by Dr Taliesin Coward
Experience Points, in reality, have very little to do with the abstract ‘points’ awarded in games like Space Invaders or pinball. Yes, they are called ‘points’, and yes, they can add to gameplay (unlocking certain rewards) and add to player motivation, but, as will be seen in the second part of this article, it’s a threadbare comparison at best. In essence, Experience Points are a way of tracking and controlling player progression and were brought into video games from table-top RPGs like Dungeons & Dragons. In these systems, significant actions, such as completing a quest or defeating an enemy, can award the player with XP. Once the player has accumulated enough XP, their character ‘levels up’, increasing in power and perhaps gaining new abilities, allowing games to simulate the progression from total rookie to super-powered hero who’s actions can change the fate of an entire country.
In general terms, XP can be used by the game (or ‘Dungeon Master’ in tabletop games like D&D) to carefully control the pacing of an adventure. Especially in tightly scripted linear games, the person designing the adventure can say with certainty what level a player character will be at by a certain point in the adventure. Armed with this knowledge, the designer can then use it to quickly design and control both enemy encounters, and what kinds of items and rewards the game will offer players without disrupting the balance of the game (that is, making it too hard or too easy).
The advantages of such a system are many and clear, both from a design perspective, and in terms of gameplay. The prospect of being awarded XP can act as a potent motivator. Indeed, a large part of the fun in these types of games stem from acquiring XP, and growing your in-game character or characters. One of the core ‘gameplay-loops’ of the Diablo series, for example is acquisition of XP and loot – with bigger and better rewards tied to your character level.
When it comes to computer games, XP can also be used by the designer for a more specific purpose: to influence how players play the game. Sometimes this may be overt, such as in World of WarCraft, which uses XP rewards to steer players into avoiding too long gaming sessions, by applying a time-limited bonus to XP points. Not only does this encourage players to take well needed brakes, it also helps ensure that they will subscribe to the game (and thus pay monthly subscription fees) for longer. Sometimes this manipulation may be less obvious, such as was infamously the case when players of Destiny 2 realised that the amount of XP the game claimed to be awarding, and the amount it actually did, differed significantly.
As an aside, it should also be noted that XP can be abused by publishers and developers. At present, this takes the form of purchases where players spend real money (above and beyond what they paid to initially purchase the game), in order for either a one-off windfall of XP, or a ‘bonus’ which permanently increase the amount of XP any action yields. This, more than anything else, indicates that gameplay has been deliberately sacrificed on the alter of profit: either those ultimately responsible for its inclusion (not necessarily the developers themselves) are aiming for a cash-grab and are willing to sacrifice the motivating power of XP to do so, or the accrual-rate of XP has been deliberately dialed-down to the point that it is hopefully tolerable, but verging on the tedious (akin to those aggravating pop-ups in free-apps which try to annoy you in to purchasing a subscription).
Such abuses aside, while the use of an XP system does have distinct benefits, there are also several drawbacks from a design perspective. The first is a general lack of logical consistency. It makes little sense that bashing a goblin over the head will increase your skill with lock-picks (unless the game has some very strange locks). Usually this is given little thought and simply ignored, though games like Morrowind and Skyrim (from The Elder Scrolls series) avoid this inconsistency by leveling up individual skills through their use – if you want to get better at picking locks, simply pick more locks, more often.
The second problem applies to games which have more of an open-world structure. In such games, the designers don’t necessarily know what level the player will be at when they reach certain parts of the game-world. There have been a number attempts to solve this, some working better than other.
Skyrim, for example, auto-levels foes and loot in order to keep them consistent with the power-level of the player. While this does mean that players will never encounter a foes that is massively overpowering, or a super-powerful weapon that unbalances the game, it does make the world feel more artificial and can make the entire experience feel somewhat flat. The newer Assassin’s Creed games (Origins, Odyssey, and Valhalla) split their world into different zones, each ranked for players of a certain power level, and blatantly tell the player so via on the world map (if they don’t wall a section off completely). While this lets the designers exercise more control over the player’s experience than the auto-level system of games like Skyrim, the player is super-aware that they are being deliberately ‘funneled’ into areas of the game’s world.
A third way of dealing with this problem is to ignore completely. The designers create the world, populate it with loot, monsters and guardians of varying levels, then let the player go where they will. While this does rob the designer of control (which may be more or less desirable), it actually gives more control to the player and make for a more natural feeling game. One of the great thrills of The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind (before they introduced scalable enemies) was never knowing if you were going to come across a low-level goblin or a potentially game-ending dremora which would have players with a low-mid level character fleeing for their digital lives (and marking the location in their memory for a return trip when they were more powerful).
Perhaps the best solution to these can be found in The Witcher 3. This game features a vast open world with non-scaling enemies, meaning it is totally possible for the player to get in well and truly over their head. The problem of controlling the player experience (that is, not populating the world with overly weak or overly powerful foes) is solved, in part, by the fact that the world gradually opens up as the story progresses, allowing designers to have a better idea of likely play-character level and populate later regions with more appropriate foes. Carefully tied in with the story, not only does this feel natural to the player, it can also makes it more interesting. Not only may the player stumble across a pod of now woefully underpowered enemies (which can be a very satisfying experience), it also means that they may occasionally run into a monster they’re totally unequipped to deal with, and I’ve yet played a tightly scripted, or auto-scaled game, which has had me rushing back to my horse and hoping that it’s fast enough to outrun the monster that’s chasing me.
A third problem, and a major one for the more open-ended games concerns XP as a form of player motivation. As noted the lure of XP can be a powerful motivator, but its ability to motivate is ultimately limited. And this limit is because XP is, ultimately, a tool. For a tool to be attractive, it has to be useful. The moment it becomes less effective, or not useful at all, its attractiveness and ability to motivate ends.
For example, in most RPG games, it is common practice that the amount of XP needed to level up increase exponentially. While it may take only 1,000XP to reach level 1, the player may have to accumulate an additional 2,000XP in order to reach Level 2, and so on. While games will often increase the awarded XP for major quests as the game progresses, keeping the ‘time-to-level-up’ consistent despite the apparent increase in raw numbers (one of the ways in which games create the illusion of growth and progression), for open-world games, the reward is often fixed for non-essential, low level encounters. As such, while the prospect of an XP reward may push a low-level player to seek out and attack bands of foes, as the player increases in power that reward means less and less, to the point that players will simply avoid unnecessary conflict as there are more efficient ways of accruing points (incidently, also indicating that the game’s combat mechanics are perhaps not that engaging or intrinsically rewarding).
Another example where XP loses it’s motivating ability is the ‘level cap’, the maximum level a player’s character can achieve. No more ranks can be gained beyond this, meaning there is absolutely no point in accruing more XP. At this point, players will abandon any and all activity for which the main motivator is earning XP (again, indicating that those actions are not so interesting in themselves). While this usually happens only towards the end of a tightly constructed RPG (at which point the player should be locked on the finale of the story and thus not really care), in more open-ended games this becomes a potential problem. A number of solutions have been proposed – from the systems in Skyrim and Diablo 3 which effectively let the player endlessly increase the power of their character (at the risk of unbalancing the game), to simply increasing the level cap, as has been done by the various expansions to World of WarCraft – but this basic problem remains.
In summary, XP systems are a fascinating tool in the designer’s arsenal, and can be used from everything from motivating players, to managing progression and even helping automate parts of the game. Like any tool, though, it has its limitations, and while its use in linear games is fairly well established, there is ongoing experimentation when it comes to open-world games.
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