IN FAVOR OF LEVEL REQUIREMENTS ON GEAR

Why does equipment in many modern RPGs have level requirements?

  • LockeZ
  • 09/14/2018 03:38 AM
  • 258 views
Why does equipment in many modern RPGs have level requirements?

In the golden days of RPGs, this concept didn't exist. You could earn extremely powerful items (and abilities and other upgrades, which are included under the umbrella of "items" for the purposes of this article) early on, either as rare drops, or from minigames, or by doing parts of the game out of order. In multiplayer games like Diablo 2, you could get them from other players. And because games of this era include nearly all of the most popular RPGs ever made, it's easy to fall into the trap of thinking that it's a bad change, something to be avoided. A cynical and nostalgic designer might imagine that perhaps it's some sort of skinner box or other psychological manipulation, created to get players to play the game even when it's not actually fun to do so, like loot boxes or daily quests.

However, the opposite is true.

Fundamentally, if a bunch of your power comes from gaining levels, that causes two main problems. The first problem is that it's boring, and the second is that your game runs into severe balance issues.

I suspect almost nobody will claim it isn't boring, since it all either happens automatically as a result of stuff that you were going to do anyway, or requires you to spend time grinding with no goal except gaining more experience. The first of those two scenarios is boring because it happens passively without the player's input, and the second one is boring because the player is stopping their actual progress in the game to repeat content they've already completed.

The most obvious balance issues come from the developer's inability to accurately predict the player's power. Difficulty settings can allow players of different power levels of gear to enjoy the game, but that's not what they're actually meant for, nor is it something they're good at. They're for players of different skill levels. No amount of difficulty settings are helpful if you can't predict the player's power and tune the different settings accordingly. And the player shouldn't be punished for obtaining cool stuff by having to switch game modes and intentionally nerf themselves. Like... that defeats the purpose of obtaining the cool stuff. That feels awful for the player. Why even search for power ups in the first place if doing so makes the game less fun? The game, on any difficulty setting, should be designed to have fun balance and difficulty curves that take into account the speed that the player will be gaining power. That's your job as the designer.

Both of these problems can be solved a lot of ways, but one of the more enjoyable ways to solve them is to make it so that leveling up doesn't actually grant you a lot of power, it mostly just unlocks the ability to gain power in other ways. This pushes the game's primary methods of gaining power to being rewards from the game's primary content - bosses, dungeons, treasure chests, crafting systems, etc. This makes all of these things feel rewarding, because they give you almost all of your actual power.

Of course, the game still has levels and experience points. Because these are fun. Getting stronger and better at the game is fun. Level ups let the player get stronger and better in two ways instead of just one - both the player and their avatar improve. And experience points encourage the player to actually engage in the game's combat against normal enemies instead of skipping them all. Presumably, that combat is fun, as long as the player doesn't overdo it and start grinding. So as a designer it's something you want the player to do. And by making the level ups unlock the ability to use equipment, you grant the player clear short-term one-time goals, which drastically improves their experience. With obtainable short-term one-time goals, their experience point bar feels less like an endless treadmill and more like a single target, which makes that level up highly enjoyable and satisfying when they hit it. The sense of relief and satisfaction from reaching such an achievement is great.

Generally, you don't want grinding to feel rewarding. Because it's not fun. One of your jobs, as an RPG designer, is to make the parts of the game that are the most fun be the parts that are most optimal for players to do to get stronger. Whatever you make beneficial for players to do, that's what they'll do. They generally won't do the things that are most fun to them, they'll do the things that get them the most power, because winning is the goal of the game. That's how human brains work. So you have to make the useful things and the fun things be the same things. You have to guide players to the fun content by making it also be the rewarding content. This means that as soon as the players have fought enough random battles that any more will stop feeling fun and start feeling like grinding, you remove the reward from them. Level requirements on equipment are a very clean way to accomplish this.

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Corfaisus
Unallocated Skill Points
5354
What's the mechanical difference between level requirements on items and price tags on items? You don't have enough experience/money for this item - go get more.

