Are Traditional RPG Systems Critically Flawed?

RPG’s have certainly bled into all manner of game genres over the last decade and it has produced some interesting results. Whether it be completing an arena challenge or finishing a race, its not surprising to see these events tagged with EXP point value to them, based in proportion to the level of achievement. This often means even battling grunts or finishing last in a race still gives you some consolation EXP. But as I’ve played games like this, the age old problem being sounded by RPG enthusiasts for years comes to light.

And as I’ve thought about it, I’ve come to the conclusion that the traditional RPG is a rather dramatically flawed system.

The age old problem? Grinding, of course: the act of repeating the same, mundane, sometimes low-level tasks over and over again in an attempt to drive up your level. Its nothing new. That’s why trying to find or orchestrate balanced RPG mechanics can be so difficult. But its difficult because at the heart of the old system, its not really feasible.

Why? Observe the low-level killer ladybug and the high-level lightning dragon. The ladybug gives you 10 EXP point while the dragon gives you 10000 EXP. That’s a rather significant difference, with the obvious catch being that the dragon is much stronger and deadlier over its ladybug accomplice. Taking things at simple face value, this makes sense.

But a deeper dive reveals a problem. Namely:

1000 Ladybug EXP Gains = 1 Dragon EXP Gain

Again, nothing new. That’s the whole dilemna behind grinding. But the whole idea behind “balance” is that its just not as much fun to go on a ladybug killing marathon as opposed to fighting the big bad dragon. But its still there, silently sitting in the corner with its seductive eyes boring into you. And so its totally possible in some circumstances to reach level 100 under the guise of “Ladybug Master Slayer.”

Many of us may consider grinding a problem, but WHY is it a problem? That’s the point I’m trying to make: traditional EXP progression, more or less, is based on the quantity of what you do as opposed to the quality. It doesn’t matter if you hammered it out over ladybugs, dragons, saber-tooth tigers, four-armed robots… max level is max level, and it can be represented by X number of EXP points. It doesn’t matter where you got them. It basically says if you beat your head against the wall enough of times, you’ll get good at whatever it is you’re trying to do even with meager amounts of effort.

Contrast this with other games and you can see what I mean. Completing a platformer level 10% of the way 10 times does not constitute you beating the level. Earning three bronze medals in a race is not the same as earning a single gold medal. Yet in RPG’s it often boils down to whether or not you are willing to sink the time into whatever it is your doing. Skill can become irrelevant in the face of persistence. Not all RPG’s are guilty of this obviously and some do a better job of exposing the “fakes” than others (particularly multiplayer games where your competition is human,) but the problem still remains that the shiny “max level” achievement that everyone wants so badly isn’t necessarily a true reflection of achievement; it may mean nothing more than you played the game. A lot.

The flipside of all this is that the true acts of valor and skill are essentially lumped into the same category as the ladybug slayer. You reached gold level by besting the four mighty beasts of the world’s corners? And yet the game would’ve clapped its hands for you in the same way had you just sat in the field playing whack-a-mole with lesser ground burrowers until the cows came home. We don’t have to, but sometimes the option alone is insult enough to the player’s ability. There’s a big difference between fighting hard against a game and fighting to make a game hard.

I’m not saying we should do away with the traditional EXP point system altogether. It has worked before with its warts, and what game mechanic doesn’t? What I’m saying is that I’d like to see more distinct value placed on the actions done and less assignment of arbitrary values on a universal scale. Instead of all monsters blindly contributing to the same EXP pool without regard to the diversities of each, have them give distinct rewards or distinct stat boosts to their related strengths. Attacking ice monsters makes you more proficient against ice, destroying armored foes makes you a better defense piercer, and so on and so forth. One idea I’ve considered is objective-based leveling, where you level up, gain experience, etc. by completing specific tasks. Some of these ideas exist in some form alongside the traditional EXP system, but I’d like to see them take center stage much more prominently. Reward the players accordingly for their efforts instead of just throwing another blob of amorphous EXP points at them.

No doubt such systems would come with their own set of design challenges. But at least the dragons might feel less insulted from being equated in value to an army of ladybugs and moles.

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