When I was younger, I thought that leveling was the best possible progression mechanic in games. It wasn’t about having time to amass the skill needed to progress further with limited lives/health, it was about grinding senselessly while talking to friends in person/online or watching TV (depends on if it was console or handheld). After ages of smashing my head against the wall that was the majority of games for the Sega Genesis and NES, this was about the best thing ever (full disclosure: depending on the genre I am aggressively mediocre at video games). Unfortunately, a lot of other people seemed to think the same thing, and now there’s no escaping leveling up.
I’m not saying leveling up is inherently bad. The problem is, it usually ranges from unnecessary to, well, bad. In a game where leveling is properly accounted for, you’ll gain enough levels on the way to a boss/area that you’re prepared for the boss… or area. These games give you a slick feeling of non-stop progression combined with new skills (combat options) and keep you at level for the current content. My favourite example of this is Panzer Dragoon Saga. In addition to perfectly calculated leveling, it features extremely fun combat (which I’ll talk about when I muse about the RPG fun of Boring Combat another time). There’s nothing quite like enjoying and being engaged in every fight, leveling constantly as you move from objective to objective without having to stop and grind.
In a game where leveling is not even a little accounted for, you wind up wasting time grinding away just to be able to squeeze past a boss. Then, because this is clearly what players want, you get to the next area and run in circles grinding to prepare for diving deeper into that area. The best examples of this are Final Fantasy 12 and Xenoblade Chronicles. In both of them, on multiple occasions, I hit points where the boss simply could not be surmounted: no matter how well I used my skills, equipment, and all that, I just couldn’t damage the boss at a fast enough rate to kill them. FF 12 was notable in that most of the bosses healed, and I couldn’t outdamage their healing rate. Now, I won’t lie, this is easily solved by just grinding (hence why I loved grinding when I was younger – replace effort and strategy with time), but now that I’m a father, time is a resource I just don’t have.
This sloppy leveling creates the phenomena know as Beef Gates: bosses that you need to just level up to be able to beat. This is fine when the boss is meant to be later in the game, and it’s enforcing proper sequence. This is less fine when it’s the next boss and man, it’s time to get grinding.
Fortunately, the issues with the mechanic are easily solved in one of two ways:
Option 1: just do some damn math. Figure out how to make the player level up enough on their way to where they need to go. Most of these games are being made by huge dev teams. Someone on that team can do enough math to make progression smooth and adequate.
Option 2: pull leveling altogether. Use a Legend of Zelda style progression system. Give the players what they need before/when they need it. This creates a lot more work on the part of the game designer: fights need to be interesting and/or complex. This is something that can be more easily ignored when leveling is in place: the slog is considered part of the game because the leveling is necessary (though the fights are not). When leveling is pulled, fights become the point instead of the thing you do to get to the point (leveling), so they need to be worthwhile. Or, you know, just leave leveling in and keep the train on the tracks.
Next time: something unrelated. Probably. I don’t know, it’s all off the cuff over here.