How to Make Leveling up Engaging
Musings on Progression Systems
Progression systems are not exclusive to RPGs, but they are one of the genre's defining features. While twitch-based genres like fighting and rhythm games develop the player's reaction time, RPGs have progression systems that improve the player's avatar. Unfortunately, most RPG progression systems don't make the player feel stronger in any meaningful way and instead have arbitrary numbers that increase as you level up. An engaging progression system has significant growth that substantially strengthens the avatar and custom growth that allows the player to decide how the avatar grows.
Mega Man Battle Network is an RPG series that manages to have significant avatar growth without even having experience points! Instead, what drives the avatar growth in Mega Man Battle Network is power-ups that the player can obtain through exploration, shopping, and side quests. These power-ups increase the strength of Mega Man by upgrading his health and Mega Buster. What makes each power-up significant is that just one substantially boosts Mega Man's ability in combat. Mega Man Battle Network even assigns Mega Man a level based on the number of power-ups equipped so players can track their progress. However, the most compelling example of significant avatar growth in the Mega Man Battle Network series is the Style Change which, didn't appear until its sequel. A Style Change is an upgrade Mega Man receives partway through the game that grants him an element affinity, a more powerful Mega Buster, and a passive ability. There are five Style Changes in all, and the one Mega Man gets is determined by what tactics the player employs in battle.
However, RPGs with experience points don't necessarily have terrible progression systems. Paper Mario has one of my favorite progression systems, and it utilizes experience points. Aside from the ingenious way that leveling up is always done by acquiring 100 Star Points (experience points) which, makes progress easy to track, upon leveling up, the player can choose how Mario grows. The three stats players can choose to upgrade are Heart Points (health), Flower Points (magic), and Badge Points, which increase the amount of passive and active abilities Mario can equip. What makes this progression system engaging is that the player crafts their own experience by choosing what stats to upgrade, neglecting Heart Points, which can even serve as a pseudo-hard mode. Custom growth in Paper Mario doesn't only apply to Mario but also to his partners. Mario's partners each have a rank that can be advanced using a Super Block, an item that boosts their attack power and grants them a new ability. The Super Block is a single-use item which, means the player has to decide when to upgrade each partner.
Of course, both of these RPGs include significant and custom avatar growth in their progression systems, making them some of my favorites. One thing I would like to see RPGs experiment with is progression systems that are driven by the narrative. An example of this is the Magicant area in Earthbound, where Ness confronts his inner demons to become stronger. A progression system that is driven by the narrative would eliminate grinding and reduce ludo-narrative dissonance.