Let’s talk game design! Specifically, I’d like to ruminate on one of the most common game-isms out there: “XP” (or experience points) — and I want to talk about when that system is detrimental to the game.
Typically XP is either a resource you spend directly on improvements, or a sort of progress bar to the next improvement. And it seems like every game nowadays has some sort of XP mechanic. But for game designers, XP is actually a way to tell the player what they should do. Kill the goblin? You get XP! Explore a new area? You get XP! Play the game? XP!
XP is a tool to incentivize specific behaviors and goals. However, it’s up to the designer to make sure that the behavior being incentivized is fun. When this isn’t true is when we have a problem. It’s my plan to find those instances, and then make fun of them on the internet.
Let’s start with…
Yes, in spite of how enjoyable, immersive, and popular Skyrim is, it has Bad XPs. In Skyrim, you gain XP by performing an action on a valid target. For example, when you hit a creature with your 1-handed weapon, you gain 1-handed weapon XP. The term XP doesn’t show up on screen, but we all know that’s what it is. So, when Bethesda created this system, that was because they wanted to incentivize the player to hit creatures, right?
Here’s a few skills and how XP is gained for each:
- Destruction: hit creatures with magic.
- Restoration: heal wounds or hurt undead with magic.
- One-handed: hit creatures with one-handers.
- Two-handed: hit creatures with two-handers.
- Archery: shoot creatures.
- Block: block attacks.
- Heavy Armor: get hit.
- Light Armor: get hit.
As you look at the last of these skills, alarm bells should be going off. Isn’t getting hit bad? Do we want to reward failure? Is getting hit fun? (The answer is no.)
In actuality, all of the above skills are problematic. It may be fun to shoot an enemy, but what is the player’s actual goal? Just shooting the enemy over and over as it takes no damage quickly becomes unfun. The actual behavior we want to incentivize is defeating the enemy. Therein lies the problem. XP in Skyrim does not incentivize victory, it incentivizes inefficiency. And that is not fun.
A more traditional experience system, such as the kind modded in by SkyXP, is a better system, because rewards are tied to success (defeating an enemy, clearing an area, completing a quest, etc).
Unsurpisingly, because the system in Skyrim was inspired by those used in previous Elder Scrolls games, Morrowind and Oblivion also suffer from the same problems. In these games, the most efficient way to become the best swordsman in the world is to poke a mudcrab with a fork for an hour.
But the problem isn’t just limited to Elder Scrolls. The issue lies with the attempt to connect XP to carrying out specific repeatable actions, rather than to accomplishing goals. Let’s take a look at another exceedingly prolific RPG franchise:
On a few occasions, the Final Fantasy series has dabbled in ‘learning by doing’ (gaining XP from specific repeatable actions). And on each occasion it has been a detriment. In Final Fantasy 2, each attribute raises from performing the related action — you level up spells by casting them, you increase HP by being hit, etc. The problem is that the most efficient way to gain XP is by letting weak monsters wail on you for a few hours.
Final Fantasy Tactics has a similar problem. Instead of actions being tied to specific attributes, each action nets you ‘JP’ that you can spend as you will. However, the same conundrum exists: the player is incentivized to have their characters act inefficiently to get more JP instead of actually trying to defeat the enemies. Final Fantasy Tactics would be better if it rewarded JP for completing a battle (I have actually hacked this system in to find out, and yes, it is a much game better that way).
Ultimately, when designing, it’s essential to figure out exactly what behavior your XP system is incentivizing. If the XP system is not properly constructed, there will be unintended consequences that bring the game down.