Why *do* games so frequently spread levels out?

I know. It’s a question so stupid even a child wouldn’t ask it. I’ve never once before questioned this unwritten law of gaming, dating back to tabletop RPGs. But now I can’t un-ask it: why do so many games make it so that it’s harder to level up as you progress?

Leveling up, and the dopamine hit it gives, is one of the most satisfying bits of gaming. What benefit is there to the player and the designer of being so miserly with levels?

I’m genuinely interested in the thoughts of other nerds on this. My own reflections:

*it means we need fewer levels
*and this means fewer bits of tailoring and tweaking
*and back in the days of tabletop, it meant less content, shorter guides, and simply less stuff to print and keep track of
*maybe it makes later levels feel more satisfying?

what home does this design have a home in modern gaming? Particularly in the great Attention Economy in which we live?
Putting another spin on it: wouldn’t it be more ethical to give people a dopamine hit with the game, than in the cynical and behavioural-manipulative way that BattlePasses work (e.g., play the game with an SMG even though you hate SMGs)?


This is actually a very good question. I’m going to weigh in based on 45 years of gaming from the original AD&D all the way up to modern games.

You’re quite right, there is a built in mechanic to most games where the threshholds to attain levels increase as the level goes up. I think you’re on to some of the reasons, and I’ll address each one in turn:

  • Fewer levels - Absolutely. In the early days, when we played RPGS with dices and a character sheet, there was a physical limit to how just how many die could be thrown. These days, this has a lot more to do with the next point…
  • Less tailoring and teaking - This is definitely a factor. I like to run my stat progressions with formulas instead of an array level by level… a formula that works through level 10 can completely break by level 20, nevermind how unbalanced it can get by level 1000… The popular game World Of Warcraft has teams of people working on game balance to ensure that each of the many classes are roughly equal in power at each level, and they are constantly tweaking because this task is next to impossible.
  • Less content With pre-constructed scenarios, this is certainly a very large factor in stat/level design. If you have to construct a scene or five that cover each group of levels, the content factor can grow quickly. For indies, this is a real consideration. Of course, there are ways around this limitation. I’m working on a version of the RPG game with entirely procedural content that scales with the player’s level. World of Warcraft and Final Fantasy XIV both have systems in place to scale the content to the player’s level (WoW scales up a zone to the player’s level, FFXIV nerfs characters to allow them in certain scenarios that are too difficult). You’re absolutely right about the old days… I used to carry around 5 or 6 books when heading off to play AD&D in my friend’s basement. My son now has twice that many when he heads off to play with his coworkers.
  • Satisfaction when levelling This is absolutely a factor in level design schemes. There’s even a pattern to the design if you look at most games. When you start a new game, new levels come frequently. You start out weak, but just powerful enough to kill the rats in the basement and gain a level. Regardless of game genre, a good game setup will have you levelling up quickly to start, but each successive level taking longer to achieve. This can be a linear progression, or an exponential one… Those first early quick level gains are important to get a player hooked on the game, as each level gives you that little hit of oxytocin. If your progression is too stingy in the beginning of the game, you’ll lose players quickly. Moving on later in the game, the levels take more work to attain, but at this point we’ve already hooked the player on the game. It’s still important to keep an eye on the rate of progression. If it takes too long to reach the next level, players may forget that rush of levelling and move on to another game. If it comes too quickly, then the player won’t feel challenged, and this is also a very important part of the game, the challenge. If you can easily level with no relative increase in difficulty, you’ll get bored quickly, and that oxytocin hit will wear off.

Unfortunately, some games use resource deprivation to box you into making IAPs to continue playing. Personally, I don’t get a rush for reaching a level if they only way I could do it was to unload $10.00 for some gems. This practice seems to cross all genres of games, mostly in the so called “Free To Play” mobile market.


Thanks Brian!

I agree with all of that, and it makes good sense. I suppose much of it falls into a general point about curation, about making a good experience all through the player’s journey. Helpfully, in doing this we also make our own lives a bit easier!

