I realised recently that there’s something missing from Elite: Dangerous, something I’m glad to see didn’t make the final cut. You see, E:D always sold itself as an MMO, but something so iconic to MMOs has been left out: the levelling system.
Most of them have one, of course. You know the sort of thing I’m referring to. Bing! You’re now level twenty-eight! All your stats have marginally increased and you have some points to drop into a skill tree! You are now better at the game because we say you are! Although you might have become this legendary hero simply because you’ve been wandering around the starting area, killing millions of frogs with a spoon for all we know, because experience is experience and you might simply be a dedicated amphibian-smasher.
I find myself wondering about the point in levelling systems as I play more games, especially when it doesn’t seem to contribute much. Shadow Of Mordor does it best in my mind – rather than affect your stats in any proper way, and go through the risky business of making you overpowered, instead you just spend points on a grab-bag of tricks that are all helpful, but never fundamentally change anything on their own. That’s something I like, it makes the game more dependant on skill than statistics. You’re not just the best because you have the best numbers, you have to put some effort in, boyo.
But in many MMOs it’s simply not about skill, only about your stats. Any game in which a completely new player with eight thumbs and their eyes pointing backwards can still smash buttons and win against an veteran player with a lower level character, that’s a game that seems to have missed the point.
It’s why I like the Elite: Dangerous system – yes, you have a far lower chance of winning against a massive space cruiser, but you can still do it. Fly smart, use tactics, keep out of range and try to get the best angles, it’s not as hard to beat those star destroyers as you think. Better weapons don’t count for much if you can’t aim them, and a fast ship won’t help if you keep flying it into asteroids.
Borderlands 2 had a level system that implemented increased stats too, and it was just as pointless then. All it meant was that going back to old areas became insultingly easy and turned into an absolute chore. A level four rakk? Please, I’m level thirty-two and running DPS out the wazoo, you might as well surrender now and beg for mercy.
Some people like going back to old areas just to stamp all over the local enemies that troubled them the first time, but I’ve never seen the point. It just seems boring and repetitive, though I know this is standard formula for many MMOs. Why not just ditch stat tweaking as you level up, and have all the enemies at set difficulties to keep a consistent challenge going? Ironically Borderlands 2 seemed to realise this after a while, and added a mode where enemies scale to match your level. Yes, it’s an improvement, but you’ve still missed the point, Gearbox. Just ditch this number stuff, and you wouldn’t have to struggle with all the level balancing.
That said, I do know why games include levelling in this way, especially online games with subscription fees like World Of Warcraft. It’s because levelling is seen as progress, albeit progress of a boring, uninspired kind. You’ve put in the legwork, do you really want to give it up now after all you’ve, ahem, “achieved?”
I get that it has a curiously addictive feel to it. You’ve levelled up! Look at this little fanfare and the way your character lights up like a beacon! Yes! You’ve done it! You’re the best player ever! Anyway, get back to mindless grinding for two months more and maybe it’ll happen again. No, don’t think about how bloody tedious the actual game is, just focus on the experience bar and work on filling it up for the fiftieth time.
It seems to me like this is similar to holding a beer mug underneath a slowly dripping tap. It takes days and days to fill up, watching the dull process of how it gradually trickles out in tiny droplets, but when it does – a drink! A lovely, crisp, cold beer. Right, now that it’s over, we’re giving you a slightly bigger mug and a tap that drips slightly slower. Here we go again.
Not to mention the fact that with subscription fees, you’re paying money to endure this horrible process. Why on earth would you do this? I wouldn’t sign up for Chinese water torture if I got a chocolate bar every other week.
The other reason that subscription games include levelling is that it’s an aspirational thing. Your friend is the highest level and you want to match his accomplishments, but if there wasn’t a difference to that mechanically, it wouldn’t be worth much. But if being level eighty-thousand means you can fell an Uber-Dragon with a single blow, then people will put in the effort, forgetting that it’s functionally the same attack but with a different particle effect and a higher number stamped on.
But all these reasons don’t mean much when it comes to your enjoyment. They’re not there to make you have fun, they’re put in to encourage you to keep playing. They want you to get addicted, and the false idea of progress is as tantalising a drug as any other.
Occasionally I might concede that levelling is necessary. In Pokemon, for example, you’d have to do some major restructuring to the mechanics to make levelling obsolete, otherwise it would be silly if you could take on the Elite Four from the very beginning. But then again, the fact that levelling is at its core doesn’t mean it’s good. One of the constant problems with Pokemon was that you could just grind to five levels higher than you needed to be and stamp all over any gym leaders that happened to be in your way, regardless of whether they had type advantage or were supposed to be a challenge.
So I’m not sold on levelling as a system. Maybe I’ll be persuaded otherwise, but I’m not so sure. It’s going to take some work to urge me that basing a game around a spreadsheet and a lot of patience is the best thing for the player.