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An RPG without levels/experience

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I've brought up this idea in a couple of posts and would like to see what you all think about it, specifically.

Basically I think levels and experience systems set up unduly artificial milestones for the player to reach and always end up as a grindfest.

Imagine: characters with static skills, and the challenge is how best to use the skills they have to overcome what obstacles the game throws at them.

I'll open it up for discussion and comment occasionally.

Mike

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[quote name='hustlerinc' timestamp='1341788048' post='4957059']
So basically the player starts at the top "level" with the highest rank in spells, full talent tree etc?
[/quote]

It'd be more of a system where you had to balance your character wisely. Everything would have opportunity costs. You could choose your character to be a Knight that equips spears, but then you wouldn't be able to equip axes, or something. You could choose to be a wizard, but you wouldn't get access to both hard-hitting, single-target spells and crowd control spells.

And the gear in question would be also relatively equal. You could choose the weapon that does max damage, you could choose the weapon that let's you attack faster, you could choose the weapon that has a % to debuff, and etc.

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A few unsorted thoughts:

In Elder Scrolls 3: Morrowind, you increase your stats, leveling those up instead of your character (Well, actually your character does 'level up' every time you get 10 stat increases, but they didn't have to do that).

I remember reading about another game, I forget what it was called, where you start off fully powered, and due to some plot-related thing, you actually decrease in power as the game goes on, which increases the difficulty in the later levels of the game.

I want to eventually make a game where even though you are really powerful, you have to conserve your resources as you travel from one location to another, resting and recharging only at towns. Basically, no health regeneration or mana regeneration, except at Inns, so when going on a long journey, you have to micro-manage what you have.
Most games give you a bajillion potions to use in battle, and your health and mana regenerate outside of battle, making things pretty pointless. If there are potions in my theoretical game, I'd use a more zelda-esqe method of limiting how many bottles you have, so you have to make the choice, "[i]What do I want to put in this bottle? Extra health? Extra mana? Some kind of buff?[/i]", but still limits the amount of resources you carry with you. Most rpgs just let you buy herbs or potions in towns, and when you walk into a dungeon, you think nothing of using one of your x99 herbs after every battle. Bah! [img]http://public.gamedev.net//public/style_emoticons/default/smile.png[/img]

In my currently in-development RPG, I was actually not going to have any leveling up at all. However, my sister successfully argued about the psychological benefits of looking forward to the choice of how to upgrade your character at every level up. Player customization and choice and all that.

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There are already single player games that exist like this. A game like Half Life doesn't have leveling up, nor does Magicka. You are given what you need at the start or along the way.

Of course there are still things to find, for example in Magicka you can find new spells. I imagine most people wouldn't be too fond of going through a game and never finding or using anything new.

I feel that if you end up including something like unlocking/learning new abilities, getting new weapons, etc... then your game really plays the same way as many RPGs with levels. Often the player levels up, only to be faced with more difficult opponents, keeping them at the same level of difficulty. As a generic example, if the player was once at 100 health, doing 10 damage per second, and fighting enemies with 20 health, but then levels up so that he has 200 health, doing 20 damage per second and fighting enemies with 40 health... it's essentially the same.

The one difference is that players can grind ahead of the curve, but this has been prevented in games before by simply not allowing the player to gain experience on weaker enemies.

On top of that, some games don't even include stat bonuses when you level (I believe Mass Effect doesn't, but I could be wrong) and instead you can unlock/improve abilities from leveling, while stats come from weapons that you find. If you were to take out the leveling in Mass Effect and simply allow the player to place their ability points at checkpoints, it would play very similarly.

So basically the point I am getting at is that I don't feel that getting rid of the leveling has much relevance other than the player may not feel as if they are accomplishing as much without getting direct feedback from the game. It seems better to approach the problem thinking about what exactly you want to get rid of. If you don't want players to grind, then perhaps don't allow them to continue gaining experience on weaker enemies, and reward them for killing tougher ones. You can also aim to make the game more skill based so that the player is compelled to try harder rather than grind out to get stronger. I believe (though I haven't played it) Demon Souls implements both of these concepts.

Sorry for the rant... hopefully it was clear.

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Hmm, what about a game where you *always* have x skill points, you start as 6/10 for every stat, then each "level" you get to move a skill point from one stat to another? It gives you customisation, but not levelling up per se. So for example you choose to sacrifice your melee ability to become a better wizard.

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Well the only argument I have here is that it wouldn't really be an RPG and that's allright.

You're referring to some kind of action adventure game with character customization at start.
I'm a big fan of Zelda: A Link to the Past, but it is not an RPG by any stretch.
Still, the game evolves naturally through items.

