There is a discussion bouncing around between several blogs lately regarding levels and progression in games, specifically MMORPGs. I’ve commented on most of them, but I wanted to write a bit over here as well.
I’m interested in alternate progression tracks in RPGs. The “level” paradigm works, but it seems so… arbitrary. Gain a level, ding, you have 10% more HP and 5% more MP, a bit more strength, dexterity, whatever. We eat it up as gamers, because we like being stronger. We like seeing progress. We like to see bigger numbers as we keep sinking our time into the game. We like that whooshy special effect and shouting “DING!” in Barrens Chat. Still, can there be something better?
Final Fantasy II took a completely different route for progression. (Please forgive some inaccuracies, I played the game years ago.) Some players call it the worst thing in the FF series, some look at it fondly as a min-maxer’s paradise. The heart of it was a philosophy that your characters got better at what they did, and worse at what they neglected to do. There were no experience based “levels” for the characters. If Firion whacked a blob with a dagger, he became more skilled with daggers, gained dexterity, accuracy and perhaps speed. If the blob whacked him with… um… whatever it is blobs use, Firion would take damage, and possibly gain defense and a higher max HP. (If he dodged the blob attack, he would gain dodge rating, and maybe agility and speed.) The characters seemed to gain stats at different rates. Guy gained HP much easier than the others, Firion gained speed easier, Maria gained magic easier, and the rotating cast for the fourth party slot did their own things.
On the surface of it, it’s a great system. It makes simple sense; characters get better at what they spend time doing. In practice, it was abusable. Players (myself included) would find low level enemies and kill all but one, then proceed to have the characters beat the stuffing out of each other, manipulating the advancement mechanics. It turned out that the fastest way to increase pretty much anything was to find a controlled environment like that and let your characters spar. (Final Fantasy Tactics had a similar effect; leveling up new recruits was often easier in very low level arenas, letting higher level characters keep the enemies at bay while the low level characters beat each other up with a healer nearby.) It was possible to have near-invincible players just by fiddling around for hours in the starting area. Yes, it was stupidly grindy, but the point is, players could abuse the system and destroy any careful pacing the designers might have put in the game.
I really like that sort of freedom. It would take longer to abuse the system than to just go ahead and play the game as intended. It’s not like that “abuse” was really a cheat, or a shortcut. It was just an unintended consequence of the way things worked. There’s a similar thing happening in Valkyrie Profile 2 (that I’m testing). Certain characters leave the party at certain points in the story, but they leave behind items. If they are at high levels, the items left behind are unique and astoundingly powerful. It just takes a long time to grind them to those levels. It would take less time to just play the game, assuming a modicum of skill. (The game isn’t exactly noob friendly, but neither is it insanely hardcore.) Final Fantasy X has optional super weapons for each character, but it takes a stupid amount of time, skill and frustration to get them all. (Stupid friggin’ butterflies, idiotic lightning, grumble grumble.)
I really like these systems, because they give players options. The completionist or min-maxer can go nuts and be rewarded for their effort. It’s often more effort than just playing as designed, but so what? That’s the player’s choice. Yes, the game balance may be thrown out of whack by these things, but again, that’s the player’s choice. Most Final Fantasies allow players to grind to near-omnipotent levels in the endgame. (Some players say they demand it, considering some of the bosses, which does lean to bad design, but that’s another topic.) Players can just play through the story and have a challenging but possible end boss, some grind for hours and blow the boss away. (Knights of the Round, anyone?) I like this; it gives players choices. Sure, it means some won’t play the game as a “purist” might, but it ultimately widens the player base and allows for different flavors of fun.
The trick is to make these optional routes interesting and powerful without completely breaking the game. Chrono Cross had an interesting mechanic where your party had a “star level” that determined character strength, determined purely by where you were in the plot (beating certain bosses and minibosses earned you stars). Characters could gain a few extra HP or other attribute points within a “star level”, and grind for as many loot drops as they would like, but the plot essentially determined your core strength. It made pacing tighter, and allowed for very fine tuning of difficulty. It also meant there were no experience points or character levels, and new recruits weren’t left behind. They automatically “grew” to the party level when recruited. They also grew even if they weren’t active characters, so you didn’t have to rotate characters to keep them all updated.
So, back to Final Fantasy II. How would a designer tune such a “use it to boost it” and “use it or lose it” system to allow players enough choice to make their party strong… without being so strong that it totally breaks the game experience? It’s a great system in principle, since it is a rough analog of real world exercise and development… but is that really the way we want to go in games that are fictional in the first place? I think that it’s worth exploring the FFII system to see if it could be refined, and it surprises me a bit that I haven’t seen more of that sort of progression model. I love RPGs, and I’ve played many, but not all of them. There are certainly other models out there, but it does surprise me that I haven’t seen a riff on the FFII system or a twist on the Chrono Cross system. They are different models, but each has a lot to offer beyond just character levels. The FFII model is one that might be especially interesting in an MMO setting, where players could theoretically have combat, crafting, subterfuge/strategy and even political tracks for character progression.
This suggests another, perhaps more important question: Is it possible to take a FFII system, with its potential for abuse, and make it “fair” in an MMO setting? Abusing the game isn’t a big deal in a single player game, since ultimately, it’s just the player “ruining” their own experience if they play outside of the designer’s expectations. In an MMO setting, things that can be abused for PvP shenanigans will be. Would a refinement of the FFII system, a use-based level-less character progression, work in an MMO?
I’m not sure I have the answers, but it’s something I’m thinking about. Maybe I’ll come back to this, but in the meantime, I’m interested in what others have to say on this.