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The problem with leveling alts

I was recently leveling alt characters in LE and GD, and it really got me thinking about how the gameplay of alt leveling works in an ARPG. It’s an interesting game design problem that I don’t think has ever been truly solved, which makes it a good place for EHG to innovate in the genre if they wanted to.

To understand it, we first need a problem statement.

Playing different endgame builds adds fun and longevity to an ARPG, but comes with a cost. Repeating content to get through the leveling process is not engaging, and can turn players off from trying out new things that they would really enjoy or lead to burnout.

I’ve seen 3 major attempts at addressing this issue, but they all have significant drawbacks.

1 - Infinite free Respecs: This solution seeks to sidestep the repeated content issue entirely. Allowing the player to change everything about their build means that they only need to level one of each class at most. The costs come mostly from a loss of character identity. When a character is locked into permanent choices the player will tend to get more attached to them and associate them with a specific build or archtype, while a fully respectable character has no more identity than its class. For some this doesn’t matter, but for many players this leads to a loss of attachment to their characters and an overall reduction in player engagement. It can also be annoying to quickly switch back and fort between two builds that use the same class, since each switch requires a full respec rather than just logging out and back in. Examples of this approach: Chronicon, D3

2 - Leveling Gear: The most common approach to fixing this problem is to include items that are hard to get but especially strong for their low level requirements. Players won’t see many of these on a first playthough, but can save the ones they find once they’re farming endgame and use them to supercharge their alt characters while leveling.

This is by far the most common approach. It does make sense, since these games are very much about gaining power though gear. Letting the player use high level characters to prepare low level gear for their alts makes perfect sense. Unfortunately I’ve come to believe it’s also the worst possible approach.

Giving new characters overpowered gear does what it sets out to do, the characters are stronger so they can level faster and easier. The costs are pretty severe though. By making the characters stronger than they need to be, you disrupt the game’s balance and make the leveling process boring and tedious. The player doesn’t need to care about item drops or engage with the game’s combat mechanics, they just click on the enemies until they die and the experience bar fills up enough times to move on to the fun part of the game again.

This is actually why I decided to write this post here. When the most common solution to a problem in a genre is also the worst it gives new developers entering that space an opportunity to innovate. LE is in such a position. Examples of this approach: LE, PoE, D2, GD, Titan Quest, and most of the other lesser known games in the genre.

3 - Leveling Unlocks - The idea here is to allow endgame characters to unlock content that doesn’t make low level characters stronger, but allows a player to shortcut the leveling process more directly. This isn’t very common, in fact I can only think of one game that has done it well. Grim Dawn.

In Grim Dawn there are many leveling unlocks that are exclusive to endgame. These aren’t just stronger gear that players can save for use while leveling, they’re exclusive endgame features that are only useful when transferred to new characters. Merits unlock instant access to most of the game’s areas. Mandates speed up reputation gain. Clarity potions provide a buff that doubles exp.

These mechanics let players significantly reduce the amount of time that the repeated content takes, but they don’t actually make them any stronger so the gameplay doesn’t become trivial. Since GD also has the leveling unique mechanic it tends to get trivialized anyway, but the leveling unlocks from endgame don’t contribute to that.

One leveling unlock of particular note is the Lokarr’s set. This set is strong compared to other lv 1 gear, but gets outclassed fairly quickly. It’s significant though because it provides a large exp buff when using the whole set. This means that a character wearing Lokarr’s set is weaker than one that isn’t, but will level up faster.

I think this is very interesting because it’s the exact opposite approach that you see from leveling uniques. Rather than making the content easier to the point of it being boring, the set makes content harder in exchange for a fast track to endgame. Anyone who has used this set all the way to lv 94 (highest gear requirement in the game) will know what I’m talking about. Add in the fact that Clarity potion’s effect ends on death, and you can create a scenario where the alt character’s path to endgame is actually harder than a fresh character rather than easier.

The biggest drawback to this approach is that the design space has had very limited exploration, so it’s going to be much harder to do a good design in this space. It also runs the risk of undermining other aspect of your game, since these types of endgame unlocks can leave players feeling like the real game doesn’t start until they have them. Grim Dawn’s approach isn’t perfect, and there aren’t many other examples. That said, I think the idea of a faster-but-harder leveling option is such a perfect match for the ARPG genre that it’s a huge shame it hasn’t been done more.

