In the seventh generation of game consoles, gamers have seen the rise of online play, HD graphics, expanded AI, and vast open worlds. Another aspect that has permeated almost every genre of gaming this gen is the level-up system.
Now, before I go on my rant about this, let me clarify by saying level-up systems definitely belong in some games, but the key word in that statement is “some” — not all. When we are talking about turn-based strategy games and JRPGs, the standard pause menu level-up system has a place, for sure, but that is where my acceptance of this archaic format ends.
It seems like almost every game I’ve played recently has some type of “pause to level-up” structure that feels tacked on. Basically, the only reason I can find to explain the inclusion of such systems is to drag the game time out and add another bullet point on the back of the box. Which is definitely not an acceptable reason.
Two recently released heavy offenders of said transgression are Deadpool and Mars: War Logs. Deadpool had some fun aspects, namely the dialogue, but nevertheless turned out to be a mess in the end. One of my main problems with it was the fact that the game was designed around a end-game character in mind but reverse-engineered to cram in a meaningless leveling system. The best part of the gameplay was mixing up Deadpool’s weapons and attacks to reach insane combo numbers, but because of leveling and unlocks, the full range of this aspect was only accessible in the final one-fourth of the game. Because of lazy development you only get to experience what the gameplay designers intended for about 1.5 hours of Deadpool’s 7-hour play time.
Mars: War Logs suffered much the same fate, except it didn’t have the presentation Deadpool did, but these games had issues beyond their crappy leveling systems. Let’s address a game that was pretty much universally loved among critics and players alike. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim built on Bethesda’s previous RPG level-up system and evolved in the right direction.
Skyrim’s skill-based experience system is very close to where I think true action-based RPGs should be going. For those of you who haven’t played Skyrim, I will explain. Essentially, whatever weapon or spell type a player uses gains XP for that type. Successfully using a bow increases the archery skill, using a broad sword levels up the one-handed skill, and so on. Now, this is the point where it all goes sideways or, technically, backward as far as innovation is concerned. Once the player has leveled up a few skills, he/she is prompted with the same old archaic “pause to level up” prompt.
When you enter this menu, you see what can be distilled down to a checklist. The player chooses the ability they want and drops a point into health, magic or stamina, then it’s back to the immersion that Skyrim does so well. The issues with this system should be apparent. With the skill-based level structure already in place, why not just take the next step and allow gained abilities to be innate? Let’s say by hitting a certain number of head-shots with a bow increases accuracy, and maybe shooting moving targets would decrease draw time. Making abilities come naturally based on the skill and context seems like the perfect way to push RPGs to the next level of player immersion.
Not all games need a level-up structure in any form, but I think moving away from checklists and spreadsheets is the future. The systems that are still being used were originally designed to be in games with turn-based battle systems, not those with action combat and voiced storytelling. Developers should move away from the design choices that are largely used to extend game-time and focus on structures that allow gameplay and progression to ebb and flow naturally based solely on player skill and persistence. If this happens, we will truly be in for a role-playing experience.
Do you agree that the ancient spreadsheets and check boxes of RPG past have outlived their usefulness in modern experiences? Be sure to let us know in the comments.