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Endemion

Changing the progression in RPGs

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One of the things about RPGs that I can say confuses me greatly is leveling. Let me explain: I play a lot of RPGs. Most of the time I find myself grinding my levels just to get to the max level. Then when I'm at the max level, I find myself getting bored of the character because there's nothing to do. This slightly confuses me. I don't understand which pathos it is of mine that makes me enjoy the mindless activity which propels me towards a goal, which upon reaching, makes me upset with the game. Is there any way to change this prospect? My suggestion for a method is to focus more on the gameplay of the RPG, instead of on the attributes. Instead of making the player feel like they have to make it to level 7 in order to enter this dungeon, make it so the dungeon uses a different concept than the previous dungeons to advance. And that's not just to say that you need a different object to advance, like Zelda games for instance, but rather there's something you have to master tactically first. Let's construct an example. Say we have a game where you control a team of 3-4 players. You have some of the traditional archetypes in this game, Tankers, DPS, and healers. When you enter the first dungeon, the enemies mostly rush you and try to hurt you as much as they can before dying. Sound familiar? Well, what if the next dungeon, instead of increasing the damage and health on those guys and just doing the same thing, the monsters had tactics. The ranged damage dealers would stay back, and hit whomever their tank was on. That would be an increase in difficulty, which would show the player progress if he was able to beat it, and also provide a decent "fresh breath" as it were into the genre as it stands. To expand, later dungeons would include things like teams with medics, who would rush over to a fallen comrade, rez him, then dash back to cover. Or teams of DPS who would ambush your group and use guerilla tactics to spearate your team and eliminate the most important threats first. One thing to keep in mind, while thinking about the idea is to remember that you and your enemy are no better off damage or health wise than they were in the first dungeon. Instead, a different scheme to push onto the RPG genre is the one introduced by EVE online. EVE uses skills differently than most RPGS, (while some of their skills do increase damage and health in a fashion, I'm talking about the skill based ones) using them to change what one is able to use, and how efficiently they are able to use it. Imagine that instead of getting level 25, and being able to (finally) equip that maul of amazingness that you got 3 levels ago from the uber ogre leader, you can focus training efforts on learning to use melee weapons in more circumstances, and as a result of your study, your character picks up the maul and is able to use it. While some might say that I've just replaced experience grinding with skill grinding, my only thought is that you get rid of all the things that come with defined levels, and replace them with the individual skills. So you aren't just waiting for one second when your character learns new spells, can equip better armor, gets more stat points, and gets an increase in health and mana... (not to mention that in some MMORPGs, you get increasing bonuses against creatures with your level, to the point where you get 1% to miss on an enemy that you had 30+% chance to miss a few levels ago...) Instead, you lose the stratification that this method presents, and you gain a more balanced progression. I suppose at this point, I'm just rambling, and perhaps in a later post I will condense my ideas so that it is easier for others to read, but I just want to leave you with one point - Recent RPGs have taken to having the monsters in outdoor levels "Level" with you. In other words, when you get to level 7, every random encounter you have is level 7 as well. So why even have the levels, if everything is supposed to be the same as you are? Just make everything level 1, and let the skills separate you from your enemies...

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Its really a balance issue.

One approach you might take is to artificially prevent the player from leveling up past a certain level until a certain point in the plot is reached. For example, the player cannot exceed level 10 until the first mini-boss encounter. Excess experience points could be held onto until the encounter is successfully completed, at which point the player will recieve them as a "bonus" on top of the standard experience gained for their victory. Taking this one step further, excess experience itself could be capped to prevent people from level-grinding, defeating that mini-boss, then shooting up 26 levels due to the 45,000 excess EXP they've accrued.

RPGs have done something similar for many years, through a less blatant method. Eventually, the required experience to move to the next level becomes impractical to gain fighting weaker monsters so the player must move on to new lands. One disadvantage of this method is that moving to new lands is not always tied to plot progression, so the player simply hops to the next island insted of moving the plot forward.


Another approach you might take is to set aside a finite amount of experience points that can be gained per monster. It stands to reason that, having fought 35 Purple Blobs, your adventurer has little more to learn about fighting them, and hence his level of experience is not greatly impacted. You could put these encounters on a graduated scale: the first 5 encounters with Purple Blob are worth 5 Exp, the next 5 encounters are worth 4 exp, the next 5 worth 3 Exp, and so on, until any additional encounters are worth no experience. An added benefit to this approach is that you have a good idea what the player's maximum possible level will be, allowing you to tune the game's difficulty at each stage. Another possible advantage is that it encourages the player to seek out and "hunt" each monster to get those last 6 Exp he needs to max his adventurer out before tackling the next boss fight -- kinda like Poke'mon: Gotta Defeat 'em all! You could even have hunting sidequests where the player seeks out new monsters they would not encounter in the course of the plot to gain experience. Imagine a "Hunt the deadly Wumpus" sidequest after overhearing two old-timers talking about the strange creature that attacked them in a cave south of town many years ago.

