How to decide how many lvls for your game?

jonthefox

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Lately I've been wondering why lvl 99 is the default max level for so many games. Is it just tradition? Nostalgia? The fact that it's easy default in the engine? Does it even make sense if your game is 30 hours long? Or 15 hours long? Or 5 hours long?

What would be the implications of a game only having 20 levels? Or if levels are a good thing, why stop at 99 - why not go to 999 to ensure the vast majority of players can always keep getting stronger?

Anyway, would love your thoughts on what the max level of a game should be and why.
 

TheoAllen

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Does your game have enough content to set a max level beyond 99 or is it just a stat increase with nothing interesting to discover, such as a new area to unlock, or a new skill to unlock? If there are things to discover, how long does it take? and are you sure you can keep your player entertained enough to the point they could reach level 99 and beyond? Or is it time to tell them to stop 'playing' the game by telling them "it's the cap, there is not enough content beyond this, time to finish the game"?
 

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A default of 99 in a minor or medium game, seems like infinite leveling.

In many, many RPG's, there is a main story, but besides that there is lots and lots to explore. Like secret bosses who are many times stronger than the actual end boss or weapon that can only be found if the end boss is defeated under certain conditions (like "Beat the game without losing a single battle").

Then the main game might be done when the player is only level 15 or 20, but for the extra secret content, you need to be level 50 or higher. And once you have unlocked that super secret weapon and defeated that super secret boss, you still don't want to stop playing, of course. Otherwise you unlocked that weapon for nothing.

---

The other way, if you go past 99, which is many, many hours of farming XP, you need content that also go past lvl 99. When you're lvl 283 and all your enemies are level 50, you beat whole parties with a single blow. This is handy when you search for easter eggs and just want to complete all secrets, but it also is rather boring gameplay.

Note that the higher your level is, the more XP you need to grow a level. So that means lots and lots of XP farming for high level characters. High level secret bosses might give more XP, but they should be rare and often take a lot of afford to beat.

If you do want to go past lvl 99, then with plugins it is certainly possible to lift this cap to 999 or 9999 or whatever you want the max to be.
 

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Using Final Fantasy IX as an example:
Level 99 is the max, but the main story is usually completed with a party between levels 50 and 70.
This means that Levels 70 to 99 are the sort of "extra content" levels, ones that you're expected to be at for things like fighting those evil sheep or the ultimate Secret Boss Ozma.

As for why it's this way?
I think it's just that the super old games only had 2 digits available for levels, so they couldn't go past 99.
Then games that are inspired by those old games like to do the same for the nostalgia factor.

~

When it comes to your own game, the main thing to consider I'd say (like others have here) is how much content you have in your game and what character power levels it's balanced for.

There's nothing bad about only have 10 or 20 levels in your game, so long as you pace it right and the players never feel like they're not progressing enough with their characters.

Likewise, there's nothing bad about having 999 or 9999 levels in your game, so long as you pace it right and the players never feel like they're not getting enough from levelling up (for example, you don't have any tough enemies that can challenge their new power, or you stopped coming up with new skills for them to learn 100 levels ago or something).

~

Personally, because I'm old, I'm a fan of the 99 levels way of balancing content, and aiming for that sweet spot of levels 50 - 70 for main story, and 70 - 99 for secret bosses and extra content.

But it really is just up to your personal preference and what you think you can accomplish for your game's player experience and balance.

At least, those're my thoughts!
 

Andar

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why lvl 99 is the default max level for so many games. Is it just tradition? Nostalgia?
neither

that number comes from UI design: How much space to allocate on the screen for the level number.

A single digit can display levels 1-9, and that is usually considered too low a max for progression.
Two digits can display levels 01 to 99, three digits can go from 001 to 999.

Chosing between those two options, most UI designers go with the two-digit-limit because in a three-digit-numbering there are too many levels and the levelup becomes less important to the progression.

But as many people already said, most games never reach the 99 max of the two-digit-counter in the UserInterface...
 
