I wanted to go in depth with a set of mechanics known as Leveling Systems. I feel that Leveling systems are one of the more misunderstood game dynamics, and I think that misunderstanding derives from the belief that, in a leveling-based game, the game character gains in skill over time instead of the player having to gain skill. I’d like to go into what makes this a poor way to think about leveling systems, and also what I think well-done leveling systems accomplish in a game, but let’s figure out exactly what a leveling system entails.
The basic idea of a Leveling System comes from table-top role-playing games, where completing encounters would award your character experience points. Get enough experience points and you “Level Up”, giving boosts to your stats and access to new abilities. Many games, particularly RPGs, use a similar system of experience and levels. But I think an even broader definition of leveling systems would include any system by which the character’s capabilities improve by performing in-game actions. The Metroid games would be an example of a leveling system that doesn’t use experience points. Instead, you find items around the game-world that impart new abilities and increase your total health and missile capacity.
So it’s easy to see how the misconception that leveling systems are designed to move the stress of improvement from the player to the character. After all, character improvement is the metaphor presented for the mechanics. However, a closer analysis reveals that leveling systems can serve a variety of purposes.
Leveling Systems as Increasing Complexity
I believe that the primary goal for a well-made leveling system isn’t to decrease difficulty for the player, but rather to gradually increase complexity.
Say at the beginning of the game, you have 6 health points and one ability, and you’re fighting fodder enemies. Then at the end of the game you have 400 health points and 6 abilities, and you’re fighting enemies with a similar range of abilities and magnitude of power. Which of these battles requires more strategy, planning and knowledge of the systems at play? The increased number of abilities means more complex strategies are available to you, and the large amount of health gives a longer amount of time for these strategies to play out. Giving the player more abilities and higher stats (and doing the same for the types of enemies he’ll be running across) does the same thing for an RPG as introducing new types of environments and enemies do for an action game; It gives the player new systems, mechanics and scenarios to master.
Leveling Systems as Gatekeeper
Leveling Systems are also useful to help pace the player’s exploration of the gameworld, and make that exploration feel more hard-earned and rewarding. The most clear-cut examples of this would be in the Metroid games (and other games with a similar progression system). Certain areas are out of reach until you gain a certain power. Some doors can only be opened with missiles, some ledges can only be reached with a higher jump. Thus you are restricted to a certain area, with the next area just out of you reach, until you gain the necessary ability to continue. This way, you don’t reach the more difficult area too soon, and once you get there, it feels like an acomplishment.
A leveling system can do this in more subtle ways, by putting difficult challenges in an area, effectively dissuading the player from venturing there until they’ve reached an appropriate level. This then feeds back into the fiction of the leveling system, as you feel you’re character has to become tougher to explore further. And, again, once they do explore further, it feels hard-earned and satisfying.
Leveling Systems as a way to Modify Difficulty
Now, leveling systems can also be used to modify the difficulty of the game for the player, but, if done right, it shouldn’t simply make the game easier. Instead, it should provide the opportunity to do one challenging task now to make a later task slightly less challenging. An example would be the extra missiles and energy tanks in Metroid. They take some skill (whether it be platforming, exploring or puzzle-solving) to get, and they don’t completely remove the challenge from later encounters, only reduce it slightly. The same applies to the Heart Pieces in Legend of Zelda games.
This is the aspect of leveling systems that most often trips games up, and this is when you get grinding. Grinding is when the player repeats easy tasks to gain levels, and it signifies a fundamental breakdown of the leveling system. Instead of doing one challenging thing to make something else less challenging, you are doing easy actions over long periods of time to make something less challenging (or in some cases, namely RPGs with steep difficulty curves, making something impossible into something moderately challenging). This can often become a dominant strategy in games, as it only takes time and perseverance, and not any actual skill, and if you grind enough, eventually the next part of the game will cease to be challenging, and you can start grinding with that. Grinding is most common in MMOs (which benefit by you playing the game for very long periods of time) and some JRPGs (either intentionally or unintentionally through poor design). This also lends to the idea that leveling is about increasing character skill at the cost of player skill, since when you can grind your way through a game, that is essentially what is happening.
The key thing to remember is that a leveling system is not supposed to replace a difficulty curve, it’s supposed to add to it(by increasing complexity over time), pace it (by acting as gatekeeper) and augment it (by allowing the player a bit of choice in which challenging things they do). When a game rewards the player for repeating simple tasks (or, even worse, punishes them with a steep difficulty curve for NOT repeating simple tasks), then grinding ensues, the difficulty curve breaks down, and the game can start to feel like work. Make sure to only reward the player for completing challenging tasks, and never let the leveling system turn challenging tasks into easy tasks (just slightly less challenging ones). Leveling systems are such a long-lived element of games because of how powerful they are, when used right, in crafting the arc of a game,both by making the player feel like their character is becoming more powerful, and also because with that power comes more difficult decisions the player has to make to face the challenges their character faces.