Leveling up is such a pain as a game designer.

Published on 2022-03-25 by DistractedMOSFET

One of the things I think that players of games don't appreicate is just how hard game design is, personally I find it much harder than to learn than programming or art creation. Even extremely common game features create a lot of challenges for designers. Take for example, games in which the player customizes their characters strengths and skills.

Controlling a character that you selectively improve the skills of is an extremely popular game design trend. The trend is so popular it's slipped it's way into basically every other genre, and I think for good reason. But it often creates really fundamental challenges by existing at odds with other player desires.

Broken Promises

You can think of video games as making promises to players, and generally speaking any game with character skill customization has these implied promises to the player:

The last one is obviously nothing to do with skill progression specifically, but rather just design value that entered the minds of game-likers from as early as the 80s. However, it creates a huge problem with the first two promises. If the player can choose the skills, and skills are needed for progress, it is now up to the game designer to make sure that no matter what combination of specialization choices the player makes, that they will still be able to finish the game. Any RPG of even moderate complexity will have thousands of possible variations in exact stat levels and skill selections. Far more than a designer could ever account for.

The job as a designer becomes to find some clever tricks that allows the game to be doable even though there are more possibilities than you could ever consider, which encourages the designer to try and build a system that undermines the importance of what options the player picked. In many RPGs you often find yourself picking between what exact way your character deals points of damage: melee, ranged weapons or spells, but ultimately you're just dealing damage, and there's isn't really a difference. But this also backfires, as it turns out the player had another expectation: we expect our choices to be meaningful. A choice with no consequence doesn't feel like a choice at all.

And here you have a real design trap. Players like and frequently expect the ability to customize character skills, they expect that they can't get it wrong, but it needs to convince them that what they picked mattered. This isn't entirely impossible, but it's a really strong conflict of desires that can be quite difficult to manage.

But wait, there's more

This isn't even the only common issue with leveling up. A different problem occurs when you are attempting to make a game that is non-linear or open-world with player-chosen skill progression. Let's look at the promises:

This won't exactly be a plot-twist, but obviously if there are obstacles the player can't overcome because of their skills choices, then the player doesn't choose truly where they go. This wouldn't be that much of a problem, because players are usually happy with just some amount of freedom rather than absolute, however it is often the case that a player may not understand that they have not leveled-up enough for an area, and instead get frustrated and assume the game is simply unfair.

In addition to that, the player can also be extremely overleveled for a challenge, and blow right through it in a way that wasn't very interesting. And depending on the order they've done things, it might take them a while before they find something challenging again.


These two problems are hardly new, and any actual professional game designer reading this will probably be like "yeah duh". But for the rest of you out there, here are some solutions to these problems.

The way I like to think about character progression it is that instead of skills determining "whether" you progress. They determine "how" you progress. You attempt to design your scenarios, your quests, such that there are frequently fallbacks and options that make use of other skills, or lack any specific skill requirement at all, but that these different routes feel different due to a difference in roleplaying, story, and consequences. If you can't best an antagonist in combat, maybe you need to trick them, find some poison to sneakily assassinate them with, or bribe them to get them out of your hair. These all progress the scenario, but they do it in ways that feel different to the player because they all tell a slightly different story that say different things about their character. And they could have different small consequences that appear in the story later.

This is far from the only solution. Some games simply are structured such that the player can always grind for experience and level up more until they can overcome the obstacle. But the difference in "how" is my favourite solution. I find grinding just feels like a chore the game says you have to do before it'll let you play the rest of the game.

For the second problem, designers usually use a mix of layout and teaching. First laying out out the game world such that as you get further from the starting point it gets harder, in any direction you go. And with the second, they try to make sure the player understand that they're just not high level enough for a challenging area. This can be done even in the art, such as by having an extreme contrast of environments where one looks scarier than anything you've yet seen. Another is to force the player into a difficult situation where they must simply run away early into the game, Dark Souls' first boss fight is a pretty famous example of this.

Another trick open world RPGs sometimes use is to have enemies automatically increase in strength if the player is higher level, in order to always be challenging. But this feels like it undermines the leveling up mechanic. Is your character really getting stronger, if everything else will just get stronger in response?


I've been working on a game prototype recently and I felt like writing these down for anyone out there who hadn't been exposed to these challeneges. I might write a post soon about how I'm intending to approach leveling-up and stats in general in this prototype.

If the thought of "contradictory game promises" interests you, I reccomend the talk "Cursed Problems In Game Design" by Alex Jaffe. You can watch it here on the Youtube-mirror Yewtube, or on original Youtube here.