors that seem to go into creating a success. Leaving aside the basic question of whether you have fun gameplay at a core systems level, the things that have been listed throughout this article are:
- feedback for achievements
- public status based on achievements
- gated communities that require special status to enter
- the lure of power based on significant achievements
- regular changes or variation in the challenges undertaken within a given playstyle
- cozy worlds created with players segmented based on when they entered the game and the rate at which they leveled; or self-selected by players
Bottom line: none of these need hit points to go up. None of these need the traditional notion of levels as we know it, actually. Nor do they need any of the other sorts of “levels-in-disguise” things like skill trees, actually. Power can be satisfied with a number of things, including collection mechanics, customization, and yes, even actually increasing player power relative to challenges on a separate axis from their comparison to other players. (A game where as you rose through level, you levelled faster? Horrors.)
How cozier can our worlds get if we remove the artificial barriers that the legacy of levels from a 30 year old game system has given us? Can we satisfy those players who want the ding? I suspect the answer is yes, but I’ll leave the actual systems design to you. Most systems people tend to propose leave out hitting the full set of bullet items above.
So, my answer in the end? Levels don’t suck in every way. There’s plenty of good stuff they bring to the table. But if we’re smart, I think we can have all that stuff without levels themselves.
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