Think, if you will, of the traditional treadmill. Walk, jog, or run all you want and at the end of your journey end up exactly where you started. If you happen to enjoy treadmills, you’ll be happy with yourself for burning a few calories or running a mille in three seconds less than it took yesterday, but the long and the short of it is that for 30 minutes you ran nowhere and all you have to show for it is an interesting aroma and a sweaty t-shirt.
Most JRPGs – their battle system, at least – are the exact same way. Beat the same monsters in the head for an hour just to gain a level. There’s no reason why my attacks should get stronger. If the standard RPG story is to be believed, these stories take place over a short period of time, usually only a matter of days. Why then, does my gun-toting sky pirate go from barely scratching a bat to being able to take down a large group of skeleton mages single-handedly? Those bullets that barely scratch bats found in the introductory area should do even less damage to a high-level enemy or boss.
But without levels, how will the player progress through the game? From what will the player gain a sense of accomplishment? How will he know that he’s doing well?
In a perfect world, all these things would be taken care of through the story segments. It doesn’t matter what level that sword-carrying meathead is if the plan worked and all the rebels were successfully evacuated from the prison. Nobody cares what your wisdom score is if the spell worked and the goblin fell over dead, and unless the end-boss is keeping score it doesn’t matter if that dungeon-boss died while you had 1 HP left or 1,000. He’s dead and you’re standing there victorious. As long as the story progresses, then the game is going well.
Instead of making my gun/axe/bow/whatever better just because I’ve been using it, make it a big deal when I find a better one. Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, although not an RPG, did this wonderfully. It was a major event when the prince found a new and better sword. Take another cue from the Sands of Time trilogy while we’re at it. Make me earn my abilities. Send me to the training fields, introduce me to an NPC that can teach me the whirlwind attack, or make these things skill-based rewards. It means something to me when I have 24 hearts in a Zelda game because I earned them. When I’m level 99 in FFXII, it means that I bought a golden amulet and farmed the right monsters for XP for a long enough time.
As to my third point, I’m not certain that the player should know that he’s doing well. Sure, the story progressed, but until the game is over, things should still be fairly crappy for the citizens of random fantasy world. Sure, throw me a new item or a cutscene to show me that I’ve advanced the story, but I don’t deserve to know that everything is peachy keen when there are three more planets to travel to, six more bosses to take down, and a princess to save.
There are plenty of games out there that do this correctly, but it’s a rare occurrence when an RPG is different enough to not feel like the same old fetch quest followed by some leveling up and capped off by my character learning new abilities for no real reason. Recently, Contact managed to allow the player character to grow without needing a level-up screen. Terry, unless you renamed him something different, simply got better at things as he did them, and it made sense. Somebody will get better at running as they continue to run, and a person with no experience handling a sword will develop those skills as he becomes more familiar with the weapon. This only works for so long, and it wouldn’t really apply to an already-expert swordsman, but the loss of the level-up screen is a welcome one.
Give me more RPGs that act like The Legend of Zelda and Metroid if you want me to keep playing them. The same weapons that worked wonders for me at the beginning of the game shouldn’t be instilling feat in anybody at the end. Make me find a plasma beam or a Master Sword. Let me continue using my cruddy old weapons if I so choose, but don’t expect me to believe that the same handgun that worked well on unarmored gang members will also inflict massive damage on a commando wearing kevlar.
As much as I’d love to see RPG developers make me earn new abilities and quit improving my weapons for me, the problem is much more deep-rooted. Play time has become a feature. This is the trend that needs to stop. It doesn’t matter if a game lasts for 50 hours if it isn’t any fun. If you can tell me an epic story with good character development and make me care about the world I’m saving in 10 hours, then that’s a success. Length is not indicative of quality, and when we finally realize that, maybe I can quit collecting running from one side of the world to the other. The characters tell me it’s because Micah over there really needs that MacGuffin, but if you listen closely you can hear a game developer saying that it’s really because that part of the game takes two hours, and those two hours get us that much closer to the target game length of fifty hours.
Stop it, developers. Make your RPGs fun, not just long.