Let’s Talk About Experience PointsFiled inside: Editorial
I’ve played my fair share of RPGs of different varieties.
The lion’s share of my gaming in the 90s was spent behind the controls of various entries in the Final Fantasy series, happily scrounging deep corners for treasure to enhance my fighters’ abilities.
More recently it’s been of a more action-heavy variety: Monster Hunter, the Arkham series, and those ilk, and it got me to thinking a bit. In the modern age of RPG games, is the experience point system conceived so long ago the most effective for advancement possible?
Right away, certainly, I know that there needs to be some kind of system included to give the player a real sense of accomplishment, if a protagonist in a game like this just retains the same set of abilities all the way through, things get stale and obnoxious, that makes sense.
But at the same time, there is a sort of natural enhancement of one’s abilities as you play through a game, one that is artificially undermined, in a sense, when the primary means for enhancing your abilities is through gaining levels.
Take Final Fantasy VI, for example. Let’s say you run through the game at high speed or are having trouble with a gimmicky monster. The most low-tech solution, in a way, is to just wander the land, crushing minor monsters under your heel until you’ve gained some more levels and can more easily topple your larger foe.
The experience system is practically necessary for the older system in the turn-based games of the old. While you can artificially increase the challenge for yourself in various ways and still pull through with clever timing and ability use, in the end, there’s only so much for the average player that tuning their builds can do.
The newer action RPGs often utilize the same mechanics in a variety of ways. Take something like Borderlands, for instance, every enemy has a set experience value compared to your current level. Levels give skill points, which further define roles and increase your health and let you use better items, in order to combat the hordes of enemies that are also getting stronger.
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is probably one of the more complex variations on this mechanic. You gain experience in particular categories which contribute to your overall level as you go. Things like your smithing, various schools of magic, sneaking, pickpocketing, and different weapon types affect your performance with those specific skills, while your overall level will affect core attributes.
The thing about Skyrim, as well as some of the more modernized turn-based RPGs, is that enemies level up with you, as well. Which, in a strange way (to me) almost renders the levels moot. Why have the stats of the enemies scale with you, when the overarching level could be removed, and the individual ability enhancements could remain to give the player something to shoot for?
On the opposite end of the strata are the purely action-RPG systems like Monster Hunter, the game that I have the most hours in, by a longshot. Monster Hunter is unique in that there is no experience at all, rather your ability is predicated purely on your own skills and by your equipment, which can only be made by carving pieces of defeated enemies and using them to make new weapons and armor.
The key difference here is the personal improvement you feel when you’re able to break through a barrier in Monster Hunter. Some of it might have been grinding a monster for a new set of equipment, but more often than not, you were able to get a better read on your enemy’s moves, establish better positioning and generally use the knowledge of your past fights to get the job done. You gained experience, not your character.
It’s something more akin to the full action game paradigm, in which you might collect some kind of currency to enhance abilities here and there, and gain new weapons or major gameplay tweaks occur at story points, but your stats do not increase as a direct result of killing your enemies most of the time.
Even the most recent foray I can think of, Child of Light, changes the traditional turn-based formula with the timing bar that runs along the bottom of the screen and includes many ways to slow enemies down (using your flame companion) or cancel their actions (by timing a hit at the right time) that demand more than simply selecting an action to achieve a particular effect.
I’ve talked at some length before about how it seems like many modern games seem to oppose the idea of personal improvement. It just seems to me that since fewer and fewer popular games are occupying that classic space in which the experience system was a necessity, a better system could be implemented that cultivates the inherent abilities of the gamer in order engender a stronger sense of accomplishment.
I acknowledge that there are some failings, here. The barrier of entry in a game like Monster Hunter is rather high, it took me considerable effort in comparison to other games to reach a point where I could be considered competent at it. There are certain to be gamers who, in the end, would be unable to reach the point where they could make progress. And it could very well be that I’m vaunting a system that is too niche, or unnecessary in the face of a tried-and-true mechanic that has been proven to work in many games.
At the same time, gaming today is just not like the games of old. While some games have made changes to the formula, they still so often utilize experience points as the primary means to advance your character’s performance, rather than allowing the player to grow into the role on their own.
I can also understand situations in which a system to reward the time people put in would be a major benefit, such as in many multiplayer situations in games that wouldn’t otherwise have a leveling system.
In the end, it’s not that I think the experience points are ruining games these days, but it seems like it may be a missed opportunity in many games to improve the way in which the player is engaged and encouraged to improve and feel a stronger sense of accomplishment as they move ahead.