In a game, there are typically two ways the player can become more powerful; they can level up by gaining Experience Points or they can get better equipment, Equipment Upgrades and/or items which permanently enhance their stats. This trope is about games which only use the latter method or make it the main component.
This trope typically occurs in more action-oriented games, where the focus is less on character building (since this is one of things which defines the RPG genre, examples which are purely this trope are rare) and more on exploration or combat, making Stat Grinding less attractive as a gameplay element (since it keeps the player from progressing or breaks up the action). Exploration based games (particularly in the Metroidvania subgenre, although some also use RPG Elements) will often combine this trope with Utility Weapon; expecting the player to use their new abilities to get to the next area, while combat based games will simply make the player more powerful. Since items can be given and taken away freely, it also allows the game to make the player less powerful (although a good designer won't abuse this). If the items can be picked up in any order (and they're balanced, rather than offering a simple increase in power), it can also make the game less linear. Finding an extra Rare Candy is also a good way to reward the player for exploring.
Note that this can still apply to games where the player has some level based progression if there are parts of the game where that's switched off, making items or Rare Candys the only way to increase in power quickly or if leveling up only grants access to more powerful items. Partial examples should only be listed if item based progression is equal to or more important than experience based leveling.
Compare the Sword of Plot Advancement (which progresses the plot rather than the character) and Standard FPS Guns (which tend to follow this trope). Contrast Stat Grinding (where skills advance when the player uses them, rather than advancing for the player to use them).
- The Assassin's Creed games generally follow this format, in that you get better weapons to do more damage, and better armor to get more health (the first had a "sync" bar that increased through the game as you did various sidequests).
- The Castlevania is similar to the Metroid series, but it tends to include levelling up.
- Cave Story, another Metroidvania-style game, has you collect various guns, each one leveling up and down individually as you collect XP triangles and take damage.
- Chantelise: Equipment is the only way to improve every stat except health, which is improved permanently through Ferromin purchased from Aira. Gloves boost strength, staves boost magical attack, shields boost physical defense, charms boost magical defense, and other items change the item drop system or add elemental resistances.
- Larry and the Gnomes has no leveling system. The player must find projectiles and weapons to get more powerful. Part of the strategy consists in knowing which weapon will be better in the long term, or knowing which will be the most useful for the current stage.
- The Legend of Zelda series (with the exception of Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, which experiments with RPG Elements) generally uses this trope, having Link pick up a new weapon in each dungeon. Depending on the game however is how the progression works with the bosses. In some cases you can walk out of the dungeon once you've found the new item and use it to tackle the next dungeon right away, though you usually have to defeat every boss at some point anyway. The "Groundhog Day" Loop mechanic of Majora's Mask applies especially strongly; because the game world is reset every three days, where Link is capable of going depends entirely on what he has brought back in time with him.
- In Mega Man the entire point of the series was to acquire new weapons from one boss to take down the next. Since you could fight them in any order, the trick was discovering the optimum sequence to fight them in.
- The first thing you have to do in Metroid and Metroid II: Return of Samus is get the Morph Ball so you can roll under a ledge to the right.
- Super Metroid: As Samus makes progress, she gets Super Missiles to supplant the normal Missiles, Power Bombs to supplant the Morph Ball Bombs, and the Space Jump completely renders both the Wall Jump and Grapple Beam obsolete.
- In general, all Metroid games make use of this trope. Ironically, the first game's remake, Metroid: Zero Mission, was the first to have several progression elements not based around new equipment.
- While Ōkami and its sequel Ōkamiden have a leveling system, it is independent from its combat system. The brush techniques may not be equipment, but they do add new powers, allowing for further exploration and more effective combat, as well as some puzzle-solving.
- While you do find health upgrades in Shining Wisdom the only way to increase your attack power/skills if to find new weapons.
