Character progression systems in roleplaying games is something I feel pretty strongly for. Growing better just seems to be one of those primal urges, like collecting better equipment, but generally without the luxury of being able to change your mind and switching out your items at will. When you’re levelling up, your choices are usually a lot more permanent than when you’re out looting, and for that reason, you grow more attached to them.
After playing quite a few (though far from all) CRPG’s on the market, I’ve developed a pretty good idea of what sort of character system I prefer. The main rule is that every upgrade to your character should be significant. The more important a new skill or ability is, the more I enjoy the game. I’d rather have a steady trickle of important upgrades to my character than sudden level-ups full of invidivually insignificant improvements.
Case in point: Compare Diablo 2 with a Dungeons & Dragons game such as Neverwinter Nights. In NWN, you receive a constant stream of experience points which don’t matter at all until you reach a specific limit which triggers a level-up, and then you get a broad range of improvements across all categories (skills, feats, spells, attack bonus, hitpoints). Picking feats and spells are interesting, since each choice you make is significant, but as for attack bonus and hitpoints, the progression is generally slow enough that you don’t notice a particular difference once you’re around level 5 and up. The difference between 50 hitpoints and 60 hitpoints can make a difference in a fight of course, but it doesn’t change the way you play the game.
In Diablo 2, on the other hand, you pick one ability per level, and it will always be important. Abilities really are abilities, they’re not slight improvements – since you only get one per level, each of them makes a difference. Sure, you also get more hitpoints and mana each level in Diablo 2, but the abilities are definitely the important part of levelling up.
As with many of my ideas about game design, this isn’t entirely my own, it’s derived from Warren Spector’s post-mortem of Deus Ex where he explains the four-level skill system: You don’t want the player to fail something because he only has 17 skillpoints instead of 18. You want him to fail because he chose not to upgrade a particular skill from level 2 to level 3. The fewer ranks a skill can have, the more significant the choice to upgrade it becomes.
Titan Quest has an interesting hybrid system, depicted on the right: Each level, you get 3 skillpoints, and then you have to choose between using them to buy/upgrade a specific skill or put it into your general skill mastery (your class) so it goes towards unlocking new tiers of skills. Upgrading your skill mastery also raises your stats, hitpoints, and mana, but the interesting part is how the system forces you to plan ahead – I’m still not sure if it’s best to reserve one skillpoint each level for your mastery or to focus on the skills until it’s time to put all your skillpoints for a couple of levels into your mastery (though I’ve been sticking to the former so far).
My favourite system so far is probably Dark Messiah‘s. Of course I’m a sucker for any action RPG ranging from Bioshock (more action) to Mass Effect (more RPG), but Dark Messiah seemed to take Diablo 2′s system and then refine it even further. My favourite feature of DM is its lack of level and experience points: Skillpoints are given out a couple at a time (often you’ll just get 1) for completing story objectives, with major objectives worth more skillpoints, and the cost for upgrading your skills is very low, with a max of 12 points to buy a last-tier skill, so every skillpoint you get counts. Compare this to most RPG’s that have to give you 10,000 XP at a time to make it count at the higher levels.
Of course the amount of experience or skill points you prefer to get at a time depends on your personal preferences. Getting 10,000 XP for a quest seems like better positive reinforcement than getting 3 skillpoints, but when you consider that even a single skillpoint in Dark Messiah is the equivalent of a level-up, getting 3 skillpoints becomes a huge deal. One of the best things about game design is that the discipline is full of choices without obvious options, and you almost always have to make your choice in the context of your game. If you’re making an MMORPG and you need to keep handing out tiny improvements across 80 levels of character progression, you’ll want to make your skills range from 1-300 or something like that. If you’re making a hack’n'slash game, you’ll want to award XP for kills so each defeated enemy counts towards the next level-up, and if you’re making an action-adventure game like Deus Ex where you’re rewarding exploration, you need to award a fair deal of points for each objective so you can give smaller rewards for discovering interesting places off the beaten path. And that’s not even considering the important question of whether higher skill levels should cost more points than lower (reward generalization) or all skill levels should cost the same (encourage specialization).
There’s no doubt that the reason I like Dark Messiah’s modest character system so much is simply that it fits the sort of gameplay I enjoy the most: No XP for kills, no gradual skill improvement, no levels, no grinding, plenty of freedom in how to approach your objectives. In terms of gameplay mechanics, it’s almost exactly the sort of RPG I’d like to work on. Which makes it all the more frustrating that I always get stuck at the spiders!