7 comments on “Bad XPs: Learning by Doing

  1. I’m going to go ahead and quibble on a few points:

    The purpose of an XP system is *not* to incentivize certain behaviors (at least, it shouldn’t be), it is provide a currency used to unlock power increases (generally because those power increases are themselves not sufficiently granular to allow specific actions to increase power directly). XP awards do act as an incentive for certain actions, but that is an expected side effect and not a purpose and I believe that this has important design implications. It is important to avoid degenerate situations where the most efficient XP/effort or XP/time sources are counter to intended gameplay, but that’s a flaw of implementation, not a flaw inherent to “XP by Doing” as a system.

    The systems you indicate are heavily flawed, but the flaws lie in core assumptions about how the system should function. First of all, there’s no real cost to the actions you’re taking, so there’s no need to choose actions that more efficiently yield XP. Letting a mudcrab hit you provides equivalent XP to letting a dragon hit you, and you’re in substantially less risk so of course it’s going to be more efficient. There’s no modeling for the complexity of the task: realistically mudcrab hits should probably never yield XP, but at the very least once you’ve passed basic competency the benefit should drop to 0 almost immediately. But at a higher level, you’re right that “being hit” is a terrible condition for granting armor proficiency. Moving or attacking in armor would be much better, though we’d again need to figure out the cost problem or else we’re left with a system where it’s still best to bunnyhop everywhere to train athletics and armor proficiency.

    Consider a game that works with the “XP by doing” mindset and does a much better job (though not perfect): Fire Emblem. In these games, the choice between effectively killing your enemies and getting your weaker units the practice they need makes for some truly compelling situations. In fact, the games often acknowledge this by providing you with a character (probably a paladin) who can effectively steamroll entire armies at low levels. But doing so will yield such minimal XP and keep your power concentrated in that one character so that later levels will quickly become impossible. Thus not only are you incentived to use other characters, but it adds an extra element of strategy to decide which characters need the attention in a given situation. Permadeath also adds a very real cost to this decision: every enemy that you don’t kill as quickly as possible is just one lucky crit away from ending your promising trainee’s career before it ever truly begins. This is an entirely different situation from your party standing around in FFT and punching each other safely.

    I’ll end by saying that I am a bit biased in favor of “Learn by doing” systems as a concept because it provides an interesting layer that I don’t think generic XP systems (either where it’s a currency to spend or one that just automatically unlocks things at given points) can offer: it requires, at least to some extent, that you have to be bad at something before you can be good. Your archer is a superb archer because of the time and effort put into performing (hopefully meaningful and increasingly impressive) feats of archery. He can’t magically transfer that skill in archery to skill as a swordsman: if you want to train up your swordsmanship you’ll have to start swinging a sword and begin to work your way up from the bottom. I think this method can be done well, and when it does happen it provides a much more compelling sense of progression than generic accumulation of “power” to be “spent” for upgrades unrelated to what you as a player have been attempting.

    Just my thoughts.

    • You make some good points — I agree, my phrasing isn’t correct. Although XP systems do incentivize behavior, they are rarely implemented with that specifically in mind. All the same results apply though.

      Moving/attacking in heavy armor as the action for XP gain would be better, but still problematic regardless of the formula used.

      I do think there are instances where Learning by Doing can be pulled off correctly, so I won’t condemn it entirely. However, I can’t think of any instances of good execution.

      Fire Emblem does a much better job with XP because, as you say, it’s got actual risk involved. I still dislike how Fire Emblem does it, though. You have to hamstring your own strategy, and try to be as inefficient (hit an enemy as many times as you can without killing him, etc) as possible to properly develop your army. I suppose it could be viewed as a little grindy puzzle mini-game, but it hardly seems as fun as the actual strategy game where you try to win against enemy troops.

      The inclusion of uber-characters (I remember those blasted Paladins) is especially bad. It’s just a trap for newbie players. In older Fire Emblems (and possibly the newer ones?), you will absolutely screw over your entire playthrough if you do the sane thing and use the strong characters.

      I will say that I think the weapon mastery system in Fire Emblem (where you progress, say, axe skill by using axes) seems to work perfectly fine, but that may only be because it’s unnoticeable and levels up with very little extra work from the player.

      And yeah, the ‘realistic’ feel is one solid advantage of learning by doing. I just think it does more harm to realism in the long run in most of the examples I’ve seen. You can still get the realism of giving XP only toward skills that you used without learning by doing, though. (Ex: in FFT, JP goes to the class you have equipped, and can’t be used for anything else.)

