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I always get the feeling that in games with a linear plot and leveling system, players never go back to the older levels because the monsters there are too easy and the world has nothing new to offer there.

Players usually don't go visit floor 1 just for memory's sake or to remember the good times they had there. In fact, they probably forget what happened there and move on like it's nothing. For some reason, this bothers me to no end.

Is there a way to remedy that? I don't want the feeling of certain game areas to become obsolete to the player as the story progresses.

I want my game to be dynamic and ever-changing, with things to offer at every location, at every point in the player's game progress, even if one place is not at the right "level" to match with the player's current overall character levels. There should be a kind of equality, where at no point does the player tire of one place and can move freely from one place to the next. Does this sound slightly open-world ish?

This is not only for replayability, but also to provide a certain kind of elegance to the game. I feel like there is something lacking, and something that might be able to be improved, in RPGs, where the story is everything and so "old" levels are treated as second-class citizens. I was always slightly bored when I had "conquered the world" and ran through every monster like it was spaghetti.

One of the solutions I thought of is to simply update the monsters, treasure chests, items, dialogue, etc. at the old locations. Perhaps even updating the graphics would provide a visual cue that the player can have some more novel experiences there. However, isn't that essentially just changing the very nature of the location itself? The problem I have with that is that players will then forget what happened because the place itself disappeared/changed.

If anyone thinks of any good ideas, I would like to hear them. Thanks!

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  • \$\begingroup\$ See how difficulty modes work in Diablo 3. Also reuse locations. \$\endgroup\$ – Kromster Aug 27 '17 at 6:40
  • \$\begingroup\$ Have you played any of the Disgaea games? They do a really great job at both keeping low-level content relevant throughout the game and also demonstrate their ability to upscale and downscale the levels of fights at any time. \$\endgroup\$ – Philipp Aug 27 '17 at 11:03
  • \$\begingroup\$ "I want my game to be dynamic and ever-changing, with things to offer at every location, at every point in the player's game progress" Why do you want that? Are you not giving players new locations to go to? As long as the player is interested in continuing to play the game, I just don't see the problem with them not wanting to revisit old areas. \$\endgroup\$ – Nicol Bolas Aug 27 '17 at 14:33
  • \$\begingroup\$ If it's a linear story then it's up to the game maker to have a reason to go back. Look at the Borderlands series which uses the same locations multiple times as a reason to progress with enemies to suit. Only in open world games do you need a reason for the player to go back. \$\endgroup\$ – Stephen Sep 7 '17 at 7:31
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Make Locations Evolve with the Player

As a player, I particularly enjoy the game when my actions affect the world (or if I'm presented with an illusion of it). I would come back to the locations I've been in before and meet new characters or seek other significant changes. Nothing in the world should stay the same, static throughout the player's walkthrough. Make the old location feel like a new one, but still remain more or less the same place so that the players will recognize it, and they will love it. It's in human nature to come back to the places we've been to and see how they changed.

A decent example of this is Pillars of Eternity. Throughout the playthrough some locations change, new characters and questlines appear, new buildings arise or fall, and players are interested in coming back and exploring again. For instance, Raedric's Castle, which (spoilers)

can be cleared by the player, but later in the game the King would return in a form of an undead and retake the castle, slaughtering everyone in the way and raising them to serve in his army.

A bad example is Dragon Age 2, where every new quest would take place on the same exact locations over and over without any noticeable changes, rendering the game extremely repetitive.

When the locations never change, and players come back to them only to feel like they've gone back in time, it hurts immersion. For example, the starting town in Neverwinter Nights 2 doesn't change at all during the first stage of the playthrough (which, in in-game time, should take at least a couple weeks). When the players come back to visit and expect the villagers to have rebuilt the town and try to recover, they're greeted with the same town on fire and scared townsfolk they left. Frustrated, they leave to never come back again, feeling like they've been robbed of a potentially interesting experience.

Automatic scaling and autopopulation of locations in RPGs is okay, but the majority of your players will come back for stories and experiences, not additional grinding that they might as well find at the new locations (unless they're desperate for some extra character levels).

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There are various techniques you can use to keep low-level content interesting for high-level players.

Automatic level-scaling

To make a low-level environment a challenge for a high-level player, simply upscale the enemy stats to match the player's level. When you are developing an RPG, you usually have tons of charts and formulas which tell you what stats are expected on what level, so you should have the necessary tools to simply turn a level 5 enemy into a level 50 enemy.

But if you constantly scale everything exactly to the player's level, then character level becomes meaningless. There is no point in getting stronger when at the same time the whole world also becomes stronger in a way which perfectly balances out.

