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# Level-Less Levels

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In my game designs, I always attempt not to include experience levels. They tend to seem arbitrary and meaningless and are totally unrealistic. Furthermore, there is usually an overblown difference between low and high levels. These factors tend to lead to lapses in logic and unrealistic gameplay. However, a big advantage of character levels is that a player can quickly differ between a low-skill character and high-skill character. For instance, in a game like Swords of Chaos, if I am a Level 1 Thief, I won''t try to steal from a Level 20 Shopkeeper and I know that right off the bat. Without levels, I really don''t want to (as a player) look through a whole character sheet to figure out if I''ll be caught. Nor do I want to try to decipher a text description that states, "He looks very strong and tough, and a little agile" or something of that nature. The question is, what are some methods to make a quick-glance character description without resorting to a experience based level system or worse yet a simple experience number listing?

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Perhaps using some of the techniques screenwriters use to add "contextual depth" to their scenes. If you think of a movie scene as a large amount of data, the only a small percent of that is actually verbal/dialogue-based.

Most of it is visual - after all, humans are very keen at visual information. Audio clues can also help - like specific tones or beats in a background clip.

Perhaps the use of colors, geometrical shapes, and other visual clues. This, of course, means that the entire game world must be consistant with these clues, or players will not be able to corrolate the symbol''s significance with a particular scenario.

For example: All shopkeepers that have information that is important for the player to learn, or perhaps just more flexible in terms of bartering will have a subtle green filter (such as the matrix movies) while a character that is more hostile will have a slightly different filter color (or none at all).

Depending on the time/talent of your animators, you may be able to use stance and posture as a visual clue.

Geometric shapes can help to create the background and framework of a scene (every frame is a picture, so all of the techniques that artists use to "focus" their audiences attention to specific details may be relevant). Some artists use lines that all point to a specific element in a painting to grab the audiences focus.

The main problem with these techniques is that they need to either be very consistant in the entire game world (so that people consciously or, idealy, subconsciously take notice) or they must be stated explicitly for the gamer. The reason I say that subconscious depth is better is because a player who doesn''t completely understand why they "feel something unique about a character on the screen versus the other characters" gives people a feeling of depth - which is one of the gaming industry''s weakest elements in today''s products.

I hope this helped and I would love to take more about it tomorrow, but it''s 2:30 in the morning here and I got an early schedule. This is an interesting discussion though, so I am looking forward to the other responses. It''s easily an overlooked design element in most games today - and it shouldn''t be.

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Interesting stuff, dgaf, but you may have to retrain some players to get the most out of it. Many gamers aren''t used to using body cues in games as a sign of anything but emotions. If you are going to use a filter, I wouldn''t have it apply to the character''s image all the time, ot they''ll just think that person is naturally that color. A fe tricks you might use is changing their color on mouse over, or maybe shifting the color on text as they speak.

Alright, now let''s look at character descriptions. The key here is "what do you want to know?" Take the original example. The thief wants to know if they''ll get caught. That suggests they want to know how skilled or how powerful the shopkeeper is relative to them. For "how skilled" use the level of the character''s highest skill. For "how powerful" you''ll have to give them a rating. A quick estimate would be to base it on their skill & stat totals. A more precise version would give different multipliers to each trait. This give you your numbers. However, you may not like tossing a straight number at them. One option is converting it into a text descriptor, as in FUDGE (a versatile tabletop rpg). However, this may work better if you use a realtive scale, rather than an absolute one. For an absolute scale, you''d have to have a new term for each power level and hope no one confused the terms. For relative scales, you can work with fewer terms, so this is less likely. Besides, characters tend to care more about how powerful their opponents are in relation to themselves.
You could swipe a device from mmorpgs here and use a color code based on relative value. Instead of using levels, just use one of the point value systems mentioned above.
Another option is to convert these values into bars. The longer the bar, the higher the value. If you showed bars for both the player and the target, they could get an idea of absolute and relative level. If you just wanted relative level, you could have 2 bars competing for a boxed in area, where the larger bar represents the more skilled/powerful character.

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The problem with explicit math and statistics is that the player either loses all disbelief in the game world or they simply don''t have experience with counters, multipliers, etc. from various RPGs.

Assuming that you are making a game for "non-hardcore gamers" as well as the RPG-buff, the game world should be much more immersive than blatantly artificial.