      Thanks for the thoughts! :D

      • While I agree that Fire Emblem isn’t perfect, I think it’s doing a *much* better job than you’re giving it credit for. First of all, the fact that attacks always get a response keeps it from being too exploitable (also weapon degradation) and you can’t just sit around and grind forever. In fact, I think the addition of the tower of trials/random encounters to Fire Emblem actually made the series worse overall: XP was originally a finite resource that required careful management which fits in very well with the theme of the games. The fact that weaker characters needed to be exposed to danger specifically (not just by being brought into the field, but by actually participating in combat) adds a lot of complexities to the system that I think are crucial to the formula. I also think that the Paladins are important and beneficial to the games, though perhaps there’s a lack of communication to extremely new players, though even a partial playthrough is probably enough to teach you the mechanic, and then suddenly you can turn an asset into a liability by having a powerhouse to provide a little extra protection as your newbies get their feet under them.

        Shining Force does a similar job with things: a regular attack against a similarly powered enemy grants a decent chunk of XP, and the finishing blow provides an extra bonus. There’s advantage to saving the final point of HP for some of the weak characters to finish them off, but it’s certainly not required. And while you can repeat battles to grind XP, I never found that particularly worthwhile because you could field a solid group of well-trained characters on just the XP gained from playing through normally.

        Specifically, though, I think the major issue you’re pointing out is that most games that try to have some sort of “learn by doing” don’t have a framework in place to make actions worth less and less XP as you level. Hitting the mudcrab in Skyrim always yields about the same effective XP as hitting the warrior. Games like Fire Emblem tend to have dramatically decreasing XP yield as you “overlevel” which makes it eventually be counter productive to try to grind with a given character because a lower-leveled one would get far more benefit from those same attacks, which puts an inherent limit on the exploitable behavior.

        On a more theoretical level, I’d be interested in something that used a system where you had discrete levels where a fixed quantity of statpoints were awarded and it used the relative weighting of your actions to determine how they were allocated for you (instead of letting you choose where to spend them). So sitting around in battle constantly making ineffective attacks would not get you more points, but doing a higher quantity of physical actions as opposed to magic would guarantee that a larger part of your XP ended up supporting physical stats. To make it more interesting, you could have weapons and abilities that bias you in one direction or another. For even more of a bonus, you could add in things that amplify the effort at a cost of effectiveness: make a sword that’s extra heavy/harder to use but tilts your character more towards strength.

        • It’s true, Fire Emblem does limit the abusability in a number of ways. Can’t say I agree about the tower though — at least the tower in Sacred Stones was a great addition in my book. I won’t say a limited-XP approach is ‘wrong’, but it loses the advantage that many XP-based systems have, which is self-balancing difficulty.

          Also I loathe how Fire Emblem assigns stat gains randomly, which the tower can help alleviate. That’s an unrelated issue though.

          The Paladins are, at best, an emergency response if you over-extend yourself. Which isn’t that bad. Every time you use them you make future levels harder, so it’s a slippery slope. XP is practically wasted on them, because not only do they gain less of it, but if I recall correctly, their stats are lower than their levels should otherwise imply. A hand-raised Paladin is stronger than a premade Paladin (kinda like wild Pokemon). So basically, it would be better in the long run for newbies if they didn’t have that trump card, and experts won’t need it in the first place.

          I haven’t played Shining Force, so I can’t comment much. I’m willing to concede that this is probably a personal thing, but I frankly find XP management (such as worrying about who gets the last hit in) generally tedious. I suppose some might enjoying the sort of puzzle of how to best take advantage of the system, though.

          Games without scaling down of XP, like Skyrim, definitely exacerbate the problem. Fire Emblem is better about that. But I don’t think poor scaling is the source of the issue.

          I bet your theoretical XP system would work well. That is XP from accomplishments, rather than actions, though, which I’m in favor of : ) If Skyrim awarded XP per enemy defeated, then allocated it based on the percentages of attack types you used, that would work just fine.

  2. I’ve noticed this in FTL. Occasionally you run into an enemy that is literally incapable of defeating you (you have two shields and it only has a single heavy laser for example). In such cases you can level up all your crew on every system if you are willing to just sit around for an hour.

    • Yeah, that sounds about equivalent. Which is a shame to hear; I was planning on giving FTL a go sometime soon. I assume that situation comes up rarely enough that it doesn’t ruin the game.

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