Ah yes, the so-called RPG Elements. Leveling up has nothing to do with role playing, yet it has become the mechanic most associated with the RPG genre. Character development is an integral part of storytelling, and leveling up is a good way of showing how the character becomes more skilled during his journey. So, when other genres copied the character levels system, they called it RPG Elements.
But sometimes, these periodic increases in power feel empty. Even though the numbers tell you your character is stronger, you hardly feel it. Why is that the case? The game might have too much vertical development and not enough horizontal.
Imagine a field. Imagine each of your character’s attributes as a tower on that field. Strength, for example. When your character levels up, his strength increases a bit, that tower gets taller.
One of the first problems that we can see about that is diminishing returns. However, that has a widely used solution. Just make the stat increases per level rise exponentially.
But that means that after a few level ups, you’ll be blazing through enemies like a god! How do we fix that? Simple, you scale the content to your level. Some games simply have the enemies in later areas of the game be stronger, while there are others that go the extra mile and have all enemies actually scale with your level ups. And that’s where those improvements start to feel empty.
Oblivion is a pretty infamous case. It’s a game where, unless you plan your level ups perfectly, your enemies scale faster than you. You actually feel weaker each time you level up. Why go through the trouble at all? Why improve your skills when it’ll only make the game harder for you?
You’re improving your stats by less than five points. An open invitation for the game to brutally sodomize you from this point onwards.
But scaling that isn’t so brutal can still leave you feeling empty. Let’s use some Final Fantasy terminology here. In the beginning of the game you have your useful fire spell, called, of all things, Fire. Then, at a later point in the game, you get its upgraded form, Fira. It costs more MP, but it hurts all enemies. How cool is that? Then, later in the game, you get Firaga. It’s just like FIra, but it costs more MP and deals more damage. That’s cool, it’s like a faster car that also requires more fuel. But then, you’ve played the game some more. You have more MP now, which means Firaga costs about as much relative to your MP total as Fira did before, and now you’re not fighting the same monkeys as before, but the more powerful mega monkeys.
Yeah, kinda like that.
Firaga is now doing the exact same thing as Fira did before. This boost of power you got ended up being meaningless in the long run. And now, you feel empty.
To be fair, it is hard to avoid this trap in common JRPG battle systems, in which combat is basically just the computer solving a series of equations, without time or space being taken into account.
But then how do we solve this problem? Well, if this is vertical development, then the answer must be…
Recognize those names? In case you don’t, they’re the weapons you get from beating the bosses in Mega Man 2. It illustrates my point about horizontal development pretty well. Mega Man doesn’t become better at doing what he already does, he becomes able to do more things. Crash Bombs allow him to blow up certain walls to uncover new paths. Leaf Shield gives him a very effective way to defend himself against the enemies that charge at him in the moving platform segments in Crash Man’s stage and Wily’s Castle. Bubble Lead is the only way to damage the final boss.
You become more powerful not because some numeric value that tells you how powerful you are, you become more powerful because your options increase. And no matter how hard the challenges the game throws at you, those options remain with you. You feel like you’ve become more powerful when you are able to do something you couldn’t do before.
For implementing better horizontal development in an RPG, I think Guild Wars is a good case study. One of their design philosophies is that every skill must remain viable for the whole game. As such, all skills are on the same relative power level, and there are no skills with simple effects. There is no skill that simply heals. Every heal skill does something else too. And the vast majority of attack skills offer something more than just damage. Skill choice becomes more situational when you group effects together. Take, for example, the Phoenix skill in Guild Wars 2. You send out a bird-shaped flame in front of you, damaging enemies in front of you, turns back, and heals you when it comes back to you. That’s a perfect example of a complex skill, and I’m sure it’s possible to implement something similar even in a turn-based JRPG battle system.
I’m not saying that vertical development is inherently bad, but just by itself, it’s extremely underwhelming.
I hope I have enlightened at least some of you on this subject.