All this is not to say that the player should *have* to be at the maximum level to expect to be able to defeat the boss, merely that the boss fight should be doable, yet somewhat challenging for a maxed player. A good player should be able to defeat that boss several levels lower.


I'm all for side-quests and open-endedness, but I think the best games gently push you through the plot, rather than simply letting you wander aimlessly. What I'm proposing, in theory, is a means to make that push more firm the longer the player stagnates his own progression.


EDIT: Having actually *read* the majority of your post now I relise I'm not exactly responding to your post as a whole, more to the question in general. At any rate, what I've posted are other possible methods to discourage grinding behavior by making it less usefull as a long-term strategy.

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Most of my opinion on this I posted in this thread, starting at page 4.

Basically, I think that we're going very much in the same direction. There's no reason you should be 100x stronger at the end of a game than you were at the beginning, and the "progression" that you recieve should be widening your strategic possibilities instead of just stat bonuses.

From that thread:

Quote:
I'm not convinced that at the end of the game you should do 100x more damage [with a knife] than you did [with an axe] at the beginning. A "more powerful, but slower claymore" will always be stronger and slower than the "weak, fast rapier".

Buying a new weapon wouldn't be "lets get the weapon with more attack power", instead it's "Ok, so this weapon is fast and weak but has an excellent range, it poisons on hit and has a 10% chance of putting the enemy to sleep". This is pretty cool, and could go a long way toward adding a much needed strategy to your equipment selection.


Quote:
I still enjoy the occasional game of DQ7/8 and FFVI, but I think it's about time we moved on and started embracing more complex interactions in our combat/character development/story. But to [create more strategic gameplay] and remain palatable to the end user, we have to simplify the aspects that are non-intuitive and accentuate the parts that the player can use for strategy.


Quote:
...if you can play equally well [from power leveling as you could from low-level + strategy], you are negating any need for a strategy in the game. Why should I worry about proper tactics when I can just hammer on the "attack" button.


Quote:
I think the secret to making a "great RPG" is to create a verb set where every single action is useful in a variety of situations and it's up to the player to decide what combinations work best for their own playing style. That's why I think FFXII was such a huge step forward for the genre, there were very few wasted verbs.


Quote:
A hard dungeon is a hard dungeon. If I enter that hard dungeon unprepared, I should get my ass handed to me. If I enter that hard dungeon prepared, I should have a reasonable challenge. Likewise, an easy dungeon is an easy dungeon. If I re-enter later in the game, I should feel as if I'm better equipped to deal with the enemies. Not necessarily that I'm killing them in one hit with my eyes closed, but that as long as I'm paying attention I'm not afraid of dying. This is something that the Zelda games do fairly well, especially A Link to the Past.


Edit:

In the end, I think what you're asking for is a game where each dungeon introduces new content, such as enemies and AI actions. But most RPG* designers are too busy creating useless content. That's why we have a hundred pieces of Light Armor and eight different "Fire" spells (that when you acquire a new one, the previous ones are now completely worthless), but enemies with only two AI actions.

It's too easy to forget that you're designing a game when you're working with a genre that "thinks" it is as established as an RPG. Sometime it's hard to throw those arbitrary D&D-inspired rules out the window to create a new experience, but I think that should be the goal.

* Using generally accepted and ridiculously vague "video game genre" definition

[Edited by - JBourrie on May 23, 2007 4:35:30 PM]

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I do care if the growth of the character is by raw power or by strategic possibilities. However I'm not so much inclined toward the second. I prefer the game to let me choose a bit (less versatility, more power).

However. If I find out a game levels enemies with the main character. i.e.: if the same zombie in the same spot will be more powerful as time passes to compensate for character growth, I'll simply not play that game.

The same goes for self-adjusting difficulty by non obvious modifications. I don't care if the game puts twice the opponents, or different ones. That doesn't break my points of reference. What I hate is the level adjustment and the "you now deal 80% damage because you were killing things too fast". I think it's simply lazy design and a lack of interest for balance and proper mechanics in the designers part.

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Design the game so that it also depends on Player skill to advance, rather than solely on Character skill. For instance, the level 20 enemies at the end of the game don't have much in the way of stat bonuses as compared to the level 1 enemies at the start, but have more of the AI at their disposal and are more likely to really screw with the player than to just stand there and get in the way of arrows.

