Leveling up is the worst mechanic in video games. Naturally, it’s also one of the most popular. From a design perspective, it’s useless at best and counterproductive at worst. From an aesthetic perspective, it’s actively evil.
Let’s start by clarifying what it is we’re talking about. Leveling up is about advancement through your in-game capabilities increasing, as opposed to your abilities as a player. There’s no such concept in a game like Super Mario Bros., where Mario’s abilities are the same throughout the entire game. While there are power-ups that can temporarily increase your abilities, these are situational upgrades rather than a persistent part of Mario’s character.
In Mega Man, on the other hand, the abilities that Mega Man gains by defeating each boss become part of his permanent arsenal. By the end of the game, Mega Man is much more capable than he was at the beginning. Indeed, if you’re having a hard time against one of the bosses in a Mega Man game, one way to proceed is to defeat a different boss in order to get their weapon, and then use it against the boss you’re having trouble on. In this way, the player can advance without actually getting better at the game. Not that this is necessarily a problem; having a variety of challenges available is a good way to keep the player from getting stuck, and they’ll presumably get better at the game naturally as long as they have the opportunity to keep trying.
This still isn’t really what we’re talking about, though, because Mega Man’s weapons are new abilities: they make him more capable, but not necessarily more powerful. There may be situations in which a new weapon isn’t actually useful. Not only that, but the player has to learn what each weapon is good for and decide when to use it, so in that sense these upgrades actually make the game more complicated to play. What we really mean by “level ups” is a general increase in power rather than a specific increase in capabilities. In Super Metroid, for example, Samus can collect energy tanks to increase her endurance, new suits to reduce the amount of damage she takes, or new beams that are strictly superior versions of her existing beam (as opposed to separate weapons in the way that Mega Man’s are). All of these are what you might think of as “background” upgrades; they make the game easier without providing the player with any new options. Of course, Super Metroid also has plenty of upgrades that do actually give Samus new abilities; there’s a clear distinction between upgrades that allow you to do new things and upgrades which are mere improvements.
Thus, we can draw a distinction between two concepts which are often conflated: skill growth and power growth. The first allows the player to do new things, resulting in increased gameplay options and possibly even increased difficulty, while the second makes the things that the player can already do more effective, resulting in a mere decrease in difficulty.
You may have noticed that I’ve deliberately avoided using any examples for the genre that is actually about level ups: RPGs. The problem with RPGs is that the concept of leveling up is so baked-in to the basic formula that it’s very difficult to separate out the relevant concepts. It’s typical for a “level” in an RPG to refer to everything at once: all of your character’s parameters increase, and you also learn new abilities, and your abilities also get stronger without actually doing anything different. Plus there’s things like new equipment, which sometimes gives you a mere power increase, or sometimes gives you what looks like an ability but is actually just a power increase (such as “increased critical hit rate” or “extra damage against dragons”), and sometimes actually gives you new options (such as a staff that regenerates your MP but can’t be used to attack). The point is that RPG design is generally a mess and what I’m taking aim at here is not everything that gets called a “level up” but the specific concept of general power growth.
Skill growth isn’t a problem; indeed, it’s easy to see why it’s an effective mechanic. In games like Mega Man and Super Metroid, skill growth is used to ease the player into the game. The player starts with only the basic abilities, allowing them to get a handle on the fundamentals, and then, with a foundation established, learn to use the new abilities one at a time. Giving the player all the abilities at the outset would be overwhelming; it would actually make the game harder to play. Furthermore, since each skill has a specific function, the process of gaining skills itself can be strategic. In Mega Man, as mentioned, you might try to gain a specific weapon for the purpose of defeating a specific boss. In this way, the player can chart their own path through the game based on an understanding of what capabilities they need to have in order to perform certain tasks (and Mega Man is really the simplest possible example here; a game that utilized this sort of progression in a meaningful way would really be something).
Power growth offers none of these advantages and also contains several drawbacks. The basic problem is that power growth adds nothing to the gameplay. Attacking a monster and dealing 50 damage is exactly the same operation as attacking it and dealing 500 damage. Furthermore, since the game’s challenges have to get harder to compensate for the player’s increased power, there’s not even any practical effect from leveling up. If a monster has 500 HP and you deal 50 damage per hit, you need to hit it 10 times to win. If, after leveling up and moving to a harder area, a new monster has 5000 HP and you’re dealing 500 damage, the situation is exactly the same. It looks different, but the actual actions you’re taking are identical to what they were before. In this way, RPGs often confuse the issue by offering a lot of flash that makes it look like something is going on when you’re actually just using the exact same tactics in every encounter. Thus, level ups often conceal a lack of actual gameplay.
