Pros and cons of a straightforward leveling system

jmike

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A little something that popped into my head while thinking about game design. But first off, what do I mean by a straightforward leveling system? Well, I don't know what it's technically called, but you may also call it the simplest leveling system. Y'all know the grind--slay monsters, gain EXP, reach a certain amount of EXP, level up, your stats go up. Easy, simple.

I personally didn't like leveling systems like this. My favourite rpg growing up was Diablo II. The difference in its leveling system was that you got to assign stat points when you leveled up. It was nice to have a bit of freedom in how your character was growing. Western rpgs seem to be fond of different leveling systems. Games like Fallout and Elder Scrolls didn't just raise your stats every time you level up. No, they gave you other ways to grow. Jrpgs have been following suit in a way. The last four offline Final Fantasy games (X, XII, XIII, XV) were a little bit more flexible with character growth (X especially, and strangely, XV was more traditional with its leveling than the others). Or it's not just about what happens when you level up. Final Fantasy Tactics had a different approach to how you level up. Instead of party exp for slain enemies, every action granted exp.

So, how do y'all feel about straightforward leveling systems? About non-straightforward leveling systems? Both as players and as developers. And what kind of rpgs do you think work better with straightforward leveling systems and what rpgs don't? I've given my examples and I feel like the examples above chose the right leveling system for its style and gameplay. So how about y'all? Thoughts?
 

TheoAllen

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Straightforward leveling system is alright to me. If the game is already a linear type game of game where u go walk from stage to stage of the story. You don't really have a choice of full customization at the first place anyway. You just sit, relax, and enjoy the story unfolds.

The Elder Scrolls (and fallout) uses different leveling system because you can customize your character at the first place. Or any game with customizing party member skill and leveling, usually comes from a game with open world feature. I see little to no point of going on the different kind of leveling system if your game is linear. You might end up assigning a wrong skill point because a certain boss might immune/resist to a kind of skill u've just unlocked with your point, ended up getting into a certain direction where you should unlock these and those skills to make a certain boss easier to defeat during the story progression
 

bgillisp

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There's advantages to both.

Straightfoward approach:
Pros:
-You know what stats your players will have, so easier to balance.
-Players don't have to decide which stats are critical in your game at the beginning, so they can't make a broken build

Cons:
-All builds will be the same every playthrough.
-No customization of your builds (usually).

Assigning points:
Pro:
-Players can customize their characters.

Con:
-Player can create a broken build which either makes the game OP or makes the game unwinnable. You'll have to test constantly to try to avoid both cases as much as possible. Unless that is, you WANT to make it a challenge to go through your entire game only leveling up LUK.
 

Llareian

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The other consideration in why games like Diablo2, Fallout/Elder Scrolls, etc. allow level-up customization is that you only have one character. To avoid feeling pigeonholed into a certain style of play, they provided customization. In Diablo3 they did away with the customization on level up, but you still customize by choosing which skills to use out of a large set.

I have to admit that I feel a bit disappointed that Skyrim did away with the traditional Elder Scrolls leveling system (you choose which stats to increase on level up, and your skills automatically get better with use) in favor of one that focused on improving your skills and providing perks instead of your base stats. However, I'm not sure that my disappointment is anything but nostalgia. I loved Skyrim, and its leveling system. I like the change they made in Fallout 4 where when leveling up you can choose either a skill/miscellaneous perk, OR a base stat increase.

Anyway, in games with LARGE casts of characters where you can choose which classes to use in your party, this kind of customization honestly gets in the way. It's too tedious to manage large casts of characters with individual customized skill sets. That's why games with large casts tend to favor a more straightforward leveling system. You customize your skills by choosing which party members to use.

In games with small casts where you allow customization, it's important to allow ways for the player to change their mind later. Final Fantasy Tactics gives you the ability to change jobs and skills at whim. (Although the cast size here is variable, I think it's typical to wind up with a relatively small cast of core characters, since the ones you use level up so much faster than the ones you don't.) I think a system like that can be useful, but I personally feel it detracts from the feeling that the character is customized. It feels more like they took a custom path to the same end result.