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The first thing that comes to my mind is Chrono Cross. In the game, your levels were "handed" to you at certain plot points. When you defeated a mini-boss, you gained a level. What it did is that at any given time your level was set by the game, maybe possibly allowing you to do some side-quests to gain a few extra levels, but not so much to be overpowering, just enough that people who weren't as good at the game had a way to make their party stronger, so the game was easier on them. The other thing I think of is Oblivion, where the entire world shifts with each of your own levels, thereby making grinding useless, because once you're level 20, you'll *never* fight anything you fought at level 2. A lot of people were angry with both games, though, so I don't know if they're the best ways to do it, and I also like your idea of adding many levels of AI. I'm thinking of doing something like that with my game, starting off each new area with a random number depicting how well the enemies will work together/use better tactics, and raising the random number via a higher cap on it, or just adding 1/2 character level to it. Then take that number and assign it to a certain level of tactics dependant upon what enemies are encountered. eg. if the number is high, the fighters will protect the caster/ranger, but if it is low, they might forget and let someone through.

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A few ideas that I've heard and like.

* Decrease the number of EXP you gain from killing a certain enemy as you kill more of the same type/level.

* Make Level increasement more tactical. Instead of just doing more damage/have more hitpoints, make them able to carry certain weapons with nice side effects (Titan Quest does this well).

* Make respawn times very long, making grinding ineffective.

just my 2 cents

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Cool ideas.

In my opinion, the solution to the "power vs. strategy" debate is simple:

If a tactically thinking player can beat a more powerful but less intelligent player, it is in the interest of the stronger player to learn tactics.

However, this could easily create a situation where players simply max their characters out and learn tactics afterwards and essentially circumvent much of the game.

Why not base character progression and advancement not on time but on some sort of skill based metric?

Take the "style" meter in the Devil May Cry series of games. It's a simple meter: it goes up when you execute attacks based on their damage yet decreases automatically over time. However, if you repeat the same attack without varying, the meter will increase less and less until you eventually cannot increase the value faster than it drains automatically. When you kill an enemy, you are rewarded proportionally to your style meter's ranking.

What if experience worked on a similar system? That player that proves to be a tactical genius will achieve material success faster than Joe Schmo farming mindlessly and mashing buttons.

Of course, once they've both attained the same power, Joe Schmo will be beaten by a tactically "smarter" player, weaker or stronger. Our tactical genius will beat everyone and will waste less time.

It's a self adjusting system: players that like involved game play don't have to put up with grinding, players that like grinding don't have to put up with tactics. However, as this is a game, the tactically better player will win based on those factors.

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I liked the concept of Chrono Cross's stat boosting system, but disliked the execution. Getting all of the stats in one shot after killing the boss defeated the purpose of fighting battles in general, plus the excess of characters made it feel pointless to maintain most of them.

A good system of balance would be to have stats randomly grow (weighted, of course, according to where the player should be at) controlled via an experience cap, with bonus exp awarded for using advanced tactics. Better minded players will abuse the bonuses to get the caps raised faster, but will lack in stats for missing out on half of the battles, were as pure grinders will get their stat bonuses, but raise the caps very slowly.

However, I'm the type who believes in lower-frequency, but longer and harder battles. So, for a player like me, maybe stat bonus could happen during the battle, rather than at the rewards scene afterward.

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Original post by Endemion
This slightly confuses me. I don't understand which pathos it is of mine that makes me enjoy the mindless activity which propels me towards a goal, which upon reaching, makes me upset with the game.

Well, it's not just you; this is one of the primary draws of many types of games, MMORPG's in particular. Human beings just seem to have a built in enjoyment at the feeling that they've accomplished something or gained something. There is just a certain unexplainable thrill that people feel at watching a progress bar fill up and then hit 100%. If you really want to be confused, check out www.progressquest.com and realize that there are people who actually "play" the game religiously.

Aside from just that though, I think there are valid reasons that RPG's follow the path of leveling up the character while leveling up the monsters, whether it's blatant like in Oblivion or obscured as in most other RPG's where you're funneled through level-based areas as you level up. It's because RPG's were never games that were particularly about skill. They are based on pen and paper RPG's, which were primarily vehicles for group storytelling more than they were legitimate games of skill. RPG's, whether video or pen and paper, are at their heart just advanced forms of make-believe. You follow a story of your character starting out weak and doing unexciting things, gradually becoming stronger and facing greater challenges, eventually completing a story arc of some sort. It doesn't really matter if the actual "gameplay" of fighting the dragon king at level 50 is the same as the gameplay of fighting a rat at level 1, because the important part is the ability of the game to portray the character's ascent to power.

So, while in many respects I agree that from a pure gameplay perspective, it would be more interesting to make battles more tactical and not include mathematically pointless increases in numbers on both sides, I don't think it would supply the necessary illusion of a character's increasing power. I think you're looking a little too much from the perspective of a person playing a game of skill, and not as much from the perspective of an actor within a story. From a strategy point of view, it doesn't matter that my character gets bigger and bigger fireball spells if the enemies he's fighting are just going to have higher and higher hitpoints, but from a narrative point of view, I definitely expect my Archmage of Pyromancy to be conjuring up gigantic pillars of flame and destroying enormous, heavily armored creatures.

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