Monday, December 26, 2011

Leveled.

For some reason or another, I decided to play the ancient and much maligned Xbox 360 game Too Human today. I griped about this game a while ago, but in my Diablo 3-deprived quest for a dungeon crawler with flashy effects it seemed to help fill the gap for a time. This is something like my 3rd play-through of the (very short) game, and aside from my constant double-takes of this games extremely poor design choices (and there are many, many questionable choices here), another thing dawned on me, something that needed addressed:

In games wherein your character gains experience to "Level Up," how is this beneficial to anybody?

Now, I know this is a staple of every RPG, action RPG, and any genre game with RPG elements, whether it be first person shooter, shoot-'em-up, or kart racer, but who does this trope really benefit?

Understand, that back in the day this was put into place so that gamers didn't just breeze through a game without putting some effort into having the best equipment and stats. When games started to become more mainstream game developers realized that some players were spending time leveling-up their characters early in the game, so that there was fewer opportunities for challenge later on in the game. This began what I feel is one of the cornerstones of the downfall of the video game industry: something which I will call "Artificial Challenge," or AC for short.

Even if you haven't played an RPG in awhile, you have experienced AC in many other types of games. Anyone who has ever played any of the Mario Kart series of games from Mario Kart 64 onward has experienced this: the game will stick players in last place with the best weapons, players in first place with the worst ones, and two computer opponents will ALWAYS be right behind you no matter how many boosts you use or how well you navigate the track. If you've never felt cheated in a Mario Kart game, then you haven't played one.

Anyway, the AC that I am referring to in RPGs is of a more subtle nature. My Balder is a level 48 warrior in Too Human, but that number is completely meaningless. Oh sure, I can use weapons and armor fit for a level 48 character, but that doesn't do me one bit of good because all of the enemies' levels increase every time my character's level increases. What it amounts to is that I am forced to upgrade weapons and armor at a huge inconvenience, not because what I had before was necessarily bad, but that it has suddenly become ineffective on enemies that are suddenly too powerful to hurt.

I am all for loot in games; there is little more that I like to do than customize my character's look with cool armor and weapons. It is simply that when I find a combination that I enjoy I don't want to have to change it simply because it stops working.

A different, but still relevant example of this process is the game Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. In a change from most RPGs, you can use any and all weapons and armor in the game from the get-go, the only penalty being a character's skill in the weapon set, and even that can be overcome by repeated use of the weapon and training. It's a beautiful system, but it is also outside of the scope of the leveling system which still exists in the game. Enemies in the game tend to stay at or around your level of experience, which provides the AC. If you level-up your character in order to add attributes such as strength or more magic points, the enemies will level-up with you, in addition to unlocking new enemy types, some of which seem extremely over-powered for the level they're at. As a result, during my first, honest play-through of the game I was stuck at level 8, unable to complete the main quest because the enemies suddenly became too numerous and too difficult for me to overcome. It was on my second play-through that I settled upon skills instead of leveling, and I am more than halfway through the main quest at level 2 because if I don't level-up, the enemies don't either. The AC thus having been circumvented, my enjoyment of the game has increased dramatically.

So, my plea to developers is this: If you want to add challenge to your RPGs, make enemies a set level for two reasons:

  1. It places an obstacle in my way that I have to strive to overcome, which gives me a feeling of achievement and not merely the feeling of challenge for the sake of challenge.
  2. If I spend the time leveling-up my character to the point where he/she/it is a virtual demigod, then let me enjoy it by smashing some inferior enemies - what's the point of being level 50 if I'm still being killed by the same enemies I was at level 3?

In closing, I would also like to say that I feel putting the leveling into skills and weapon focus is far more important than actually leveling up a character. Refusing to let me use a level 50 hammer when I've been using a hammer for the last 48 levels just seems stupid to me -- I mean, how vapid does my character have to be to not be able to figure out how to use a slightly different hammer?

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