Make Them All Giant Monsters

Yesterday’s comments prompted a weird proposal: remove enemy levels entirely.

For those of you who do not know City of Heroes’ giant monster code, they treat all characters as even-level. You should have the same chance to hit (and debuff effect, armor, etc.) as everyone else, and you receive level-appropriate damage; I think damage does not scale perfectly, because higher-level characters seem to do a lot more even after taking into account higher level enhancements, and healing is still level-appropriate so level 1s do jack for level 50s.

What happens if you apply something like this to every single enemy in the game? You can still have levels, when you get new skills and improvements to them, but they are equally effective against every enemy in the game (modulo resistances). You can still have higher-con enemies, but they will be orange to everyone.

Immediate effects:

  • You can now group with everyone, as if the game had universal sidekicks/exemplars. No more being out of range of your friends.
  • On the other hand, some people feel trivialized, that they are not advancing because the enemies in the starter area are still a decent fight (although not really, now that you have all these neat abilities to hit them with).
  • On the gripping hand, you never out-level content. If you want to do a six-month old quest, it is still level-appropriate and has the intended challenge factor. No more crashing through greens and grays.
  • The division of characters by level is broken. People in higher-level areas might be utter noobs, lacking skills you expect or even mastery of their basic skills. This could lead to elitism and hurt feelings as players are told explicitly (instead of by the level range) that they are not good enough to be here.
  • Your thoughts here.

: Zubon

29 thoughts on “Make Them All Giant Monsters”

  1. So will the rat I fought on the first day I logged in be just as tough to fight 2 years later when I go back to visit the area I started in? Because I kind of like that feeling of coming back to kill all the rats I can see in one shot.

  2. If I understand this, you would still be able to lay waste to rodents, due to your greater abilities and possibly gear…right? I think that this is a very interesting idea, especially when you include the fact Zubon mentioned about being able to make a mob higher level for everyone. I can the social problems, but still, very interesting idea.

    So just to make sure I am getting this, if I am level 50 fighting a level 20 mob, when I hit him, I hit him like a level 20 pc, but when he hits me, he hits like a 50 mob (in strength only, not with level 50 type abilities)?

  3. Oblivion tried something in this vein and got mixed receptions. Mixed to the point of mods popping up to alter this balance one way or another within the first month or two, IIRC.

    I don’t really have an opinion one way or the other, really, but I do know there is at least a sliver of satisfaction in outgrowing/outpowering (some/most) content. Guess it touches on the core of the whole thing which is progression: Sure, we’re not messing with progression per se, but we’re touching how that progression manifests to the player.

    I guess it’s the difference between knowing your character is powerful, and seeing your character being powerful. Don’t know if that’s something that should be touched, honestly.

  4. Ethic’s point is my second one: you never would get to be god-king. Falstep has idea, although since this is just pondering, we can fiddle with whatever details we like. As Julian suggests, this may not be a wildly popular notion.

  5. Although their design philosophy changed over time, Guild Wars had an interesting hybrid of short term leveling followed by a long horizontal advancement period of skill collection. That meant that 75% of Factions, Nightfall, and all of Eye of the North was still a level appropriate challenge.

    Gosh, I loved that game.

  6. As I said in the other thread (or at least alluded to) is that it works better if its not a 100% leveling of the playing field. If you are level 1 fighting a level 1 mob, you attack as level 1… if you are level 20 fighting the level 1, your attack is perhaps a level 1.5 attack… if you are level 60, perhaps your attack runs about level 4. A level 4 attack (level 4 vs level 4) is devastating to a level 1 mob, so the level 60’s could still be gods in the newbie zones, but not in the “my AE can kill 564 mobs at once” kind of way. Conversely, if a level 1 attacks a level 60, perhaps should hit like a level 55 attack, and as they approach 60 themselves, their attack on the 60 approaches “even”. This way, there is challenge to fighting higher level mobs, and you will improve as you level.