That is my other point: you need some measure of advancement, which essentially means you'll have to rely on the player finding stuff. It's obviously more interesting than randomly learning skills on level up, but it takes careful consideration.
Have a fair look at Symphony of the Night (ok there is a level up system, but its really secondary to the game and could've been done without). I like how Metroidvania incorporate the action adventure idea. Very exploration/challenge driven.

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[quote name='jefferytitan' timestamp='1341796074' post='4957091']
Hmm, what about a game where you *always* have x skill points, you start as 6/10 for every stat, then each "level" you get to move a skill point from one stat to another? It gives you customisation, but not levelling up per se. So for example you choose to sacrifice your melee ability to become a better wizard.
[/quote]

Yeah, I mean I thought there might be points in it where you could "swap out" one skillset for another.

----------------------------------------------------------

A lot of people have brought up action games or action/rpg hybrids, but I'm thinking of a pure JRPG-type or a Tactical RPG. I mean, sure, there is a psychological effect to gaining a level, but if that's what people are looking forward to when playing your game, I think you should work on your story and general immersive value. Being engrossed in a game should be its own reward, not moving up some arbitrary progress bar.

The game where I first started thinking about this was Final Fantasy Tactics. For those of you unfamiliar with the system, you have a main job (skillset 1 + your char's stats) a sub-job (skillset 2) and a reacion ability, passive support ability, and a movement ability. I was thinking to myself, why not just unlock all skills from the beginning and let the player choose what he'd like the char to be good at. (all support abilities would be in the same group, ie, there would be 3 support slots for abilities). So for instance you could pick a main job that maybe didn't have the best stats or the most uber abilities but it has a wider range of equips. then you choose a sub-job that gives you a skillset that makes use of accurate attacks, sacrificing some power in order to hit more often. Then you'd choose your supports. Anyway, you could create a totally different character with, say a mainjob that isn't the best at melee but has good magic stats, making it a good "carrier" job for the sub-job, which would be whatever school of magic the player wanted that char to specialize in. Or you could create a wizard that has both a magic wielding main-job and for it's sub-job, a different school of magic.

The point being, the player would be forced to make choices sort of like building a magic deck. "Do I want X capability in exchange for not being able to do Y?"

Combat would have to be very tactically involved to keep the game fresh. Using another total genre non sequitor, you might compare it with playing Madden. You've got a couple of good tanks, and a good DPS. This would sort of be like having a good O-line and a running back. The other team would try to counter your configuration with what it had, and you'd do the same against it's (the enemy's) strengths and weaknesses.

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Guild Wars uses an idea like this, granted it does have levels, but they stop and it becomes more about your customization. You choose a starting "class" (it's a profession if I remember right) and you can take a secondary one. These determine what skill trees you can access. As you get experience, you get points you can distribute (and redistribute every time you go to town) so it is more about balancing your build instead of leveling constantly, grinding to max things out. If nothing else, check out the system. Edited by Dragonsoulj

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Take away the numbered leveling system, make visual representations of that data on the character as the player progresses. Characters with high MP should crackle with power, characters with low sword skills should barely know how to hold the thing and look at it constantly, characters should have damaged armor and tattered gear after a hard fight, characters should carry wounds that effect them the rest of the game, characters should move with careless swagger when they've earned countless successes and look around nervously when plagued with failure. This is fun because no matter how a player plays they earn a new look and feel to the game. Past and current RPGs don't represent good fantasy anyways. Good fantasy, worth playing the role of, is filled with dark moments of helplessness that the player should feel like they have no chance but because they choose to fight on others help them find victory when they least expect it. Seriously isn't this community filled with folk that have read this stuff? Shouldn't we know how to build these roles worth playing instead of focusing on the outdated number system that was used because of hardware limitations. "Come on!" (that was an Arrested Development quote that had to happen)

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[quote name='mekk_pilot' timestamp='1341786539' post='4957051']
Basically I think levels and experience systems set up unduly artificial milestones for the player to reach and always end up as a grindfest.
[/quote]
The problem is, that there is not a problem at all. [img]http://public.gamedev.net//public/style_emoticons/default/wink.png[/img]

The only problem I see is, that games try to satisfy everyone at once. But the truth is, there are lot of people who like unduly artifical milestones, level and exp, and there're lot of people who dislike it. The same can be said about [i]grinding[/i], class-vs-skill based system, gear-vs-attribute based system etc. etc.