Let''s assume that special character animations for certain events just isn''t what the publishers/producers feel is worth the money. Likewise, it would take too many voice-overs and cost too much \$ to have audio mono/dialogue.

Text, IMO, is a poor solution to many "explanation issues". Unless you pick up a book somewhere in the world that has a legitimate purpose for explaining something (perhaps a diary), then there really shouldn''t be any magical text boxes that pop up and tell the player something.

I don''t expect to be walking through my house and see a giant pop-up box floating overhead, reminding me to talk to someone or do something. The game, if at all possible, shouldn''t have one either.

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Something that bugs me about stat-based RPGs in general is this assumption that any given player automatically knows or needs to know whether or not they can get away with robbing a certain shopkeeper. If you''re a Level 1 Thief, there is no way your character would be even close to experienced enough to be able to accurately judge a situation well enough to make that kind of determination. Unless the shopkeeper is a one-eyed thug with wicked-ass broadsword and a smirk, or some other obvious visibly dangerous fellow, there is really no way for the Level 1 Thief to assess the situation and know that the shopkeeper is a danger. He''ll either have to attempt to rob the fellow--thus being quickly slapped down by the Level 20 if he gets caught--or he''ll have to assume that any person who has managed to stay in business for so long in a dangerous fantasy world is probably a little tougher than he looks, and it might be the course of wisdom to walk wide until he has more skill.

The problem with CRPGs is, obviously, the lack of available means for communicating abstract data, as the previous posters hint at. Visual cues are great, but a lot of data isn''t going to conveniently fall into easily classifiable categories.

I remember way back in the old days when I used to play MUDs. When facing a new battle, there was no way to guage the threat of the enemy except for simple observation and examining the enemy to assess it''s equipment and health status, and a command called Consider which would perform a rough evaluation of your chances. If "con monster" returned "The monster looks at you and laughs mercilessly" or some such, that was a good indicator to get the hell out of Dodge. Just that simple sentence conveyed more threat of menace than any contrived visual indicators, without detracting from the experience as such a contrived visual indicator would.

Exactly how would you contrive a visual indicator to accurately (or even inaccurately) portray the dangerousness of an opponent anyway? Consider the actor Jet Li. To look at him, you would see a small, slender, polite and well-mannered fellow. Except for a certain grace and lightness of movement, there really is no obvious way to judge the depth of his martial arts skill just by observing him. Take a swing at him, on the other hand, and you''ll learn the true depth of his skill in a hurry.

If every situation can be easily assessed at a glance by even the most inexperienced characters, where is the challenge? Where is even the semblance of realism? I prefer an element of risk, of the unknown. I prefer to feel a little uncertainty, even fear, the first time I face off against an unknown monster. Will I beat this thing, or will I be slapped down like a snot-nosed little girl? If I fight it and lose, forced to tuck tail and run, then that is a bit of knowledge added to my own personal database that will come in handy the next time I encounter such a beast. I don''t need a visual indicator to remember that the last time the monster and I met, it handed me my ass.

Of course, in many situations, visual indicators are good for conveying information, but mostly these are the obvious ones that are already a part of the monster/character. The big, blood-red, dripping claws might be one indicator. The foot long, gleaming white fangs another. It doesn''t take some wierd, abstract coloration or warning light scheme to know that this thing means business and is capable of dealing a lot of hurt.

I personally like the idea of a Consider command of some sort, and for me a simple, brief textual reply is sufficient--though for others it might not be. The reply can be based on a number of factors, to convey a wealth of information (comparison of hand-to-hand battle strength, comparison of relative health levels, comparison of relevant combat or spell-casting skills, etc...), and no tricky or contrived programming is really necessary to try to implement some sort of visual cue system that the player may or may not be able to understand. The Consider ability can be implemented to return more accurate information as the character increases in Level, to reflect his growing skill at assessing situations before he acts. It can be generalized or specific; the player can consider either a general comparison of himself with an enemy, or he can consider the consequences of a specific selected action.

For example, in the case of the Thief, his Thievery or Pick-pocket or whatever skill could have an associated helper icon for Consider. Select Consider, select the shopkeeper, and based on the character''s relative danger assessment ability, a reply is returned describing the thief''s chances of successfully using the Thievery skill on the shopkeeper''s wares. In the case of the Level 1 Thief, the reply might be uncertain and uneasy: "The shopkeeper studies you, a slight smirk on his face." Enough to know that perhaps all is not as it seems. Get a few levels under your belt, and the Consideration might instead return something more specifically related to the danger the shopkeeper poses.

