It used to be that you could measure game time in an RPG with just how much you levelled up. To say in Final Fantasy VI that you reached level 60 before the end of the game, without much grinding involved, meant the game was at least a few dozen hours long. The random battle element combined with the linear nature of their stories and progress meant that that you would reach higher character levels naturally and without breaking off the story progression with unnecessary encounters.
For example, Ys I is a classic JRPG. Yes, it has an insane battle system when compared to other series, but it follows the traditional tropes, flow and pacing and yet, the maximum level is 10. It’s a very short game and for those of us who were grew up on old school RPGs, just mentioning the level cap is enough to make us realise this. By the same consideration, Ys II takes about 50 levels to complete and even if you don’t get it instantly, you can still figure out that the game is at least five times as long.
Western RPGs on the other hand are much different and the level progression isn’t helpful at all in determining length. This is because they often have many more optional things to do which don’t always give you experience rewards or the enemies and challenges scale up to your level, making the progress independent of its mechanics. Skyrim is a good example. To say that you are level X in that game doesn’t tell anyone how long the game is because there are potentially millions of things you could be doing to get there. Knights of the Old Republic’ maximum level is 20 as it’s an adaptation of the D20 tabletop RPG, yet it’s a long game. But its level cap doesn’t reflect the length at all. If you followed the Ys I comparison, then you would think it’s only twice as long as that game when in reality it’s several dozens of times longer.
JRPGs are more linear in nature and the level progression is almost always built into the natural flow of the game, thus it’s easier to judge how much game time there will be just by looking at the levels. Even in bigger titles like Xenoblade Chronicles, with almost endless exploration and hundreds of side-quests, and Bravely Default with its never-ending repetition, you can figure out a median of game time just by hearing how many times someone levelled up. For example, I finished Xenoblade Chronicles and Bravely Default at level 95 of a maximum of 100. These are vast games with plenty of optional things to do, but with their linear storytelling it should give you an idea of how much I had to play to get there.
But Western RPGs don’t follow that at all. Some say the biggest difference between the two branches of Role-playing Video Games is the tropes they follow, such as JRPGs often ending with you killing (a) God. But personally I feel this levelling flow and natural progression pace is what really separates them. Take Fallout vs Final Fantasy. If you finish FFV at level 50 anyone who’s played a title of that series will instantly know the average time it took you to finish the game. Tell someone about Fallout 3 and they will have no clue whatsoever.
World of Warcraft is a fantastic example of levelling not being a measure of game-time in Western RPGS. Yes it’s an MMO and follows different rules but the variance between levelling times for players is so large you can’t really determine the content’s size based on it. Some players will finish the content in days while for others it’ll be a matter of hours. When the last expansion released, it took me a few days to reach the latest level cap, but recently a friend in the game told me he’d taken an Alt (a secondary character) up to the cap in only two days.
That isn’t to say there aren’t counter-examples within the JRPG “community.” Dark Souls, or any Souls game for that matter, is a JRPG and yet, levelling isn’t a factor you consider. The environments are vast and with many opportunities to find more experience (souls), the levels themselves are meaningless for the most part, as a skillful enough player can finish the game with level 1. Also there are soul items, which give you a boost. The levelling is disconnected from the progress.
And perhaps that is at the core of this subject. Disconnection. JRPGs have a greater link between their story progression and character progression, the levelling happening more naturally and organically as the player just makes his way to the next story points. Western RPGs, and a handful of modern JRGPs, tend to eschew that design. They favour an experience independent of the levelling, where the progression and your own empowerment aren’t related.
I used to absolutely prefer the JRPG approach, but after the grinding I endured with Bravely Default, it’s made me question what I prefer. I still enjoy it when mechanical character growth fits into the story progress, as I can focus on the story without worrying too much about whether I have the power level required to make it through the next bit. But I have grown discontent with grinding in these games, and so the Western RPG approach has become rather appealing.
Still, the connection between levelling and game time is something I value, as it gives me an idea of how much time I’ll potentially sink into a game. If we take Skyrim…I sank too many hours into it and by the time I decided to pursue the main quest I was too over-powered to properly enjoy it, because there was no link between the story progression and my growth. I felt disconnected from the story I was participating it, and in truth, it killed some of my immersion.
What do you think? How do you feel about the two designs? Have you ever measured an RPG’s time based solely on how high a level someone reached?