My critique about this counter-design paradigma is, that people tend to design anti-pattern of existing design pattern, instead of designing something fresh, purely inspired. And yes, there's a difference between '[i]I want to design something which is a counter to something existing[/i]' and '[i]I want to design something which I really like to play[/i]', even if the latter comprised old design. Edited by Ashaman73

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I think a game where players do not gain stats over time might be great for pvp and cooperative questing, because theoretically someone who had been playing a week could fight on equal footing against or beside someone who had been playing a year. But it's difficult to find replacement rewards to motivate players with if you can't give them gear with better stats or visible improvements in their fighting ability. Giving them a wider variety of fighting options is a possibility, but if the new options are too useful then pvp is again screwed up between new and old players, and if the options aren't useful, players won't care. If the game has a major non-combat side, such as a pet-breeding or crop-growing sim, players could be rewarded for their time with items and abilities related to that instead.

I don't think there would be much point in removing levels from a single player RPG, I don't see any benefit to not having levels in that kind of environment. It works ok in action-adventure games like some of the Zeldas and Okami, but that's because ability upgrades replace leveling.

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[quote name='Orymus3' timestamp='1341797070' post='4957100']
Well the only argument I have here is that it wouldn't really be an RPG and that's allright.
[/quote]Experience points do not make an RPG, [url="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Role-playing"]role play[/url] does!!
[quote]I'm a big fan of Zelda: A Link to the Past, but it is not an RPG by any stretch.[/quote]In the telling of an epic story, you play the 'hero' role of Link. Your character progresses by obtaining new tools, relics and magic powers as you explore the open world of Hyrule, carry out quests, solve dungeon puzzles and engage in tactical combat. Sounds an awful lot like an [url="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Role-playing_game"]RPG[/url] to me. Edited by Hodgman

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[quote name='mekk_pilot' timestamp='1341786539' post='4957051']Imagine: characters with static skills, and the challenge is how best to use the skills they have to overcome what obstacles the game throws at them.[/quote][b]I have quite some difficulty in understanding how it could work[/b]. Last game with RPG elements I've played was Borderlands. Once you acquire your skills, it is possible to pay to shuffle them. I've never used this feature.

When it comes to RPGs, the GURPS ruleset is indeed The Right Way to do this in my opinion. It is still geared towards evolving players by increasing their skill points. Shuffling is not forbidden but I don't recall it being encouraged either.

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I think what most people are missing is that leveling up is "fun".
It has the psychological benefit that you "get better", "progressed", "grow stronger", "achieved something".
Also, it makes the game evolve: you discover new skills, have to make long term decisions, tweak your character, affects the gameplay, etc.

Without that, the game is more static and you know everything from the start.
Nevertheless, if the game is ok, it still can be fun, especially if it's a "casual game".
...but you know how people like upgrades ;) Edited by fuzzy fizz

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[quote name='mekk_pilot' timestamp='1341801131' post='4957120']
Final Fantasy Tactics.
[/quote]

This is very much alike Final Fantasy 5 but more fleshed out. FF5 was a game that could work without leveling up, but it had jobs and gear which, although isn't said, is essentially leveling you up as you find it. The idea of character progression is inherent to RPG design, not just in the form of a progress bar, but in the sense that you unlock more content as you go, forcing you ever onwards through this exploration of game mechanics.
This is essentially the same formula as action-adventure (Zelda) applied differently.
A game with everything at the start would get somewhat boring. Technically, you start SOTN with everything, but are quickly stripped down to make everything fun again. You need to explore to recover lost powers to access new areas and so on and so forth. I doubt people would find the game appealing if you could skip to Dracula because you're strong enough and have all the necessary skills.
Character progression makes the game enjoyable and the journey meaningful.

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[quote name='mekk_pilot' timestamp='1341801131' post='4957120']
The game where I first started thinking about this was Final Fantasy Tactics. For those of you unfamiliar with the system, you have a main job (skillset 1 + your char's stats) a sub-job (skillset 2) and a reacion ability, passive support ability, and a movement ability. I was thinking to myself, why not just unlock all skills from the beginning and let the player choose what he'd like the char to be good at. (all support abilities would be in the same group, ie, there would be 3 support slots for abilities). So for instance you could pick a main job that maybe didn't have the best stats or the most uber abilities but it has a wider range of equips. then you choose a sub-job that gives you a skillset that makes use of accurate attacks, sacrificing some power in order to hit more often. Then you'd choose your supports. Anyway, you could create a totally different character with, say a mainjob that isn't the best at melee but has good magic stats, making it a good "carrier" job for the sub-job, which would be whatever school of magic the player wanted that char to specialize in. Or you could create a wizard that has both a magic wielding main-job and for it's sub-job, a different school of magic.