Making a game where the levels continue to come quickly, and continue that early ‘hook’ has an appeal. And perhaps auto-scaling might be a means of achieving this? But from the way you describe it, this would be almost impossible to manage. Reflecting on games I’ve played that scale zones to players it is definitely hit-or-miss. And as an indie, perhaps out of the question.

Speaking of which - SIGN ME UP for the procedural content course. A must-know for indies these days.

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I think it is also depend on the type of game. In very hard/high-skill-based games, due to the fact that in these games you are supposed to get better the more you play the game. So the earlier part of the game are more about introducing the many mechanics of the game in smaller chunks, but the latter part are more concerned about you honing your skills in using the growing number of them…

so the more skills you unlock, the more parameters and permutations you have to contend with you as improve your mastery of the game

This is very noticeable in Metrovania-type games where bosses in the early stage become common enemies in latter stages… and so it wouldn’t make sense for the gaps between player levels to remain constants as latter enemies give you more XPs


I don’t think budget has anything to do with Game Design results, I think that as an indie you have more freedom to experiment and do other sorts of stuff, so having zones that auto-scale alongside the player might actually be easier for us than for AAA companies due to the freedom we have while designing.

I never realized that Metroidvania games have this, could we call it, soft-leveling system, is not like a “You are now level 120, congratulations!”, it’s all about your current equipment, this approach might be more difficult to balance because you have to think about the equipment the player might, or might not encounter.

One reason that I didn’t see mentioned is that leveling should keep getting harder to make it almost impossible to level up at starting zones, Pokémon is a great example; if the game allows you to grind to level 50 at the start of the game at the same pace you grind to level 10, the game would be extraordinarily boring, and you actually can grind to level 50 in a starting zone, but it would take you way too long, so it’s enticing to move to the next area to keep grinding at a reasonable pace because grinding is actually the fun part, it’s what we enjoy, the leveling feels good, but not as good as seeing that progress bar filling, that’s why Season Passes work so well, we love pursuing goals, not achieving them.

With that in mind, the pace is what truly matters, it doesn’t matter if there’s a carrot at the end of the stick or not, again, Pokémon is a great example, leveling up doesn’t need to come with guarantees, for instance: some Pokémon evolve at level 50 and others at level 7, and some don’t even evolve, it’s just fun to grind at a good pace, and again, Pokémon fan games are a great example of how to do this wrong, this fan-made games usually have systems to prevent you from leveling up too much, like cutting down the experience granted to even less than half is you are the same level as the opponent, that’s wrong, it makes the experience feel artificial like you have no choice on the matter, and again, it’s the choices we make what is fun, not the end result.


I can think of one example where it was a definite “hit”, and that’s in WoW. After the Cataclysm expansion, there was a zone with a quest chain that you couldn’t progress in without completing all required quests, but one of the quests was to fight a character until it was within 10% of death, and then use an item on the character… if you were level 70, wanting to try out the new content and finish your lore achievement for completing all Eastern Kingdom zones, too bad, so sad. Glancing at the character was enough to kll it… After they introduced level scaling, a lot of players were able to go through that content at any level and have an enjoyable challenging experience (and more to the point, be able to weaken the mob without killing it.
Of course, for less experienced players, level scaling also becomes a challenge… Where you might have thought “this zone is too tough, I need to level up” and then you go back to that zone 5 levels later and the mobs are all just as tough as they were, this can discourage a player. It’s a careful balancing act.



Castlevania literally has levels…

Having level that you acquire with XP was quite literally a central tenet of the creation of the Metrovania concept when Symphony of the Night came out, i.e. the first time Castlevania did a Metrovania (before SotN, Castlevania was pure action with no stats)



To be honest, I have never played a Castlevania game before.

Don’t you think is a little farfetched to call leveling systems a central tenet of the Metroidvania genre when there’s not a single Metroid game that has an actual leveling system?


Interesting question and good answers!

