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In this article I will describe the design decisions that were made in the absence of an obvious leveling system. I will go into some details on how loot and set difficulty will affect the player’s progression. How researching and gathering abilities will create unique expressions of progress that will help bond a player with their character. The impact of artifact powers have on driving progression and experience. Finally how player skill and game sense plays a role in progression.
In the absence of a traditional leveling system; the loot system becomes the primary driving force behind character progression. To make sure that we are speaking the same language: I would define a “traditional leveling system” as one which the player, through an experience bar with predefined intervals (time between levels) which then unlocks skills directly, via skill points or skill tree.
Skipping out on the more traditional leveling system we are also throwing incrementing attributes as you level up out the window. We are replacing this with incrementing attributes that come along with your loot. In our game there are 12 equipment types which can each roll 1 of 4 rarities. Each item will have a number of affixes based on rarity (affixes such as Health, Damage, Resistance, Move Speed, Armor, etc..) and the amount of attributes will increase based on the difficulty set when entering the world.
This means that an item that drops in a normal difficulty can have an affix of +Fire Damage between 5 & 12. If that same item was found under a difficulty of Normal+5 it would roll +Fire Damage between 50 & 100. As the player works their way through the game, and through slaying enemies and completing quests finds more powerful items and can both deal and take more damage. Once the player reaches a level of power which makes their current difficulty trivial they now has a choice.. they can increase the difficulty to hasten their progression, OR they can choose to enjoy their newly found powers for a more relaxing play style, cruising through a lower difficulty but ultimately lowering the curve of their progress. Ultimately this hands the reigns, in a subtle way, to the player and makes for an adventure suited to both extremes of the casual -> hardcore player spectrum.
Unlike a system where abilities unlock linearly based on your level or an arbitrary amount of skill points, abilities in our game can only be learned by traveling around the world. These can be found in a variety of locations and can be as easy as speaking to an NPC to as complicated as completing a quest line and defeating a challenging boss. These abilities are not restricted by class, level or story progress.. in a sense, any ability can be unlocked at any point in the game, given that the journey to where that ability is found/earned is completed. Another important note is that the player is restricted to only having 6 abilities active at one time as well as 4 passive abilities.
A player can travel the world amass new skills then using these skills can create their own builds based on their unique goals and the kind of gameplay that they find fun. The journey to earning and learning new abilities helps to form an emotional bond between the player and their character, giving the player the notion of their own progression. Driven by their own unique motivations, in addition to maximizing potential of their strongest gear, no two people who play through the game (theoretically) will ever have the same progression experience.
Artifact Powers are designed to nudge players down particular paths. These are special affixes which will roll randomly when an item is of the highest rarity (artifact). Artifact Powers will each directly affect abilities in different ways. This type of affix will not be affected by the difficulty factor (although standard affixes will indeed be affected by difficulty scaling) in an effort to ensure that finding an artifact item in any difficulty may have a significant impact on gameplay.
Needless to say, finding a random Artifact item can lead a player down a rabbit hole of chasing down the affected ability, and possibly synergistic abilities. This further reinforces the chances that each player will have a unique character progression experience and that they will be able to find a way to play the game in the way that they find fun.
The final variable in a player’s progression is their skill and game sense. This is also not exactly linear or predictable due to there being a vast array of builds and play styles. A very practiced player may frequently find themselves playing in a style that they are not accustomed to in the search for power. Alternatively, a player can force themselves down a narrow path that leads to a refined and calculated progression curve both in skill and power.
Common sense also points to other player’s affecting the experience. This being a multiplayer game, we must always weigh how the other players will play a role in pushing play style in one way or another. Whether it is by counter play, cooperation or even toxicity the addition of another human (or many) can dramatically change the way that the game is played and how progress can be made.
Choosing to thwart the traditional leveling system was not an easy decision. But foregoing player expectations, skill trees, and experience bars puts us in a position where progression is neither linear nor repetitive. It opens the possibilities for randomness to nudge a player in a direction that they can choose to go down (if they desire). Loot, together with abilities, artifact powers and player skill work together to give the player’s character a path to seek great power while creating their own unique story.
Thanks again for sticking around this long. I hope that you have gotten something out of this article. If you have please send a message and let me know! I could use every single word of encouragement that anyone can spare!
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