Twenty years ago, the idea of levelling up in a game was confined to a very specific genre: the role-playing game, whose systems were based on pen-and-paper games such as Dungeons & Dragons. Today, you can still level up in an RPG such as Dragon Age, but you can also level up in far wider variety of games, from sports titles (think of the Be A Pro mode in numerous EA Sports games) to FPS games such as Bad Company 2 to driving games like Dirt 2. The vast majority of modern games monitor, quantify and reward your skills in a way that would only have been familiar to the biggest geeks in the 1980s.
While gamers often lament a lack of innovation in games, game mechanics change as rapidly as styles do in other forms of media - so while levelling has gone mainstream, the health bar appears to be on the way out and very few games these days features lives or continues. The question then, is why is levelling up so popular?
First things first, we should define 'levelling': it's having a game character or object whose skills and abilities are tracked and quantified by the game, and which increase in power over time based on how often or successfully they're used. Gaining in levels typically tends to unlock access to more items and abilities, which in turn can be levelled up.
Two guys who know more than any grown adult ought to about levels and how they relate to games design are Sebastian Armonioso, one of DICE’s top developmental brains and a key man behind Bad Company 2 and Erich Schaefer, lead designer on the iconic Diablo games and co-founder of Runic games, makers of the modern classic Torchlight. So we asked them about it.
Torchlight - BAM! Level up!
We're big fans of small talk but levelling is a serious matter, so we go straight down to it with our first question: why add levelling to a game such as Bad Company 2? And how does it work in a game with a more traditional RPG such as Torchlight?
Erich puts it like this, “I think the primary purpose of a levelling system is to provide a regular reward system for the players in the form of a series of not-too-distant goals. As players gain experience levels, they grow in strength, receive customization options, and gain access to new equipment and areas to explore.”
DICE's Sebastian views it thus, “On a very, very fundamental design level it's a way to tie together separate gaming sessions into one coherent, meaningful experience for the human mind. [When you add a levelling system] you're really playing one game [over] separate points in time.”
As far as DICE is concerned then, a levelling up system can help an online FPS deal with the absence of a conventional story and ebb and flow in its levels (which in a single player game, would be provided by cut-scenes and scripted events). There's also the fact that you can't save an online FPS - the game happens whether you're there or not, so by having a character system that tracks your progress via levels, the game still creates a feeling of continuity.
Modern Warfare 2 - BAM? Level up?
Then of course, there's the thing that's perhaps most obvious about levels - they allow a game to drip-feed players rewards. As Torchlight's Erich says, “in any avatar-based game, players become very invested in their in-game representation no matter what kind of game [it is]. They want their efforts to be recognized and they want to know exactly what they have to do to succeed.”
Bad Company 2 is a perfect example - at the end of every round, the game tots up your points and then uses them to build up a progress par, which is marching inexorably towards your next character level. You're not exactly going to be reaching for the manual to figure out what's happening.
DICE's Sebastian echoes the point, “In the early days you had high scores as the element that tied together the experience of playing Asteroids on Sunday and then again on Tuesday. Scoring made shooting at those rocks meaningful. Could you beat your high score? I'd argue that a game which can't display a score is really closer to being a toy. You can play with it but it doesn’t really award you, or extend gaming sessions into something more meaningful. It's just an activity that while relaxing or engaging will eventually feel aimless.”
In our feature How Games Tell Stories, we concluded that games which just copied a film's way of telling a story were on a fast track to dullsville (a carriage filled with examples such as Phantasmagoria), and in levelling up, we're perhaps seeing games develop their own techniques for telling a tale: your skill with a sword, your rank in the army are an alternative to a conventional story.