You might instead let the player control the scaling. When they explore low-level content, let the player choose by how much they want to upscale it. Or you might tie the level-scale of the world to story progression, not player progression. Just make sure the player doesn't accidentally progress so fast in the story that they no longer have content available which is easy enough to let them catch up. A good way to avoid this is placing difficulty spikes (e.g. boss battles) just before story events which result in a world upscale.

Character Level Resets

The Disgaea series has an interesting leveling mechanic which constantly keeps low-level content relevant: The reincarnation system. You can reset a character back to level 1, and when you level them back up, they are slightly stronger than they were before on the same level. Various mechanics make the process of getting the character back to the average level of the rest of the party a lot faster than it sounds, but it still keeps low-level content relevant.

The Disgaea games also do that level-scaling thing quite well, by the way.

Progression in width, not height

Instead of just making the player-character stronger, make them more versatile. Give them new abilities which change the way the game is played, but don't make them considerably stronger mechanically.

The earlier parts of the Zelda series are a good example of this.

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The Gothic series did this reasonably well, by "re-stocking" enemies as well as items (e.g. herbs to collect) at certain points in the game. This worked for three reasons:

  1. While the games had plenty of "linear" character progression, rewards scaled more slowly than difficulty, so lower level monsters still gave relevant amounts of XP. In addition, being outnumbered greatly increased the difficulty of a fight. Instead of luring one or two wolves at a time, higher level players would fight the whole pack at once, gaining XP faster by accepting a tougher challenge. Later in the game, larger packs of the same or similar monsters would be spawned so that areas kept their "feel" while becoming a bit more challenging.

  2. Resources like money, XP and herbs were finite. Remembering a spot where rare herbs grew and checking back a chapter or two later was useful because you couldn't just farm the new area over and over. As players progressed, their ability to utilize these resources grew (to a point) with their stats, for example by being able to turn herbs into health potions instead of just eating them. This also meant that a fight could be "lost" by wasting more magic or healing items than the encounter was worth, so a bigger HP pool didn't necessarily mean you should handle easier challenges carelessly, even if you could.

  3. Difficulty wasn't uniform. Many early areas contained higher level monsters that the player had to avoid for quite a while. Most would go back at some point to kill that damn troll that used to chase them around.

There were other mechanisms that counteracted the above to an extent, but these can still serve as examples on how to give earlier areas meaning throughout the game.

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Some approaches:

  • Procedural content, so that the same "recipe" can still give a different surprise each time (example: Spelunky)

  • Game mechanics that are still challenging even after hours of gameplay - which often means, make your game hard, make it easy to die (Spelunky again, Dark Souls)

  • Achievements and rewards you can get for beating levels in novel ways - beat the record time, collect all the coins, cross it without getting hurt, without being noticed, without killing anybody, find all the secret areas, etc. (this can go along with having tables of what has been done / obtained in each level..)

  • Online high-score leaderboards for each levels

  • A lot of hidden areas in all your levels (so that you think "hmm I may have missed some in the old levels")

  • Areas in the old levels you can only access with powers you get later on in the game (Blaster Master, Zelda, Metroid, etc. do this a fair amount)

  • Challenges who scale with your level (the Elder Scrolls games)

  • Special items that can only be farmed in certain areas

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Have Enemies Levels Rely upon the Player(s)'

If I'm not completely mistaken regarding what you're asking, this is a mechanic I've also been planning for my game. Somewhat—now, this isn't the best example, per se, but it works—like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, you can have your enemies' stats load in relation to your players' levels as opposed to their progress in the game or their location (of course, your area-specific enemies should be loaded in their respective areas, but their stats shouldn't be based on their location).

Now, this can be achieved by giving your enemies levels, just like the player. To give the game a better, more realistic feel, have their levels slightly randomized depending on what they are—no motley crew of actual monsters are going to have the exact same skillset, while maybe an army of robots would. For example, if your main character is level 5, you could have your enemies appear at levels 3-7.

Having your enemies levels based upon your own can and will immensely help your game in terms of balance and replayability. It eliminates the need for grinding (which is almost unanimously hated by gaming communities), gives the game a more organic feel to it, and keeps the challenge consistent throughout the entire game. Furthermore, bosses could be handled this way, which would be an incredible mechanic that I've not yet seen before.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ One danger with this is that if players and enemies get more powerful at the same rate then the progression system becomes an illusion. It is annoying to level up only to find that your +5 damage has been met with a +50 health among your enemies, and they still take the same number of hits to kill. \$\endgroup\$ – Will Nov 15 '17 at 18:28
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Will True. That’s why I talked about variation between the monsters. A range of levels in correlation to your own. A delay wouldn’t be hard to implement, either. \$\endgroup\$ – ND523 Nov 15 '17 at 18:36

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