    Use the same effect for mob vs player as well, so if you are a level 1 standing against that level 60, he’ll be hitting you like a level 4, which is still going to hurt, but maybe being a player with potions/inspirations/etc you can survive the onslaught until your level 55 attacks wear him down.

    And then, as you say, you can make something “con orange” to everyone, where its level is artificially high, say 100, so that your 60s are hitting like 95s and your 1s are hitting like 85s. The further you exceed the level cap, depending on your formulas, the “harder” you can make something.

  7. See (just to illustrate different types of gamers) that short leveling is one of the things I was mostly meh about GW. Not that I particularly enjoy long asian-style leveling and grind, but when someone like me levels at 20 (which takes all of one week at at a solid, but not terribly dedicated pace), what was left for me to do?

    – Complete the storyline and advance through the zones (which I did)
    – Capture skills elsewhere (which I did up to a point, because I’m personally not super enthusiastic about capturing skills I know I’m never gonna use just because ‘they are there’)
    – Grind for cosmetic titles (which I think is ridiculous)
    – PvP (which I’m not super good at)

    Call it cliched, call it overdone, call it in need of a major rethinking, call it legacy of Diku, whatever you want and they’re all correct, but there’s something to be said about reasonably long leveling and a stretching out of character gains, because a lot of people either enjoy that in itself, or they really don’t care about all the little things you’re offering them to do once they’re done with your short leveling.

  8. @Jason: Arranging things like that is a sound idea, but it still falls into the pit that is taking things from your players. In this case, the sense of power.

    Rightfully (in my opinion) that player will ask himself what’s the point of having played the game, obtained very powerful items and armor (if it’s that kind of game), if it doesn’t really show? If my level 60 attacks like a level 4?

    That’s punishing players (removing their tangible, appreciable power on screen) because of no fault of their own (you as dev can’t figure it out or you’re trying to be creative with the levels).

    I think as a dev (particularly an MMO dev) you’re expected to piss off your playerbase, but not too much. This scenario asks individual high level players, who have done their homework, put in the time, got fun out of it, etc., to forgo their acquired power for the vague and basically intangible promise of making things a little bit fairer for everyone levels-wise, something they had outgrown caring about probably 40 levels ago. You’re asking them to give something in exchange for nothing. Or at the very least, nothing they care about anymore.

  9. Julian, it would be just as fair an interpretation to say that you are asking them to give up playing with their friends who have not spent months grinding to the level cap, in exchange for some shiny baubles they care about far less than playing with their friends.

    There are quite a few pen and paper games that do not have the level disparities. The old Top Secret, SI comes to mind: you may be a really good spy, but a bullet is still a bullet.

    Do you really look at everything without levels as a waste? What was the point in putting in all that Team Fortress time, if you cannot one-shot the newbs while surviving 20 shots?

  10. My game’s gonna have this. ;-} The question of “but will the rats be easy when I’m level a billion?” well… yeah, they will because they’ll be easy when you’re level one. Why? /beacause they’re frickin rats!/

    Horizontal development in the form of increasing complexity I think is definitely a shiney new model that needs to be given a shot. Of course it does bring it’s own headaches. The more complex you let your players become, the more ways they have to break your game. :D

  11. Shadowrun is another RPG without levels where one good shot could be the one that ends your character. I think Fantasy Heroes/Champions also do not have levels, but it’s been awhile and I don’t remember it being as fatal.

    It is an interesting idea.

    What if there were grades of monsters that had different caps? Something like a rat or insect might have a threshold where they are easily squashed?

    Speaking for Shadowrun, the way this was worked had more to do with the sturdiness and skill ratings of a creature or being. Skill mitigated things as did hardiness (Body attribute). There were also ‘dice pools’ you could use to help counter it.

    That sort of thing just shifts away from levels towards having higher skill ratings.

  12. I’ve been advocating the idea from day one.

    I like the fact that in comics, a character like Wolverine can go into cosmic-level clashes, but still occasionally step into a barroom brawl and take a few good knocks.

    Do this in City of Heroes and you’re more powerful than you were when you faced the Hellions, you’re just not uber-extreme above them. I’d like that.