It’s worse than that, though, because power growth can actually cannibalize real gameplay. For example, say you’re up against a boss that counters any physical attacks you hit it with, so instead you need to beat it with magic attacks. But suppose you’ve leveled up enough that the counterattacks aren’t strong enough to stop you. You can just blithely bash away with physical attacks and win anyway; you don’t actually have to learn the boss’s characteristics or how to deal with them. You don’t actually have to play the game.
The reason for this problem is that challenge relies on balance. To illustrate this, consider a boss battle from any Mega Man game. If you’re not familiar, they look like this:
See those two bars? One of them is Mega Man’s health meter, and one of them is Guts Man’s. When Mega Man hits Guts Man, Guts Man’s health goes down by a certain amount, and vice versa. The fact that both bars are visibly the same size makes the situation admirably clear: the difficulty of the battle is based on the ratio of the amount of damage Mega Man deals to Guts Man to the damage he takes from Guts Man’s attacks. If Mega Man has a weapon that is highly effective against Guts Man (that’d be Bomb Man’s weapon), he might be able to win by just shooting repeatedly and not bothering to avoid any of Guts Man’s attacks. The player doesn’t have to learn anything at all; the battle becomes trivially easy. On the other hand, if Mega Man does very little damage compared to how much he takes from each hit, he may have to avoid almost all of Guts Man’s attacks in order to have a chance. The player may have a hard time even after learning how to effectively dodge most of the boss’s attacks; the battle becomes excruciatingly hard. A well-designed boss battle will have a damage ratio that puts it between these two extremes: with the correct weapon, the battle should be easy but not trivial; without it, the battle should be challenging but doable for a moderately skilled player.
But if the player can increase Mega Man’s overall power by “leveling up,” then they’re in control of the damage ratio (intentionally or otherwise), which means the actual design of the battle goes out the window. If you’re having a hard time against a boss, you have no idea whether it’s because there’s something about the gameplay you have yet to learn or whether you just haven’t leveled enough. If you’ve leveled too much, you’ll just blaze through and miss the opportunity to learn anything. In this situation, the developer has in effect abdicated their responsibility to design a meaningful encounter, instead obligating the player to “guess” what level they need to be at in order to have a good experience (the extent to which game designers often seem to be looking for any possible excuse to avoid actually designing their games is rather disheartening; see also “procedurally generated levels” as a selling point).
But it’s not just that power growth sucks, it’s also that it’s totally clowned by its cooler, more attractive cousin: skill growth. Skill growth does everything power growth can do and more, and it looks good doing it. This is easy to understand if we look at a game that uses both mechanics, but cleanly separates them so that they can be analyzed individually. That game is Final Fantasy Tactics. Whenever one of your characters takes an action, they grow in two ways: they gain Experience, which eventually levels them up in the power growth sense, and they gain Job Points, which can be used to purchase new abilities. If you play the game with this in mind, it will quickly become apparent that Experience is completely boring. It gradually accumulates and makes you stronger and you never actually think or worry about it in any way. Trying to pay attention to it is like watching someone else run on a treadmill.
Conversely, Job Points are not only interesting, they’re also awesome and basically the entire point of the game. There are several reasons for this. The most obvious is that getting new abilities is fun and interesting. A new ability allows you to do something new in battle, and since Final Fantasy Tactics is pretty well designed, new abilities are generally distinctive: they allow you to do a new type of thing rather than just being a different version of something you can already do. Another reason is that you get to choose which abilities to get, so you can make a plan about how your team is going to work and design the kind of characters that you think will be effective, or creative, or challenging, or even just fun. Thus, we get the same sense of character advancement that power growth offers, but in a way that’s both interesting and conducive to actual gameplay.