For me, I LOVE customization...character creation is one of my favorite parts of RPGs...but I do recognize that sometimes it just gets in the way. I shouldn't spend more time managing my skills and perks than I do playing the game. :)
 

Failivrin

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As @Llareian mentioned, it is extremely tedious to heavily customize stats and skill growth for multiple characters; skill trees are mainly used in games with a single protagonist.
There are several advantages to classic level-up systems. Level-up is like giving the player a small award for progress. This actually stimulates the dopamine reward system in the player's brain, to the point that many players strive to reach level 100 even if it is not necessary.
In popular games, especially for kids, reaching a high level gives players "bragging rights" based on that same feeling of accomplishment.
While it's true that no one likes to level-grind just so they can beat the next boss, we as developers can't balance every dungeon to match the skills of every player. Level-grinding gives players power to lower the game's difficulty vicariously, in a way that is more psychologically rewarding than flipping through Options and changing Difficulty to Easy. (Of course it's best if the player doesn't need to level-grind too often.)
 
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gstv87

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I've recently gone back to Diablo 2, and I found out that I could beat the enemies much easier now that I know how to build a character.
In my first run, I had died a good twenty times by the time I got to act 2. I had a paladin.
New run with the same paladin properly built, plus an amazon escort, beat Diablo without using rejuvenating potions. It was harder to *get* to Diablo than *beating* him.
I did notice an increase on skills and attention required to manage this, which is a properly built system, compared to the first run where I was just messing around with it.

I guess you can try and tweak the XP gain so that it keeps track of how many times you've killed a given enemy.
if it is a kind of open world system where you can go anywhere, then you can decide where to farm XP, and you'll want to go where you get the most XP, and *where you get the most XP* would be *there where you haven't faced any enemies yet*.
that way you'll ensure that the players go around and face all kinds of different enemies, earning actual *experience*.
 

CleanWater

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It depends of the game.

Games like Final Fantasy Tactics are cool to mess around with different classes and tactics, that's the purpose of this game. But for games like Breath of Fire III, although you have a small customization with the Masters and Skill Learn Systems, it's fun to just level up to see which skill that particular character will learn next.

From the developers view, it's easier to create straighforward characters with RPG Maker than If using custom scripts for a non-linear system. There's also the game design and balancing issues that others mentioned here before.
 

Wavelength

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I do tend to like "point-buy" systems where you get points to buy stats at levels, and can spend them on any stat you want. In a vacuum, I enjoy it a lot more than the standard "your stats all went up" for leveling. However, it requires you to make stats approximately equal in value against each other (harder than it sounds), and it requires you to create a system where dumping all your points into one stat won't break the game balance in the player's favor.

There are also times when even a perfectly-designed point-buy system fails to provide engagement above and beyond the all-stats-up system, such as:
  • A change in which stats you're building won't really change the actions you take in battle
  • Sufficient diversity in choosing stats is already provided by the equipment system
  • The choice of which stats to build is either meaningless (rare, but could happen if battle formulas, etc., offer too little reliance on stats) or too obvious (e.g. mages with no use for ATK, supports with no use for ATK or MAG, etc.)
  • Too much power sits in smart decision-making about which stats to build, but the game's engagement is heavily in its narrative and bad choices present an obstacle to progressing through the narrative
Tales of Symphonia used a great combination of the two systems. You received stats automatically at a Level-Up, but the title you equipped determined which stats would increase on each Level-Up.

Most Star Ocean games give you fixed amounts of stats automatically at a Level-Up, but they also award you Skill Points for each level, which you can spend in a point-buy system. These skill points are invested in skills which improve Item Creation (such as Cooking, Compounding, and Weaponsmithing) but also increase certain stats by a little bit, giving you a little extra control over building your characters.

Guild Wars 1 did not level your stats at all with each Level-Up. Instead, stats were determined entirely by your equipment, and Level-Ups earned you skill points which you could spend in a point-buy system to make your skills of certain types (e.g. Fire Magic, Wind Magic, Tactics, Inspiration) much more powerful.
 

kirbwarrior

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Anyway, in games with LARGE casts of characters where you can choose which classes to use in your party, this kind of customization honestly gets in the way. It's too tedious to manage large casts of characters with individual customized skill sets. That's why games with large casts tend to favor a more straightforward leveling system. You customize your skills by choosing which party members to use.
This. I find this to be a fantastic way to customize things. Many game I love changing my party constantly to try out new combos.

As a player, I far prefer fixed level ups (which are at worst boring) to too much customization. Many level systems that give tons of customization don't really differentiate it enough to make it feel different in later playthroughs. Dragon Quest 1 plays the same each time. It has no customization (basically). Many games with customization honestly feel like that because it doesn't do anything.

