*Understanding Experience Points and Difficulty*
Originally Posted November 11, 2014
Intro and Background
Greetings, all! This is Greg Campbell, also known as Endarire. I've been a fan of RPGs since around the time of the first Final Fantasy for the NES (which, for me, was around 1990). I've played the PC version of every Infinity Engine game released to date – in its standard or/and its enhanced edition. I've run a D&D 3.5 campaign with homebrew rules (including my version of Szatany's Ultimate Classes) in the world of Xeen. (Yes, that Xeen.) The campaign spanned 20 months of real time, from the humble beginnings of level 1 to the epic heights of level 22. I created my own campaign setting and an introductory module for a D&D 3.5 campaign entitled The Metaphysical Revolution about the ramifications of industrialized magic. I was co-author of Fate and Destiny, a turn-based RPG in Starcraft's real-time strategy game engine. Finally, I was a focus tester (not a QA tester) at Obsidian for Dungeon Siege III and its DLC, as well as all four Fallout: New Vegas DLCs. The Purpose of This Post I want Obsidian to be able to make the best game possible. As part of my Kickstarter money, I was allowed into this private channel of communication, and I believe sharing this information will make this game – and perhaps other games – better for everyone, including me. The Purposes of Experience Points In any game that relies upon experience points (EXP) as rewards to increase a character's power, a typical player's high motivation is to accumulate them efficiently to maximize his character's power, either for a specific challenge (that one boss, or that one section), or/and for the entire game. In short, people want to advance their characters to gain the new abilities and power and the feeling of progression that come with character advancement. A game's inclusion of EXP instead of just levels is usually due to at least one of these factors: -Metrics. If I have 987,652/1,200,000 EXP, I have a pretty good idea of how much more time and effort I need to reach my next level. -Incentives. One of the easiest ways to encourage people to do something is with a big enough end reward. One danger of this: Whatever the developers were trying to encourage players to do gets done, but is considered uninteresting, but people still do it for the end reward. -EXP is a currency that can be spent on different things at different rates. Some games offer character progression in the form of buying skills, abilities, or otherwise directly with EXP. This is not inherently mutually exclusive with leveling, as a character may need a certain number of skills at a certain amount to gain a level. Dungeons & Dragons v3.5 had some spells which required spending EXP to cast. Most magic items required spending gold, time, at least 1 EXP (and usually far more than that!) to create. Alternatives to Experience Points Depending on the system and the desires of the creators, options besides EXP are better. -Levels. Complete a certain task and you gain a level. No EXP, just levels. This is very against the style of Infinity Engine games - and by extension, Pillars of Eternity - but can make things simpler because developers will know that player characters will be level X in area Y under circumstance Z. -Attribute points/talents/skills/'class features'. These are the typical results of leveling. Again, this is less suited to Pillars of Eternity as it is right now due to it similarity to Infinity Engine games and expectations of class-based gameplay. Getting EXP – The Hows and Whys Each game has its own reason for awarding the amount of EXP it does in the ways it does. Here are some suggestions that seem relevant to Pillars of Eternity. -Combat. Pillars of Eternity, at its heart, is about combat. Fighting offers a very obvious challenge with very obvious rewards – loot, EXP, quest/plot progression, new areas to explore, and fewer enemies in the area! Fighting is meant to be its own reward. -Nullifying locks or/and traps. The Baldur's Gate series had this. It was a welcome addition to get small chunks of EXP from using Thief skills instead of just casting knock to auto-unlock things or ignoring traps because they weren't the effort. Having a Thief get EXP for doing his job felt right, and it helped justify his place in the party, at least at low levels. -Quests. Baldur's Gate II had a special type of unsplit EXP called "Quest Experience." Complete certain quests and everyone in the party gets the full amount! It's a pity so many other games award quest EXP but it gets split just like all other forms of EXP. Quest EXP actually encouraged me to play a full party of 6 in Baldur's Gate II and I felt like I was missing out on something when I switched to a solo run, even though I preferred a solo run overall. To give people a sense of scale, a solo character levels at approximately 400% of the rate of a party of 6 in Baldur's Gate II due to the inclusion of quest EXP. -Exploration. Exploration is sometimes its own reward. Finding cool and exciting areas with spiffy art and creatures and loot and plot hooks is wonderful! What