Level cap is a game term describing a limit on advancement, typically on a character's experience level, although it may also be used to refer to a cap on statistics, money, or similar values. Level caps are seen most commonly in role-playing games, although they can be used in any game where character growth occurs in discrete steps.
There are multiple ways in which a level cap can be utilized. Here I describe the different ways as well as the benefits and problems that occur with each.
An artificial cap is the type of level cap people typically think of when the term is used. For this cap, the game designers choose an arbitrary limit on character advancement. In its earliest use, the limit was imposed to prevent a character from becoming too powerful in a game which solved two different problems. First, players who over-level their characters would find the rest of the game too easy, and, therefore, boring. By capping the character's level, designers could ensure the later portions of the game would still be challenging. Second, it prevented players from believing they needed to grind levels longer than would be necessary. Once a player discovered she's not gaining any more levels, she would know she had to progress the game's story to continue. When MMOs started to become popular, level caps were introduced, not so much to prevent the player from getting bored, but from preventing players who devoted more time to the game from becoming far more powerful than those who didn't. However, in order to sell additional content, game designers realized they would have to allow the players to gain further levels to make the content worthwhile, and this introduced the latest reason why artificial level caps are used, they make money. Players now have to buy the right to go up levels, and this design has even been carried over to non-MMOs. For example, Borderlands caps you at level 50, but, for each additional expansion you buy, your cap increases by 8 levels.
Artificial level caps introduce multiple problems. By not allowing characters to become more powerful, the cap imposes a difficulty level at the end of the game that no amount of grinding can change. If the designers set the level cap too low, they will make the game impossible to weaker players, while setting it too high doesn't solve the problems described above. Artificial caps also throw off the game's reward mechanism. Players only put up with repetitious random encounters because they know they're getting an experience reward. However, once they realize they aren't getting anything out of combat, the encounters become a chore and annoy the player. This can be alleviated by creating bonuses that don't directly affect the power of the character. For example, in Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, the player caps out of experience at 8,000, but ever 9,000 gained after that awards the player with an extra life. An additional problem faced with the pay-to-level model of MMOs is, once players realize that those players who spend more money on the game can buy an advantage, they may find the model unfair, and will be less inclined to play the game.
Another form of level cap is one based on limited resources within the game world. If a game doesn't use repeatable encounters, but instead has a set number of experience which can be acquired, characters will naturally hit their limit once everything has been completed in the game.
The benefit of a game designed this way is the player will never suffer the meaningless encounters that occur when the artificial level cap because there won't be any more encounters once they reach the cap. The down side is, the game starts to feel like a ghost town where nothing interesting happens anymore. And, just like with an artificial cap, the game's final segments will still have a set difficulty that needs to be gauged properly. Not having infinite encounters many also throw off the game's economy as well if money is tied to them.
An example of this kind of limit occurs in the World of Xeen Might and Magic games which essentially have a set number of encounters and very limited gold. If you don't properly invest your money early in the game, you'll find yourself so strapped for cash near the end you won't be able to afford training to raise your levels, effectively capping you.
This is not the kind of capping system that can be easily implemented into an existing game, as it requires an overhaul of the game's encounters and a fair amount of testing to ensure the characters will be at the sweet spot as the progress through the game.
A cap of this kind isn't imposed by a hard limit in the game's code, but rather when increasing your level just becomes impractical because the experience needed to reach the next level is much higher than what the game awards. This is more the result of bad game design than anything else. For example, if the awarded experience follows a linear increase, but level thresholds follow an exponential increase, it won't take long before the player can no longer level up in a practical amount of time.
In the game Castle of the Winds, on the easiest setting, level 30 takes 10,695,475,180 experience to reach, but the most powerful monsters only yield around 100 experience making it practically impossible to reach level 30 through combat.
A soft cap is when the game's rules don't explicitly prevent you from progressing beyond a certain level, but they do discourage you from doing so. As expected, this doesn't usually occur in video games, but rather traditional pen-and-paper role-playing games. For example, while some editions of Dungeons & Dragons have artificial caps in the rules, many of them describe a soft cap at level 20 pointing out that, once a party of characters reaches this level, there just isn't much left that can pose a challenge to them. They'll be able to easily defeat the bulk of the monsters defined in the game's rules, and even catastrophic world-ending scenarios get boring when you have to play them every time.
