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Heya Space Cadets,

So, fresh off of what we were talking about last week, let’s start talking about a new Big Deal in The Deepening, classes and RPG elements and also the multiplayer experience. RPG elements were heavily requested in the original game, and it is a fun thing to add, but still brings up an interesting question about implementation and forces us to ask what the rationale is. Adding RPG mechanics, specifically classes, levels, and stats, is getting increasingly common. Sometimes fun, but we should never just rest upon the laurels of tradition and keep doing things the same way because someone else did it that way. If we plan to add a RPG-lite feeling to it, let us first question the very nature of those mechanics so we know it is what we really want.

My biggest beef with wrapping RPG mechanics around other genres is that it boils down to an unlock scheme that throws the balance off. This is especially true in the Online Shooter category where you dole out power and options the more someone plays. Balancing Time versus Skill versus Power is a nasty job, and most people do it horribly. To be bluntly honest, I think even straight-up RPGs like Dragon Age could dispense with experience entirely. Why tell players they need 1000xp of gameplay before they get the fun abilities? Experience based advancement has a place but I feel like, all too often, people use the D&D approach of starting you off without interesting options as a craven attempt to hook you into otherwise repetitive and uninteresting gameplay.

The excuse seems to be either “players get confused by too much immediate content,” or “players like character advancement and facing down more epic foes.” I will get to the first in a moment, but the concept of giving players a feeling of accomplishment and improvement has very little to do with content gates and absolutely NOTHING with the embarrassing and intolerable introduction of grinding. At the time of writing this, Guild Wars 2 is a very big game, and over an hour or so of play, it hands out what seems like the vast majority of your character’s abilities. More evidence for the opposition comes from the Portal games, where your abilities are static from the beginning of the game, and you feel that swell of accomplishment when you beat the next room.

If you used the Portal model for an RPG, you would face increasingly more complex foes and enemy formations. If developers want to dole out easier content first to set up the more impressive, dangerous content later, they can easily do it this way. I think it would be refreshing if a swarm of bandits that threatened me at the beginning of the game were laughable now because of my superior playing, not my level. Even without levels, there is a form of passive Power Creep already: gear. If developers want to give players a +1 nudge upwards in their stats, just let the Fire Demon drop his sword. It is the best of both worlds: with a system that rewards players tangibly for their accomplishments while making the requirements entirely focused on gameplay.

Stats themselves cause problems, as skill-based games do not mesh well with stats. Skill based games need to carefully balance power versus skill, check out this episode of Extra Credits for a great talk on that. I am happy to save the space. Long story short, players (especially bad players) will seek out the cheapest wins they can find, abusing a blunt for strategy until it stops working entirely, and moreover, players will eventually reach a high level of skill so you cannot allow skill and power to scale linearly.

Adding stats, levels, and classes to this only exacerbates the problem, as stats provide extra Power without requiring an increase in skill, making some abilities get a better-than-linear power to skill progression. Stats also ruin old content by rendering it irrelevant, which is a minor concern to players but something developers should be aware of. Multiplayer environments are especially vulnerable to the power growth stats grant, since you’re taking it out of one person’s sandbox and making low-skill high-power abilities shape the way the multiplayer experience evolves. It is like a cheat that players feel they have earned through no service more meritorious than paying for premium content or playing for more hours. You should not seek out ways to make that the norm.

Next time someone says that the game has RPG elements, ask if they mean it has roleplaying features, or if it just has a hackneyed advancement scheme with a monetization tie-in. Developers, you don’t need to be social activists, but we should try to make our product more than a money-sucking skinner box. Players, you don’t need to boycott games that do this, but you should demand to be told why you need to earn the right to have fun, or unlock content that should be balanced anyway . Do the developers think you’re too stupid to handle all these toys at once, is it greedy, or is it just lazy design?

Spacelab Signing Out

That may be a bit of a low blow, but I’m willing to take a stand against unnecessary abuse of power advancement schemes. Plus, this has been on my mind while designing DD2’s multiplayer, since I want to integrate some degree of persistent advancement if I can. Making that work in a way that doesn’t do it “just because” requires some major thought, and I’d like to make that the second half of our Friday/Saturday big game diary when we jump from this into the grittier world of Classes, Multiplayer, and Levels in The Deepening.

Neil Wickman is a rabble rousing anarchist trying to tear down society’s norms.

He has been working for Lunar Giant studios since its inception, one of the lead designers and the Creative Director. Listen to his arty nonsense @LunarNeil on Twitter.