about, though, for players who've played through this game or section heavily before, and feel more bothered about exploring than excited? My solution is to offer a little bit of EXP upon arriving in a zone for the first time. (Where this Baldur's Gate, a new zone would be a new overworld map area, for example.) After fully exploring this map, the player would get a slightly bigger EXP boost of "Exploration Experience." Thus, if entering a zone for the first time Note that not every map should award exploration EXP. It feels ridiculous to me to offer exploration EXP for every house and minor cave entered. Save it for the overworld or award exploration EXP for exploring an entire city (or an entire city district), which means the player has to fully explore the zone plus its subzones (houses, caves, etc.) to get the EXP reward. For example, if an early game Pillars of Eternity zone awarded 50 EXP (unsplit, akin to quest EXP) upon entry, fully exploring that zone may award 300-500 EXP. In essence, exploration EXP is tied to the zone's level. I'm aware that stealthy and long-sighted characters get an edge in this department, but like getting EXP for locks and traps, it encourages me to keep a Rogue or similar character in the party – perhaps even play one as my main character! For precedence, look to Deus Ex (the first one at least) for awarding exploration EXP. World of Warcraft did this too, but Deus Ex's EXP awards were much more notable, though still small. -Item crafting. According to the loading screens, this game already has some sort of item crafting system. Adding a bit of EXP upon creating things adds incentive for me to try out these systems instead of just leaving them in the dust. Determine the lowest level a player is expected to be able to create said item and award a small amount of EXP to the party (probably split) or to the crafter only the first time (or first few times) the party makes that item (if EXP is split) or the first time (or first few times) that character makes that item (if not). Like exploration EXP, item crafting EXP is tied to the item's level, which is directly tied to zones where the party has already been due to needing the crafting materials from said zones. (Zones in this case include merchants, chests, drops, and the like.) For an example, a character creating a level 1 healing potion for the first time would get 50-100 EXP. I purposely limit this to the first time to encourage people to try new recipes, and to ensure that combat remains the main source of EXP. If you plan to include EXP rewards for further creations of the same item, add diminishing returns until the EXP is 1 or 0. In the above example, assuming I got 50 EXP my first craft, I'd get 25 my second, 12 my third, 6 my fourth, 3 my fifth, and 1 (or 0) for further items made. Assuming I got 100 EXP my first time, I'd instead get 50 my second, 25 my third, 12 my fourth, 6 my fifth, and 1 (or 0) for further items made. -Dialog. Planescape: Torment was the master of this. It emphasized dialog and character development (via conversations) as well as exploration over combat. While Pillars of Eternity is probably not aiming for such a goal, instead prioritizing combat highly (and probably most highly compared to exploration, dialog, and such), getting bonus EXP for learning interesting facts about the game world or/and convincing people to do certain things (perhaps instead[ of fighting) does seem interesting. Even if the EXP rewards were minor, being able to get EXP for greatly boosting or diminishing my conversational partner's mood seems interesting. Not all conversations need to give EXP, but it would help if many or most did. Some ways to deter people who just spam the number keys to try every dialog option to get through it as soon as practical would be to quiz people on what the NPC recently said (a phenomenon I've rarely seen in any computer RPG) or have the ability to influence the NPC's mood tremendously so that this NPC gets huffy/annoyed and doesn't want to speak to you for a significant while, or ever again. This "must wait X game hours/days before I'll speak to you again" tactic works on occasion. If overused, it gets old. Perhaps a person or two in every town or district is like this. Another possibility is that the NPC gets very happy/excited about something the player does not want to happen, like realizing he can extort money from the government or blackmail an old lover due to new inspiration. -Other. The Baldur's Gate series granted EXP (100 EXP per spell level in BG1 and 1000 EXP per spell level in BG2) to the party of any Mage who successfully copied a spell from a scroll to his Mage spellbook. It was cool to be able to do this, and even though the EXP was split, it made finding new Mage scrolls exciting, even if the spells contained therein were not worth using. As for Pillars of Eternity, the spellbook system seems incompatible with this notion. I'm not saying to copy Baldur's Gate wholesale in this regard, but adding class-specific ways of generating EXP aside from combat may be worth a brainstorm. In addition, I'm taking suggestions for other sources of