Level requirements on stuff drives me insane because there's typically also a skill tree and point allocation that twists my arm into sinking valuable points into something just to get me to a piece of equipment faster because it's slightly better than what I already have. It's not exciting, it's limiting. Why sink a point into getting a new ability (or strengthening one I already have) when I could just take a -1 armor requirement boost instead? Why play the game when I can just work my ass off in order to access content I already have sitting in my lap? So yes, it is manipulation. That's why we bring it up: not because we're old and unwilling to change* but because it's a legitimately bad idea. Don't make it harder to play the game by throwing in such transparent and deliberate road blocks.

You have to guide players to the fun content by making it also be the rewarding content.

No. No, no, no, no, NO. You should guide players to the relevant content. You shouldn't twist their arm by deciding what's "fun" for them. I had this problem recently when a game felt like implementing mandatory optional content. Is it rewarding? Who cares? I don't want to do it, I just want to go on this quest because the quest is relevant. By forcing me ("guiding") into the "fun" content, the opposite result occurred and I actually felt like giving up right then and there.

Let me find/entertain the fun content on my own watch. Don't grab me by the collar and say "we're going on a date NOW!"

Generally, you don't want grinding to feel rewarding. Because it's not fun.

The bottom line is just to minimalize grinding. You're displacing the value of the game by telling the player that they have to pass GO again before they can buy another property, regardless of how often they invest or how much wealth they've accumulated. It's my choice, let me make it. If I want to better understand something, I'll do it again. If I got it the first time, I should have my intelligence respected.

* Heck, it's not even some New Age ideology to throw road blocks at the player once they see something they want. Remember the original Legend of Zelda? Remember the first time you explored the world, came across the cave with the White Sword in it and couldn't pick it up? It wasn't a matter of "I have to earn this through gaining hearts", it was more like "the game must be broken because I've always been able to pick stuff up as long as there wasn't a number next to it".

When you can't pick up and immediately use the White Sword, the game is telling you that - even though you found exciting treasure - you haven't earned it. In a world where anything that isn't bolted down is yours for the taking, one stupid voice says "No" until you have 7+ hearts. Don't make me grind for the treasure I found; just let me play the game!
LockeZ
I'd really like to get rid of LockeZ. His play style is way too unpredictable. He's always like this too. If he ran a country, he'd just kill and imprison people at random until crime stopped.
5096
author=Corfaisus
What's the mechanical difference between level requirements on items and price tags on items? You don't have enough experience/money for this item - go get more.
Money is also needed for other things, but you're right, there isn't a lot of difference. Which is why this technique is used primarily in games where equipment is earned rather than bought.

author=Corfaisus
You shouldn't twist their arm by deciding what's "fun" for them.
If you aren't any better at determining what's fun than a typical player, you shouldn't be designing games.
It's obviously a question of difficulty balancing and how you want to design your game. If a strongly balanced game offered too powerful items, it would be better to nerf the items instead of providing them with level requirements. What's the idea behind level requirements for items? That the player doesn't become too powerful? I would grind even more so that I could use such items as soon as possible.

While I like grinding (to some extent) and the opportunity of powergaming, I hate balancing (level scaling - enemies level up as well when the player's party does) and different difficulty options, because I think it's bad game design if the developer doesn't (try to) implement the "one true difficulty" that's not too easy, not too hard, and still offers challenges for all kinds of players. I'm aware that my stance isn't exactly popular. All players are different, which is why you can't cater to all of them. Just do what you deem sensible.
I will totally admit that cause I have VERY STRONG OPINIONS (tm) on all topics "Game Design And Theory" I went straight to the comments to type out my position, then read through your article to see if it changed it at all.