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I'll give you what I think about leveling since I'm focusing around actual battles in my 2nd game.

So, I plan to have 10 areas, all ranging from medium-large sized series of maps. And in my mind, I want the "max" level to be 50.
My reasoning for this is that I don't think I can handle going above and beyond that point...I wouldn't be able to come up with new stats or skills the party learns after a certain point, and I don't think my game needs to be that long anyway. I want to focus more on the story, and even include puzzle segments that I want to divulge time towards anyway.

The way I see it, I want there to be an ideal "goal" where....after each major area, the player goes up by 5 levels. (Since there are only 10 areas....1 area = 5 levels, so....by the end of area 10 = they would be level 50 in an ideal world).
But of course, I can still adjust enemies and bosses such that you don't have to be at those ideal points. You could beat the 1st area by being level 3-4, or even beating area 2 by being level 6-7....etc. I want to remain flexible because I want to avoid grinding. Players should be able to explore new territory in my game, and pass through battles to get the EXP needed in one trip.


I love the idea of leveling up and earning strength as a reward for your party, but I absolutely haaaate grinding...
 

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I recall Star Ocean 2 going up to like 500, probably higher. Tri-Ace games though are the masters of extra content such that even at max level, the Ethereal Queen can still destroy you. So thier games are one example of post story content.
 

Milennin

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Going over level 99 requires extra effort because the engine doesn't let you without a plugin, so you need a good reason to even bother. Just to let the player get even stronger doesn't seem like a good reason to me, but if it is to you, then go for it I'd say.

Going with less, I guess you could if you want to prevent players from over grinding in a game where being level 99 would be super powerful.
 

ATT_Turan

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What would be the implications of a game only having 20 levels? Or if levels are a good thing, why stop at 99 - why not go to 999 to ensure the vast majority of players can always keep getting stronger?

Anyway, would love your thoughts on what the max level of a game should be and why.
To me, what makes the most sense is to plot out the story for your game first.

Once you have the story, and therefore you know how many areas/dungeons there are going to be, you say "Okay, how often should my players be gaining levels?"

If you have 10 dungeons in your game and you're talking about getting to or past level 99, that's gaining 10 levels in every dungeon - that seems ridiculously high to me. Most of the good JRPGs I've played average out to roughly 1-2 levels per major dungeon map, without grinding or going for extra content.
 

Nolonar

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Lately I've been wondering why lvl 99 is the default max level for so many games. Is it just tradition? Nostalgia? The fact that it's easy default in the engine? Does it even make sense if your game is 30 hours long? Or 15 hours long? Or 5 hours long?

It's a combination of multiple factors, really.
  1. Traditionally, screens had limited space to display numbers, so UI design often revolved around "how many digits should we use for this field?" In Pokémon gen 1, for example, the developers decided to reserve 3 characters for the level field; 1 character for "L", and 2 characters for a 2-digit level. The game still allowed to reach a maximum of level 100, in which case the game no longer rendered the "L" character.

  2. 99 is the largest number that can be represented with 2 digits. It's also smaller than 255, which is the largest number that can be represented with 8 bits.

  3. 99 offers a good compromise between levelling too quickly and too slowly. At 9 levels, a 10 hour game would need to be designed around players gaining 1 level per hour. The difference between levels would need to be much steeper, since you wouldn't want a player to defeat an opponent meant to be fought a full hour later. At 999 levels, you're looking at 99 levels per hour, or 1.6 levels per minute. Here, the difference between levels would need to be much flatter, as you wouldn't want the player to be annihilated by an opponent they're meant to defeat just 10 minutes later.

  4. Over time, people have gotten used to seeing level caps being either the largest n-digit number (9, 99, 999, etc.), or the smallest n-digit number (10, 100, 1000, etc.)

What would be the implications of a game only having 20 levels?

Fire Emblem actually does this. The level cap is literally 20. Some units can also receive a promotion from level 10 onwards, which resets their level to 1 (but maintains their stats), allowing them to reach a theoretical cap of 40 (also referred to as level 20/20).