EXP. Community and developers, what do you say? MY PREFERENCE: I'd like EXP from all the above sources, depending on how it makes sense in-game. If I'm getting, for example, 1-2% of the EXP needed to level per award from 'secondary' sources – exploration, nullifying traps and locks, dialog, and even item crafting. So long as all sources of EXP except perhaps quests and combat are finite (due to respawning enemies or/and repeatable quests) or simply not worth it after a reasonable amount of time, I feel fine in awarding EXP for these secondary tasks. NOTE: With enough non-combat EXP, a pacifist party is viable – that is, one who doesn't actually kill any foes. More extreme versions of this include, "No getting combat EXP" and "No engaging in combat." This was a playstyle I enjoyed for an Elf Mage/Thief in Baldur's Gate due to Mages granting scroll scribing EXP and Thieves giving trap disarming EXP and being able to sneak through most situations. See The Pacifist's Challenge here for more info. NOTE 2: The most EXP I can feel comfortable awarding for someone who optimizes EXP gain from all sources versus someone who doesn't is about 2-3 levels worth for the entire party. Thus, in a 5 member party, that's effectively 10-15 levels spread out over 5 characters. My reasoning for this is simple: I want those who optimize EXP gain via secondary sources to still be playing on a similar scale (and not be wildly more powerful) compared to those who don't, yet I want there to be a tangible benefit for doing these secondary tasks. Splitting EXP – The Hows and Whys Now that we have a plan to accumulate EXP, how do we split it? Do we split it? The type of split used (if any) can vary by the type of EXP gained. For example, in Baldur's Gate II, quest EXP was not split among party members (and thus favored larger parties) while all other sources of EXP were split evenly among all party members (and thus favored smaller parties, even solo characters). -Even split. In most games I've played with EXP gain within a party, EXP is split evenly among each party member. Even if I have a level 50 in a party with a level 5, both of them get the same absolute amount of EXP, though this is usually balanced by having higher levels require substantially more EXP to attain than lower levels. (This example also assumes no unit-specific experience bonuses nor penalties.) This system offers no way for lower-level party members to catch up in total EXP, though all party members may be the same level. This system favors smaller parties since each party member only gets a faction of the total EXP. -Graduated split. Each party member gets the same amount of base EXP, but the total EXP is adjusted according to some other criteria, like level difference. - D&D 3.5 used this sort of system, based on the difference in level between a party member and the challenge rating (or 'level') of the challenge. The graduated split system is handy for letting lower level party members catch up in level. If there are alternative ways to spend EXP (item creation or spellcasting, for example), this system is exploitable to get a delayed amount of 'free' EXP due to spending EXP (via, say, item creation) to stay a lower level compared to the rest of the party. For more info, see Experience is a River. Again, any split EXP system favors smaller party sizes due to each party member getting proportionately less than the full amount of EXP. -Favored split. Every party member gets some EXP, but someone gets notably more, probably because he performed the action to generate the EXP. It may have been the last hit against a foe in combat thereby killing it, or because he created an item and the party gained EXP, or for some other reason. The likely ramifications of this mean a snowball effect, at least in combat. The most effective last hitter will get the majority of EXP. Other out of combat tasks will likely need more micromanagement to ensure the right person gets the EXP. If the gulf between those reliably getting EXP and everyone is wide enough, this may lead to dropping party members due to them being behind. Fate and Destiny uses this as a means of encouraging all players to participate in combat, instead of just relying on one person to do all the work. In Pillars of Eternity, however, I recommend against the favored split. -No split. This system is exactly that – everyone gets the same amount of EXP. This system favors larger parties due to no decrease in reward as more people contribute. MY PREFERENCE: I generally prefer even splits for EXP. It makes sense, it's simple, and it offers a tactical decision of how many party members to include, since each party member makes the entire party level more slowly. Difficulty Modes and EXP Awards There are two main options regarding difficulty modes and EXP rewards, keeping these things in mind: On higher difficulties, enemies may have higher defenses and deal more damage. Better items may be more difficult to find/buy. Dialog options may have higher prerequisites to select. Quests may require more to complete (like needing to kill 25 of X instead of 15, or collect 5 of Y instead of 2). Higher