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Big Ideas: Experience and the illusion of advancement

Experience in games is a strange concept. Meant to mimic the more natural growth of an individual's knowledge and wisdom, experience (frequently shortened to EXP) is a way for the player to gauge their advancement in a game. As the player character defeats more enemies, his experience meter fills up, and when it gets completely full, a new level is gained and the meter drops back down to zero. New levels mean a rise in attributes and the granting of new powers, elements that become necessary for survival in the game world.

However, it is an arbitrary advancement. It's rarely a true growth; players who haven't developed any true skill in their play can still reap the benefits of a rise in level. There are games where your skill as a player is what matters, where you only get better by putting in the time to master the controls and knowing how to use the system to your advantage. Let's take a fresh look at the concept of experience in games and judge its viability as a useful mechanic.

At first blush, experience is a wonderful metric. It's simple enough to understand; it's like currency. You are given experience in exchange for accomplishing a certain number and type of actions, i.e. kill a monster, receive experience. You can then use that currency to purchase things for yourself, like improvements to your character. Or rather, many of those things are purchased for you. Gaining a new level by accrual of enough experience grants an immediate positive feedback effect -- the infamous ding, a term coined by players of World of Warcraft, where the idea of leveling up has been taken to its ultimate extremity. Indeed, the entire game revolves around the concept of advancement by gaining new levels; what players call "grinding". The more advanced and desirable features of the game are contained in areas that are only survivable to characters of a high enough level, so grinding is the practice of attempting to raise a character to a high enough level to be able to access that advanced content.

Blizzard fully supports this method of play by releasing expansion packs that are goads for players to achieve ever higher levels without paying attention to increasing the enjoyment of the beginning player. This is enough of an important issue that many so-called "leveling guides" have appeared on the market, whose only goal is to get the player past all the boring lower-level stuff and directly into the upper-level content.

But that's more an issue with the sort of gameplay WoW has to offer, rather than any taking advantage of a willing userbase. The inherent problem with the idea of experience is that it can be gamed. Rather than advancing along the enemy path, getting more experience for each successively stronger enemy, it is possible, if exhaustive, to simply stay at the lower level area and kill the same enemy over and over again to continue to level up. It's not an elegant solution, but the very possibility makes the entire concept feel somewhat gamey . By putting a price on the head of each enemy in this way, the focus is taken off of actual adventuring and placed firmly on the arbitrary concept of leveling.

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