Unlike traditional RPGs, however, Fire Emblem is also a strategy game. Each of your units gains levels separately, as there is no experience-sharing. Death is also permanent in this game. Therefore it makes sense to have a lower level cap, since you need to level up multiple units at the same time.

Additionally, while the progression curve is steeper in Fire Emblem compared to most RPGs (since it has less levels), it doesn't feel very punishing. While it is true that in Fire Emblem, a single level can be the difference between winning or losing, you are still given control over multiple units. This means that instead of pitting a single level 9 character against a level 10 opponent and watching yourself lose, you can pit multiple level 3 character against a single level 10 opponent and still win. This strategy is even more viable when you add range and positioning to the mix. An archer can safely attack a swordsman without fear of a counterattack, since their attack range is longer, for example.

Or if levels are a good thing, why stop at 99 - why not go to 999 to ensure the vast majority of players can always keep getting stronger?

As always when it comes to questions like "why x and not y", the answer lies in balancing.

If you think it makes sense for your game to have 99 999 999 levels, why not go for it? Just keep in mind that balancing becomes increasingly difficult as you stray from the already established conventions.

As you said before, "lvl 99 is the default max level for so many games", which means that if you were to design another lvl 99 game, you'd have many games to use as models for your own game's balancing. But if you were to make a lvl 9 999 game instead, you would have a much harder time coming up with a reference for balancing.

Fun fact: 9 999 and 99 999 999 are both level caps of the Disgaea series.
 

ATT_Turan

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Fun fact: 9 999 and 99 999 999 are both level caps of the Disgaea series.
Which, of course, is an excellent example of your flatter progressions. Once you get past the very first few levels and areas, gaining one level means almost nothing.

Once you get to the mid-game, you need to grind a dozen levels or more on a character if you want to see any significant difference in their combat performance. They are, effectively, meaningless numbers for the sake of high numbers...the game could work just as well dividing everything by 10 or 100 or whatever.

And that's a perfectly valid aesthetic choice, but I think it's important to recognize it as an aesthetic choice, not a mechanically meaningful one.
 

Heirukichi

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UI design plays an important role

that number comes from UI design: How much space to allocate on the screen for the level number.
I would like to underline this fact even more. This is true not only for level, but also for other stuff such as HP, MP and other stats in general.

This is even more apparent when trying to find a formula to balance your game. Such a formula is comprised of so many different variables that not only does it have infinite valid solutions, the space where said solutions lie is N-dimensional.

That being the case, how can somebody define a starting point? Well, UI design plays a role in that. If you have enough space for 3 HP digits, you put just 3 of them, then repeat the same thing for all the other stats and restrict said space of solutions to a much smaller portion of it.

From UI design and balance to levels

You might wonder what all this has to do with levels, since I only mentioned stats so far, but it plays a very important role when defining how many levels you put in your game (or, at the very least, it should).

Do you think that gaining a mere 10 HP when you already have more than 800 would make a difference? Probably not. Levels should bring meaningful changes, not always major ones, but at least relevant.

What would be the implications of a game only having 20 levels?
As long as any level up is meaningful to the player, you can have a game with only 20 levels, especially when you keep it short, it would be much better than having 99 levels with 79 of them being meaningless.


Carefully designed level ups and breakpoints can definitely depict your game design as more professional and thorough, however, this does not mean that fewer level ups are always the best solution.


It might be that your game has a very slow progression leading players to achieve meaningful changes every 10 hours of gameplay (whether it is by farming experience or not is irrelevant here). According to what I previously said, allowing the player to level up every 10 hours might be a good solution, but it might not be like that.

Many games are not very long, and even for long games, 10 hours for a single level up might be too much. Players would not feel rewarded and levelling up becomes a distant goal, so far that it might even feel unrealistic.

Exploring multiple solutions to the slow-progression problem

Solution 1: Getting rid of levels, use other means to strengthen them.

