Game Design

Stop doing experience!

last updated 2024-05-14

By experience, I mean any system where repeatable tasks like killing respawning enemies gives the player points that can be used to upgrade their character. Almost every RPG has experience in some form; money is often a form of it as well.

Experience is a fundamental anti-feature in RPGs. It makes it difficult for players to get the level of challenge they want because every mook they happen to fight or not fight while exploring changes it. This can lead to players who do a lot of side content or happen to fight more enemies on their way through an area getting overleveled and finding the game too easy, and players who *don't* do side content or happen to fight fewer enemies on their way through an area getting underleveled and finding it too hard.

Experience also means that any difficult challenge can be trivialized by grinding for long enough. Unlike with explicit difficulty settings, players aren't likely to hold back from this because killing enemies to get experience is part of normal gameplay; there's no line between overcoming a challenge as intended and grinding to trivialize it.

Some games try to solve these problems by leveling enemies. That is, when the player levels up, so do the enemies. But this just renders the entire system pointless. Why have leveling if it doesn't effectively make the player stronger?

It's unfortunately such a common feature that it feels like part of the genre definition, but I want to see what RPGs can be without it.

What to do instead?

Don't have a system where repeatable tasks give money or experience. Instead, make upgrades to the player character only come from fixed things like story progression and exploration. This way, you put a minimum and maximum on the amount of upgrades the player can have at a given point, and can ensure it's not too unbalanced at either end. You also avoid wasting players' time with repetitive grinding.

Counter arguments

Now let's go over some reasons I've heard people claim (or imply) why games should have experience.

Selecting difficulty

I cover this argument in my article on difficulty settings:

Difficulty settings

Without it there's no reason to fight enemies

This is simply a level design problem. If you want your player to fight enemies, place those enemies so that running past them is difficult or dangerous. Combat should be part of progressing through the game, not a detour that you have to offer an extrinsic reward for.

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