on Jul 5, 2008
Tim G. left an excellent comment on my post about the XP reward vs. Risk in RPG games. That post is a little old and the conversation has trailed off, so I thought I’d quote it here. Also, it’s always nice when I can just have visitors write my posts for me:
Is the goal to force an optimum solution to levelling up? (fighting creatures that are dangerous enough to be a threat, but not impossibly hard)
To allow any method of levelling up within certain boundaries? (disallowing only leveling up methods that hurt other players like PKing and resource hogging)
To allow anything at all? (if one player wants to kill a million rats, and another wants to risk his character on a two sequential natural 20’s, why stop them)
I find myself agreeing with Shamus’ invisible-rail and self-balancing philosophies and think the player should be first gently then firmly guided towards the methods that will help them get what they want. Setting hard boundaries makes them feel constrained and jars them from thinking about the world and into conscious meta-gaming. Experienced players should be naturally drawn towards higher-risk faster-progress level up paths, and new players should be drawn towards the safer slower-progress paths. I don’t think the point should be to force one pattern of behavior on people with very different skill levels or temperaments.
Here are some of the goals I see for XP/Leveling systems in general:
1. Allow new players to have fun immediately before mastering intricate rule sets. That means we should never hear “this game is impossible; I give up”.
2. Allow experienced players to still be challenged. No “this is too easy/boring; I’m gonna play something else”.
3. Allow players of all skill ranges to play and have fun together. No “we don’t want new players holding us back” and no “I don’t want to play with the l33t player cause I can never keep up”.
4. A psychological reward for playing the game and making progress.
5. Simulate real-life skill increases with a simple mechanic. Note that this is pretty much dead last in priority.
One of the most interesting things about the Spore GDC video was when Will Wright was talking about story ownership. Isn’t that really what RPGing is all about? Owning the story by owning the character? The more you force a player to act against their nature, the less ownership they have of that character and the more unwelcome they feel in that game world.
I do note that in my original post nearly all of the objections to offering XP rewards were driven by the desire to discourage players from doing things which would make the game less fun for others. Although, the Zero XP system is often present in single-player games as well. In any case, it seems like an inelegant solution for unwanted player behavior.
I do like how World of Warcraft handles it. Between the way low-level monsters ignore powerful characters and the slow tapering off of XP, I never felt like I was being punished for backtracking. Also, on a medium population server I’ve never had to really compete for foes. When I need leather in a hurry, I can run out and kill a bunch of (to me) feeble foes for skinning without cutting into anyone else’s game.
His comment about hard boundaries encouraging meta-game thinking is also true. In WoW, I often choose where I’ll adventure based on what scenery I’m in the mood for, not how I can maximize my leveling speed. Sure, I could probably level faster in Ashenvale, but I’m having fun in Darkshore and I’m still making forward progress. The harder the limits, the more mechanical and arbitrary the system seems, and the more it encourages players to think about the mechanics and numbers instead of the story and setting.
No, I’m not leveling or making money as fast as I could, but I am having fun.
Shamus Young is an old-school OpenGL programmer, author, and composer. He runs this site and if anything is broken you should probably blame him.