    My one concern: gating:
    If you can level from 1 to 50 against the atlas park hellions, why go on to Steel Canyon? If you can skip right to Peregrene Isle, why bother will Faultline (aside from story)?

    One possibility would be to use hidden “kill badges” to encourage people to move on by reducing the XP. Once you’ve slain so many Hellions, you just don’t LEARN as much from fighting them.

  13. “Do you really look at everything without levels as a waste?”

    Not at all! I’m just looking at the trade-off of this, because I don’t think it comes free. It affects a lot of things that are not easily spotted at a glance.

    I personally like levels, or at the very least don’t mind them. And I’m all for trying new things with the caveat that they shouldn’t break too much of the older, proven stuff.

    So I guess count me squarely in the “evolutionary” camp instead of the “revolutionary” if you wanna look at it that way.

  14. Also, while I know we don’t play these games for their realism, it would be somewhat more ‘realistic’. If an orc pawn catches you behind the ear with a mining pick, it should hurt =)

    @Chas: You can also encourage movement through questing.

  15. The point of playing MMO’s is to have fun playing with other people, and I think this idea would move things in the right direction. Top level characters would still be “better” than lower level characters because of their wider range of spells/skills. Imagine how much easier the starting areas of WoW would be if you had all the Crowd Control, AoE, and emergency button spells of a max level character, but scaled down to do low level damage. Max level would still be “uber”, but not at the cost of being able to play with your slow-leveling, time deprived, and/or late-adopter friends. Also, this scaling should probably apply to healing as well, otherwise the healers would get an even shorter side of the stick than they already have.

  16. Asheron’s Call 1 has a level-less system. Your level is simply a representation of how much experience you’ve earned over the life of your character. If you have 50 melee defense at level 1 or 200, it treats you the same way. If you have very high war magic ability early on, you can use the spells effectively earlier.

    In a way, it’s similar to how the large monster system works in City of Heroes.

  17. @Julian

    Don’t consider it level-less… Consider it just… smaller increases in the level scaling of hit points, damage multipliers, and accuracy.

    That’s where the barrier is in many games for me: I want a challenge, I get a “zone hunt” mission and the only damn things I can find are a piece of cake at 5 levels lower than me. By (substantailly) reducing the hp-increment and damage scaling that comes with leveling, those same level 5’s are a bit more of a challenge.

    Back in the day when Everquest was fresh and it took a month to get to level 10, this was fine. Today, when I might level past a quest I took just a few hours earlier, it becomes more essential.

  18. “I’m just looking at the trade-off of this, because I don’t think it comes free. It affects a lot of things that are not easily spotted at a glance.”

    It’s often been said that you can’t have everything, and there will always be trade offs. I just wish less games would pick the exact same progression model.

  19. This would have repercussions on a lot of things in the game. The tiered system most games have for gathering/crafting would be effected. How would loot from special/boss mobs work? Would all equipment scale so that if you killed the dragon at level 5 you would get a level 5 breastplate and at level 43 a level 43 breastplate? What would be the results on the economy?

  20. This thread is full of win, and I’m really glad to see guys at a respected blog site with this point of view.

    I think that the reason that removing the level grind might seem unappealing to some (Julian) is that the gameplay of [insert game here] is not appealing, which means that once they take away the pretty dings and what-not that you lose motivation to play.


    nerf levels
    buff gameplay


  21. @ Zubon – I now have a man-crush on you for bringing up Top Secret/SI.

    @ Julian – Re: Guild Wars, I think the problem you have with the game is one of the most common complaints of the leveling system. I don’t know how many developers I’ve read about who’ve debated the relative merits of level based vs. skill based vs. hybrids and how much or how little each incremental increase effects the characters abilities. And there is no such thing as one right answer. Each decision will have a different repercusions for your game. There is the reason is changing the advancement scheme in GW2.

