Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

RPG Design: Leveling Up the Game

Posted by Rampant Coyote on April 9, 2015

I’m an overachiever. I want bonus XP (eXperience Points). I want to hit the optional sub-quests and pick up the extra-cool Butt-Kicking Boots of Bophram which will be a nice boon to my butt-kicking for at least three more levels. Which I’ll go through a little earlier than “average” because, hey, I like bonus XP and I like being a little over-prepared for the gatekeeper bosses.

If a game doesn’t offer this, I start feeling some RPG fan equivalent of claustrophobia if a game doesn’t offer these kinds of opportunities. Even if I’m not having any problems dealing with the difficulty progression, when the drip-feed of progression (in terms of gold, equipment, and experience points) is completely on the designer’s schedule without any amount of control on my end, I feel more hemmed-in and railroaded than I do in an otherwise linear plot.

But the flip side is that you get the positive feedback loop problem: The extra work is rewarded by… making the game easier. For the very players who needed an easier game the least.

Back in the arcade days, this positive feedback loop was actually a mechanism to terminate the game faster. The game was balanced around the player being good enough to hit the power-ups. If you couldn’t do that, you’d likely lose a life, and the game would end more quickly and demand another quarter. Sadly, it feels like some RPGs are balanced that way as well… if you don’t pick up on some of these “optional” activities, then … well, you are in for a rough boss fight.

But then is the optional content truly optional?

Or, there’s that other twist that has become something of a joke in certain JRPG games – you defeat the toughest enemies in the world to obtain the uber-weapon, but now, what do you need the uber-weapon for? After that, you’re just showing off.

I’m really not fond of auto-scaling content to match the player’s level, because then the designer is punishing the player for making progress.

My approach in the Frayed Knights series has been to balance the game around the player hitting *some* of the optional content. If you skip all of it, it’ll be difficult but possible, and if you play all of it, he game will just be kind of easy towards then end. I took a similar approach to character advancement, balancing around a sub-optimal (but not deliberately pointless) “builds”

But that’s not super-satisfying to me. In a perfect world, and an ideal game, completing the optional content and getting ahead of the character power curve would unlock an optional increase in difficulty in the main quest line (as well as an increase in story content), and maybe some additional optional content down the road. In other words, I want to be able to choose whether or not to face scaled-up content, and have the storyline scale up to explain it. But it shouldn’t be in such a way that it cheapens the ending for those who finish at “normal” difficulty… like saying, “Oh, hey, you never faced the boss’s REAL final form” or something cheesy like that.

Of course, that’s a lot of extra work for RPG developers. But it’s worth exploring.


Filed Under: Design - Comments: 7 Comments to Read

  • Perico said,

    A way to make side quests easier to balance would be to have side quest content grant less XP and power-boosting items than content in the main quest. The main rewards of sidequests, then, could be things that do not make characters more powerful, but provide either aesthetic benefits or different options. Stuff like unlocking new NPCs, spells, or prestige classes, or upgrading your castle.

    Alternately, you could have some enemies scale based on game time. I hate auto-scaling, but having the final boss become tougher or the castle garrison increase if you spend an extra month dawdling with side quests seems fair, particularly if the game informs the players that this can happen.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    Yep, for keeping things “balanced” that’s really a good idea – if the side-quests provide options rather than strictly increased power.

    Scaling enemies based on game-time is one of those things that would require a very specific kind of game for it to not drive me crazy. You don’t want to penalize the player for exploring and enjoying more of the games’ content. If it was a highly replayable game or something like an RTS-meets-an-RPG, then sure. I could see that working (and being really pretty cool). In fact, that’s kind of the direction that Soldak’s RPGs take, and it works pretty well. But for a more traditional RPG experience, it would detract far more than it would add.

  • Tesh said,

    Chrono Cross had an interesting system that saw the party having a “star level” for its main power index. Stars were gained by beating story-critical bosses and sub-bosses. Your characters could gain a little boost by grinding small enemies between stars, but it was a minor scalar. Also, you could do side exploration and unlock ultimate weapons or find new magical options, but those weren’t immensely more powerful than what you’d have otherwise. The power differential between star levels and gear tiers wasn’t huge.

    As a result, the game was really tightly paced, in practice (star level progress and team power being tied to the storyline), but you could still poke around a bit and be rewarded, if only fractionally. The thing is, since the power differential wasn’t huge, it never really felt like you were too far ahead or behind the curve.

    It did mean that you couldn’t spend hours grinding to overpower an annoying boss, but at the same time, it meant that the designers had a good idea of what level of strength you’d be bringing to any crucial fight, and could tune the game accordingly.

    It was a curious system that was controlled in practice, but since you could slosh around a little bit, it *felt* less like a constrictive experience and more like it was simply well paced.

    …at least, until you played the New Game+, meaning you were overpowered for all but the odd optional bosses.

  • David W said,

    At the same time, there’s the interaction with player skill to consider. Shamus Young’s article on self-balancing gameplay makes my argument better than I could: http://www.shamusyoung.com/twentysidedtale/?p=221

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    LOL – he was referencing another post of mine in that post. I’m gonna have to hunt that one down in the archives (what I had became corrupted) and re-post it sometime soon.

  • Cuthalion said,

    The circle turns ever onward!

  • Robyrt said,

    Dragon Age: Inquisition leaves this up to the player: main story quests have a little note saying “Suggested Level: 14-17”, so you can decide how difficult you want it to be.

    In general, it depends on how good your side content is. Bioware games, for instance, assume you’ve done all the side quests because they are usually more interesting than the main storyline, but Assassin’s Creed assumes the player hasn’t collected a single trinket outside of the mandatory missions, because few players collect the optional treasure chests.