Somewhere in your game development career you start to notice game design is really a trade of manipulation. Utilize this technique to teach people not to do something, that technique to reward them for their actions; training a new player has a lot in common with training a puppy. Nothing in my game career makes me sadder than realizing that the most effective technique for making players feel as though they have accomplished something is to make a number increase.
Dave Arneson, co-creator of Dungeons & Dragons, was said to have invented experience points and level advancements during the evolution of Chainmail’s combat resolution (link). Here, in the early 70’s, a game tool was invented so powerful that nearly 50 years later we can’t escape the shadow of it: earn XP for winning combat, earn enough XP and Level-Up. What a simple concept, kill stuff and eventually stronger, it’s almost hard to think at one point games didn’t have it.
Let’s start at the abstraction, what are experience and levels abstracting out?
I did Muay Thai or some form of kickboxing for roughly 9 years. I started with all the talent of Daniel son at the beginning of The Karate Kid: I couldn’t move without losing balance, my kicks were like wet noodles slapping a street light pole and my punches well, you get the picture. After a few sad years I could throw a beautiful, and somewhat effective, roundhouse kick and put together a one, two, low-kick combo. Fast forward through training under some amazing instructors including, two-time Lumpini champion Jongsanan Fairtex, now I’m a competent retired amateur fighter. Anyways, the point of this trip down memory lane is 9 years of Muay Thai was punctuated by milestones and periods of plateaus. Maybe I threw a round knee 40 times a practice but suddenly 3-months in, something clicked and I started throwing it like Buakaw in his K1-Max prime (ok, the fight game references will stop now). Although my Muay Thai progress was likely linear, my mind remembers major events like memorable sparring sessions, amateur fights and first times I executed “cool” techniques.
This is what experience and levels represent. Experience is the acknowledgement of engaging in an activity, in the Chainmail case it is adventuring, in fighting it is me showing up to practice everyday. Level-Ups are breaking through plateaus where previous difficulties are trivial and a new arena of skills and techniques are available for mastery; this is me winning my first amateur fight or suddenly start hitting head kicks in sparring sessions.
The problem with experience and levels is they have outlived their usefulness. They have become the lazy designer’s tool for simulating progress and giving the player a sense of accomplishment. XP and levels have ruined the genre of RPG, which at one point actually stood for Role Playing Games, now means any game where increasing numbers is the most important aspect of making progress. Experience and levels have finally made their way through other genres: FPS, Fighting Games, Racing Games.
It’s frustrating because I myself am susceptible to the illusion of increasing numbers. I feel a sense of satisfaction when an amazing UX flourish appears, with a progress bar hitting its completion to reveal a number increasing by 1. “Yes, a number went up, all this time and effort has been worth. This game has marked me a 4 when a mere week ago my level label had a miserable 3 after it”. There is something about the human psyche that is vulnerable to a simple habit loop with a number increase at the end (please read “The Power of Habit” for insights I am not qualified to explain).
What can we do as developers? We need to reward engagement and time with something that is both easily understood as a plateau breaker and stills feels like the perceived value was worth the time. There are a two tried and true options available: unlock options for the player or make player skill king and force the player to break through plateaus themselves. Unlocking options is The Legend of Zelda approach; after every major dungeon Link has a new weapon, tool or equipment at his disposal. Make skill king is the FromSoftware approach; breakdown your game into skill plateaus and force the player to break through those skill plateaus through sheer will. There is another option: getting rid of habit forming as we know it. I challenge everyone to find better ways to reward the player and give us new 50 years reign.