I think another thing is most rpgs already have tons of customization through things like equipment, stat boosting items, large casts etc. Even just adding something small like class changing (with skills determined by level as though no classes) gives plenty to work with.
 

alberthk

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you can have a player level up, but not getting anything unless you do something.

it would be different, wouldn't it?

thus solving the game's problem from being too linear.
 

Tai_MT

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I don't really like the "standard" way of gaining power in RPGs. By that, I mean I don't like, "gain XP, gain a level, all stats go up automatically". I find it boring and there's nothing that sets my way of playing a game to be different than anyone else's.

I love customization. If I can customize my stats, I'm happy. If I can't, I'm done with your game. I want to have Agency over my playthrough of your game. I want to make choices in customizing my character so that it is uniquely mine.

That being said... I don't really engage in "Point Buy" either, because outside of Tabletops, the amounts of stats they give you aren't significant enough to be worth noticing. "You got 3 points, put them into your stats how you wish!" Eh... no. Even if I put all 3 into a single stat, it isn't going to really do anything for me.

Two of my own games have tried to "move away" from standard systems of gaining power like that. The one of them has you accumulate XP as if it were currency. Your level is your "Rank" and it can go up or down depending on your XP. However, if you want a new shiny sword... you're trading some of your "Influence (Experience)" to get it. You want to get +1 to Strength, you must spend some Influence to train with someone to get that stat. My other game unlocks map features for levels and only awards stats for completing Quests (in the form of consumable items that you must use on your entire party, however you wish). So, you want power, you go earn it by doing quests.

There are probably a lot of other ways to go about handling level ups and XP and stat gain. Might be interesting if the only way you could gain stats was by having specific items equipped to you upon level up, and you'd have to swap equipment around quite a lot to get the stats you want.
 

Frozen_Phoenix

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Standard if you have a lot of different characters to pick and form a party, you don't get individual character customization, but you have party customization. Also having to manage the stats of several characters would be pretty annoying.

Go with stats distribution if you have few characters, for the opposite reasons.
 

trouble time

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I'm going to be controversial. :D

Pro- A standard leveling system isn't terrible

cons- none.

Customization doesn't really matter to me cause I'm a particular kind of player that knows every game dev messes up somewhere so all it does it make me do math so I can calculate a mathematically better character/party. Lets say dexterity makes dual wielding more efficient (I know a game that did this) so its inherently better than strength until your dual wielding is 100% efficient since its a double increase in damage where as putting that many points into strength, if both end up doing the same thing in terms of efficiency, then it doesn't matter at all since either choice is fine, if you try to build "incomperables" well you actually can math out which is better, like lets say dex gives you extra evasion and strength increased your hit points. Well all it takes is a little hashing out which actually allows you to take more hits (evasion tends to win out in most games especially when most bosses tend to use single hit big attacks instead of multi hitting attacks.) Back to the dual wielding, lets say having a shield is considered as an option over dual wielding, too bad the amount of damage you take for being in combat a few turns fewer will usually mitigate whatever discrepancy there is in defense. Now even worse, as a designer you don't know what your parties stats are so the encounters are less fine tuned, especially if you don't know what their skills are. The challenges need to be general rather than specific, and the problem with this is that while it is possible to construct challenges with more than one answer, you'll pretty much always invalidate at least one play style for a portion of the game. Can it be pulled off to an extent yes, but there are going to be certain designs that are literally impossible to pull off unless you know what the player can do.

For a little summary
I'm going to find the right answer before I start playing, and if I don't have the information availible to make that choice, it still won't add to my enjoyment of the game. My only joy from a customization system is breaking it, and that's not as much fun as a standard leveling system could be. It's an all around negative for me.

A final addendum: None of this really applies to action based games and it applies less in turn based tactical games (well, when things like terrain and maneuver come into play)
 

EpicFILE

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I think it depends on the game's focus.

If the game heavily focuses on customization, then custom levelling would be a better choice.
Good for games like MMORPGS or open world games.
If the game primarily focuses on story, or puzzles, or something else, standard levelling might be preferable.
Or no levelling at all, if it becomes a distraction.
 

velan235

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I don't really like point-buy stats , because you could "stack" your stats to dmg stats and usually in turnbased RPG , having a character oneshot random encounter is the "heavenly spot".

linear levelup is okay for me , you could give custom option in another way , such as equipment , materia choice (ff7) , skill equip (tales) paradigm shift (ff13) , class choice etc. etc.
 

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