As soon as I see people selling pre-levelled up characters and gear, or selling in game gold and the ilk then I know something has gone badly wrong with a game. If a portion of a game is so bad and boring that people are willing to buy their way into not playing it, that’s a red flag for me to stay away.
After Navan’s seminal videogame categorizations, it’s even clearer to explain how I generally play and judge videogame titles almost entirely as games and/or as puzzles – as these are the aspects of videogames that I enjoy the most. (Go and read that link now or you’ll miss the point of these definitions!).
Almost every “level up” system in videogames is detrimental to its game and puzzle aspects – they only add to the “mmorpg”/grindability of a game, and possibly to simulation. If some people are willing to buy their way out of doing this, then it’s pretty obvious it isn’t an interesting game mechanic and has instead become a “grind”. In-game persistence and permanence of many kinds can be fun, but a videogame that rewards player persistence & time over anything else, is actually damaging the actual game aspect. Think about the following examples -
Would you buy a higher handicap at golf? Would you play Monopoly against someone who started the game with 5 hotels? Would you be proud of your team’s achievement in a sport where you automatically won a medal every 100 matches you played? Would you give a headstart in a footrace to the person that had already run the most races? Should the chess player with a higher matches played count get given an extra number of queens at the start of every game? Would you enjoy a rubiks cube where it was unsolvable until you’d spent at least ten hours holding it, or that automatically solved itself once you twisted it 10,000 times?
So why do all these kinds of cases come about in videogames? Probably the best take on this I’ve read is at The Game Prodigy with A Necessary Evil: Grinding in Games. You’ll notice that all the pros of grinding are there only for the developers, not players. It’s not there to add anything to the actual play experience, but purely to lengthen it. Of course some ‘level up’ systems don’t inherently mean a grind. There are clear exceptions – in challenge games like Zelda, Castlevania Symphony of the Night or Super Metroid for example. Here, as you complete puzzles in these challenge videogames, you get new abilities and unlock new skills – and these in turn open or more puzzles or more solutions for puzzles. These are not the kind of “level up” systems of the type I am discussing here though. Upgrade systems of this nature in a single player experience change the puzzles to be solved, the challenge levels or the skills tested. In a multiplayer competitive title this kind of concept also works fine, eg. weapon spawns on an FPS map, or gaining a super move during fighting game, when everyone has an equal chance at the start of the match to obtain these upgrades. This is akin to getting an opportunity to change a pawn to a queen due to good play in a chess match – this isn’t starting someone out with an extra queen.
Level up systems are also added to attempt to addict players with fake achievements (another interesting take on this is the possibility of becoming a “praise junkie“). They allow for advancement of a persistent entity as a replacement for any other kinds of ‘fun’ in the actual gameplay. It’s a guarantee that if you spend enough time, you will succeed… but as you can see, all of these things are the antithesis of actual games or genuine puzzles.
What’s especially frustrating and annoying for me is how these kinds of level up systems are starting to invade videogames that would otherwise be better games. The poster game for this these days being Call of Duty. As soon as you’ve got enough skill to move around a bit and at least get a few kills in a COD match, you’re now fully able to grind. The Long Term Incentive of the game (at least for most players) becomes not one of improving your skill, but one of grinding to “collect everything”. Over at Levelling Down I was asked in their comments section about MW2 to “think about how many players prestige (resetting their max level back to 1). if the advantages with the unlockables were so strong at the highest level, why would they give them all up?” in response to my problems with higher level players getting advantages over new players. Well I’d answer by positing that it’s because the game doesn’t offer enough as a pure competitive game for most people – so they search out the next grind – prestige levels, rather than basic levels, to try and continue on the Skinnerian treadmill. The very fact that people DO reset their rank to gain prestige levels proves it itself. This isn’t “Playing to Win“.
Luckily for me as a fighting game fan the attitude I see from the competitive fighting game community is generally exactly the opposite to this – fighting game fans generally despise grinding for unlockable characters as they are well aware this can unfairly imbalance games, and mainly because it forces everyone to do relatively boring tasks to unlock things. There’s especially a dislike of unlocking characters as they are rightly considered a core component of the game itself. In this way level up systems just become barriers to play in actual games a lot of the time. For example I’ve heard that some of the content in top level raids in WoW requires great knowledge, dexterity and teamwork skills to complete – essentially these portions of the game have become decent co-op computer puzzles in their own right. But the problem is all players are forced to grind away for hundreds of hours before they can even access this content, and what’s even worse is that there are usually even more grinds that are possible to reduce/remove the challenges of these puzzles anyway (do a quest to get better armour before tackling that raid). Only when grinding is impossible is the real game or puzzle unveiled, or alternatively you can see the real game or puzzle requiring a meaningless time contribution from the player to be able to play, in the case of a game, or solve, in the case of a puzzle. This is also very similar to the problems I had with the design of Bayonetta.
The “right” way to use grindable systems in videogames that are actually intended to be games or puzzles is to gain the advantages of the ‘carrot’ they offer, but not to damage the game/puzzle aspects at the same time – make the grindable system separate from actual game mechanics. You can put a ridiculously high kill count Achievement like Gears of War or Left 4 Dead to incentivise players to play more and to work as a “high experience” indicator, but it doesn’t offer any in-game advantages to earning it. Halo 3 and Halo Reach beta also offer the ability to unlock ranks and various forms of armour and customisations, but all of these are purely cosmetic. You also get the permanence of stat tracking your entire Halo gaming history at bungie.net (the videogaming equivalent of all the stats tracking at nfl.com) – yet at the start of every match you are always equal with your opposition in character abilities, regardless of whether you’ve unlocked “Master Sergeant” rank in the game or have 80 Spartan Laser kills on your bungie.net profile. StarCraft II offers a wealth of grindable (as well as skill-based) Achievements and unlockables from ladder play – yet none of them will give you some more Zerglings at the start of a battle or make it any easier for you to get your actual skill ranking improved.
Using levelling systems to pace the learning of the game could potentially work, but generally it is much easier to use “upgrade” mechanics rather than pure levelling up stats - the StarCraft II campaign does this in some limited ways by introducing units and mechanics piecemeal, whereas some of the upgrades are pure stat improvements. When it comes to games, this might even be a great way to introduce players to the multiplayer – although the problem would be maintaining a big enough ‘new player’ playerbase so that new players without all their in-game abilities could always find games against other equivalent new players. As I noted about COD, it could work pretty well if it actually had some level and skill-based matchmaking.
There’s a huge attitude difference between playing to raise your skill at a competitive game like StarCraft II, Street Fighter or Halo, than there is in the player playing to get to the next level on COD or WoW. It’s not to say that you can’t attempt to play most videogames in spite of their grindable level systems as actual games or puzzles; many gamers do. It’s just that it’s worth looking for other options out there that allow you to game without having these horrible systems blocking your path to what you find fun.