I was working with balancing for the game Mad Max in particular with the challenges that the game uses as a levelling up mechanic for the player character. While I was doing it, I was also playing Dragon Age Inquisition that uses a completely different level up strategy. This lead me to start thinking about how the different systems compare to each other, and how that comparison leads to certain conclusions regarding the construction of a levelling up system. Note that all the information in this blog post is accessible through playing the games in question.
Mad Max uses a player progression based on upgrades and abilities. Both are connected to the player character’s legend rank. The legend rank in turn, is based on levels and the levels are attained by completing challenges. Now the challenges are open ended, there are almost no restrictions on when a challenge can be completed. They are in some cases also repeatable, meaning that there are no restraints on which level you might reach in the game. There are however only ten ranks in Mad Max, from Roadkill to Road Warrior. Each rank is ten levels. This means that each rank before Road Warrior has ten levels each and that the end rank – Road Warrior – has an unlimited amount of levels. Now, the unlockables are based on said ranks and a scrap cost. Technically, when you have levelled up to Road Warrior, the abilities for Max and his upgrades are all available to the player. What might hold the player back is the scrap cost of the upgrades.
As you can imagine, this makes for a very interesting character progression challenge. How is it possible to keep the player interested without a small reward for each “level up”, or in this case Griffa token earned, if the player won’t receive some form of pat on the back for a job well done? The answer is of course that the player will lose interest in performing challenges when the rank cap has been reached, unless there is something else available to entertain the player. The idea in Mad Max was to let the story do the “talking” at a point when the player has reached a Road Warrior rank.
Compared to Dragon Age Inquisition, Mad Max has much fewer restraints in place when it comes to levelling up. The only thing possible to restrict are the challenges repeatability, what challenges will most likely be available during the introduction, and how many kills or pickups or whatever conditions the challenge has to repeat before it is complete. In contrast, Dragon Age Inquisition is a huge world, but it has many more restrictions and parameters to tweak in order to control the character progression, not in the least the level and power restrictions of the areas the player can unlock using power.
The ones I’ve been able to identify through play are XP reward per killed enemy (which varies with enemy level and also, I think, with the level of the Inquisitor), XP requirement per level, XP reward for picking up codices, XP reward for completing a mission etc. There is also an XP cap system in place. If the player character is more than three levels higher than the enemy killed, you’ll get no XP for the kill. Also, with the XP requirement per level increasing, and the XP reward per enemy type remaining fairly constant it is easy to make a level up curve that will keep the player interested for a long time.
The parameters in play for experience points are also working in tandem with the power and influence systems. Power and influence are gained when the player completes tasks like setting up camps and closing Rifts out in the world. Influence decides how the Inquisition is perceived (and how well repaired Skyhold is) and it gives the player perks, such as opening up extra dialogue options in the game, extra XP for codices, herb gathering, radar radius etc, while power allows the player to open new areas in the game map.
All of these parameters serve to hold the player back from progressing too fast through the game, or to not reach the level required in an area. In Mad Max, the same type of locking system is used, but there, the system prevents progression through the reduction of threat in different regions, the acquisition of vehicle upgrades and the completion of missions. It will NOT stop the player from going to places where the player character will most likely meet a violent death though.
In other words, both games have locks that will at least try to prevent an under-levelled player character from getting in over his or her head. There are however no restraints for over-levelled players, which is a problem throughout Dragon Age Inquisiton, but (to my mind) reasonably handled by Mad Max.
In Mad Max, the actual Level cap places Max at a definitive skill level. There are only so many skills and upgrades you CAN buy, and the game takes this into account. By end of game, a maxed out Max (heh) will meet an appropriately difficult enemy. This is made easier by the game having had no difficulty levels (at least not when I played. It probably made it easier to balance the end game, I’d imagine).
Dragon Age Inquisition also has a level cap, but it is way above the end boss levels. Spoiler in ROT13Pbecurhf vf yriry 20-vfu jura lbh zrrg uvz naq uvf qentba ng gur raq bs gur tnzr. Zl cynlre punenpgre unf nyjnif orra ng yrnfg yriry 24end spoiler. Obviously. This creates a slight disconnect in the game, in particular with the DLCs that increases the difficulty level a few notches.
In other words, when I play Dragon Age Inquisition, being a completionist, I’m always two or three levels above what is needed to progress. This creates the sense that the game is too easy on normal. Despite the many parameters given for player progression in Inquisition, the game’s difficulty levels are in other words still slightly off a bit. But this will only start to show for real the closer to the end game the player gets.
Then there’s the level cap issue. In both Dragon Age Origins and Dragon Age II, I never managed to hit a level cap. I did in Inquisition, and there were several issues with that. First off, I felt robbed of my reward. Even though I killed the enemy and got loot just as often, it felt as if the game had stopped rewarding me. Connected to that “lack of reward”-feeling was the fact that I had to mark enemies to know when they were dead. During the entire game up until I hit the level cap, the best way I had to keep track of multiple enemies and when they were dead was the XP bar showing up on screen whenever an enemy was killed. In other words, I used the messages on screen not only to keep track of XP, but to track kills. When the level cap hit, I had to re-learn how to see which enemies were alive. It didn’t cause fatal accidents, but on occasion it made me feel stupid, sending off volleys at enemies long dead.
If you’ve ever played a mage in Dragon Age Inquisition, you’ll know what I mean.
I did play through the two DLCs where I had capped out despite the cap, but I have to say that the combat felt much less engaging without getting XP. I also think that an unlimited level would have made little difference to the game, considering the already existing issues with the end boss, and considering the really slow levelling up speed at the end of game. That’s also something that wasn’t regulated in Mad Max. There was no way of knowing when a challenge would be completed, because different players play differently, making it easier for some to gain tokens, and harder for others.
So what would have made mad Max and Inquisition better games from a progression point of view? Well, for Mad Max I’m not really going to get into any of that except to say that some more restrictions for the level up parameters would have been useful. It was a difficult task to balance the progression with the tools given. However the end game still felt okay based on upgrades and abilities.
For Dragon Age Inquisition, I think I would have tried an end boss difficulty that levelled up from a base line to where the player characters’ difficulty level was at. In other words if the inquisitor was level 27, the end boss would level up to a state where it would be a challenge to defeat the boss. Considering that stats are based on levels this should not be impossible to do. Slightly more tricky, yes, but not impossible.
This said, I still think the challenge of having levels in an open world is a bit more tricky than in a slightly more linear world such as Inquisition. It is however far from impossible, as many open world games have proven. Any level up system should however have parameters that can be at least a little predictable. A system where nothing is fixed becomes almost impossible to balance, which will show up in the end result.
I also think it is important for the enjoyment of the player to make sure that a rewards system that is more or less constant throughout the game is not abruptly interrupted before all content has been explored. Mass Effect 3 had a similar problem, but I never experienced the level cap as intensely disappointing as I did in Inquisition. It might have to do with me not using the XP bar as a way of keeping track of dead enemies in ME3, or the fact that ME3 is a much more restricted world than Inquisition? I honestly don’t know, but it would be an interesting topic for my next analysis.
All in all, both systems have merits and flaws. The reason why I compare them is because thy both have a similar structure, both from a narrative and a world perspective. But that’s a subject for another time.