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Level systems: Automated vs. Gated 
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UNATCO
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Post Level systems: Automated vs. Gated
So as I was saying in the other thread before it became a shitshow, I wanted to hear opinions about the two main sorts of XP systems; the one in most games, i.e, where you kill enemies and do generic actions to earn XP regularly. which I call "automated", or the one in games like Deus Ex where you earn XP only for specific actions, like progression, doing sidequests, and occasionally exploration, which I call "gated". Now I prefer the one in Deus Ex for reasons stated before, but I would like to hear good points about say, the advantages of the "automated" system over the gated one.


Thu Jan 12, 2017 12:16 am
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UNATCO
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Post Re: Level systems: Automated vs. Gated
I personally prefer gated. Automated is very tedious, and gated leaves the player having to make more choices (What skills to pick, what actions are worth risking, etc).

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Thu Jan 12, 2017 1:06 am
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Post Re: Level systems: Automated vs. Gated
Not really happy with the terms "automated" and "gated" - I don't think they really describe what's going on. I would suggest maybe calling it systemic XP and manual XP, since one way has XP built into the game systems (typically the combat system, but in Bethesda's case pretty much every game system), and the other way has designers manually triggering XP rewards from quests or exploration or whatever.

Semantics aside, I don't mind either system, but it very much depends on the game.

Bethesda's games for example are always super open, and you're getting XP for all sorts of shit - almost everything you can do in the game makes you better at that thing when you do it. That means in theory you don't get better at fighting by crafting a lot, and vice versa - if you want to get better at fighting, you have to go and fight. The disadvantage is that they still have levels, and enemies level dynamically, which means enemies can get a whole damn lot better at fighting while you're improving your stealth and crafting.

On the other hand, Deus Ex isn't that open - you have a linear progression of levels to play through, and XP goes into a single pool with which you buy stuff. However, because Deus Ex still supports a bunch of different play styles, it's important that one play style isn't favoured over the other. This is the big problem with the new Eidos Montreal installments, they reward stealth and nonlethality with higher skill point rewards, which screws over players who just want to fight. In a game like Deus Ex, where all supported play styles are meant to be equal, manual XP rewards are by far the best implementation.

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Thu Jan 12, 2017 10:05 am
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Post Re: Level systems: Automated vs. Gated
Re: Bethesda train by use system.

Why I think train by use is shit and "gated" is better for most types of RPGs:

Quote:
To me, Looking Glass set the standard for RPG progression systems back in 1999 with System Shock 2 by having them based in xp rewards gained via objectives and exploration only. I believe this to be superior to train-by-use or xp rewarded by repeatable actions (monster slaying, lockpicking etc) for a number of reasons:

1. Eliminating grinding & to refrain from encouraging non-simulated behavior for the potential rewards. I don't want the potential rewards of choices influencing who lives, who dies, whether or not I attempt to disarm that trap and so on. This is far removed from how I value lives and deadly traps in reality.

2. The designer being able to predict the player's level of power with near-certainty (as grinding is not possible and xp/progression rewards are fixed) and design challenges accordingly.

3. Train by use traditionally doesn't offer broad freedom of choice in how to plan and build our character, we are bound entirely by our actions. Being a fighter-focused character that can pump INT to max without reading many books may not make sense, but the freedom to do so is empowering.

4. Playstyle differences. Ghost players aim to never engage if they can. A more common type of stealth player on the other hand remains out of sight, but still takes out his foe. Therefore the ghost is training one skill (say, sneaking), but the stealth player is training two (sneaking and assassination techniques/weapon use).
This is not to say all playstyles have to be equally rewarded, but this is still a difference worth pointing out as with System Shock 2's system all players were rewarded equally.


Train by use seems like the logical system to go with for a pseudo-simulation game, as that is how we progress our skills in the real world, yet the old LG way seemed to be more suitable for both gameplay and sim reasons surprisingly. In my opinion there isn't a better system.


Probably my best breakdown of it, out of the number of times I've ranted about it.

"Gated" > "Automated" > Train by use. In my opinion. Although there is some dependence on the type of RPG archetype it is, i.e open world real time vs somewhat more directed isometric turn-based, as well as overarching systems. For an open world game it would be a challenge to manage the "gated" method, but I think it's very doable.

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Thu Jan 12, 2017 10:34 am
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Post Re: Level systems: Automated vs. Gated
Manual XP versus systemic XP doesn't necessarily influence the difficulty of predicting the player's level of power - that's down to how open the game is. If your game is mostly linear like Deus Ex, you can pretty easily predict how much XP the player will have based on how far they've progressed; after all you know how many enemies are in the level, how much XP each enemy potentially gives, and any other rewards you might have for XP. If you go full Bethesda, it's true that since "grinding" becomes possible, you will pretty much be forced to implement dynamic level scaling for enemies since it's now entirely out of your hands, but I've yet to see a linear game hand out XP like that. If you have an open world game you're relatively fucked no matter what you do, because the player can potentially go straight to the end boss and get his ass whooped. For a game as open as The Elder Scrolls or Fallouts 3 or 4, systemic XP is probably the way to go, to make sure that the player is always advancing no matter how they spend their time. After all, a large part of the appeal of those games is the freedom to just mess around.