- Ring Runner: Flight of the Sages allows you to unlock new equipment over time, either by completing missions or performing research projects. All equipment is meant to provide you with new options in combat. For example, if you unlock a tractor beam that can pull in enemies, suddenly the plasma sawblade that's high-damage but limited to close range becomes much more attractive.
- In An Untitled Story, the player progresses by finding heart containers and abilities which let them reach areas that were inaccessible before. Later, ability finding is replaced with searching for golden orbs.
- Yoku's Island Express: Yoku doesn't level up or gain any inherent abilities beyond being a pinball — finding new items, such as the Sootling and the Slug Vacuum, and using them in creative ways are the only ways to progress and/or find hidden items in the game.
- The entire First-Person Shooter genre in general (although less so with more recent games) has this trope as one of its main features (since players are expected to get bigger and better weapons as the game goes on), although many have RPG or Point Build System-based progression as well.
- Metro Exodus: New gear becomes available during the game, but most progression comes from upgrading your existing kit.
An example: one of your starting weapons is a revolver. It only has a three shot cylinder and fires slowly, but at least it has a suppressed barrel for being sneaky. If you keep your eyes open, you can find an eight shot cylinder, a faster action, a long barrel, a rifle stock and telescopic sights. Put them all together and you now have a decent sniper rifle. Swap the long barrel for the suppressed barrel and the long sights for iron sights and you can be sneaky again, but faster and with a higher capacity.
- STALKER's progression revolves entirely on what equipment you have. In fact, there are three distinct phases in Shadow of Chernobyl:
- The 'hobo' phase, where you'll be VERY lucky to have guns that don't jam every 10 shots, two full reloads or more for each, and an armor capable of preventing four shots from being lethal;
- The 'stalker' phase, where you start have decent guns, good armor with usable night vision, and scopes for longer-range engagements;
- And finally, the 'One-Man Army' phase, featuring very good armor with Night-Vision Goggles good enough to make the time of day irrelevant (in fact, stalking at night is far more advantageous), and powerful and accurate hardware galore (including suppressed armor-piercing rifles). As long as you don't do anything stupid, you're almost invincible and can kill anything in your way, be it mutant or human.
- Wolfenstein 3D was the Ur-Example for FPS games using this trope (being the first game in the genre) while Doom was the Trope Codifier (having popularised it); both games had the player go from the basic fists and pistol, all the way up to room clearing super weapons.
- A.R.E.S. Extinction Agenda features the titular Ares (and Tarus in EX) can get upgrades to his arsenal and suit as they progress through the game, which can then be further upgraded by obtaining datacubes and using materials from defeated enemies or found laying around the stages. These new abilities includes an air-dash, a suit that protects Ares from the Zytron gases, an energy machine gun, and a Wave Emitter that can shoot through walls. In the original, there's a special Genesis Suit that can be unlocked, once the player has SS ranked almost every stage in the game.
- Ratchet & Clank is a prime example. If Ratchet gains XP at all, it is only to raise his health. Otherwise, the damage he deals and takes is determined by his equipment (weapons and armor respectively). Weapons can be bought and, from second game onward, leveled as well to make them stronger and in general more useful. However, to truly fit this trope, you need to get specific gadgets (either found or bought for a hefty price) that allow your progress. It is possible to get blocked from progress, especially in earlier games, where you need to use specific gadget you don't have yet - for example on your first visit of Orxon in the first game you don't have Oxygen Helmet so only Clank can explore limited section of it, which warrants you the coordinates of a planet where it can be found.
- Spelunky: You find equipment and upgrades, but you can also get them by going to a shop or performing a ritual sacrifice. The game is randomly generated, and if you don't find things early, the later levels might be too hard to get through.
- While NetHack features a conventional Experience Points system, no ascension run is complete without a fully-compensatory, well-enchanted ascension kit. In fact, the midgame is typically recognized as the collection and construction of this high-level gear that will carry you through the endgame.
