Thursday, December 11, 2008

The Fear of Over-leveling

Strangely enough, one of the things I am afraid of most when playing RPGs is becoming over-leveled. This can have odd effects on my playing habits; for example, I often try to avoid normal battles when back-tracking through areas I have already cleared, just to avoid gaining unnecessary experience points. However, this fear of over-leveling comes directly from my love for a challenging experience. In many RPGs, in order to maintain a consistently high degree of challenge, the player has to keep his levels as low as possible, which I think can be a big headache.

In an RPG, the difficulty of an encounter is dependent on the relative levels of the PCs and the monsters. If the heroes have higher levels than the enemies, the battle will be comparatively easy, and if the heroes have lower levels than the enemies, than the battle will be comparatively hard. Now then, if the player finds an opponent to be too difficult to defeat, it is usually possible to gain a few more levels by fighting random enemies, which will make it easier to overcome the hard opponent. But if the player finds that a particular challenge is too easy, it is usually impossible to lose levels and make it easier short of starting the game over from the beginning. So once a player has over-leveled, it is hard to go back.

It can be surprisingly easy to become over-leveled as well. Nowadays, many RPGs are designed such that it is possible to beat the game without level grinding, even if the player goes straight towards his next destination constantly. At the same time, RPGs are usually full of side-roads and optional areas to explore, backtracking through old areas to do, and side-quests to undertake. However, exploring optional areas and taking on sidequests exposes the player to more random battles, which means more experience points and levels. So, if the game is designed to be beatable even if the player doesn't go on sidequests, then a player who does take on sidequests will find his characters to be over-leveled. Furthermore, since many RPGs don't give the player very many clues (or deceptive clues) about what level range is appropriate for specific areas, a player may not even realize they are becoming over-leveled until it is too late.

There are few different ways to avoid this problem. First off, the game designers can design the game such that the player has to normally level grind in order to clear the game's main challenges, as was the case in many older RPGs. Unfortunately, level grinding is itself a problem to be avoided, since it is simply not fun most of the time. A second option is to let players who want a greater challenge actually give up levels. This has been done in a few games: late in Wild ARMs IV and V it becomes possible to give up levels in exchange for rare items and equipment, and in Disgaea games it is possible to reduce characters back to level one in order to gain better stat growths. This can work, particularly if it become available early in the game and required level ranges are well advertised, though I have yet to see a perfect execution. Finally, one can design a game so the PCs level growth is strongly tied to plot progression. For example, in Chrono Cross, the stats of the characters are strongly linked to how many bosses the player has beaten. This is one of my favorite solutions, since it eliminates the problems of over-leveling and level grinding at the same time.

I guess the biggest contributing problem is that RPGs don't have difficulty settings often enough. If character level is the one and only factor determining game difficulty, then it makes the problem of over-leveling that much more prominent.


klipton said...

Persona 3 FES comes to my mind. The bosses are too easy.

Michael said...

The post-GB SaGa games solved this one. They had set tiers of monsters tied to, among other things, character stat progression and the number of battles started. This came together to form the game's current Battle Rank, and so determined what types of monsters were currently available.

Of course, some areas had plus/minus modifiers on the BR as well...

John Gale said...

I'm glad you mentioned Chrono Cross. That game had the best leveling system ever. As you said, just about every other RPG allows you to get comically overpowered or forces you to grind just to beat the bosses. Neither approach is ideal, and it's debatable which is worse. Personally, I hate the latter more. I remember being at Level 75 in Kingdom Hearts II and not being able to beat the the final boss because of a stupid sequence in the middle of the fight when you just have to jam the action key as fast as possible, and I couldn't do it quickly enough to get in range (incorporating action elements--usually in required mini-games--is another one of my pet peeves, as I'm generally playing an RPG in part to not have to worry about needing lightning quick reflexes). I then leveled all the way up to Level 85, and even then, I barely beat him. So annoying. One approach is to have a skills-based leveling system like Betrayal at Krondor. I found this worked very well the first time I played through the game, as my characters advanced at roughly the rate that was needed. Unfortunately, subsequent play throughs have been extremely easy after the first few chapters (well, with the exception of Chapters 5 and 7, but that's because the story shifts from my awesome characters to ones that aren't nearly as good and haven't been built up as much or at all) because I have learned all the ways to exploit the system. For example, the lock pick skill can be raised up to 100 just by picking a lock over and over and over again. This is tedious enough to discourage it when other methods (items and training) will accomplish the same thing with far less annoyance, but still. And any game that lets the player fight unlimited enemies is ripe for abuse. I've been replaying Final Fantasy VI, and I've been running from most battles and only leveling up just enough to beat the bosses. I was doing this mostly because I wanted to be able to use Espers to pump up my parties stats to the highest levels possible, but it has also had the side effect of forcing me to be much more strategic in fighting the bosses, which are much more challenging. And now that I have the Moogle Charm (one of the greatest things ever invented because I despise random battles--they should not be in games anymore), I no longer have to fight anything other than bosses. I think that when the time comes, I'm going to just fight Kefka at a relatively low level because the first time I played the game, my Level 99 Edgar destroyed him in one attack with his double Atma Weapons, the Genji Glove and The Offering (which did the maximum 79992 damage). And then I'll reload and max out their stats later. Anyway, Chrono Cross was different, and it's the only game that handled this problem perfectly. By capping the characters' growth until after each boss fight (which would then only allow them to grow a little more until the next boss), the player really only had to fight a few enemies (who were fortunately onscreen and generally avoidable) to get to the experience cap and then proceed with the main plot. This meant that there was virtually no grinding at all, and it made every boss fight just as challenging as it was designed to be. I fondly remember Chrono Cross as a game with some of the best boss fights in any RPG I've ever played precisely because the game wouldn't let me cheat by over leveling (and also because they were challenging without being insanely difficult). This seems like a really simple and elegant solution, at least with RPGs that are fairly linear. Why more games don't use this method is beyond me.