My Original Position: this mechanic/feature is neither good nor bad in and of itself, and whether it improves a game or detracts from it depends entirely on all of the other factors of the game design. Random off the top of my head examples. If I am playing Borderlands 2 (EVERY game now is kind of sort of an RPG ever since Call of Duty: Modern Warfare and certain contemporaries unleashed RPG mechanics into a wide array of genres but that's a topic for another article) and I get a wicked cool Level 23 gun when I'm Level 21 that is really nothing but a minor annoyance. There are like a hundred other factors baked into the design of Borderlands incentivising (sp?) me to grind levels, and enemies scale toward (if not to) your level anyway. Just let me use my fucking gun NOW. My other example is actually FROM the golden era of RPGs, the action-RPG Soul Blazer from circa 1990-1991. That game does have a level req. on equippable swords. In this case, that is a good thing. I can't equip the Psycho Sword until I'm Level 5. Well, I mean I was well over Level 5 before I even found the Psycho Sword, but even if I wasn't, in Soul Blazer you shouldn't be delving the dungeons that require the Psycho Sword before you're Level 5 anyway, so it's not an annoyance, it's a useful guideline (you must be this tall to ride). But Soul Blazer is the kind of game where I'm guessing you only unlock seven swords max over the course of the entire game, maybe just four, so there's also that.

I suspect almost nobody will claim it isn't boring, since it all either happens automatically as a result of stuff that you were going to do anyway, or requires you to spend time grinding with no goal except gaining more experience. The first of those two scenarios is boring because it happens passively without the player's input, and the second one is boring because the player is stopping their actual progress in the game to repeat content they've already completed.

Sure, but to be clear, we're talking about how you GET XP/Levels/Phlebotinum/Whatever, right? Not how it is USED? Because choosing where to invest your whatever points, one way or another, is a feature of most games I like or will design myself.

The most obvious balance issues come from the developer's inability to accurately predict the player's power. /snip

Scaling enemy levels TO the player's level (see: Oblivion) is a terrible (non)-solution to this problem that is worse than the problem itself.

HOWEVER, scaling enemy levels TOWARDS the player's level (see: Skyrim) is actually a reasonable solution to this problem without messing around with difficulty levels.

One of your jobs, as an RPG designer, is to make the parts of the game that are the most fun be the parts that are most optimal for players to do to get stronger.

Agreed, actually, but quite a stretch from the argument in favor of level requirements that we started at. Like I can barely see there from here.

Generally, you don't want grinding to feel rewarding. Because it's not fun.

What??? I'm sorry but that's just...listen, you want to support the playstyle of the people who grind and the playstyle of people who don't grind (and incidentally, most people I imagine fall in between, like me, and grind a little) which means you should make BOTH playstyles fun AND rewarding.

If you aren't any better at determining what's fun than a typical player, you shouldn't be designing games.

This is an obnoxiously elitist statement that is...also totally right. And that goes for games of ALL kinds, not just JRPGs, not just RPGs, not just VIDEOgames.

(Players) generally won't do the things that are most fun to them ... That's how human brains work.

You're not 100% wrong about everything but this statement is just...I can't. Your thinking is idiotic. I'm done. Peace.

(When I did this kind of thing for money I had a colleague (a superior, technically) who also insisted that people don't play games to have fun. I couldn't talk to him either. The end result was a terrible game.)
Marrend
Guardian Angel of the Description Thread
15421
author=StormCrow
But Soul Blazer is the kind of game where I'm guessing you only unlock seven swords max over the course of the entire game, maybe just four, so there's also that.

Yeah, Soul Blazer has, like, eight weapons total. I don't recall where, exactly, you get the Psycho Sword, though. It can't be the first weapon, though! Maybe the second, or third? I forget.

Anyway, more on this topic, I think I don't necessarily mind the idea of weapons having a level requirement. I mean, the kind of equipment we're probably talking about here aren't all about being an array of stat bonuses. They probably have other abilities associated with them. Some could be passive (state resistance?), some might require activation (wands/staves/rods?), or something that occurs every hit, or every kill (hp restore/drain?).