- In Brogue, all of your progression is item-based: Life potions both heal and increase maximum hp, enchantment scrolls increase the effectiveness of any items you use them on, and strength potions allow you to wield heavier weapons for more damage. There used to be an experience and level system, but not in the most recent versions.
- In most Atelier games, levelling up only grants characters minor stat increases and the occasional new skill. In comparison, crafting better gear can result in an immediate, drastic increase in power, sometimes to the point of turning challenging encounters into cakewalk. This is not limited to equipment, but also includes consumable items: a well-crafted bomb can deal several times the damage of a weaker one. Veteran Atelier players can often be seen advising newbies not to worry about grinding levels, and to instead focus on making better items when they hit a roadblock.
- In Chrono Cross, you have a fairly low level cap based on your star level (which can only be increased by defeating bosses, not mooks), preventing you from Stat Grinding. The only way to get stronger in the interim is to forge stronger weapons/equipments and abilities.
- In Dark Cloud, you can increase your characters' Health and Thirst meters, but you can only increase damage by adding enhancements to their weapons and, eventually, building them up into bigger weapons. You do find new weapons occasionally, but after you've built up one weapon a couple times, even the mightiest new weapons start to pale.
- The first Deception allowed you to level up your character, but its primary focus was to unlock new breeds of trap and monsters to create; in a later chapter, you acquired a sword which unlocked enhanced trap types. Later games in the series dispensed with the leveling entirely* and instead had you solely focus on expanding your armament of traps.
- The concept overlaps with And Your Reward Is Clothes in The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind. After a certain point, the rewards for the main quest (and some other quest lines) become things you can wear, intended to be symbolic of recognition as a great war-leader, only occasionally with a marginally decent enchantment or other bonus.
- In Emerald Dragon only the protagonist Atrushan and his Love Interest Tamryn gain EXP and level up as usual. The rest of your party have no levels, so they can only get stronger as you progress by getting them better equipment.
- Evil Islands features this to some degree, thanks to its emphasis on Item Crafting (with the pseudo level-up only increasing Hit Points and Mana Points, and purchasable skills only affecting secondary stats such as chance to hit or attack speed), but especially with physical damage. There's no way at all to increase the damage inflicted through weapons by earning experience, you must equip a better weapon for that. This is notable because experience points can be spent on skills such as increased night vision or maximum equippable weight, so you'd expect something as important as damage would be affected by experience. Also present in regards to armor points (can only be increased by equipping better armor) and magical damage (can only be increased by equipping better spells available through Spell Crafting, experience only affects, indirectly, whether you're actually able to use them, but once crsfted and equipped, the spell's damage can't be increased).
- In Fire Emblem 0% growth runs, players have a variety of options to increase stats due to not gaining any on level ups anymore such as: promotional bonuses, reclassing, stat boosters, tonics, meals/provisions, skills, forges and for the few games that have them, accessories or stat boosting talk conversations. With strong experimentation, even unpromoted units can find ways to be on par with promoted units in this mode.
- God Eater Burst relies solely upon equipment to increase your abilities. The only difference between a character five hours into the game and fifty hours in is equipment load-out, and you can always opt to go into the most difficult fights with the most pathetic gear if you're feeling masochistic. Party members are static as well unless the story changes their gear or tactics.
- The Heart Pumps Clay: As described in the game's description:
Character progression comes through a variety of equipment found throughout the Tree of Life, including equippable spells for Mara.
- Helen's Mysterious Castle: As said in the game's FAQ on the store page, basically stating that only items matter to her combat ability:
FAQQ. Does Helen level up?
A. While Helen herself does not level up, her items can be enhanced using experience points.
- Infinite Space characters do become more skilled by leveling up, but the primary way main character Yuri becomes more powerful in game terms is by gaining access to new ships. Ship classes determine the durability and firepower of the player party in combat.
