David's ideas for how to fix the leveling problem.
Problems in the past:
In RPGs there is this thing called the leveling problem. Never heard of it you say? Well let me explain. Table top games and the computer games that replaced them need to be able to give you information about your character so you can properly immerse yourself into the world the character lives in. This usually takes the form of a set of numbers that let you know what your character can and can not do. Games like Dungeons and Dragons, Final Fantasy, and Elder Scrolls take different approaches to this but it all boils down to your character having so much strength, so much health, and maybe so much magic. These stats are often dependent on a lower level of stats which usually include intelligence, luck, constitution and what not. The exact way that a game creates these stats and the way the player can increase them through leveling is often the intellectual property of the company that makes the game so it can't be copied. But even with that there is one thing that all the systems do seem to copy from each other and that is the leveling problem.
RPGs are supposed to be fun. They are called games for a reason. They aren't virtual reality and they aren't a vacation from your normal life. They are a games the same way that Monopoly is a game and chess is a game. But when it comes to keeping track of stats and making sure that your character levels up correctly, the system created so that players can understand their character often gets in the way and can make the game a headache. The problem is that each leveling system seems to favor one type of play style over another but even if you play as the developers envision you to, you might find yourself either too weak or too strong. If you are too strong the game becomes banal and boring but if you are too weak then you find you can't progress and see the whole story. This is why you hear a lot of people who play RPGs that allow players to manipulate their stats talk a lot about balance. Some games will force balance on the player by not giving them any control in the leveling up process at all with player simply able to see stats but not actually manipulate them.
In D&D the problem is often that your character is too weak because you just can't get stat or health increases often enough. In Final Fantasy you character often becomes too strong because you can just go to the woods and grind until you are nearly maxed out and then the rest of the game is a cake walk. Phantasy Star fixed that problem by making the game extremely difficult to begin with and the only way to beat the game was to grind your character to god like levels just to play on normal at which point the player was unlikely to grind anymore because they were sick and tired of grinding. Unfortunately this made the game so inaccessible to many players that they never bothered to finish it.
From Morrowind on the Elder Scrolls series has taken a skill approach to leveling up. Instead of getting experience for every little thing, you get experience when you use your skills and when enough of your skills have leveled up, you can gain a level. Morrowind, Oblivion and now Skyrim each have their own version of the leveling problem. In Morrowind, you're forced to start your mage character wearing heavy armor and using a spear for the first ten levels just so you can get enough health to not get one hit killed by the next rat hiding behind a rock. In order to play as a proper mage and not some spearmage combo you had to invest a lot of time in either alchemy or enchanting. The problem is that once you did so it was easy to see the mechanics of the game laid bare and to exploit it to make your mage a god who could kill entire towns with one spell. At this point you weren't so much playing the game and being in that world as you were playing against your stats. The stat menu was the enemy to be slain and the demigod in the volcano everyone is afraid of turns into just a bump in the road.
Oblivion tried to fix the Morrowind leveling problem and in doing so exacerbated the reason the leveling problem existed in the first place. In Oblivion, even if you are able to get your stats above the approved 100, they will still max out at 255 (or ff if you can read hexadecimal). Oblivion's world also leveled up with the character. The thinking was probably centered on making the game challenging no matter the level of the character but what it did in reality was make the game world often level up much faster than the character. If a player just started playing the game without giving a thought to their stats, they would eventually find themselves far too weak to handle the continuous onslaught of daedra flooding out of an oblivion gate. On top of that, at some point all the bandits which are supposed to be low level enemies start sporting glass and daedric armor and weapons. No thought was put into the idea that maybe these special kinds of items should be rare and the thief who wants 100 gold to let you pass a bridge is wearing an outfit and using a weapon that each costs well over 100000 gold.
So Oblivion had an even bigger leveling problem than Morrowind and players have developed two basic strategies for dealing with it. They could carefully plan out each and every skill increase to maximize their stats or they could roll a character that was in some way the exact oppose of how they really wanted to play the game and never level up at all but rather allow their minor skill to carry the day while the character and world stayed at level 1.
Skyrim tried to fix the leveling problem of Oblivion but again they only worked on the symptom but not the cause. The developers didn't want players to feel like they weren't going to get all their stats so they took the stats completely away and now you just have three resources; magic, health, and stamina. They say the symptom and thought that was the problem but they decided to keep the problem in full. Now players have no stats to worry about but instead of getting some health and magic increase with each level you are not forced to pick one. This means that if you go from level one to level two you will not get increases in all your resources but only one. A fighter may feel fine with this as they only need to alternate between health and stamina but a mage is put in peril again because they need to alternate between three stats or risk dying the first time a big warrior looks at them wrong. Skyrim seems to push the player to be a simple fighter and magic is discouraged. But this leveling problem could be fixed with one simple idea, increase all three resources when you level up but pick one resource that gets a double shot.
But this would not fix all of Skyrim's leveling problems. There is also a problem managing the combat versus non combat skills. The world will level up with your character so again bandits and thieves will be wearing million dollar armor they could retire on if they just sold it. If you leveling up smithing and speech but not some combat skill then the next time you're out walking about and taking in the beautiful scenery a mudcrab could kill you with a surprise attack from behind.
Elements of the fix:
Deep down the leveling problem has to do with numbers. On the most basic level your character either exists or doesn't so that could be thought of as a switch, either a 0 or a 1. Each thing about the character we itemize will boil down to a set of numbers and there needs to be a way for those numbers to go up or down. We can't recreate a full human being in a game so we have to have some set criteria for them. If you think of it as a house, you can have a simple house as one unified thing or you can have a house made with large stones, or you can have a house make of bricks or you can have a house made of match sticks or a house made of sand. How far down do we want to go?