This is a feasible solution: when levels get in the way, get rid of them and allow players to have mid-goals like crafting equipment parts, unlocking skills through quests and/or items. Put something in your game capable of entertaining the player while keeping him/her focused on the next small goal. Clear and close goals are far more engaging.

Solution 2: Add more levels to split the bigger goal in smaller parts.

Another solution would be that of adding more levels. They are not going to bring meaningful changes every time, but they help by keeping the player hooked. It might look like this goes against the idea of having meaningful level, but it does not. Levels are still meaningful because they still serve a purpose: they give players short-term goals, acting as a de-facto progress bar between the previous breakpoint and the next.
 

nbgamemaker

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For me i kept it 99 cause it felt the most natural.
 

TheAM-Dol

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Is it just tradition?
I'm surprised no one has mentioned this in the thread (to be fair I've only skimmed the thread, so maybe someone said it): it's definitely not tradition, since the grandfather of RPGs, Dungeon's and Dragons, is based on a 20 level system.

I'm not going to lie, this sort of seems like a redundant question though. I hate to give the canned answer that most of these kind of threads get...but....it depends on your game.
My previous game has a max level of 6 (originally 5 but later patched to 6)
My current game is built around the possibility of level 15 being the max, though currently it's limited to 10. (15 is just in the event I wish to later update the game to increase the level cap like I had to do with my previous game)
The reason why is simply because of so many different factors, it's just the way the game has been designed. From the fact that my game is relatively short, so level 99 would basically mean every fight grants players...like...3 levels which would just be asinine, to the fact that there's a limited number of encounters; players that just play through the game without grinding would only get a limited amount of exp. Levels also control the difficulty of my game, enemies and encounters scale with player level. The purpose of this is to control the difficulty curve, so rather than looking at levels in the traditional sense of "player grow the big numbers", it's better to look at it in a sense of difficulty selection. Level 1 represent baby mode, 2 very easy, 3, easy, 4 somewhat easy, 5 medium, etc.
 

MarxMayhem

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Lately I've been wondering why lvl 99 is the default max level for so many games. Is it just tradition? Nostalgia?
Kinda tradition. As others have said before, it's something video games have done before because of UI limitations, but as time passes by this was worked around masterfully by developers, and was simply treated as tradition that we all know now. It's hardly nostalgia because people who try to hit this cap because 99 is the max level, but because they want to reach the max level, regardless of its value.

The fact that it's easy default in the engine?
I doubt it. I assume it still plays into the tradition I mentioned, and upcoming developers may find it restrictive if the max is too low, or overwhelming if too high.

Anyway, would love your thoughts on what the max level of a game should be and why.
Levels imo should serve at least this one purpose: To prove to the player that they have gotten stronger. As a result, what a "level" gives must be impactful, and the effort to getting to the next level must be worth that next level.

I'm surprised no one has mentioned this in the thread (to be fair I've only skimmed the thread, so maybe someone said it): it's definitely not tradition, since the grandfather of RPGs, Dungeon's and Dragons, is based on a 20 level system.
I wanna interject here, but while D&D right now is infamous for having levels up to 20, it wasn't always this way: In earlier editions, your max level (and EXP growth!) was dependent on the class (or race if you aren't a Human) you play as. 3.5e played with the idea of having levels up to 30. 4e made 30 levels its max, and had features that were gated if you weren't of a certain level requirement (some sectioned in counts of 10's, calling them "tiers").

Back to OP: The max level in your game does not matter until you make it matter. Leveling up for stat increments is the easiest but laziest way to make levels matter, but as a game dev, you have the freedom to define what "level" means. Other games, specially D&D, found ways to make it matter.
 

Ahuramazda

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I kept a bit of traditional RPG with each level boosting stats a wee bit, but the real part of increasing the party level in my game is it increases the effect of the random enchant effects that can appear on weapons and armor.

At the start of the game all weapons/armor are rolled normally, but for ever 2 (party average) levels gained they can randomly roll a +1 (capping at +50 @lv100) effect possible on newly received items... making it so that while the minor attributes gained from levelling up is nice, the major perks is the unlocked potential in the new gear the player can find that would be a possible upgrade over the currently equipped items.