- While multiplayer characters in Mass Effect 3 do gain experience and upgrade their skills, their levels are capped at 20 (single-player cap is 60) and the players have to reset them back to level 1 if they want to keep advancing up the score ladder. This effectively renders character progression meaningless in the long term, while rare weapons, weapon upgrades, and advanced equipment mods (randomly awarded for winning online matches) become crucial on higher difficulty settings.
- In Mega Man Battle Network, the only stats that you can find increasers for are Hit Points and kB (the latter is used to set a chip as available first turn). Because of this, the only real way you can increase your power is by finding and equipping more powerful chips and Customizer parts (which can increase other stats, like rate of buster fire, and give other abilities).
- Your power in Monster Hunter is based completely on the equipment you own, and the point of the game revolves almost entirely around finding new ways to create new gear. You hunt monsters to skin them for body parts, of course, but you also have to mine for ores, catch fish and bugs, collect herbs and mushrooms and plant crops to really get the most out of everything.
- In Moonlighter, you don't gain experience or levels from killing enemies or selling items in your shop. The only way to get more powerful is by having Andrei The Blacksmith craft weapons and armor for you and (ideally) having Eris the Enchanter upgrade them for you with Empowering Crystals.
- MS Saga: A New Dawn characters become stronger and unlock new Limit Breaks by leveling up, but acquiring better Mobile Suits is still a bigger boost in power. It's the Mobile Suit's stats that determine durability and which weapons can be used: each suit has its own Grid Inventory, with more powerful suits having larger ones to accomodate larger/stronger weapons.
- Paper Mario handles parts of the progression this way. While you can level up your HP, FP (Mana), and BP (Badge Points, which define how much you can equip), attack and defense are solely dependant on your equipment. Mario's jump and hammer become more powerful once he upgrades his boots or hammer, which happens at certain points in the game, and everything else is dependent on which badges he has equipped.
- By far, one of the most common challenge runs is the "BP-Only Run" because of this, since the ability to increase the power of your attacks with badges is probably the most helpful levelling strategy, especially as you approach the endgame.
- Later games in the series eschew leveling up, FP and Badges entirely. Instead, Mario gains more HP by collecting HP-Up hearts (Sticker Star, Origami King) or advancing the plot (Color Splash), while more powerful boot, hammer and other attack items become available as one progresses. While all attacks in Sticker Star and Color Splash are consumed after a single use, Origami King has the basic Jump and Hammer always be available, with more powerful versions having durability and breaking after several uses instead of just one, and everything else being regulated to the Item slot. Thus, battles in these games only serve to gather more coins to fund buying replacements and upgrades.
- In the Trails Series, Quartz serves as your main method of character progression. While leveling will give small increases to a character's stats, HP, and EP, and occasionally grants new Crafts the series' Anti-Grinding feature quickly grounds the party at the level the game expects you to be. By attaching different Elemental Quartz to a character's Orbment, depending on the Quartz used will substantially alter a character's stats, gives immunity or lets the character dish out specific status effects, and can use Arts (spells). By earning Sepith, exploring chests, and especially completing sidequests, you can find new and improved Quartz. Since unlike most games in the genre characters don't learn spells, Quartz becomes the only way not only to boost character stats, but make your magically-inclined party members stronger.
- Any of the Record of Agarest War games are made out of this trope. Sure you level up and such, but most of the time you'll be doing a lot of equipment customization.
- Toukiden characters never gain levels and only become more powerful by making and upgrading weapons and armour. Special abilities and passive boosts come from equipping Mitama, the souls of old heroes devoured by oni.
- Vagrant Story: Ashley's stats can be permanently boosted by killing bosses or finding rare elixirs and wines, but the game's mechanics and Random Drop rules encourage the player to make Ashley stronger by finding new weapons and armor, or by reforging and improving existing ones in workshops.
