How to Make Leveling up Engaging
Musings on RPG Progression Systems
Progression systems in video games are not something exclusive to RPGs, but it is 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 affects the avatar and custom growth that allows the player to decide how their avatar grows.
Mega Man Battle Network is an RPG series that manages to have significant avatar growth without even having experience points! Instead, the avatar growth in Mega Man Battle Network is driven by 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 like Super Armor, the ability to take damage without flinching. The Style Change Mega Man receives 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 (mana), and Badge Points, which increase the amount of passive or 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, can even serve as a kind of pseudo-hard mode. Custom growth isn't only limited to Mario but also applies 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 elements of significant and custom avatar growth in their progression systems which, is why they are among my favorites. One thing I would like to see RPGs experiment with more is progression systems that are driven by the narrative. Examples of this include the Magicant area in Earthbound, where Ness confronts his inner demons to become stronger, and the Social Link feature in Persona 4 that allows the player to create higher-level Personas based on how deep their bonds are with NPCs. A progression system that is solely driven by the narrative would ensure that there would be no ludo-narrative dissonance, instances when story and gameplay come into conflict with one another.