[/quote]

The main issue is it will make it very hard for players to start the game. They will have tons of options thrown at them without knowing how things work and they will either feel crushed under the sheer number of options or pick whatever and never explore the other options. Imagine Diablo 3 gave you access to all skill and runes from the start. You would have skimmed through them, picked something and never looked back. By unlocking them over the levels, the player slowly learns about skills as he progresses and is encouraged to check other options at the same time.

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It could work. RPGs, at the end of the day, are roleplaying games, not "level up and point spending games." The hard part, however, would be to have that sense of progression. If you have the sense of progression only within the story, then those not as interested in the story will not have much reason to play, and you've just essentially done a disservice to them.

So there would have to be some mechanical milestones for progression that the player could cling to. What you would do in that case instead of xp/levels isn't really something I've thought long and hard about, so it's not really something I could brainstorm right now.

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Two types of games where I could imagine this system:

1) A JRPG or TRPG: There are multiple storylines, and depending on your choices and investigations, you gain access to certain pre-generated characters. For instance, you start the game as an imperial soldier, and do a quest as him. If you took a detour and talked to the imperial intelligence officer, you gain access to his storyline. Otherwise, and in addition, once you finish the imperial soldier's quest you have access to a noob rebel. So you look at the story from multiple points of view, and your progression is measured by how many optional sub-plots you take.

2) An MMO. Now what I'd really like to see in an MMO, and this is probably worthy of another thread entirely, is something like a 5:1 NPC:PC ratio. The NPC's are able to be manipulated beyond what any game has allowed. So one progress bar in the MMO is how you manipulate NPC's to do your bidding. For instance, if you have a quest to assassinate an NPC baron, you could round up a posse of PC's and do it yourself, or you could somehow acquire the gold necessary to hire an NPC assassin.

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There's nothing inherently wrong with level-ups, but we've been going at them the wrong way. You can and should get constantly better with your chosen fighting style, but spamming Overhead Chop seventeen thousand times isn't going to spontaneously teach you the ins and outs of Renaissance-era fencing. All you need is one or two instances of the proper insight to learn a new move. If you're fighting a guy and you circle your blade up to catch his, then you lower it on top of his sword and stab him in the throat, congratulations! You've just executed a basic bind-six. Now make the motion smaller, less obvious to the opponent and less time to perform. A tiny little circle the size of an orange should be enough to perform it, so you don't need to draw one around your entire opponent. Keep this up and if anybody is foolish enough to point a sword at you, you'll swoop in over the top of their blade and stick them in an instant.

Until you meet people familiar with the move, anyway -- capable of countering it.

Similarly, this notion that you amass more and more health is just ridiculous, as is the idea that you need to up your strength to kill somebody with a sword. Having more muscle may pad you against blunt force, which works nicely for fisticuffs, but a mace is still going to break your skull. Being strong does help when using a sword, but only so that your arm doesn't get tired performing the parries. Cutting a person open ain't hard; getting the chance to try it is. You only really need one direct hit, and what keeps you alive is your reflex, your ability to predict the following attacks based on your opponent's position -- "From here, it'd be easiest for them to _____." That's what makes a good fighter, not having 5000 more HP.

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There is no way in hell you are going to kill a demon with normal human abilities. Contrary to popular belief, humans are just fucked. The way that humans fought demons was being super hero strong, or just having fuckloads of people die. Also heroes in literature were more durable than regular people, aka more HP. Or magic. But lots of people hate being mages.

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[quote name='AltarofScience' timestamp='1341891863' post='4957499']
There is no way in hell you are going to kill a demon with normal human abilities. Contrary to popular belief, humans are just fucked. The way that humans fought demons was being super hero strong, or just having fuckloads of people die. Also heroes in literature were more durable than regular people, aka more HP. Or magic. But lots of people hate being mages.
[/quote]

*Is Mage and Loving It*

It's kinda like D&D, adventurers are already exceptional members of the population. Characters in a level-less game would be as well. They just wouldn't become gods as the game went on.

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[quote name='mekk_pilot' timestamp='1341894099' post='4957505']
It's kinda like D&D, adventurers are already exceptional members of the population. Characters in a level-less game would be as well. They just wouldn't become gods as the game went on.
[/quote]

Agreed. A "typical Joe" in 99% of the games I've played would be dead within 5 minutes. But exceptional doesn't necessarily mean "exceptional AND improving".

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The real question is, should combat be realistic? Is actual swordfighting really all that fun? Hitting 17000 monsters to level up is just like real life sword fighting. Except in real life you are hitting a dummy all those times when you are just learning, which is way more boring than fighting a monster. In real life becoming skilled takes thousands and thousands of hours, so taking 50 hours to reach the sword skill cap seems like a pretty silly complaint.

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This topic is 1969 days old which is more than the 365 day threshold we allow for new replies. Please post a new topic.

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