In addition to your points, I would say the main psychology of this behaviour relates to the “perception of significance” effect (not a real terminology, just something I made up). Essentially, when you take 5 minutes to go from level 1 to 2 it has 5 minutes worth of perceived value, significance, difficulty. However when you take 60 minutes to level up from level 10 to 11 it has 60 minutes’ worth of perceived significance… therefore making it more meaningful and more of an achievement. If every single level up took exactly 5 minutes there would be no heightened excitement or meaningfulness in the later game - it would just be yet another level and probably result in a bit of a ho hum attitude towards leveling up.


This is why I desperately want a Game Design course.


I think my point might have been missed in the details: my point was that, beside the earlier suggestions that the spacing out of levels is useful for content management and commercial considerations, it is geometrically natural of levels to be spaced out, because you’d naturally gain more XPs in latter parts of games as opposed to earlier parts. So when a Metrovania does feature levelling up, it feels natural that it takes longer to level up as you progress through the game, even for only gameplay considerations


Not trying to make a point, just asking questions for the sake of learning and making the discussion a little bit richer.

You said that in latter parts you gain more experience, so let’s make an example out of that, at the start of the game you gain 5 exp. points per enemy killed, later you gain 20 exp. points per enemy, in this case, Why leveling up slower feels natural if you are gaining 300% more experience? Does this feel natural because that’s how life works? Or is this just something we, as game consumers, accepted as normal? Or maybe something else entirely.

Another question for all of you guys, I’m deviating here from the leveling topic. Making a decision based on commercial purposes, Does that count as game design or marketing? I personally think that if you start making choices based on market you deviate from the experience you want to give to the players and instead you are just thinking about step 3: profit, which has nothing to do with the game itself, don’t get me wrong, we need to make a profit out of this to make a living, but thinking about marketing while designing a game can be quite detrimental for the game experience making the product, ironically, far less attractive to the consumer. I’m asking this because I’ve seen a lot of developers saying that you should not think of your game as a game but as a product and I think that’s wrong, at least when designing the game, when selling it, of course, think of it as a product, but before that can be quite hurtful for the game as a product and as a game.


I mean to use your numbers as example, if you level up for every 20 XP and that value remained constant then, you’d level up after killing 4 enemies at the beginning, but you’d level up with every enemies killed once each enemy gain you 20 XP… if that were to happen, that would kind of make the game become easier and easier as you play because you becomes stronger in relation to the game faster than the game progresses…

So even if you were to want to keep things linear in terms of progression, you’d want the level up up to require 80 XP once you start encountering 20 XP enemies (4 x 20) so to still require 4 enemies killed per levelling up (hence a bigger spread even if only to keep things linear…).

Hence why I think things then to when you introduce a levelling up system into a game, you are naturally introducing a) the fact that as you level up you become stronger (or else why levelling up at all?) and b) as you level up and become stronger, your enemies become stronger, meaning the step to level up has to keep pace (and thus spread out)… kind of like a self fulfilling thing


Thanks everyone for the really interesting contributions.

It’s a topic I’m sure I’ll reflect on more, thinking about all the really great answers here.

Perhaps it’s just a matter of tweaking/tuning that I was raising. I totally agree that we use early game power-levelling to hook a player. I suppose I was thinking, err, why not keep the player hooked? I suppose I also wondering/challenging how stale a regular reward schedule would really be; and whether spacing rewards (i.e., level ups) out is the best way to avoid staleness. Are there other mechanisms at our disposal - e.g., timing levels and power bumps to plot points?

Being honest, part of my mind was probably just trying to avoid the absurd (some might say cynical) game designs that seem to have become commonplace. Doling out endless worthless equipment and currency. Daily quests. Soft level caps. Equipment rarity levels. Grinding for god-roll loot. Incremental power levels that only come off weekly activities. The dark side, are these.
Because they cause the player to ask ‘is it worth me playing this game?’. Or ‘how can I get this done with maximum efficiency?’ Turning gaming into work. Exploiting our psychology rather than rewarding it. Keeping us on the platform.

How do we hook a player, keep the hook set, without going down that dark path; forever dominating our destinies, etc.

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