I consider myself quite the seasoned RPG veteran. Despite this, until earlier this year I hadn’t had the pleasure of indulging in a single game from the popular Suikoden series. I finally set out to remedy that back in March, when I started playing through the entire series. My ride has been a bumpy one, and although there were some good games, I’d say that I disliked the series overall. A big part of that is the way in which level-ups work.
This editorial is geared towards RPGs, but any game with RPG elements could benefit from thinking about the…well, the benefits of certain experience systems. So, I encourage you to think of your favorite experience systems while reading this editorial!
The system I’m talking about in particular works like this: Anything which gives you experience points rewards their experience based on a character’s level. So, when you’re not at the level the game wants you to be, you’ll gain levels really quick – four to five fights, tops – yet, when you’re at the ‘right’ level, you’ll earn very few experience points. Now, I can see why this is such an attractive system in a game like Suikoden, where in each game, there are 108 characters to use. If not for this system, then any character you hadn’t been working with since the beginning would be left in the dust with no hope of getting to a respectable level.
Other than that, though, what incentive do you have to fight after you get to the ‘right’ level? Trying to get stronger after that point becomes an uphill battle! In particular, Lost Odyssey prohibits you from getting more than one experience point from each enemy after getting to the ‘right’ level!
The obvious answer would be that money is the incentive, or maybe a skill point system. I don’t think these are adequate solutions, though; if you’re playing any game that tries not to be deliberately old-school, there will be easier ways to make money than killing monsters tirelessly. Even selling previous equipment and items you don’t need usually nets you the amount of money you need every time, in just about every RPG. The flip side of this is that, if it didn’t, I think most people would find it frustrating.
The same rings true about skill points: boss fights tend to give exponentially more skill points than normal fights, allowing you to simply coast through the game using skill points from mostly boss fights. And, if you make it too easy to learn skills (like in Lost Odyssey), players will just learn the skills and no longer have any incentive to fight, putting us back at square one.
What I dislike more than this experience system, though, are people who present problems without trying to offer any solutions at all, no matter how bad they might be. So, here’s a few I came up with:
1. Stop using it in games that don’t expressly require it. If your game doesn’t have an outrageous amount of recruitable characters, what reason is there to use this system? Sure, it prevents grinding, but isn’t an RPG supposed to be about fighting? Sure, I love the storyline as much (if not more than) the next guy, but it doesn’t even feel like I’m playing a video game if I’m not fighting…which believe me, with this type of experience system, I’m not.
I’m very against forced grinding, but prohibited grinding is almost just as bad; I’ve played maybe one RPG in my life that effectively prevented grinding and was still fun.
2. Give a party experience incentive. Forget money; we’ll get that money somehow. Forget skill points; we’ll get all of those in a boss fight. Those might prove too hard to balance properly, anyways. Instead, why not make it so that each monster gives a certain amount of experience that you can distribute in any way you choose?
This would especially handy just for games with the ‘right’ level experience system, because you can then use your added up experience to buff up your favorite characters just a little bit more than the rest of the cast. And seriously, if one or two levels is enough to completely destroy a game’s balance, then there’s something fundamentally wrong with that game in the first place that won’t be saved by a better experience system.
3. Try making the combat more engaging! Yeah, I said it! Lost Odyssey had a pretty cool story, but the combat was slow and boring. Okage: Shadow King had what I consider to be a masterpiece of a story, but it also contained what I consider to be one of the most agonizing experiences with RPG combat I’ve ever had.
Even the Suikoden series – the games that gave me the inspiration for this editorial in the first place – could use a lot of work; at their best, they’re competent, yet mundane. At their worst, well…you don’t even wanna know.
This might not seem related to the subject at hand, but think about it: the very fact that I’m thinking of RPG combat in terms of its rewards just goes to show that RPG combat needs to evolve! You’ll never see me writing an editorial questioning what incentive I have to jump on Goombas, or that getting measly ‘points’ for jumping on Goombas is not enough to justify my taking the time to jump on them!
Just about every genre of video games has evolved, taking the best aspects and weeding out the worst. RPGs, on the other hand, are the most conservative genre of video games; evolving, yet clinging tenaciously to old, boring, tired conventions. It might seem a bit tangental, but RPGs have to let go of some of these if they want to continue to improve. Maybe experience systems are a weird place to start, but it doesn’t look like random battles are going anywhere anytime soon. So, we might as well fix something, right?