*Edit: I get the frustration of getting equipment that's, like, 10 levels higher than you (or greater!), though. However, I kind think that frustration might also depend on what the player choice is when they acquire an item like that. With games like Borderlands, or Diablo, there is exceptionally limited inventory space, and no means to stash stuff until later, if I recall. So, the player choice there absolutely sucks: either hang onto it, letting it take up valuable inventory space, until you can use it, or just sell it off.

*Edit2: I guess it also depends on how the item was acquired, and how difficult it was to obtain. Like, if we're talking about a boss that drops an item that's 10+ levels higher than where you're at, and it was a hard-fought boss, the attachment to that item is probably going to be quite high. As for the possible frustration of not being able to use it now (and possibly not any time soon)? It was part of the boss' reward, so, maybe the idea there is that you have to be as powerful (if not moreso) as that boss to use that item? Or... something? Though, I forsee an argument that by beating the boss, you've proved that you're as powerful as it.

Hrm. I'm not sure how to tackle that argument.
InfectionFiles
the world ends in whatever my makerscore currently is
4314
@Marrend- Diablo 2 and Borderlands 2 both have enough space to save things that are out of your level. B2 gives you the option to buy more bank space and also have 4 slots of the twink items from Claptrap. D2 is usually pretty good of you getting higher level items as you go and you have the stash. Both games don't let you hoard so much unless you can play with other people.
Corfaisus
Unallocated Skill Points
5354
author=LockeZ
author=Corfaisus
You shouldn't twist their arm by deciding what's "fun" for them.
If you aren't any better at determining what's fun than a typical player, you shouldn't be designing games.
Can we just cut to the basics and admit that RPGs aren't inherently "fun"? What can we determine about RPGs that make them "fun"? How can we decide for others what they should care about aside from filling a role in a game? I'm sorry, but if you try to decide what I should think is fun and I don't think it's fun, you shouldn't be designing games for me. Sometimes what's fun is what the game doesn't have over what it does.

Ever played a platformer with too many enemies that stalk you while you're trying to platform? Not fun. Ever played an RPG where you're denied entry until you're so strong? Not fun. Hell, ever played a "collect-a-thon" game where you played the game yet didn't play it enough in order to explore new levels once the old ones have gotten stale? Not fun.

"Look at this shit I made" does not a good game make. Pay attention in the near future as I crank out a review that nearly died on this one credential alone.

You're usually the smart one here, but I feel you seriously dropped the ball on this one. It's like an overflow glitch of brilliance.

EDIT: Want to know another good reason why "level requirements on items" is a terrible idea? It prioritizes these specific items over everything else that you find until you reach that magic number that allows you to finally use it. You've already got the item but you have to put it away while you sink points into being able to equip that one specific thing. What if a new item comes along that needs one or two points yet isn't anywhere near as great as your super cool item you know you're working towards? Do you just sell this crap item because someday you'll be good enough for the ultimate item? Do you really want to introduce dead content just because something better is coming down the pipes later?

It's kind of hard to be excited about the tiny victories when you've already seen the goal line. Good, just not good enough, sonny.

I'd be mortified to create dead content, knowing I've wasted my time... but at the same time, I can't make every player think that this thing that I sank my time into is a good thing worth their time. If I force them into this thing that they don't like, I've failed them as a game designer. Let them play the way they want, and if they really want more, they'll find/return to that stuff later.
Psycho Sword is a late game weapon, you need to pick it up in the castle to hurt the ghosts and then later go back to kill those fireball dudes to get the Red-Hot stuff. The Life/Recovery(?) Sword you can get early in the first area with a high required level.

It's also irrelevant because you don't need to bother with any of that until the final boss: Equip the strongest sword and crab walk! Remember the level requirement only restricts your ability to swing your sword, and you only have to do that to use Phoenix and hurt the final boss. The type-killer swords work even when crab walking so thankfully you never have to grind until you can kill those Xevious block things. Or just save everything and never worry about level requirements. I mean it's not really Soul Blazer if you aren't getting the tour from the goat!
Corfaisus
Unallocated Skill Points
5354
That you need a particular weapon in order to succeed at anything in the game just seems really dumb. They did that in Morrowind with the Keening and the Sunder and I hated it. I have the Hopesfire which does insane damage, so why should I bust out a crummy hammer just to smash Dagoth Ur's heart? Seriously...
The question I have with this is - what kind of RPG are we talking about?
Usually, for most Diablo-type RPGs, hell the genre as a whole, level requirements are a normal thing for various reasons: and it is capitalized on as the stat distribution on your character is as much a requirement to wear stuff as your level is.