- Vandal Hearts 2 has an interesting hybrid between this and Level-Locked Loot: The main game itself does not use class system, and any character can be seamlessly re-oriented from one specialization to the other simply by changing their equipment (that is, if you want to make a mage out of a swordsman, just swap the sword for a staff and the armor for a robe). However, characters do gain EXP and level, and level determines the maximum amount of HP and SP one will get out of a piece of armor. That being said, the characters are not prohibited outright to equip anything that is above their level; they just couldn't utilize said equipment to their fullest potential.
- The Jak and Daxter series gives you new abilities and weapon upgrades from the second game onwards (the first game just placed temporary powerups in certain parts of the levels) as you reach certain points in the story.
- The Tomb Raider games follow this trope, giving you more powerful weapons as you progress whilst all other skills remain static from the start.
- Warframe: Merged with a more traditional leveling system. All equipment items, from warframes to weapons to companions, have ranks from zero to thirty, and must be leveled up to reach their full potential. Warframes are essentially classes, and gain stat bonuses and new abilities as they level, but weapons are not directly affected by leveling up. The primary advantage of leveling something is that it can fit more mods, which are mandatory to make any equipment item useful.
- Many MMORPG games become this trope in the end game, when the players have reached the level cap, so their only means of progression is through better equipment.
- World of Warcraft in particular takes the "progression" part to the extreme for the Dungeon Finder for dungeons: To queue for a group for dungeons near and at the maximum level, you need to meet an Item Level requirement (average from all equipment slots). Its not uncommon for raid leaders making similar requirements either.
- Final Fantasy XIV has a similar system for endgame dungeons. Much like regular levels, this can be level-synched to maintain some of the challenge if the player has much better equipment then what was available at the time of the dungeon's release.
- Dynasty Warriors Online: The only stats you get at all are never attached to your character. "Progression" isn't the main idea, it's just being stronger during battles, but the weapon you use makes up 95% of your combat stats. This dips into the bad end when all weapons have unique movesets but the stats are constant as well, and it in fact rendered one of the fan favorite movesets obsolete because of the poor stat choice, but other than that it works fairly well.
- Final Fantasy XI took a different approach to expansions than games based on the EQ/WoW model. For most of the game's run, through 4 expansions, the level cap never increased, staying at 75. Instead of focusing on level and power increases expansions focused on adding new storylines, but did still come with newer and better gear as well as eventually letting certain old gear be upgraded to +1 and +2 versions. As market share shrank they were eventually forced to make the game more casual friendly and increased the level cap to 99. Then came the 5th expansion which added item level to gear, allowing players to effectively increase in power beyond 99.
- In Phantasy Star Online 2, leveling up in a class is helpful for three things: gaining more base stats to meet equipment minimum stat-requirements, gaining more skill points to strengthen that class's skill tree, and meeting minimum level requirements for higher difficulties. The actual contribution of leveling up towards your effective power is otherwise low, as leveling up affords shockingly small stat boosts at a time. A character's power is dependent primarily on their class setup and their weapon(s), to the point the mere acquisition of the proper 14-star weapon immediately kicks a character into endgame-tier once it's been outfitted with the proper abilities.
- In The Secret World, getting new and better gear is the only way to increase stats. You do still gain Experience Points to buy new skills.
- Realm of the Mad God is intentionally designed such that it is easy to reach the max level in less than a few hours, then it becomes this trope. While leveling up does boost your stats, the main focus is in fighting monsters to acquire better and better equipment. There are no prerequisites to use any of the equipment (besides obtaining the item).
- In Spiral Knights, the players don't gain experience themselves, instead, you can craft different pieces of armor and weapons, each one with its own elemental bonuses and weaknesses, and each item requires Experience points (or "Heat") separately, and usually has an additional bonus when they reach its level cap. They (and the levels' difficulty) are also divided on tiers. In order to be allowed to go deeper on the clockworks, you also need to craft better equipment (usually using a level capped item of a lower tier).
- In Minecraft your character's baseline health and physical abilities never change. You can gain levels of experience, but you spend them to enchant equipment. Your strength, health and ability to interact with or shape your environment entirely depends on the type and quality of the items you own or use.
