From the earliest console RPGs, there’s been a huge emphasis on Experience. It’s the currency that lets you progress in nearly every way. In the earliest titles it let you level up your characters to deal with the tougher challenges ahead (well, it did it automatically on earning it, but you know what I mean). As systems grew more complex it began to be applied in more complex ways. You could choose when to spend it and how (the Souls series comes to mind, as does Party XP in Breath of Fire 5). You could earn different types, each to be spent on different things (Dragon’s Dogma has two types of experience to worry about, one automatic for levels and one for skills).
That’s all well and good, but what about earning experience? The name implies that it’s an attribute gained in multiple ways. Not just fighting things, but seeing things and doing things as well. There’s some interesting options out there for rewarding exp, but rewarding for the wrong reasons in a game can encourage non-viable playstyles and a much bigger set of problems than an unoriginal system would ever cause. Lets dive a bit into exp earning methods and how they impact the games they show up in.
As mentioned before, the first console RPGs were a straightforward affair. In Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest, it’s quite the same. You go out, you kill some monsters, you earn some experience, and at some point you level up and get better at killing those monsters. Like so much about both of those games, it’s a mechanic straight out of their source material – Dungeons and Dragons. It was a very interesting system to see in console games at the time, when games usually just featured temporary power ups or permanent benefits conferred onto the character by picking up an item. Earning gradual exp (and as a result, levels) through battle was a drastically different idea, one that lent itself well to the slow and methodical style of these games (rather than the run and jump of titles like Super Mario).
For better or worse, DQ and FF set the standard, one that is essentially the norm to this day: combat is the primary (if not only) method for earning experience. Most games don’t even question this convention, and it ultimately means that in order to progress in RPGs, you have to be willing to engage in combat. A lot of combat. A WHOLE LOT of combat. This is where the trouble comes in: there are plenty of RPGs with excellent stories and aggressively mediocre combat. It’s hard to progress in a game where the main requirement for progression is the least fun part about it.
A lot of games took notice of this, and started offering experience for other tasks. Some titles reward you with experience for finding a new location (MMOs are big fans of this, and I’ve gained more than one level in Guild Wars 2 just from walking around and seeing new places). Other titles give a lion’s share of experience for completing all sorts of different quests (the quests in Dragon’s Dogma make the exp earned from enemies feel like a waste of time).
Quest based experience rewards make for an interesting choice, and one that I hope is expanded on more in the future. You can give out experience for completing an objective, regardless of how the player chooses to complete it. In Deus Ex: Human Revolution, this means that you can use stealth, combat, or charm to make your way through all variety of game objectives. This is, quite simply, the best way to do it. Rewarding the player for accomplishing tasks makes sense in a way that rewarding the player for killing things and nothing else did not.
As I mentioned above, though, you have to be careful how you reward experience in a game, because it can create a false perception on the part of the player. Deus Ex:HR is guilty of this to such a degree that I had to stop playing the game. While you can solve some objectives with a variety of techniques, the game includes boss fights that force the player into a combat scenario where they cannot apply any of their other skills. If you’re going to reward experience for accomplishing objectives with charm, stealth, or combat, you have to make those three things viable options for accomplishing objectives.
Here’s my dream for the future: an RPG that rewards players for resolving conflict/completing objectives by ANY means. Talk your way out of it, sneak past the enemies, bribe them, or just fight and win. Scrapping traditional levels and experience would probably be required to make this possible: reward with specific items/gear/skills instead of flat experience that goes towards better combat prowess. You can even do this and keep the traditional bosses of RPGs. Want a boss that the player has to tackle and you don’t want something as simple as a conversation to end the conflict? Make a certain item or skill that can be obtained on the way to the boss via stealth/charm. If they player has been working up to the boss with combat alone, they’ll be ready for combat. If the player has been talking/sneaking their way through, they’ll have a way to fight the boss in spite of their lack of combat experience. Or just take a page from Dark Souls, and make any boss a reasonable fight at any level. There are so many options that create player opportunities instead of punishing players for taking earlier alternate options.
Ultimately, while experience in RPGs is a staple of the genre and makes an excellent method for allowing players that don’t want to carefully puzzle out combat to brute force the solution with levels and stats, it is all too often abused. Too many games have portions that are nigh impassable without first obtaining a certain level. There’s a lot of games starting to come around and realize that there’s a lot more to RPGs than experience and levels, so here’s hoping for a tomorrow with fun alternate systems to this old and tired method.