1. you gain loot randomly, and while very low in chance, you can get some amazing stuff relatively early on

2. you need different stats to wear different things, so as to encourage going for a certain class rather than a jack-of-all-trades

3. your entire progression in the game is tied to slaughtering hordes and hordes of enemies, almost non-stop - level ups will come eventually EVEN IF LOOT MAY NOT (remember the random?), so it is worth keeping around and fun to look forward to

4. min maxing and cranking up gear, keeping what suits you and tossing/trading the rest is really a game mechanic in those games - and part of the fun for those who enjoy these things! (like me : D) Also a reason to keep limited but plentiful inventory space.


Now, while not wrong in itself, usually what many traditional RPGs are based on is that you need to traverse places to get somewhere, dungeons etc. And you usually only need to do it once. And there is both a portion of optional chests and content, as well as the base line - you will get some stuff by default or dropped by a boss who you HAD to beat. (no random recurring quests or stuff like in, say, Grim Dawn, or faction hunting, or boss hunting for loot)
That does give you a general idea for balancing if you traverse it once and add some extra fumbling around.

There are also RPGs (like Devil Survivor) and other tactical RPGs where the fights are predetermined for the most part, and thus offer a very good idea of which level your party will be, roughly. (while offering infinite training battles for those who need to boost their party - you can also finish the game with only doing these to get new skills and ZERO grinding).

Which type are you talking about? I assume classical RPG? If you speak generally it ignores the synergies that you can add additionally. Level requirements would be like a simple trick to implement that can be nice as long as you are not forced to grind to use that particular weapon in that next particular bossfight.

And I know with all my nitpicking on other parts of the article, (also already done above by so many) I can see the basic idea. So err, long rant END.

LockeZ
Both of these problems can be solved a lot of ways, but one of the more enjoyable ways to solve them is to make it so that leveling up doesn't actually grant you a lot of power, it mostly just unlocks the ability to gain power in other ways. This pushes the game's primary methods of gaining power to being rewards from the game's primary content - bosses, dungeons, treasure chests, crafting systems, etc. This makes all of these things feel rewarding, because they give you almost all of your actual power.

I wholeheartedly agree with this, I just can't see why and how equipment level requirements are the one and only solution to this. These things you mentioned and wish to see the power on usually (crafting, dungeons, other main content) already are the main source of power. I see them in many many many games. Nothing new is really added here or explained directly. I would love to see you expand on that and talk about the various ways this can be done beyond saying "hey loot is important, and so are new weapons".

That the sole means of power in most RPGs are levels alone I find is only partially true. There is a reason feeling overpowered is a satisfying thing, because one may feel it is a result of their own genius build, which does indeed need more input beyond "passively leveling up" - you being strong because of your effort is still a thing. There IS input beyond this though - namely skills, items, and the use thereof, as well as different party members. A lot of RPGs have various team members to choose from, who have different skill and stat sets. Who then also have different synergies.
I remember finishing Radiant Historia 20-30 levels below my brother's safe file. And I had to improvise, a lot, but that's what made it satisfying. To beat it without grinding - not because of some loot or weapon differences (or requirements), but because I had to change the team to a slower more supportive kind to still beat the end boss. You can argue this is skill rather than mechanic differences, but it's still a way of gaining power that is encouraged by the existance of the various team members. When you hit a roadblock you may try changing party members before going off to grind.

LockeZ
And by making the level ups unlock the ability to use equipment, you grant the player clear short-term one-time goals, which drastically improves their experience. With obtainable short-term one-time goals, their experience point bar feels less like an endless treadmill and more like a single target, which makes that level up highly enjoyable and satisfying when they hit it. The sense of relief and satisfaction from reaching such an achievement is great.