    Darn it, Julian! I feel another blog post coming on! :(

  22. @Pendan
    Gear could scale with level, just like damage. The linear/tiered gear progression system wouldn’t fit very well with this, but a more customizable approach could be taken. Gear could be limited to having one or two stats, and instead of going to a dungeon because the gear is good for your level you would go because the gear meshed with the way you wanted to customize your character. The same could be applied to crafting, where using different harvesting materials would give different stats to the end product.
    New characters wouldn’t be as versatile/customized/specialized, but still able to perform well enough that they don’t have to be left behind by their friends. It’s actually similar to the Eve system where new characters may not have the best weapons/shields/armor/ships, but they can still keep up on all but the hardest encounters. I think the Eve system with no bind on use equipment, and gear randomly and permanently destroyed on death could help professions, but I’m a bit of an Eve fan and consequential death isn’t for everyone.

  23. To clarify: I’m not for the grind (good God, no). But I am for long advancement paths however you set them up, be it skills, levels, plants or zombies.

    I think sidekicking/mentoring is a much, much more palatable system to bring power disparity in line and get people together to play without messing too much with the content and the flow of the game for everyone else.

    No system is perfect, but if we’re going to take levels away, we should at least choose something to replace them with that brings as much to the table as levels do (because even levels have their positive sides). I personally see more drawbacks than benefits in this, and a sidekicking system would be a great compromise.

    This doesn’t mean we should leave levels as they are, that the concept and execution of levels can’t be revised, that they should remain the same and not more or less important. By all means, no. We should consider everything.

    So yes, the bullet example is a good one. Hell, a very good one, actually. No matter how good a spy you are, one bullet can still do you in. Problem with this is that we’re not accounting for everything else. Both James Bond and a day-one greenhorn can be killed by one bullet, but if we leave it at that we’re not accounting for the decades of training Bond has, we’re not accounting for the tons of real-world mission experience he has, we’re not accounting for the gear he has, we’re not accounting for the resources he has at his disposal, etc.

    We’re very, very close to asking players to forgo all those differences (which matter, and are at the core of being a successful spy) for the priviledge of dying from one bullet and have a ‘fairer’ game.

    Addendum: Everybody hitting more or less the same and everybody taking more or less the same damage before dying gives us Unreal Tournament. Is that what we want?

    (UT was a cool, fun game that I lost many days with, but we can do better than slightly jittered deathmatch rules by now, I think)

  24. Thanks Zubon, Now I have to go into my storage area to dust off the old Top Secret box.

    @Julian – I don’t think anyone was advocating Unreal Tournament. However, continuing the Bond example: IF Bond is caught unawares i.e. sleeping (or AFK) shouldn’t a low level henchman at least have a chance of putting him down?

  25. “IF Bond is caught unawares i.e. sleeping (or AFK) shouldn’t a low level henchman at least have a chance of putting him down?”

    Most definitely, but that’s not what we’re talking about here. A high-level player purposely and actively targetting/engaging a mob is not unaware of it. The character is not asleep, and we’re not talking about any self-generated disadvantage here. So when we hardcode a reduction his power, we put him in a system that punishes him (however slightly) for no good reason other than to have the system in place.

    We should be rewarding success, not punishing it, and I’m of the opinion that (within the constraints of the game) a high level character -not player- is more successful than the low level one.

    There’s another angle to this too: How do we rationalize in-game the cognitive disparity of this arbitrary power balancing? Extreme example: If a high-level player takes 3 minutes to fight and bring down The Black Beast of Aaaargh, and then the player turns around and takes maybe 2.5 minutes to kill Boobie the Lowbie Kobold, then it just doesn’t fit. It jars. The whole thing feels jagged. Most players would rightfully expect a challenging fight with The Black Beast and simply a stroll in the park against Boobie. When both are more or less equally challenging you’re fixing one thing (keeping content relevant and challenging) but breaking another at the same time (the player’s notion of character power)

    Yes, we can always balance things in a way that Boobie is easy and a high-level player will have no trouble beating him, but that’s not the issue at all here. It’s not about Boobie being easy or hard to kill. It’s about acknowledging that players instinctively gauge encounters in relation to their own power and, because of this, while they fully expect a challenging fight from The Black Beast, they will not expect one from Boobie. That takes people’s interest out of the game fast; at first it’s a novelty, just as Oblivion’s system was. Soon enough you better hope your game takes mods, otherwise people will get tired of it.

