Over the past three installments, I’ve argued that experience points are outdated and no longer solve the problems they did originally. Meanwhile, I believe they’ve been frequently misused by becoming a staple of RPGs where they often lead to an unnecessary psychological reinforcement. In theory, games are fun without having to reduce them to a single axis of progress, and doing so can cause players to fixate on exp accumulation rather than what’s actually cool in the game.
So, assuming you’re with me this far, here are a few of the potential solutions to remove exp but still include advancement. They are likely to be more useful for video RPGs, particularly MMORPGs, but may still be useful in some way for tabletop games.
Eve Online is one of the few games of which I’m aware that have eliminated the ability to grind for progress by the simple mechanism of divorcing skill progression entirely from game actions. Instead, players designate which areas they’d like to improve, and timers begin counting down until that skill level is learned. I believe there may be some degree of requirement to do a few in game tasks to open up a new tier of skills, but that may just have been my limited understanding of the very complicated systems for the little time I played.
Reducing improvement to a pure time-based system is pretty much anathema to grind, at least for advancement. When you’ll improve at the same rate no matter what you do (and even if you don’t even log in), in theory there’s no reason to do anything besides what’s fun. There’s at least nothing boring to do that might have a better exp rate.
Conversely, time-based progression can create a game where late-comers can have a hard time competing with earlier players, as there’s no way to bridge a skill gap other than an earlier player forgetting to set the next skill to train. In the real world, this is solved by older generations making way for the younger, but such a thing is unattainable in video games until and unless permadeath suddenly comes back into vogue. Effectively, it may make sense to supplement a time-based system with something else that doesn’t discourage new players and alts.
A game with use-based skills gives a chance to increase a skill whenever it is used (or at least whenever it is used in appropriately difficult situations). Many video games include some kind of use-based system for skills. WoW has use-based weapon skills (or did the last time I played), and EverQuest had athletics-related scores that went up as you used those modes of movement.
Strangely, most use-based games also have an experience system that leads to actually leveling up. WoW weapons skills were mostly superfluous, and just a way to force more grinding: you’d only really be much under the level cap on weapons that you never used, and would have to spend a couple of hours training if you got a good magic weapon of an unused type. A lot of this is ease of balance: modern games gain a lot of mileage by being able to assume that a player of level X can do Y. And some games that go entirely use-based, like Oblivion, can generate some odd behaviors (in Oblivion, it’s often better to create a custom class that has skills that are easy to raise but you don’t plan to use; that way, you can game the level-up system by only leveling when you want to).
Despite making balancing harder, there’s still likely some mileage in use-based skills, particularly in a game that’s not rigidly class-and-levels-based. Specifically, if you can come up with a good way to make skills improve faster when the player is actually being challenged, and tie raising particularly useful skills (like defenses and mez resistance) to more interesting foes, you can avoid the grind while having a system that isn’t tremendously different from exp. The challenge-detection algorithms would have to be pretty good, and constantly subject to exploit-detection, of course.
You could even hybridize such a system with a time-based one, granting reduced time to improve a skill rather than a direct skill up.
Nearly every modern RPG, especially every modern MMO, has some form of achievement system. Do a certain countable thing enough, or do an unusual or difficult thing once, and the game can track it and award an achievement. For most games, these are largely for bragging rights, though some do grant decent bonuses for achievements (or collections of them).
What if constellations of achievements replaced experience for leveling? For level 2, you need three easy quest achievements, one medium difficulty quest achievement, two exploration achievements, and one first tier monster-killing achievement. You’d see them on your level-up screen: “oh, I need one more exploration achievement to level, let’s go explore!” Maybe you’d have to move on after killing the easiest group of monsters sufficiently for an achievement, or maybe subsequent achievements for that group would just get harder (“Achievement 1: 20 Total Goblins, Achievement 2: 60 Total Goblins, Achievement 3: 120 Total Goblins. Man, let’s just go kill zombies instead, I only need one kill achievement to level, and I don’t have any zombie ones yet.”).
The essential idea is that achievements allow you to granularly toggle rewards to what’s theoretically fun about your game. Exp is a lowest-common-denominator; you can’t make players do other things if they’ve found one supremely efficient source of exp. But if leveling required a variety of tasks at any time, it might be easier to convince players to try them.
This isn’t a mechanism for the faint of heart: it requires actually having a good idea of what’s fun about your game, and not trying to use the system to force players to go after filler. It also might require some multiple choices to avoid alienating different classes of player (“One exploration achievement or one PvP achievement” might be a good way to catch two different player agendas, for example). But, at the end of the day, you’re going to design an achievement system anyway, and a large number of your players will want to pursue it, so there’s no reason not to get some practical use out of it as well.
Experience is an easy fallback for designers. It’s so pervasive that most designers probably don’t even consider doing something else. Even if you do, that something else is going to require a ton of balance to prevent exploitation, and it’s probably an easier sell to just deliver a small variation on the traditional experience point.
But experience already demands a ton of balance, it’s just not getting it. It lies at the root of a host of player behaviors at odds with what should, theoretically, be foremost on a designer’s mind: delivering the fun. It, by its nature, steals the focus of whatever you’re doing and pulls it down to an accountant’s zeal for leveling up.
None of the ideas above may ultimately be ideas that survive vetting at the hands of a cunning playerbase, but I’m firmly of the opinion that trying something is better than using the same old mechanic without question. Nearly every other remnant of OD&D has been gradually replaced over the last 30 years of game evolution. Some of what was lost was of much more debatable value than experience points.
Why are they the last sacred cow to fall?