difficulties may offer different sorts of incentives to play beyond EXP or challenge. The Diablo series is famous for having the best item drops only occur on the highest difficulty. -Same EXP regardless of mode. Harder difficulties are simply that – harder, but without any EXP bonus to compensate. If a greater challenge is truly the only reason to pick a higher difficulty, it will be dissuading for many players, especially those trained on games like Diablo where higher difficulties mean greater rewards. -Higher difficulties = more EXP. If you employ this method (which I prefer, by the way), the bonus EXP should be comparable to the increase in challenge. If you're raising enemy stats, ensure that their defenses and offenses are increased! Perhaps improve their AI as well! Merely increasing enemy defenses makes them bloated bags of hit points, which is typically no fun. Merely increasing enemy offenses makes them more deadly – if they can hurt you. Making the enemy smarter seems like a wise option, but if I'm playing on at least 'normal' difficulty, why isn't the enemy already this smart? One major consideration of buffing non-party members in higher difficulties is thus: What happens to summoned creatures and town guards? Are they suddenly super buff too? These super buff NPCs are key to soloing Icewind Dale II from level 1 on Heart of Fury. (
.) On difficulties lower than standard, friendly NPCs (such as summonlings and quest NPCs) should have the stats of standard difficulty due to wanting less of a challenge from players, and to ensure important quest NPCs don't accidentally die or become ineffective due to them being powered down. MY PREFERENCE: I prefer to have higher difficulties offer better rewards, such as more EXP or/and better loot. On the NPC side, I also prefer if all enemies, summonlings, and NPCs are buffed in terms of offense and defense. Whatever animal companions, summonlings, etc. the player can command should be equally buffed due to difficulty increases, but not be reduced lower than standard difficulty stats should a player play on a difficulty below standard. Putting it All Together: A Tale from Icewind Dale Enhanced Edition Icewind Dale Enhanced Edition, an Infinity Engine game. This means that it evenly splits all non-quest EXP rewards evenly within a party, and a smaller party gets more EXP per character than a larger one. Unlike Baldur's Gate II, Icewind Dale Enhanced Edition offers no EXP for scribing scrolls, picking locks, nor disarming traps. Baldur's Gate II has a specific type of EXP that Icewind Dale Enhanced Edition lacks – 'quest EXP' – that is not split among party members, while every other type of EXP is. One very important note is that Baldur's Gate II has an EXP cap while Icewind Dale Enhanced Edition has a level cap. (Both games allow characters to have more than one class.) What does this mean? -Solo characters for the win! A solo character gets access to higher-level abilities sooner. These higher-level abilities (at least in terms of spells) are generally significantly more useful than lower-level ones. Also, being higher level means more skill points to spend on Thief skills, more uses of spells, more HP, better saving throws, better accuracy bonuses, more damage, and more attacks per round. In addition, a solo character (plus summons, if any) is easier to manage and keep alive than a party of 6. I never have to worry about splitting the party, and I never have to hear the voiceover, "
." Being immune to an effect (like death effects or movement-impairing effects) means your entire party (sometimes barring summons) is immune. Stealth and aggro are easier with one person – at least for me – since I need only be concerned with one person remaining hidden or drawing aggro due to visible areas. The biggest downside to a solo run is inventory space. Another issue is choosing the wrong character or building your character wrong since you'll have none (except perhaps summons) to compensate for you. -Multiclass characters for the win! A triple-classed Icewind Dale Enhanced Edition character has a level cap of 30, which requires 22.5 million EXP to attain; a single-classed character has a level cap of 30, which requires 8 million EXP. A triple-classed character can do more – he has three classes worth of abilities – and for much of the game he's only about 2 levels behind a single-classed character due to the amount of EXP needed to level. (This chart shows the Baldur's Gate II EXP tables by class and gives you an idea of the amount of effort to level. Note that a triple-classed character splits all EXP he receives 3 ways, one way per class.) -Higher difficulties for the win! This game has 5 difficulty modes that can be toggled at any time in-game via the Gameplay Options menu. The standard mode awards 100% EXP. Easy and Hard each award 150% EXP. Insane and Story Mode (the highest and lowest difficulties) award 200% EXP. The only notable differences among these difficulties (except for Story Mode) are enemy damage multipliers and the EXP awarded. Thus, all enemies could deal enough damage to kill me in one hit, but if they never