A few more thoughts about Deus Ex specifically.

Awarding more points for stealth wouldn't be a huge problem if stealth abilities were also more expensive - for example if the game had a ton of stealthy augs that were all more expensive than the combat augs, it would make sense to give you more XP for stealth. It would still be problematic though, because it would tacitly encourage players to stealth in the beginning and then use the greater XP rewards from that to buy combat augs. Worse still, Mankind Divided actually has more combat augs than stealth augs, so their XP system really makes no sense. They should've just stuck to quest and exploration rewards.

I remember having an interesting discussion with Aemer once about whether exploration rewards went against the principle of manual XP rewards as well, because exploration can be thought of as a play style and exploration rewards are therefore encouraging/forcing players to adopt exploration as a play style. My argument, however, is that exploration is not itself a play style but rather an activity that facilitates the other play styles - you can adopt any of the play styles in the game and still explore a lot, and in fact exploring a lot makes it easier to execute any play style you like.

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Thu Jan 12, 2017 10:59 am
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Post Re: Level systems: Automated vs. Gated
What I would like to know is if there's any significant advantage with using the systemic XP system. While I do understand that the gated XP system can be hard to apply to open world games, it does offer distinct advantages in the sense of player progression being better defined and controlled. I guess with systemic XP you can make every action feel rewarding, and after all when you take down a powerful enemy it's only natural to expect some sort of reward for it.

Good point Jonas. I remember Mark of the Ninja balanced out XP rewards for ghosting vs. sneaking with some kills here and there. It did this by giving a huge bonus for not killing anyone, while giving a small amount of XP for every kill that raised with its complexity and doling out XP for guards untouched that replaced the "no killing" bonus if you did kill anyone. I'm not sure how well balanced it was but I know that in general the most difficult method of getting through the game by killing none was also the most rewarding, while it still rewarded players who were willing to get creative with their kills.


Thu Jan 12, 2017 11:29 am
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Post Re: Level systems: Automated vs. Gated
DevAnj wrote:
What I would like to know is if there's any significant advantage with using the systemic XP system. While I do understand that the gated XP system can be hard to apply to open world games, it does offer distinct advantages in the sense of player progression being better defined and controlled. I guess with systemic XP you can make every action feel rewarding, and after all when you take down a powerful enemy it's only natural to expect some sort of reward for it.

I have a strong preference for manual XP as well, which is why it's used in literally every game I've ever worked on. The advantage of systemic XP is mainly as you say (and as Cybernetic Pig also pointed out): it makes every action feel rewarding. You feel like you're progressing steadily and gradually instead of in large chunks at regular or irregular intervals.

There's one distinction we've touched on implicitly, but we haven't addressed it directly: there are two major types of systemic XP systems. One is the straight-forward skills-for-kills that I think may be the oldest type of reward system in existence, and which was probably inspired by Dungeons & Dragons. This one gives you XP specifically for defeating enemies, based on their level relative to yours. Once you've accrued enough XP, you level up and get a bunch of skill points and other character abilities or whatever. The other type is the one we chiefly associate with Bethesda (though other games use it, for example Tyranny) where using a skill levels it up gradually and directly. There is of course a big difference in the experience each system creates, since the choices you make as a player are very different.

Quote:
I remember Mark of the Ninja balanced out XP rewards for ghosting vs. sneaking with some kills here and there. It did this by giving a huge bonus for not killing anyone, while giving a small amount of XP for every kill that raised with its complexity and doling out XP for guards untouched that replaced the "no killing" bonus if you did kill anyone. I'm not sure how well balanced it was but I know that in general the most difficult method of getting through the game by killing none was also the most rewarding, while it still rewarded players who were willing to get creative with their kills.

That is actually also a thing that Human Revolution and Mankind Divided does: you'll recall, after each major gameplay segment in the game, you get a huge bonus if you were never spotted and another huge bonus if you never killed anyone. What fucks this up in DX's case is that you also get XP for knocking out enemies, so you get soooooooo much more XP if you knock everyone out without ever being spotted, than pretty much any other play style you care to imagine. Mark of the Ninja handled that a lot better.

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Fri Jan 13, 2017 9:51 am
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UNATCO
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Post Re: Level systems: Automated vs. Gated
Jonas wrote:
That is actually also a thing that Human Revolution and Mankind Divided does: you'll recall, after each major gameplay segment in the game, you get a huge bonus if you were never spotted and another huge bonus if you never killed anyone. What fucks this up in DX's case is that you also get XP for knocking out enemies, so you get soooooooo much more XP if you knock everyone out without ever being spotted, than pretty much any other play style you care to imagine. Mark of the Ninja handled that a lot better.


Hmm, I didn't know about that. I must add that there's two others things that fuck up this system: non lethal options are generally not actually much more harder than lethal ones(hell, the melee non lethal takedowns are actually easier than lethal ones) and don't really offer too much of a different gameplay experience compared to lethal sneaking. There's not really any system to reward creative kills either, most of the time the system just checks for whether it's non lethal, close ranged, and unspotted, and rewards the most XP for.. non lethal melee takedowns. It also helps that in Mark of the Ninja it's not really feasible to use non lethal options on most enemies since they're so limited.


Fri Jan 13, 2017 11:52 am
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