The skills approach of Morrowind together with the fact that the game world does not level up with the character is the best fit in my opinion but there is still something to be desired there. In Morrowind, you can use an iron dagger and with it get your short blade skill all the way up to level 100 and then you are a master of every short blade in the game. That is unrealistic. In Skyrim it is worse. You can use an iron dagger and get your one handed skill all the way up and now you are a master of swords even though your character never picked on up. This is even worse if you think of a magic user. You can use the base flame spell for most of the game and get destruction up to level 100 and now you are a master of every spell in that class, even the ones you haven't learned yet.
Final Fantasy IX had a system where in you gained experience with certain items you had equipped. Perhaps that idea can be adapted for better use.
For me the key word is not so much balance as organic. How can we make the game world so organic that all the numbers fall into the background? One thing we need is to stop capping everything at either 100 or 1000 or ff as some are apt to do.
To do this we have to do a couple of things. There is no cap and the game world does not level up. If you go to fight the end boss with a level 1 character you will die. If you have a level 193 character and you are facing a thief on the side of the road, he'll likely run away from you.
There are no skills and there are no stats but there are numbers going on in the background. You start with no numbers at all but then you pick up an iron dagger. Just the fact that you have now held a dagger in your hand for the first time in your life you get some experience but it is hidden so the player isn't going to go through the start menu looking for it. As you use the dagger your skill with that dagger goes up. As it does so your health, magic, and stamina go up by little increments that are hardly noticeable first, with the stat the most closely related to the skill being increased going up double from the others.
Now it does make some sense that if you have used an iron dagger a lot than a steel dagger won't be much trouble to use. The iron dagger gives a boost to the steel dagger skill but they each level up independently. Think of it as a skill tree. An iron dagger is a dagger so other daggers get a boost from this skill. Similarly, a dagger is a bladed weapon and so other bladed weapons get a boost from this skill but it will be smaller than for other daggers. Knowing how to use a dagger doesn't really help you know how to use a bow so there is no boost there save for helping with stats.
This idea carries over to magic quite well. A fireball spell is a fire spell and so other fire spells get a boost. Ice spells, since they are also combat magic also get a bit of a boost but not as much. Spells that are not combat related at all don't get any boost but do benefit from the increased magic the player now has.
It also carries over to item creating and crafting. You could imagine an entire alchemy skill tree with your skill with each type of potion or poison you can make going up. You can see it in your skill with working different types of metal with you create or maintain weapons and armor. (For the record, I think weapons and armor should need to be repaired over time but I don't think they should break if a player could't get around to it. Maybe going down to 10% and stopping is a balanced trade off.)
If we break down the character as having weapon skills, body skills, and magic skills we can put anything the player might want to do into one of those categories. Most of the thief skills are body skills so let them be body skills. Knowing how to dance well involves having greater control over your body and that same control can carry over to fighting with just hands ( and feet) as well as sneaking. This could also carry over into affecting posture and presence which helps with persuading people as well as being a pickpocket.
Maybe there will be some skills that get no boost and give no boost to other skills but simply have to start at 0 and will only level up as much as the player uses it. This opens up the idea that if a game were made with this system in place it could see updates that add new and unique weapons to the line up without worry.
All the while you play the character, every little thing you do is slowly adding to your health and magic. The game should still not be easy. You can't ignore the low level weapons because you will want that experience on your character but you really want to just use the best stuff from the beginning, there is not cap on the skill so go for it. Or if you want to challenge yourself to only use the lowest level items then go for it, it's your game. The player should never have to think about how they want to level up. In fact, there will be no stated level at all. There will only be an accumulation of resources as the player goes through the game organically doing what feels best to them.
Addressing possible concerns:
A problem some may see in this system is that without overriding skill groups managing everything, developers may feel compelled to equalize the number of weapons, spells and other skills.
My first response is, so what. If that's what it takes, then so be it. They've often made worse decision in the past by doing just this sort of thing, like when enchanting wasn't a skill at all in Oblivion because they didn't want magic to have more skills than everything else.
My second response is, who says they have to be balanced. Most games are weapon heavy and light on magic anyway. This gives magic a way to have a day in the sun. If your character is master all every weapon in the game as unlikely as that is, then you are now encouraged to get a spell and learn to use it instead of being punished for reading a book.
My third response is with the great number of different weapons that are often made for these games and the large number of possible spells and levels of spells that could be created, hopefully, there will be such a lush variety of things to do to skill up you character that the player will never need to think about it. The key word again is organic.
The skill group that will likely have the fewest skill will be the body skills. Do we add chopping wood? Do we add cooking or farming? Running and jumping used to be skills so they can be again. What about sleeping or making camp? Does it matter? A thief character will do a lot of sneaking and there is no cap. All characters will run and jump from time to time and again there is no cap. Most players will buy and sell stuff often and again there is no cap. So where a player may have many weapons leveled a little and many spells leveled a little, their body skills will level up a lot since after all they have only one body. I'm ok with that. The game can be designed accordingly. Maybe in the course of development it might be decided that there really does need to be a cap. The body skills are still ok. Go ahead and cap them if you must but allow the player to continue to get experience for using a skill even if they have reached the cap. This way players can continue to play in the style that they like without ever having to stop and consider what the best way to level up.