One final note about something that gets thrown around a lot in these discussions - alternate leveling options. I don’t think that they are a blanket solution to the releveling problem. An alternate leveling option will always get compared to the main game. If it’s faster people will use it, and if it’s slower they’ll ignore it. It doesn’t really solve the repetition of content problem because most players will do each one once and then repeat the one they think is better. You basically get to push off the repetition to the player’s third character rather than the second, but that’s a marginal difference. When I level in D3 I use Adventure Mode, while in GD I don’t use Crucible. Neither experience is really improved just because it has a second option. That said, an alternate leveling option that is unlocked through the endgame and is specifically tuned to be a challenge for the more powerful alt characters while offering an accelerated progression to reward players for undertaking that challenge could be amazing.

This is probably way too many words for this topic, but I just felt like writing them down somewhere. If anyone bothered to read it I hope they found it worthwhile.

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It’s a tricky problem to be sure. We have been working more towards option 3 like systems with the dungeons. You get keys on your high level characters and it changes the pacing and activities in leveling but makes it harder so it only really works for more experienced players. You get to skip sections of the campaign but can’t do all the skips efficiently so you end up picking which ones you want to do each time. Clearly it’s not there yet as we only have the initial 3 dungeons in place but I think it’ll get there.

I think that having better leveling gear on alts is almost unavoidable and not something I’m sure we would want to try and remove.

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I’m also not sure that the difficulty of the t1 dungeons is quite right either. For example, it feels significantly easier and quicker to just run an alt through the campaign rather than skip bits via the Lightless Arbour, even with twinked gear. While I kinda get setting the dungeon’s level to that of the zone you end up at, I think that’s part of the problem.

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Another very important factor to mention if, like the OP, we compare with Grim Dawn: the campaign is MUCH shorter, and a lot easier (although I believe the difficulty will be adjusted when all the chapters are in).
That leads to what Llama says: playing the campaign is probably quicker than skipping it, as paradoxal as it sounds.

[Edit: that was just a thought. Me, I would always play the campaign anyway, I never skip or use xp boosts, in any game. And in an action RPG, I wouldn’t be able to tell you who is “main” and who is “alt” anyway, all my characters feel equal (unlike an MMO where I have one obvious main identity). But I realise I am in a (probably quite small) minority.]

I know the devs have said that they don’t want a skip to be easier/quicker than just doing the relevant section of the campaign, which I get & that’ll be why the level of the dungeon is set to roughly the level of the zone you get dumped into after finishing it. But, if it’s harder/slower to use the dungeon to skip a section of the campaign, why have that as a thing?

I know it’s a very fine line between dungeons-as-a-campaign-skip that are “too easy” versus “too hard”, I know that that line is going to be vastly different between different classes, builds & players, but on the other hand, this is for alts where we’ve played the campaign “a few” times, though again, to be fair, that’s going to be different for “us” long term players versus new players in the future.

Additionally, additionally, given the relative scarcity of the keys, does anyone use them to access the tier 1 dungeon on a new alt that they’re running through compared to using them on a high level character to run the t2/3/4 dungeons for better rewards? Does requiring a key to do the dungeon also mean that players are never/unlikely to use it as a level skip on an alt when it’ll be quicker to just run the campaign?

TLDR, I think dungeons-as-a-campaign-skip miss the mark somewhat, most especially the Lightless Arbour. But I’d be interested to hear from anyone that has run that dungeon, what build, gear, etc, they used. I also asked back in the day, if anyone could run the dungeons as a level skip with a fresh, albeit twinked to #### alt, not sure I ever got an affirmative reply.

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What I have found playing LE and perhaps also, in GD (specifically with the added non traditional RPG classes)… is the issue of learning the class/skills of a new alt… and to do this, i find that its better to do the campaign / normal progression… so that by the time you are facing harder content, you understand the skill rotations and the sometimes very subtle interactions with attributes & affixs…

Skipping content always tends to lead to frustration because you are facing harder content without understanding why its harder all of sudden…

Once I have done a class once, then the next duplicate of the class I still run the campaign, because its so SO SOOO much faster when you understand how to apply level ups that there is virtually no point in skipping anything - especially when you factor the level restrictions of gear drops into gearing a new ALT… I havent dont a full “speed” run on one of my favourite sentinel classes in a while, but I bet it wouldnt take more than 2h or so to get to through the campaign and have decent enough gear to start with endgame content… is 2h too long for an ALT?

But I am someone who prefers to build one of each class, respec countless times to get a preferred build and then max it out vs building 5 of each to lvl 60… .I suppose that would make a difference to someones preferences of faster Alts… but then arent we meant to be having fun rather than stacking up “half finished” alts?

It is an interesting perspective. Assuming as a base: people have alternative characters to try out each class/mastery… what are the other purposes of alts?

