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Cymons Games

Leveling sucks

February 13th, 2013

I’ve been playing a lot of FTL lately, just like everyone else I guess. Good game, mostly only minor criticisms. I wish that the encounters had some sort of face associated with them like Star Control 2 conversations. I feel like that might slow the game down a bit, which isn’t good, but it would make it much more personable and enjoyable, which isn’t bad. I also wish the game were more aware of certain situations like when you’ve got an away crew on an enemy ship when your ship gets destroyed, you should be able to, if your away crew wins, keep playing with that enemy ship, maybe even avoiding encounters because they think you’re one of them. These are minor complaints, tho.

My real gripe about the game is the leveling system. Lots of games have them, lots of games have had them for a long time. The idea is the more a character does a particular task the better they get at it. In and of itself this isn’t a bad idea. It’s true to life, I guess. The only problem with it is what it promotes game play wise.

The first game I remember having a leveling system was X-Com. The result of this leveling system was making characters with high stats so invaluable that you couldn’t bear to lose them. So when I played I employed the game’s save system like some sort of time travel device, rewinding individual moves until I got the outcome I liked. Was this true to the spirit of the game? If it were you’d have a “time rewind” object like Prince of Persia: Sands of Time. But it’s the way we played because our characters had levels we didn’t want to lose.

After that I discovered jRPGs and while I never really got into them very much I quickly learned about “farming”. This is exactly the problem FTL falls to. In FTL if you find a battle against an opponent that can’t penetrate your shields and wont run away you simply power down your weapons and let them pound on you. Rotate who’s on shields, engines and helm and let your characters slowly level up those abilities. Of course this could take hours so be sure you’ve got a good book on hand.

Leveling is a broken mechanic that breaks a games ability to really draw you in. It encourages cheating and breaking the game. To be sure any game where you can collect things does this, but if it weren’t for this one little aspect, FTL managed keep the game moving well. You don’t have enemies that pop up at random, so there’s no point in retreading where you’ve been. In fact that encroaching army insures that you’re going to balance meandering for loot and moving towards the exit. It’s brilliant except for this one little thing. Do we really need to level up our characters? We already level up our ships individual systems in the game.Can’t that be enough?gainst an encroaching army that is gaining territory while you wait. Except when you’re in battle, so you don’t worry about them. The game’s sense of urgency goes up in smoke because you’re farming.

If you haven’t tried it out FTL is definitely worth your time. What’s on the screen may look simple, but you quickly realize that it doesn’t do justice to the sweeping epic star ship combat that you’re engaged in. Soon your mind is filling in the blanks and you’re in a combat as epic as anything you’ve seen in movies and TV. And a game that can spark the imagination like that is a good game.

5 Responses to “Leveling sucks”

  1. Herman Groenenboom

    I guess that’s a thing you just have to avoid doing… I never really considered that kind of tactic and it sure didn’t make the game less fun.

  2. Joe

    Try to see the big picture here. It’s not about this one example, it’s that the mechanic of leveling is inherently broken regardless of the game that it appears in. This just happened to be the game that made me realize how leveling negatively affects the games they are in.

  3. Jonny D

    I think you’re talking specifically about how leveling was done in this game and some others. Not all leveling is the same, ya know. “Leveling sucks” and the similarly generic statements here implicitly apply to some very good and well-balanced leveling systems.

  4. Joe

    Jonny D, give me some examples of good leveling then.

    I’m talking specifically where your character’s ability to do a task increases the more they do that particular task, whether it be specific like “lock picking skill, stockpiling like gold, or just general “experience points”. This mechanic encourages stopping the game proper and perhaps exploiting some loophole in the game to do the same task over and over that levels up that stat. The only place I can think that is done acceptably is in roguelikes with a fixed number of monsters in the levels so you can’t halt your progress and “level”. Do you have a better example of levels done well?

  5. Jonny D

    I think I’m taking a different angle on it than you’re seeing. Leveling is a design challenge for which many developers take the well-traveled road. The games you mention have a problem with laziness in that the development challenge of balancing progression and difficulty have been passed off onto the player in the form of a grinding process (whether included intentionally or not).

    However, there are plenty of games whose “game proper” *is* the grinding process and they are fun and addictive (if you consider that a plus) even if they have clear flaws. Burrito Bison and the hundreds of other similar simple Flash leveling games fall under that distinction. Also, many MMOs go that route. It really depends on what you’re looking for in a game, but I don’t think we can declare that the concept of leveling is by nature broken.

    Then there are alternative leveling schemes that reward you specifically for playing the way the game is intended. This is what you want. Your example of a fixed number of monsters is one way to approach this, but feels more limiting than an actual solution. You can enforce this yourself as a player in most games, as mentioned, but you’ll often end up underpowered for later challenges (most jRPGs). Some games have a natural limit in the number of enemies by being purely PvP with a fixed number of players per round (e.g. MechWarrior Online). The leveling in those games is sometimes performance-based (which team wins) more than count-based (which player had the most kills). Used right, forced autosave (similar to permadeath, but doesn’t always have to go so far) can help achieve some of the same goals as the fixed enemies approach.

    Another common (and important) one is of team-based bonuses. If you perform actions that contribute to teamwork, you get more experience. This is a good direction to go if you want to shape the way players play. And that’s really what we’re after. There are plenty of other ways to do this that can be used for non-team games, but you have to be a bit creative (e.g. interactions with NPCs, completion time, and more). If you just don’t want grinding in your game, then target the properties of grinding and remove them from your game, penalize them, or reward alternatives. Grinding is the problem you’re pointing at, not leveling.

    Perhaps outside of your specific complaint is another common progression model: leveling linked to progression (e.g. Metroid, heart containers in Zelda). You get better, more powerful, or gain abilities based on where you’ve been or how far along in the game you are.

    I’m not the definitive source on this topic, but I hope that helps show that all is not lost when a game includes a form of leveling. It would be harder for me to disagree with “grinding sucks”…

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