    This is not something that can be easily rationalized or explained using game factors, so it jars the whole thing. A high level player goes back to newbie land and engages tiny Hobgoblins, but he turns around and sees level 1’s taking the same time to kill them as he is. So how do we explain that with in game elements? Where has the high level character’s power gone? Why is he not vastly more effective in combat as the level one right next to him attacking the same monsters he’s attacking? Why is his weapon, crafted by the Ancients of Mu Mu and painfully wrested out of the grasp of the Purple Wereworm of Nga-Nga, doing about the same damage as the butter knife the guy next to him is holding? The Sacred Combat Techniques of Saint Buddy, which he learned from the Spaghetti Monks after much toil works about the same as the Bitchslap from the level one.

    Sidekicking is probably the way to go. Other things might end up breaking too many things.

  26. @Zubon: The sidekick/mentor system allows them to play with their friends when they choose, without robbing them of the hard-won ability to let loose and rain defeat upon their foes when they feel like it. Not to mention that the gameplay would have to be *stellar* to have people continue playing without clear goals.

  27. Even on losing the potential as god-king, this could perversely affect feelings of progression, which to me at least are inherently important in an RPG.

    That said, I like the paradox of having an Endgame and I’ve often said I’d like to see a game give players the option to simply start at the Endgame and well, this could be something similar.

    What puts me off a bit though, is the idea of balancing code. I know, I know, I act like procedural content is the devil. =P

  28. Genius.

    I love the GM code in CoX, and I notice they’re employing it more often with the special event spawns of Rikti and zombies et al.

    Coupla comments:

    a) It would make for a different game. Thank god. It would lack the same feeling of advancement and power gain as trad MMOs. But it could replace that with other incentives to play – like actual enjoyable combat and other challenges. About time we got developers to start earning their keep in ways other than rehashing the same poker machine mechanic (see the Eurogamer Thief retrospective:

    b) Just make the starter rats -2 levels. You’ll still have few abilities and/or rudimentary gear, so they’ll still be a challenge. But when you’ve ‘levelled’, they’ll be a breeze.

    c) Mobs simply fall on a spectrum of ‘easy’, ‘moderate’, ‘hard’ which can then be further complicated by rock/scissors/paper thrown in plus added difficulty from higher ‘level’ mobs having additional abilities and tricks up their sleeves: i.e. low level mobs don’t mez.

    d) Otherwise, it’s just skill-progression in disguise. Thank god. Let’s get rid of the artificial and immersion-breaking ‘con’ system, where one giant enormous troll is -5 to you, so trivial, but a nearby orc is +5, so lethal. They’re all just mobs – some harder than others – and it’s your improved skills that make you more capable, not the fact that suddenly they clobber you for only 2 damage while you tap them for 200.

  29. I’m finding this pretty late, but:

    “Every mob a giant monster” is what I’d hoped to do for the month-to-month epic story content in Ninth Domain. One of my issues with the meta-plot stuff I made for AC1 was that it always aimed for the uber levels. In 9D, I wanted to make it so a group of level 10s had the same chance to change the world as a group of level 100s.

    I’m not sure I like the idea of using it everywhere in the game, though. Others have brought up Oblivion, but I think that’s a straw man — the problem with Oblivion was that bandits morphed into minotaurs as you leveled instead of becoming better bandits. Rather than simply scaling the difficulty, they altered content consistency of the world.

    No, the reason I’d be leery of using it across the game is because some people just want to run by the grey shit the nth time they pass through a level, and others like the thrill of running through areas where the mobs can one-hit-kill them.

    I think I could more easily get behind the idea of making all dungeons/missions use “giant monster” code. The world should be provide a fixed target for comparison, otherwise you might never feel truly powerful and/or daring.

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