Level caps occur in every video game as a technical limitation, even if not wanted by design. Computers have limits to the size of numbers they can work with. For example, 8-bit computers can only work with numbers from 0-255. While they can simulate larger numbers, it's slow and complicated to do, so early video game designers would just impose limits to prevent having to deal with them.
If this problem isn't addressed, the player will experience an integer overflow which is usually a catastrophic problem. For example, if the game uses an 8-bit integer for level, and the player gets enough experience to advance past level 255, their level will drop to 0. If the game starts at level 0, the player will probably find herself severely under-powered, but, if the game starts at level 1, she may find all sorts of strange bugs occurring including a divide by zero. To address this problem, developers typically place an artificial level cap before the technical cap. This is why many games cap at 99. But, since these caps are so high, and characters who reach this level are usually over-powered, it doesn't really serve as a meaningful level cap.
Sometimes games will have a lower level cap because the experience threatens to overflow. RPGs made on older hardware would use 16-bit numbers for stats which were expected to become large like experience and gold, but these were still limited to 65,536 values, and level advancement usually follows a geometric progression of experience, so designers had to worry about overflow them as well. This is why in the game Dragon Warrior the level cap is 30. It's not because the CPU can't count to 31, but because level 29 occurs at 62,000 and level 30 occurs at 65,535; there just isn't any room left in the 16-bit experience variable to progress further.
This isn't really an issue anymore since most CPUs use 64-bit integers natively which can handle values up to 18,446,744,073,709,551,615. There is technically still a limit, but it would take many lifetimes to reach. Despite this lack of technical limits, many game designers still impose limits simply to make it easier to display the level on the screen.
Although I had played plenty of games with level caps in my youth, I rarely hit them because they were usually so high. The first game where I remember being shocked when I hit the level cap was Dragon Warrior which caps you at level 30. This annoyed me as I still felt getting to the final boss was pretty difficult, and I wanted to overpower my character to make it easier. From a game play standpoint, I don't like level caps because I find the downsides outweigh the benefits. If a player wants a challenge, they're welcome to impose their own limits, but, if a player finds they're just not good enough to beat the game with the imposed level cap, there isn't much they can do. When caps are set so high they don't really limit the player, I find them to be pointless.
This is a list of games that are important to me which use level caps.
|Borderlands||Initially set to 50, then upped to 58. Each expansion you get increases the cap. You're unlikely to reach this in a normal play-through.|
|Castle of the Winds||Capped at 30, but 12 is the practical cap. Beyond that, the game doesn't award enough experience to reach the next level. You have to find level increase potions.|
|Chrono Trigger||Capped at 99. You're unlikely to reach this in a normal play-through.|
|Diablo||Capped at 50. You're unlikely to reach this in a normal play-through.|
|Dragon Warrior||Caps you at level 30 because experience is only 16-bit. Although it takes awhile to reach, you won't be overpowered when you do.|
|Final Fantasy||Capped at 50. You're unlikely to reach this in a normal play-through. Level was supposed to affect ability to run away, but it's glitched in the NES original.|
|Final Fantasy IV||Capped at 99. You're unlikely to reach this in a normal play-through.|
|Final Fantasy V||Capped at 99. You're unlikely to reach this in a normal play-through. Each job is capped as well.|
|Final Fantasy VI||Capped at 99. You're unlikely to reach this in a normal play-through.|
|Final Fantasy Adventure||Capped at 99. You're unlikely to reach this in a normal play-through.|
|Might and Magic III: Isles of Terra||You can train to level 200, but permanent level bonuses can take level to 255. You can also get temporary level bonuses up to level 505, but this will overflow some in-game calculations.|
|Secret of Mana||Level capped at 99, elemental magic capped at seeds, then 8.99, weapons capped at the number of orbs you have, then 8.99. Most of these are unlikely in a normal play-through.|
|Sword of Vermilion||Capped at 31. I hit this without much grinding, and I wasn't overpowered near the end.|
|Ultima VII: The Black Gate||Capped at 8. Each level increase adds three units of training. Spell casting circle is tied to level.|
|Ultima: Exodus||Capped at 25. Very easy to reach, but it only limits your max HP. Stats are capped by the character's race and must be raised by donating gold.|
|Undertale||Capped at 20.|
|Ys III: Wanderers from Ys||Caps at level 12, and expect to hit it. The ending is pretty tough even when topped out.|
|Zelda II: The Adventure of Link||Max XP is 8,000 where each attribute will be set to 8. After that, every 9,000 XP earned will give a 1-up.|