It is a small thing, but it does give a bit more "perk" to gaining/grinding levels than just plain levelling can offer.
 

kirbwarrior

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3.5e played with the idea of having levels up to 30. 4e made 30 levels its max
The original Final Fantasy also had a lv30 cap (which, considering that it's a D&D simulator...). And I think Dragon Quest 1 also had a lv30 cap. It was later games in both series that increased it to 99.

Lately I've been wondering why lvl 99 is the default max level for so many games. Is it just tradition? Nostalgia? The fact that it's easy default in the engine?
If you're cruising around and playing every rpg maker game you stumble across, you start to notice commonalities especially in low effort games and those tend to be the defaults because it's already set up for you, why change it?


For me personally, I just leave it at the default initially. I don't know what the max level is going to be (unless I'm planning around it hard) and it ends up being something easy to decide once the game mechanically is effectively finished. And... there's not often a reason to change it. As others have said, UI means that level is going to most likely be one of 1, 2, or 3 digits long. And if the endgame level is going to average 40-60 (like I see in many AAA rpgs), then 99 is just a "I don't want you going over two digits" and not "I don't want you overleveling the content". Picking something like 70 or 85 seems just as arbitrary as 99 and would feel more arbitrary without an explanation.

Now, if levels are much lower, I'll actually look into specific numbers. For instance, one short game I made capped at 9. This wasn't even an actual cap but me planning out exp carefully so if you fought every single battle (none of which could be repeated), you'd exactly hit 9 in time for the final boss. And in middle-to-short games, the average level would end up somewhere from 20-30. Depending on how the exp curve worked, I could cap it at 50, 40, or even 30 without actually affecting an average player's experience because you'd have to grind pretty hard to even get there. I've never made a game that would want or need levels in the triple digits, so it's never really been a concern.
 

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If you're cruising around and playing every rpg maker game you stumble across, you start to notice commonalities especially in low effort games and those tend to be the defaults because it's already set up for you, why change it?
Ding ding ding. I think we have a winner.

But I'd go so far as to say that non-RPGM games that do this are lazy as well. Setting it to 99 and telling the player "Go grind. Or don't. Whatever" isn't nearly as compelling as manually crafting a power curve. And taking the time to specifically design levels as actual milestones takes a lot of creative brain power.

People mentioned DnD, which is a pretty good example. When you level in DnD, you don't just get stats and carry on without second thought. You get things like perks to choose, spells to slot, etc. The level cap in such games comes from the designer saying, "Okay, this is as many [things] as we want to give the player." It's not just for increasing numbers nigh indefinitely.

A simpler way to picture this is games with skill/talents/attribute/whatever points. If you get them from leveling up, a lot of games don't want you to just max everything out. They want to push you to make decisions and create a build. So that means however many skills they have vs how many skill points they give you will be the deciding factor on how many levels there are.
 

HankB

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The correct equation is Q + F / D * S

Q = your IQ score
F = your amount of weekly free time
D = how many dollars you want to make
S = how many other games you've already sold

For example, if you have an IQ of 100, and you have 12 hours a week to work on your game, and you want to make $1,000, and you've sold 0 games, then you should have 0 levels.

But if you're feeling ambitious, I would probably go for 101 levels, because 99 is for suckers, 100 is for winners, but 101 is for champions.
 

JohnDoeNews

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The correct equation is Q + F / D * S

Q = your IQ score
F = your amount of weekly free time
D = how many dollars you want to make
S = how many other games you've already sold

For example, if you have an IQ of 100, and you have 12 hours a week to work on your game, and you want to make $1,000, and you've sold 0 games, then you should have 0 levels.

But if you're feeling ambitious, I would probably go for 101 levels, because 99 is for suckers, 100 is for winners, but 101 is for champions.

Huh? I think your math is off...
100 + 12 / 1000 * 0 = 100
 

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