Games are hardly simple things to design and produce – anyone who has even the slightest inkling into the process of making them should be able to tell that. Within the various genres of video games, it’s not unfair to go further and state that RPGs might be some of the hardest to make. In order to offset some of the challenges of creating deep, immersive, and expensive worlds RPGs – like most genres – have a series of gameplay ‘tropes’ that can inform design decisions and are a good place to start development. Perhaps the most famous of these tropes is the idea of levelling and getting stronger as characters’ skills increase; no all levelling systems are created equal, however, and sometimes the way levelling up affects the world around the player can have a big impact on how enjoyable a game is.
It may sound like an obvious point, but even the best RPGs can sometimes struggle to find a happy medium when it comes to integrating players levelling up and the world changing around them. In this series of three articles we’re going to examine three (funny, that) of the better-known Fantasy RPGs, and assess the pros and cons of how their levelling affects the game outside the player.
It should be noted, of course, that I’m not any sort of expert. I haven’t every, or even most, RPGs, and I couldn’t fit them all in this article even if I had. There could have been discussion over games such as the original Knights of the Old Republic, but for now we’ll limit ourselves to three. If there’re any games with particularly good levelling integration you know of, however, feel free to leave a comment – I’d be very interested to learn.
With that all out the way, let’s start with an old classic – Morrowind.
No. Not that one. Never that one.
Morrowind is my favourite video game of all time, unapologetically so. I’m unapologetic about the fact that that might lead to a little bit of bias towards it too. But the third Elder Scrolls (main series) game is a good place to start this discussion, because along with the many other things it does right (and some, admittedly, that it does wrong) its method of levelling and how that affected the game world was solidly designed.
For those who only played Skyrim, Morrowind’s level-up system worked by letting a character select ‘Major’ and ‘Minor’ skills from the entire available list. While every skill could be improved with repeated use, Majors and Minors increased faster and were the only ones that contributed to levelling up; once any combination of these skills had been increased ten times, the character could sleep in a bed and increase their level. Every skill was also linked to a certain stat, (Strength, Endurance, Intelligence etc) so as well as increasing totals of Health, Magic, and Fatigue levelling-up allowed players to distribute bonuses to some of these stats based on what skills they had increased.
It wasn’t a flawless system, but it worked – characters statistically grew more powerful as the game went on, but it was also possible to build a bad character if one didn’t take into account the preferred skills of their chosen race and class (as several admittedly amusing YouTube videos have taken great delight in showing). This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; in fact, playing a character that started with low skills was an interesting form of ‘hard mode’ and required more thought from the player. There was a freedom in it that some RPGs lack, and for it’s purpose it served well.
Morrowind’s real strength in terms of levelling, however, came from how gaining levels affected the world around the player – particularly enemies and items, arguably two of the most important elements of an RPG in terms of gameplay. Morrowind’s enemies used relatively set stats that had some variation within their ‘class’, but not too much – a Skeleton was a Skeleton, whether you met it at level 3 or level 30.
What did change was the enemies that would spawn in each are of the game, known as ‘cells’, as a character’s level increased. For instance, if you headed down a tomb at level 2 you might find a Ghost, the aforementioned Skeleton, and maybe if you were unlucky a zombie-like creature known as a Bonewalker (ironically perhaps one of the most irritating enemies in the entire game, due to their habit of permanently draining stats). Go into that same dungeon at level 20 and you’ll find Skeleton Champions, Greater Bonewalkers or Bonelords, and perhaps even powerful daemon-like creatures known as the Daedra. Once again, however, these creatures’ stats were largely set – the more powerful enemies may have tough battles forcing retreat when they were first encountered, but after gaining more levels and increasing one’s skills defeating them gives a palpable feeling of improvement and progression.
It is, to employ a perhaps over-used term, chock full of ‘game feel’ – some might criticise RPGs as being at their core games based around ‘making the numbers go higher’, but seeing those numbers in action can bring an undeniable sense of satisfaction if done right.
Aside from enemies, another critical way levelling can affect an RPG’s gameplay is how it interacts with the distribution of items. In Morrowind, as in many games, that interaction comes in the form of ‘levelled loot’. The idea itself is simple enough – entering cells at a higher levels means containers in those cells such as crates, chests and so on have a better chance at spawning better weapons, more gold, or magic items. Even so, this simple system is absolutely vital in order to keep players engaged as their level increased; it provides a reason to keep exploring and checking these containers, rather than simply passing by because they know their own equipment will outclass anything they could find. It can, perhaps, also lead to ‘save-scumming’, (saving the game just before entering a cell, and continuing to reload if the specific item one’s looking for isn’t randomly generated) but the blame there can lie as much on the player as the game mechanics.
What can be attributed more (albeit not entirely) to game mechanics, however, is the presence of non-random loot. These items, be they weapons, armour, or otherwise, have been hand-placed by the developers and can usually be found at the end of dungeons/quests or carried by specific NPCs. They also tend to be more powerful than those found randomly scattered through the world.
Of course, obtaining these items isn’t always easy, particularly at lower levels. Having to know where they are is another impediment. But for players familiar with the game and what’s in it, it can lead to combinations that trivialise much of the challenge – Morrowind fans will likely agree with me when I say that a combination of the Boots of Blinding Speed, Cuirass of the Saviour’s Hide and Spear of Bitter Mercy is a rather overpowered (although highly entertaining) setup. With the temptation to go after these also comes diminishing returns for random loot – with few exceptions, what you find in a chest within a bandit camp won’t ever be better than a specific magic weapon you know easily how to obtain. In a game as otherwise re-playable as Morrowind, this can be something of a disappointment.
Even the better levelling systems can, therefore, possess flaws. Morrowind is still undeniably one of the better levelling systems however. Those diminishing returns aside, there’s plenty that anyone interested in RPG game design can learn from how its world changes to accommodate the player’s growing strength; though it was arguably the last mainline Elder Scrolls game to really care for its story (even if you never had to truly embark on it) Morrowind was still, at heart, about having an adventure. In that respect, the game’s handling of its enemies and loot did everything it needed to do. It made the player feel powerful, but never invincible. It made the world dangerous even as one grew, but not unconquerable. The technicalities of Morrowind’s levelling system might not have been perfect, but the philosophy that drove it was hard to argue with.
In a few days’ time we’ll take a look at Oblivion, and ask how Morrowind’s successor got so much wrong in terms of levelling despite using similar methods as its predecessor. In the meantime, what aspects of levelling up do you think are most important in RPGs?
Oh, and play Morrowind. Seriously. It’s good.
At age seven, Jordan wanted to be a paleontologist. That went well. He now fills the void by writing on all manner of mildly-interesting topics - when he finds time in between complaining how everything was better in the 'good old days', that is.