This is true as an additional thing to look forward to while playing the game normally. I don't think this makes grinding by itself more enjoyable, though.
It's only grinding when you feel you have to do it as an extra, unreasonable effort in order to proceed, really, otherwise you call it battles. And I quite enjoy my simple battles in dungeon crawlers and never bore of them as they are a simply sideshow of proceeding and managing your resources while doing so.

Basically, I think it'd be nice to hear you elaborate it a bit more, because you only barely touch how it comes down to equipment, or why that's the easiest or best thing to add to alleviate that problem and grant extra incentives.
LockeZ
I'd really like to get rid of LockeZ. His play style is way too unpredictable. He's always like this too. If he ran a country, he'd just kill and imprison people at random until crime stopped.
5096
author=StormCrow
(Players) generally won't do the things that are most fun to them ... That's how human brains work.
You're not 100% wrong about everything but this statement is just...I can't. Your thinking is idiotic. I'm done. Peace.
For example, right now, you are arguing with some asshole on the internet instead of watching Classic Doctor Who or playing the Final Fantasy Tactics randomizer. Not because it's more fun, but because something about the situation psychologically compelled you to do so. You've decided that this article is a boss battle and for some reason you need to defeat it, so now you're doing that instead of going off and doing something fun. You're probably going to come back and argue with this post too. However, if the comment section provided some strong incentive to post exactly one comment and no more, you would be less likely to do that, and more likely to give up and go pick a game to play from your Steam library.

Your job is to get players to do things that are fun. That's what game design is, in one sentence.

author=Kylaila
author=LockeZ
Both of these problems can be solved a lot of ways, but one of the more enjoyable ways to solve them is to make it so that leveling up doesn't actually grant you a lot of power, it mostly just unlocks the ability to gain power in other ways. This pushes the game's primary methods of gaining power to being rewards from the game's primary content - bosses, dungeons, treasure chests, crafting systems, etc. This makes all of these things feel rewarding, because they give you almost all of your actual power.
I wholeheartedly agree with this, I just can't see why and how equipment level requirements are the one and only solution to this. These things you mentioned and wish to see the power on usually (crafting, dungeons, other main content) already are the main source of power.

In simple terms, the idea is to make leveling up still feel like a big deal, so the player feels like battles are rewarding. Obviously, an alternative is to remove levels from the game entirely, or make them have almost no benefit, instead providing all of the player's major power upgrades purely via finding them. But if your combat is fun - and hopefully it is - then it's nice to make it also feel rewarding, at least for as long as it keeps being fun. Otherwise a lot of people won't do it. They'll just skip past all the skippable enemies and fight the bosses that give rewards.

It's more important in a game like World of Warcraft where the power-ups come from bosses, or a game like Dragon Age where they come from quest completion and treasure chests, than it is in a game like Diablo 3 where they come from literally everything.

The other idea is to prevent players from skipping 90% of the game in multiplayer games, which is something they'll do given the chance, because if you say "Hey kid you want an awesome legendary sword?" a lot of people are gonna be like "Fuck yeah!" without thinking too hard about the details first. But then that powerup makes the next eight hours of the game not fun, because the sword comes from way later in the game, and is so good that it's essentially an invincibility cheat.
I see! And so true with multiplayer games, didn't think about that one at all (even with level caps it possible to boost with twinks, but still!). Also MUDs.

Gotcha. Hmm, I wonder if it is less important in D3 style. Well, it is true it is just a sideshow and a happy "I can use this now" (and levels are seen as a thing that happens on the side). I see how quests n stuff give more restrictions though, and so encourage questing to get those extra levels (and other bits).

Thanks for elaborating! I appreciate it : )

(also if given the chance ABSOLUTELY would I go for the power up of whatever kind, and then feel mildly disappointed it gets too easy, but I cannot resist getting the most power out of my stuff. Ok)

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