  • What is the purpose of multiple Alts of the same class/mastery?
  • Do people have alts for gear farming, endgame, boss farming, multiplayer versions?
  • Are alts for trying new builds/uniques where players dont want to respec an exsting one to try out a new build?
  • When do players consider an alt - finished - i.e. abandon it in favour of starting a new one.
  • How many duplicates of class/masteries to people tend to have?
  • Do people find their preferred class and just make potentially infinite alts in that class ignoring all the others?
  • How important is levelling duplicate Alts of the same class to a persons enjoyment of the game - how does this translate to game longevity vs someone who just tries out all the different classes?
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Thanks for the response!

I think the dungeons fall short of an effective implementation of option 3, and it has nothing to do with the number of dungeons. The biggest reason is that they use a scarce resource that is valuable to endgame characters. Expending keys to level a new character would need to be valuable enough to a player that they’re willing to sacrifice the potential rewards from high level use of those keys. Since the campaign is free to run and reasonably fast, the dungeons would need to offer basically lightspeed leveling to justify this cost. If you want dungeons to fill this roll, perhaps allowing high level characters unlock an account feature that lets low level characters enter the dungeon without using keys? As long as these free entries can’t drop rare items like LP uniques it wouldn’t undermine the high level economics.

I agree that removing leveling gear from the game isn’t viable. I think that GD was on the right track with the Lokarr’s set though, give the player a challenge even with that gear rather than letting them face-roll the content that isn’t tuned for that level of power.

I feel like you can test a good implementation of option three by leveling up 4 characters, using the same build but different configurations. Timing starts from character creation and ends when the character has the ability to start pushing endgame. This isn’t a race to max level, just to the start of endgame. In the case of LE this would be all the campaign unlocks (skills, idols, attributes) and access to monoliths while being at a sufficient level to start completing them.

Configuration 1 - Self found gear, standard leveling. This is your baseline, everything else should be compared to this.

Configuration 2 - Self found gear, fast leveling options. This should be much too hard. While the ‘fast’ option speeds up progression, the character’s lower power should slow things back down to the point where this is slower than Configuration 1.

Configuration 3 - Leveling gear, standard leveling. This will always be faster and easier than Configuration 1, but we still need to test it as a comparison point for the next one.

Configuration 4 - Leveling gear, fast leveling option. Ideally this should aim to be a bit harder than Configuration 1, but leveling should be faster than Configuration 3.

Get these balances correct and you can give players a well tuned experience on their first playthough, but also let them feel rewarded for their progress on their previous characters when leveling an alt.

Because … it’s higher level content? IMO, anyone that uses something to skip content knows that they’re going to be going into harder stuff 'cause it’s higher level.

This is one of the very reasons I always ran alts all the way through the campaign, here in LE and all the characters I did in GD. In fact, leveling a Druid right now (just popped 50 in Thetima) and I’ve been waffling back and for through the skills as I try to understand how they’re working. Discovered some nice little touches when I landed on Werebear and figuring out ways to stay transformed and do damage. It’s nice this way.

But, I will also caveat, this is my own preference. I think many of the other examples from other people’s experience are valid as well.

Sure, but without learning the skills you don’t know how to tackle that harder content.

And, yes, arguably the very, very experienced players might already know tricks to look for within the skills themselves. Very valid point as well.

But for the average long term arpg gamer like me, I’m never going to be a content creator and while I learn and pick up a lot of things, I can’t look at the tree and know “Oh pick this, this and this” straight out of the gate. Often times it take me going, “put three points here, well that doesn’t seem to work well, I wonder why, OOOOOH, this is why, so I could put these three points here…oh yeah that’s a lot smoother.”

Obviously its harder because its higher level, but how many times have you helped someone out on this very forum who has reached end-game and cannot understand why they are dying - only to figure out that they havent layered their defences or forgot a simple thing like crit avoidance or chose the wrong defensive passives that actually dont work with their build setup or even a particular unique they are using…

Experienced players, like most of us contributing here on the forum aside, I find that a lot of people rush through games like this - especially if there isnt a slow difficulty progression or “training phases” - and then hit brick walls that make them hate the game because they were doing so well before and the endorphins meant they were having fun and all of a sudden its all gone.

Its why i asked the questions about what the purpose of Alts are to different people - I have alts to enjoy the different classes, skills and playstyles - I might not like them all but I try them out… I very seldom make multiple alts of the same classes even if there is a benefit of having purpose built builds (farming, boss killing etc)… I prefer to have separate classes to do this… eg, I’ll have a sentinel build that kills Julra but a Rogue build for monolith clears etc… I am unlikely to have 5 Sentinel builds for each functional role…

But I am different that way - thats why I was asking about the purpose of Alts because right now my response to Mike & Voctors suggestions is limited.