If you’re making an MMORPG (or any kind of RPG, for that matter), one of the very first questions you have to answer is, “How do levels work in my game?”
Of course, before you answer that you might ask, “do we even have levels in our game at all?” Maybe you don’t have “levels” per se, but if you are making an RPG then we already know that the characters become more powerful over time. You need to represent that power numerically to the player somehow, whether it’s in the form of character levels, space ship hull armor, sword damage stats, or the number of magic spells in the spellbook.
Whatever the numbers may represent, something tangible makes some players more powerful than other players. So let’s lump all of that together as “levels” for now, because it turns out you have to ask similar broad questions regardless of the particular form of level you use.
So back to the question: “How do levels work in my game?” First off, you need to know how big a difference there is between levels. How much more powerful is a level 10 character compared to a level 9? Do they become 20-25% more power when they level, like EQ1? Are they 10-15% more powerful, like WoW? Or is it only 3-5% more power, as in AC1?
This may seem like an overly narrow place to start, but the power differential between levels has a lot of gameplay ramifications.
If level differences are large:
- When a character gains a level, the player can often go different places and kill different things than they could before, so levels provide a good way to break up content and provide a feeling of progress.
- Players feel much more powerful when they level up, so gaining a level is a meaningful accomplishment.
- Players have trouble grouping with characters of different levels players because their power levels vary dramatically. This limits the opportunities for grouping, especially at lower and middle levels.
- PvP between differently-leveled characters isn’t very balanced, or fun, even if the players are only a few levels apart. Again, this limits the opportunities for PvP play.
If level differences are small:
- Players don’t get excited about leveling up, because it doesn’t make them feel more powerful or open up new venues of gameplay.
- Players can group with a broader range of other characters easily, making it easier to find a group to play with.
- PvP between differently-leveled characters is more exciting and accessible for a broader level range.
Breaking up Content
Levels are an important part of giving players direction: levels are how players understand where they’re supposed to be and what they’re supposed to do. They intuitively know that they should be in areas with similarly-leveled players and opponents. Levels also control exploration. When the power differences between levels are big, players are not able to roam very far. The less important levels are, however, the more characters can roam the world at will.
In AC1, level differences were originally so miniscule that a level 20 archer could often kill a level 80 opponent. How could they tell that they could do that? They just had to try it and see what happened. This was a lot of fun for a certain type of player, but very confusing and even “cheaty” for many others.
On the other hand, players who liked exploration loved AC1 for this reason, because they could meander through most of the enormous game world with impunity.
You might be thinking, “Everybody knows that if you want a PvP game, you want small level differences.” When the power differences between character levels are small, then player skill has a larger impact in the outcome of PvP fights.
Certainly this is the case for EVE Online, as well as for AC1’s Darktide PvP server. Both games owe a lot of their PvP success to the fact that relative lowbies can kill players much higher level than them. This is a powerful enticement for new players and helps keep the competitive landscape fresh for long-term players.
So a small level differential is a good place to start, but it’s not a magic solution. You still need to give your players a sense of forward progress and accomplishment over time, and if levels aren’t the primary means then you must have some other way. And those other ways can also represent strong power differentials that can limit PvP.
For example, it is often said that Warhammer Online has a shallow level curve, but that’s not the whole story. WAR does have a relatively shallow “character level” curve, but then your power level becomes measured by your items and equipment. There’s still “high level” and “low level” equipment, and it still has a meaningful impact on the outcome of battles. So you haven’t gotten away from the problem of power differentials: you’ve just mitigated it significantly.
You can also mitigate this problem by making levels increase the breadth of game verbs available to a player, rather than by increasing the potency of the verbs. In EVE Online, for instance, mastering a skill isn’t particularly hard — but there are a ton of skills for you to master. You’re gaining more verbs, which can affect your overall potency in PvP somewhat, but not nearly as dramatically as if you just kept jacking your damage-dealing statistic up directly.
Grouping in PvE is another important consideration to keep in mind when you are designing your leveling system. Players can generally only group up with other characters that are within their relative power range. In most games, if you were 500% more powerful than your team mates, it wouldn’t be a lot of fun for the weaker group members – they’d feel like hangers-on rather than part of the team.
So most games restrict groups to a certain power range. But this drastically narrows the population of characters who are available to group together at any given time. In a game with a lot of group-centric content, the inability to find a group can be deadly – especially for players who join the game after the majority of the players have reached maximum level.
Of course, there are nifty mechanics like Sidekicking and Mentoring to help fix this: they temporarily alter a player’s level so that they can group with friends at all levels. This is an elegant fix that neatly side-steps the question of power levels, but keep in mind that it may require some serious design planning to fit into your particular game.
Making Leveling Up Fun
Finally, we come to the most important consideration: fun. Players get more excited about leveling up if they get significantly more powerful when they do so. When they get new verbs, new places to explore, and new things to kill, they tend to find leveling up to be pretty rewarding. If leveling up doesn’t give them these things with reasonable frequency, leveling up becomes rather dull … or worse, a grind.
In my experience, by far the best way to keep leveling up feeling fresh instead of repetitive is to introduce new gameplay verbs as often as possible.
You might also consider exactly when players earn their new power: in discrete chunks or smoothly over time? In Asheron’s Call, players didn’t need to reach new levels to get more powerful. As soon as they earned any XP, they could “spend” that XP to improve their skills. At low levels especially this provided immediate and continuous advancement, but at a price: when you actually leveled up, it was extremely anticlimactic. The level didn’t mean much of anything in itself.
Your choices here will really depend on the game, but if you do have explicit character levels, then you should make it fun to reach those levels. Otherwise you’re just missing out on an obvious chance to give players fun.
Choosing The Right Leveling System
As always, it comes down to: “What experience do I want my players to have, and why?”
Are you making a game for mathematically-inclined nerds? They tend to have a broader perspective of overall power, and weaker level differences may make the most sense. But if you’re aiming for young people (tweens, say), you almost assuredly want strongly differentiated levels to act as a carrot and keep them playing. In fact, all the issues I’ve talked about here can be answered by figuring out how your target audience might think.
And one final thing to keep in mind: if you are having trouble making a leveling system that will appeal to all of your demographics, then your target audience is almost certainly too broad.