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.