It’s time for another design debate. The last one regarding regenerating health brought some interesting discussions and hopefully we can have a similar discourse here. RPG systems for the longest time were designed around the world being a static progression, meaning that players will find little rats outside the starting town, and dragons halfway around the world. However as RPGs became more open-ended and other genres adopted their mechanics, there has been a push for persistent world design. This is when the world is built around the player’s level, at the start, the player will find nothing but weaklings, but once they level up, those weak enemies will be replaced by stronger ones.

Perhaps the most recognizable example of a persistent world was The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion. Since then, this debate has grown and it’s time to talk about it here.

To begin with let’s look at the pros and cons of each, starting with persistent. As a way of providing a balanced experience, persistent works by keeping enemy levels either equal to, or close to the player’s level. You don’t need to worry about wandering around and running into an enemy who can kill you in a few hits. On the flip side, it also means that you don’t have to worry about grinding weak enemies for experience to level up, as every fight will be against an enemy of average strength against the player. This also has the side effect of making it easier to play with friends, if the world scales to the group, then you don’t have to worry about bringing in a lower level friend and having them useless for the game.

(As a quick side note regarding: allowing friends to play together. City of Heroes’ utilized the “side-kick “system. Here, if you are playing with a friend who is a lower level then you, they can become your side-kick for the mission, raising their level up to yours, but not learning any new skills. This allowed them to be a part of your group without weighting it down.)

There are a few disadvantages to persistent world design. First is that the balance has to be just right or it’s very easy to break the system. In Oblivion, the enemy scaling worked off of the player’s experience level. However, the game determines that level differently from other RPGs, at character creation, the player assigns primary and secondary character attributes. Leveling up primary attributes will go towards raising the character’s level, while secondary attributes will not.

What that means, is if the player chooses non combat related attributes for their primary skills, there is a good chance that they will level those up before leveling up their combat skills. In other words, they’ll be facing higher level enemies before they have the combat skills needed to win. On the other side, crafty players could do this on purpose and spend all their time honing their combat skills, thereby keeping the enemies weaker and just walk all over the game.

Another part of balancing the game is that to provide challenge, there needs to be a lot of enemy variety. The reason is that if the world is scaling to the player there needs to be variety to keep things from becoming stale. In Dead Island, there are 7 types of zombies (2 common, 5 uncommon,) that scale with the player. The problem is that once you fought one, you then know how to fight every other enemy of that type, since the only things that change with leveling up, are the amount of health the enemies have and how much damage they do.

One solution to this is if you’re going to only have a few core enemy types, throw in unique modifiers that start to show up when the player gets to a high level. Going back to Dead Island, there could have been zombies that can jump and tackle the player, or zombies that can’t be stunned with electricity or kicked.

The second issue is that it kills that thrill of exploring for unique challenges or the feeling of wanderlust .Because every enemy and piece of gear are tailored to the player’s level, it means that they won’t be able to find tougher challenges or powerful gear. Also this gives the world an artificial feel to it as new enemies magically appear where weaker enemies once were. Going back to hard challenges with the power to now beat them easy, shows players just how much they’ve gotten stronger since getting stuck there, which is a feeling that doesn’t work in a persistent world.

Moving on, static progression has the following advantages. First, it gives players an easy to understand progression. The further you go from the start, the more dangerous things are going to get. It’s easy to understand if your character is level 10 and an enemy is level 20, who has the advantage.

This also makes sense from a world building point of view, dragons and other powerful monsters aren’t going to move right next to the starting city, likewise it also helps motivate people to explore the world, as you never know what you’ll find in a dungeon somewhere.

In terms of enemy variety, while the more enemy types the better (as with all games,) it’s not as vital compared to a persistent world. The reason is that even basic enemy types, when pumped up to a higher level can still be a threat to a player.

Now the problems with static progression, game balance is still important, but it is a different type of balance compared to a persistent world. The key detail is: what exactly does leveling affect? Different games will have the level of the player mean different things, for instance, in most JRPGs, leveling up will improve the base attributes of your character, while in other games it could only affect your health. In RPGs with turn based combat, this is ok, as the attributes of both sides will affect the outcome. However, when you have real time or skill based combat, this can present a problem.

Borderlands had this issue, the game was all about twitch base shooting as in a normal FPS, but it also had RPG leveling. Whenever there was a level disparity between the player and enemies, the lower level character will do less damage to the higher one. When the level difference is one or two, it’s not a big deal, but when the player is three or more levels below an enemy, they’ll find that their bullets do negligible damage. At that point it doesn’t matter how good the player is when their best shots are only doing one or two points of damage.

This also feels like an artificial way of challenging the player, and it removes the need for skill. While having enemies grow stronger along with the player breaks the immersion, so does having your bullets from the same gun magically do five to ten times more damage to an enemy because you are now only two levels below it instead of three.

An interesting solution is to downplay leveling, the Disgaea series from Nis America is an example of this. While characters have levels, their attributes however are the key factor in combat. Giving a low level character, powerful items can overcome being a lower level then the enemy. Power leveling comes into play when characters can restart at level one, but with enhanced stats. What that means, is after enough restarts, a level one character could have the stats of a level 50 character.

Demon’s Souls also downplayed the priority to level. Every time the player levels up, they will gain a little more max health (more if they increase their vitality attribute.) However, the actual stats and damage that affect combat come from the weapons themselves. Being a high level in Demon’s Souls won’t help you kill bosses quicker, if you’re still using the weapon you started the game with. While the player’s attributes do dictate what they can or cannot use, it’s the actual equipment that does the work.

With everything said so far it’s time for me to share where my preference lies. I prefer static progression to persistent for several reasons. First, is that I like to explore and see what dangers and surprises I can find and knowing that every encounter out there is going to be even to my level kills that thrill. Second is that I’ve always been a numbers man, as I like getting into the details to see how much power I can squeeze out of my characters, which is also the reason why I love the Disgaea series. If I spend the time power leveling, then I want to see my characters utterly dominate lower level enemies, while still having ultimate challenges to face.

RPG elements have been finding their way to other genres and as such, are forcing designers to find the best ways to implement them and progression is a big part of that. Defining how a player becomes more powerful in a turn based game with attributes is easy, but when you are dealing with real time combat and the player’s skill level has to be factor in, that causes complications. With the line between RPG and action titles blurring, we are going to be seeing more games that will bring this discussion back up.

Josh Bycer

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“The Great Game Design Debate: Persistent World vs. Static Progression Edition”

  • Anonymous

    Some games I played had a day-night change (for example Dragon Quest 8). While the monsters were quite harmless during daytime, fighting them at night was a true challenge. Additionally it was possible to seek out special Monsters, which were as tough as the level-bosses, which were running around in many different places on the worldmap – they could be completely ignored as well.
    Another possibility is using stronger monsters in different chapters of the game.
    While the heros are grinding their levels, the evil overlord isn't having a nice teatime. Of course he seeks stronger allies, creates more hideous monsters, or summons something unspeakable from beyond the veil.

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