Finally, the act of gaining Job Points itself also involves a choice, because each character only gains Job Points for the class they are currently using (pedantic caveat: not actually true, but close enough). So if you want to, for example, make a White Mage that can also use Time Magic, you have to decide when you can allow the character to train in the Time Mage class and when you’re going to need them as a White Mage. And this isn’t an isolated decision, because you have other team members with the same dynamic; if one of them is training as a White Mage, the others are free to do something else. Thus, there’s an interesting tension between growing your characters for the long term and winning each battle in the short term; unlike with Experience, you don’t just get everything for free.
What all this adds up to is that you could completely excise the concept of Experience from Final Fantasy Tactics and you would lose absolutely none of what makes the game good. So from a design perspective the solution to power growth is pretty simple: just say no. Pick a power level and design your game around that. If you want to provide a couple of options for the player to make things easier or harder for themselves, that’s fine, but these ought to be explicit choices rather than just something that happens as you play the game. Furthermore, the limits of these options need to be designed appropriately in order to provide an experience that’s still meaningful even when it’s a little easier or harder.
Gameplay isn’t everything, though. The actual purpose of levels is, of course, aesthetic. They represent a character’s growth over the course of the story. If you’re making a game with a Hero’s Journey type of story, where the main character starts off as some nobody and goes through some trials and stuff and becomes powerful enough to save the day, using level ups to gradually increase the character’s attributes is a great way to represent that, even if it doesn’t actually change the gameplay.
The problem with this is that the Hero’s Journey is a bunch of fucking horseshit. Real things don’t actually happen because of some guy who’s just so strong and smart and powerful that he can defeat all the bad evil forces and make things nice and peaceful for everybody. That’s not how the real world works. It is, rather, how the rulers of an oppressive, hierarchical society want you to think the world works, because it justifies existing power structures.
For example, the jobs of a CEO and a janitor are so different that they can’t be meaningfully compared in terms of value. But we accept that a CEO should have higher pay than a janitor because we consider it to be a “higher level” job. If we instead view these two jobs are merely two different sets of skills, both of which are required for a company to operate, then the justification for not merely “outsized” CEO pay but for any pay discrepancy at all vanishes.
The truth is that the world works the way it does as a result of specific abilities that people have. The members of the ruling class are not better than you. The reason rich fucks are rich is that they’re good at the specific things that our society rewards. Warren Buffett, who is certainly one of our more self-aware rich fucks, has made precisely this point with regard to himself:
“I happen to have a talent for allocating capital. But my ability to use that talent is completely dependent on the society I was born into. If I’d been born into a tribe of hunters, this talent of mine would be pretty worthless. I can’t run very fast. I’m not particularly strong. I’d probably end up as some wild animal’s dinner.
But I was lucky enough to be born in a time and place where society values my talent, and gave me a good education to develop that talent, and set up the laws and the financial system to let me do what I love doing — and make a lot of money doing it. The least I can do is help pay for all that.”
In other words, there’s no actual justification for someone like Buffett being rich. It’s just how things happen to be set up at the moment. Those who are invested in maintaining our current level of injustice want you to believe that the people on top of our society are there because they deserve it, because they’re just better. But they aren’t, and they don’t.
This isn’t just about rich fucks, either. The same analysis applies to the rest of us. The big paradox of justice in the internet years has been that, while the internet has been an incredible boon to the spread of anti-oppression ideologies, it has resulted in very little structural change. Marginalized people have more opportunity than ever to have their voices heard, and inconvenient ideas no longer require official channels for dissemination. At the same time, economic inequality has been steadily worsening and social progress has largely stalled out. The unfortunate truth is that “power” in the form of large numbers of people agreeing on the internet does not actually accomplish anything. What internet activists often fail to realize is that we are not dealing with some sort of cosmic scale, where we just have to put all of our weight on one side to move it. We are dealing with a specific socio-historical situation and specific sorts of actions are required to affect it. Of course, if I had any idea what these actions were, I’d be doing something a little more productive than blogging about game mechanics. But the least we can do is let go of the false hope that says that everything will work out as long as we care hard enough.
And this is where things get really interesting, because not only is there actually a game mechanic that can convey this in a way that’s applicable to the real world, but it’s precisely the good aspect of leveling up that we were just talking about: it’s skill growth. Pretty crazy coincidence, right? The alternative to power growth that’s better for gameplay just so happens to also be the alternative that’s compatible with justice. Except no shit, because it’s obviously not a coincidence, because good design is the same thing as meaningful existence.