hit me, it wouldn't matter. Story Mode is the biggest exception. In addition to gaining double EXP, your party is invincible (your party can take damage but never die), and everyone temporarily has max Strength for maximum melee accuracy and damage. I find this a good way to accommodate players who don't want to care about stats but just want to get on with the game. (It also helps for times when people lose their progress due to a lost/corrupted save, and serves as a mini-debug mode.) This system seems fair, since lower difficulties are meant for people who don't want to feel so challenged, and this lets them catch up and more easily overcome difficult areas. On the other hand, my first time playing, I set the difficulty to Insane because I had mastered Infinity Engine combat and the penalty of enemies dealing double damage to me was trivial. I could kite enemies until they ran out of ranged attacks (if they even had any!), turn around, and fire my bow at them in rhythm with the Infinity Engine's combat round system. I was also generally faster than my foes (and when I wasn't, I had haste and crowd control spells) meaning, with a bit more effort, I was twice as powerful as the game designers expected me to be, but that was also the point. I took a risk to increase my rate of advancement and I liked it! Icewind Dale Enhanced Edition also has a difficulty higher than Insane, one that is truly noteworthy for being hard. This is one that forced me to fully utilize my mastery of the Infinity Engine and use every ability at the disposal of my Chaotic Good Elven Fighter/Mage/Thief. Its name is Heart of Fury. In this mode, all foes deal double damage (as Insane difficulty) and get a tremendous HP boost. Their new HP is approximately double their previous total + 80. Considering one of the lowliest of creatures – a goblin – normally has only 6 HP (and I deal 5-15 damage per shot 2-4 times per round with my bow pretty much the entire game), boosting its HP to 92 straightaway is much. A creature with 100 HP outside of Heart of Fury mode is considered pretty hearty, and only the heartiest of creatures (deities and high-end angels, demons, devils, and dragons) in D&D second edition have 200-300 HP. Heart of Fury mode makes these sorts of foes (ones with 200+ HP) common by mid-game, and I felt hesitant to attack something because then I'd need to destroy it and its bloated buddies. Heart of Fury mode is meant for a party of 6, each at least level 13. I started to solo this from level 1. So why did I do it? In part it was for the challenge. Could I actually do it when the game changes so much? Direct damage abilities (like fireball and magic missile) aren't so great anymore, but crowd control abilities (like web and slow) are downright wonderful! The bigger reason I did it was the EXP rewards. How much EXP are we talking here? Quadruple EXP PLUS 2000 per kill! With EXP rewards like that, it's no wonder my triple-classed character reached level 7 in each class (with a total of 198,819 EXP gained) before I finished the prologue! (Parties are meant to be around level 2 by this point when not playing standard difficulty.) While the early game was only a bit difficult since I could kite the many enemies and they had no melee attacks, once the difficulty started ramping up, killing foes became a chore. When killing each foe required 60-90 seconds of continuous bow shots to kill (firing once every second or two), I started to alt-tab out and read webcomics or forums or such. I wasn't in that much danger since I had the buffs and defenses to survive. My first major snag was in the Yuan-ti temple with what seemed like a sea of snakes. Even when fully buffed, I could only take on one or two at a time, and even that felt like it was stretching it! There was, however, an easy solution: Hasted kaiju. In short, summon creatures (who had the super stats of Heart of Fury mode), cast haste on my minions and myself, and wail on the enemies. My enemies were still bloated with hit points and numbers, but I had minions of my own to block passages, deal damage, and absorb enemy attention. It made the game play a lot more like Pokémon than Thief: The Dark Project. Overall, if a difficulty increase forces me to drastically change how I play the game, I believe it to be a worthy addition. If it's a mild annoyance (like only doubling damage against me on Insane difficulty), it's probably worth only a mild difficulty level increase, if that. On a side note, Heart of Fury mode seems self-balancing, assuming you can get through it. The EXP rewards are increased drastically enough to balance out the super-tough opponents. Stealth is a very real option due to the super-high HP of all opponents and the tremendous number of enemies per zone. For reasons that make perfect sense (the high challenge, the high necessity, and the high reward), there is a real need to learn the game, what the limits of the game are, and to use all my character's abilities – or at least his best abilities – to their fullest. Finally, I do plan to offer other advice and feedback regarding RPG design, balancing, and/or testing in future posts.