As some people might have noticed, I'm not a huge fan of leveling games. But still, I grew up playing console RPGs; there is quite a lot of draw there for me, and for a lot of other players as well--RPG-type battles are simple, streamlined, and widely understood. So the question I've been thinking quite a bit about is: how do you create a game that plays like a console-style RPG without having "leveling up" dominate the gameplay?
I've fiddled with a couple models in the design stage, and the one that seems the most promising seems to be something of a pseudo-roguelike approach: the game consists of one town with one infinite random dungeon (this could be expanded upon a bit, but I don't see it as being a particularly important theme). All exits from one dungeon floor to another are one-way only, so once you go down a level you can't go back up... except that when a player (or party of players) dies, they're returned to town at level 1 and with starting gold and equipment only. It's almost more of an arcade-style outlook (complete with high scores lists), where each play session you start from scratch; players would be able to save and continue right where they left off (even if it's in the middle of a battle), but there's no reloading ever, and the pace would probably be tweaked so that most runs would not take all that long. To help facilitate this, players would be able to earn trophy items which they could take into the dungeon to start them off a little ahead--but these would still only start you out on a level a fraction of what you have to get to in order to earn them in the first place (e.g. making it to level 100 might earn you an item which starts you out 5 levels ahead, so after a few level 100 trips you might be able to put together a set of trophy items which lets you start out on level 20 or 25 at the highest).
Players would level up as they progress on their dungeon run, but to keep leveling up as being a strictly secondary concern, experience levels would be heavily exponential: every level takes twice as much experience as the previous level, and every time you go down a floor, the monsters give out twice as much experience as they did on the previous floor. Thus, no matter what you do, your experience level tends to stick pretty close to the floor you're on... if you start bolting down several floors without fighting, your experience level will rapidly catch up; if you hang out on the same floor and try to level up, after a few experience levels it will be rather slow going.
The game would probably get boring relatively quickly as a solo game, so there would definitely be some emphasis on group adventuring, with each class having its own highly specialized focus; there would be a few classes geared towards soloing, either through a diverse but weak "jack-of-all-trades" orientation or by having special skills which are simply less effective when used as a member of a large group, but while they'd be more effective on a 1-for-1 basis they'd still be no replacement for a good-sized adventuring party. Class changes would be very simple; there would be a small fee out of a player's starting fund to encourage players to specialize and not switch classes on every single expedition, but this really would just boil down to being limited to starting with a slightly weaker weapon, or carrying one or two fewer potions into the dungeon, etc.
I've fleshed the game idea bit more "on paper" (well, "in Notepad"), but this basically covers the overall game concept pretty well. Any thoughts on the idea--what makes it work, what makes it not work, what it needs added in order to make it work, etc.?