February 27 2013
A character's "level" has been the favorite way to define progression in RPGs going at least as far back as tabletop Dungeons and Dragons. It's a mechanic that has been adopted by countless MUDs and MMORPGs, and it seems to be steadily creeping into other game genres as well. Richard Bartle recently made a post about some of his objections to levels, and I suspect a lot of gamers have similar feelings.
No doubt, levels are so ubiquitous precisely because they are a simple, immediately recognizable measure of progress. If a player can see the level of a monster, they can compare it to their own level and it gives them a pretty good idea what they're up against. There are many other ways that progress can be measured, but few are as obvious.
Remove levels, and some other measure will take its place. For example, at the level cap in World of Warcraft, progress is all about improving your equipment, and gearscore becomes a vital statistic. In the early years of the game, there was no visible statistic that summarized your end-game progression; you more or less had to inspect them to see how good their gear was. Players made mods so they could make quicker assessments, and it wasn't long before the game had an official overall equipment rating that determined your readiness for end-game instances.
There tends to be an almost arbitrary nature to most level systems, beginning with how many levels a game should have. Many games seem to have levels just for the sake of having levels. If a new ability is only awarded every other level, why not have half as many levels?
Of course, there are games with progression that don't have levels, such as The Secret World, in which experience points are instead distributed among skills by the player. Progression can also be lateral rather than vertical, so you receive more abilities, rather than more powerful abilities, as you progress. PlanetSide is a pretty good example of this.
Progression is at the heart of the matter, and it all ties into earlier comments we've made about end-game. It doesn't have to involve a massive power curve, nor does it have to fragment the player base the way levels often do. Despite their shortcomings, levels are not the root of all evil, but I hope that more developers rethink how progression is implemented in their games.