It''s not a perfect scheme, nor is it suited to every game. But neither is the expectation that visual cues alone can accurately convey the nuances of a situation, nor is the assumption that all interactions should be readily decipherable in terms of success/failure, and all data known, as in the case of character sheet and experience level comparisons. Audio cues can enhance things, but can not be relied upon; I know many gamers(myself included) that turn off the music channel in order to play their own playlists, thus losing any effect that music tempo changes or beats would have on indicating the particulars of the situation.

Just my thoughts.

Golem
Blender--The Gimp--Python--Lua--SDL

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Those are good points.

Another benefit of using the player''s own abilities to gauge his chances (rather than stats and levels) is that the player will feel as though he/she is the one that is "skilled".

It seems much more plausible that someone would tell a story about them sizing up a character poorly (and preceeding to be tossed around) than for them to mis-calculate a statistic.

A player-misjudgement is a humorous (if not severely punished) situation and will also create a benefitial bond between the player and the avatar.

Looking into my gaming past; the best skills my characters ever learned were the ones that I, as a player, was a significant part of executing. As profficient as I am in math, I don''t play games to practice my multiplication, addition, and probability expertise. Intuition is a valuable tool for developers - not just from the design standpoint, but from the player perspective as well.

Intuition forces people to use their surroundings and clues to size up a situation - much like in real life.

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Many good points here. For my game, I think the consider option would work extremely well, and fit in into the whole MUD-like atomosphere of the game (I''m trying to substitute the normal isometric RPG view for high-quality pictures and descriptive text, sort of like an adventure game). Perhaps there could be a special Consideration skill that would slightly rise at normal experience gains.

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quote:
If you''re a Level 1 Thief, there is no way your character would be even close to experienced enough to be able to accurately judge a situation well enough to make that kind of determination.

In general, I would consider that a false statement. Having a strong D&D background, level 1 classes were a considerable step up from the average commoner, with an assortment of useful skills and abilities already at their disposal. Level 1 characters weren''t considered to be newbies, inexperienced whelps. Your level 1 thief, fighter, mage, or cleric have all gone through years of apprenticeship and learned a great deal about their profession as a result. In this particular instance, a level 1 thief indeed has a good deal of experience sizing up people, spotting the subtle gestures and postures that are the teltale signs of an experienced adventurer. A level 1 fighter would be able to interact with Jet Li for a mere minute and gain an appreciation of his skill, without ever even hinting at a blow. This fighter has gone through a significant amount of training. He understands how stance and posture affect balance, the advantages of flanking opponents, obtaining higher ground, etc. The level 1 adventurer in general sees the entire world in a way us common gamers just don''t perceive.

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For a graphical game, it''s useful to color code your consider functionality. Most, if not all, MMORPGs are essentially using this with grey, green, blue, yellow, red, and purple opponents. For a skill based game, use the color coding for your actions. However you select the ''steal from vendor'' option, have that option appropriately color coded. Make use of a consider type skill by making it an action in itself. You have to ''assess'' an opponent to get an accurate idea of how successful your actions may be. The downside to assess though, is that your opponent may recognize that he is being ''sized up'', and if this occurs, actions like stealing, backstabbing, surprising, etc, become noticably more difficult. This provides a tradeoff. Do you just steal and hope you have a good chance of success, or do you more closely assess the situation at the risk of receiving unwanted attention to yourself?

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quote:
Original post by NecroMage
For instance, in a game like Swords of Chaos, if I am a Level 1 Thief, I won''t try to steal from a Level 20 Shopkeeper and I know that right off the bat. Without levels, I really don''t want to (as a player) look through a whole character sheet to figure out if I''ll be caught. Nor do I want to try to decipher a text description that states, "He looks very strong and tough, and a little agile" or something of that nature. The question is, what are some methods to make a quick-glance character description without resorting to a experience based level system or worse yet a simple experience number listing?
The shopkeeper can be very active, looking furtively about, checking under tables, recounting his goods and cash frequently. In a more modern context, surveillance cameras, infrared beams, various alarms (if you''re going over the top, atmospheric elements of "doom and gloom") and so forth connote the difficulty of getting one over on this guy.

Context communicates a lot, especially if it''s used consistently.