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Levels and experience points

This month I've been primarily working on a DynRPG plugin which I call DynBattleDisplay. It displays visual info above battlers showing their HP, MP, and impending turn using the System2 graphics of RM2K3, plus icons for status conditions and how many more turns they'll last. It's highly configurable, allowing the designer to specify whether each element displays for heroes or monsters, how long it shows after there's a change to the value it's displaying (with forever being an option of course), and which status conditions should be shown in what order. It also has some extra features that RM2K3 doesn't by default, like different-colored ATB bars depending on whether a battler is under status conditions that raise or lower agility, and an enhanced HP/MP bar mode that shows how much HP/MP was just gained/lost as a different-colored segment which then shrinks away in a slick little animation. n.n The essential functionality is all there now, I just need to add some structural stuff allowing the user to make changes to the configuration while the game is running and store those choices in variables so that they're preserved by game saves. Ironically, I'll need to create a slightly modified version of the plugin for Forgotten Gates, since it doesn't follow RM2K3's provided battle system entirely. X)

I was pondering recently whether Forgotten Gates really needs experience points and leveling. Lo and behold, Craze started up a thread a few days ago about replacing traditional leveling with alternative systems. :o So I posted there about how the topic applies to Forgotten Gates (you'll have to scroll down a bit to find my post). Of course, after posting, I noticed that the topic was supposed to be using established games as examples. e.e; Still, a couple people so far seem to have found my case interesting enough to reply. I'll put the post in the show/hide section below in case you'd like to read it without going to the thread (and to preserve it in case I'm later asked to remove it from the thread).

Interesting that this topic should come up now. I was pondering some very closely related stuff for my game project's monthly blog post. I guess I'll talk about it here, might make a good concrete case study for all of us.

The project I'm referring to is The Legend of Zelda: Forgotten Gates. It has a combat system similar to Final Fantasy 6, and from the start I've assumed it would take the "default" route of traditional XP. Lately, though, I've been wondering whether this game really needs XP and leveling up at all, at least in the most familiar sense. I was planning to have a New Game+ of sorts, with the heroes reaching approximately level 30 by the end of the first run, maxing out at level 50 (or getting pretty close to it) by the end of the second run, and in the third run (or any subsequent ones) the heroes would be at full power, with the strength of their opposition designed to match through each run. But if that third run is the ideal gameplay, why bother with leveling up at all?

Well, there are a few reasons still, of course. The gratification of watching your avatars get stronger has already been mentioned in this thread, although one could say we're looking for alternative methods of controlling that growth. There's also the learning curve to consider, meaning the actual learning of the player about the intricacies of the game. If I give the player access to every skill of every hero right from the beginning, the player might be a bit overwhelmed by the options. They could also think, "What am I ever going to need this powerful but expensive blast spell for, the baddies go down easily enough with regular whacks," and then late in the game when that spell would actually be useful they're too ingrained with what's worked so far to even remember they have other options. Perhaps most importantly, if there's no XP, there isn't much incentive (in terms of the lazy, path-of-least-resistance psychology) for players to engage in battles. I could gate things so that they have to battle to progress, and in fact some battles I already expect to do that with, but it would be nice if the general solution were something more elegant, even something that makes "to fight or not to fight" an engaging gameplay choice.

Another thing to consider about this game specifically is that I'm trying to employ a mix of traditional "epic" JRPG progression with more short-term "Rogue-like" gameplay. The main story of the game will involve pre-designed dungeons (or quests as I'm calling them in-game) that are required for plot progression, but there will also be optional, procedurally-generated challenges separate from the plot. In these optional quests, I plan to temporarily set the heroes' "levels" (whatever that ends up meaning) to something appropriate for the challenge, then switch them back to whatever their progress was in story mode once they go back to that. All this is to say it would be great for there to be significant short-term progress within the optional challenges. The easiest way I can think of to accomplish this would be to make equipment a significant booster to the heroes' capabilities and generally start challenges with relatively low-level equipment.

To summarize, here are the "pros" of traditional XP for my game as I see it, which are things I would ideally hope to capture with any alternative system:

* Sense of progress
* Controlled learning curve for the player
* Motivation to engage in battle

And here are the "cons" of traditional XP, which I would hope to avoid in switching to an alternative system:

* Difficulty of balancing (can't be sure what level heroes are at during a given point)
* Motivation to grind (yes, I realize that's almost the same as motivation to engage in battle)
* Does not provide significant growth in short-term quests (or if it does, gives run-away growth in long-term campaign)

Thoughts, suggestions, things to add to the pros/cons lists?

So far the most interesting feedback has been a suggestion to reset the heroes' levels whenever they complete a quest. That flies in the face of the typical desire of players to keep what they've earned and get stronger and stronger, but it has certain advantages, especially considering I want Forgotten Gates quests to be playable and fun as short, self-contained experiences. If levels are something earned fresh in every quest, I can allow them to be obtained pretty quickly and cap them relatively low, say level 5. That will make leveling up something the player is able and motivated to do even when doing short quests. Meanwhile, a sense of progress and increasing capability in story mode can be preserved by allowing the party to accumulate better equipment. In fact, I was already planning to make that the reward for completing optional quests--a headgear protecting against a certain status ailment here, an accessory granting a status buff there, etc. I'm seriously considering this temporary leveling idea. :/a