The “Level Up” Illusion

It’s a staple mechanic of so many games, a simple metric for measuring advancement, a point of comparison to where you were compared to where you are, and where other people are around you. Levelling up unlocks new skills and powers, grants access to new gear, and ultimately makes the whole process of murder-hoboing through life a far flashier affair.

But here’s the thing…

Let’s take Borderlands 3 as a prime example here, they’re introducing a mechanic for multiplayer in which two players with a significant level disparity will not have a significant difference in experience, enemies and loot will appear as level-appropriate, so both of you pointing guns at the same psycho will see it at (e.g.) levels 3 and 33 respectively, with the health bar going down at roughly the same rate despite the fact that the little bouncy numbers (that entertain me immensely) are so very different.

So… what exactly has levelling up accomplished?

Consider games like Grim Dawn, where a skeleton or a demon might be a common enemy at levels 1-80, and all of your incredible gear, all of the wonderful powers you’ve unlocked, they don’t make those health bars drop any faster. You can go back and find old, weak enemies to pick on to compare your progress, and you’ll find areas where all your newfound power means little to nothing, but in so many cases these things scale with you, rather than being obstacles that can be trained to overcome.

Ultimately, the pacing remains the same, and the game is unchanged, if more full of flashing lights. And that’s good, it’s that gameplay we fell in love with, we don’t want to play a game that feels like it’s getting easier and easier until it feels almost trivial, we play games with such advancement mechanics so that we are challenged, but it can feel a little hollow when the illusion is shattered by the likes of Borderlands 3’s multiplayer balancing system.

When we talk about a difficulty curve it’s usually in reference to games with negligible progression in-character, and entirely about the skill of the player being able to overcome ever-increasing challenges. Perhaps a new gun or a new upgrade a-la Half Life, Psychonauts, or Dishonored, in which powers are limited in progression and don’t offer much by way of “solutions” as such.

In a levelling system the difference is comparable to a tension/release chart, in which difficulty should escalate as you gain so many levels before you enter into a space in which you are presented weaker threats to fully appreciate your newly gained abilities. By the nature of the metric, it’s very hard to measure because you don’t necessarily know that every player will be the appropriate level for the challenge, and you can scale the challenge to an extent but if it’s perfectly scaled then your player will revisit a point where they felt overwhelmed and never notice a change despite their effort.

There are ways and means of refining the experience, but it is a monumental challenge to strike a balance between too challenging and too easy, while still granting significant changes in experience as you progress. The more variety you have in progression can make the games we design and play increasingly compelling, as we unlock new abilities, gather new gear, and make increasingly meaningful narrative choices, we can still capture the sense of achievement and growth that “levelling up” may not accomplish alone.