- Terraria: Your character's abilities come entirely from whatever gear you happen to be wearing. Indeed, even the Terraria equivalent of your character class is derived from equipment. A character is only a "mage" because they're wearing gear that boost magic weapons in some way. This allows free-form multiclassing.
- Dawn of War Dark Crusade and Soulstorm focus on upgrading the commanders of each faction in the Campaign. These upgrades are only gained by accomplishing certain criteria (i.e. Conquering a set number of territories, defending them, getting a certain kill-ratio in the match). While many usually focus on granting the commander a new set of armor or a new weapon, there are some that either radically change how the character plays (Like Daemonic Ascension for the Chaos Lords), imbues a special mechanic to improve the character's usefulness (like the Space Marine Captain's Teleporter or the Tau Commander's drones), or even upgrade other characters (like the Incubi Torture Helms for the Dark Eldar Archon or the Imperial Guard General's Victory Sash).
- Unsurprisingly, you can't advance your pinball's abilities in Mile High Pinball for the Nokia N-Gage. Instead, you collect Bucks and purchase Power Ups for it.
- In Pinball Quest, the Black Market Imps sell stronger flippers and drain-blocking stoppers of various effectiveness between tables.
- In Shop Heroes, this applies to the heroes who the player supplies with gear (although increasing hero power is just one part of overall progression in the game). Heroes do have a level, but this just determines what equipment is suitable for them, not how powerful they are.
- In String Tyrant the player grows stronger by finding better weapons, equipment and cards. A large part of the difficulty is finding better stuff while enemies hunt you.
- The whole "catapult" genre of flash games such as Toss the Turtle has this as the main game mechanic. The farther you launch the projectile the more money is available for upgrades, and each upgrade helps you go further, and so on ad infinitum.
- Zombidle: Unlike most prestige-based Clicker and Idle Games, there are no Skill Points, Tech Trees or Artifacts to use your prestige points (White Orbs) on. All your upgrades and improvements are based on the benefits from various items collected or crafted (as well as bonuses from achievements), and you use White Orbs to buy even more equipment.
Non-Video Game Examples:
- The Gam3: A player's equipment contributes as much, or more, to their combat ability than their attributes or abilities. It is discussed that a level 1 player with good enough equipment could fight evenly with a level 1000 player with poor quality equipment. This makes collecting and protecting your gear critically important, and losing your best items when you die a real penalty.
- Magisterus Bad Trip: In Money (Game) Master, there is no level system at all. A character's strength is determined solely by their equipment (weapons, armour, vehicles etc.) and personal skills. The former strongest player, Criminal AO, wasn't a particularly good fighter but was able to create Game-Breaker equipment.
- Especially in its third and fourth editions, Dungeons & Dragons basically assumes that player characters will be picking up increasingly powerful magical items in their adventures as they advance in level. To an extent the assumption has always been there (often in the form of more dangerous monsters that would already make more plausible opposition for higher-level characters anyway curiously also requiring increasingly powerful magical weapons to hit), it's just in these two editions that it's all but coded into the level progression math under the hood.
- Hc Svnt Dracones 1st edition has no "XP", skills are improved by purchasing a Sleep Learning device while attributes gain one dot every three sessions up to a threshold, at which point augmentations will need to be bought.
- Kingdom Death is a game based around using boss parts to craft armor and weapons. Since there's no leveling system, this means that all character progression is based on grinding out armor.
- In Red Markets skills and Potentials are improved in-game using Bounty, the same currency used to obtain goods and services, pay upkeep on gear, keep your character and their dependents fed.
- In Shadowrun character progression through equipment/money (gear) and experience (karma) are equally important. There's actually an exchange rate that Game Masters can use as a guide to convert between the two when deciding how to reward players for their quests. This is unusual in table top games in that gear is a formalized part of the progression system, with the same importance as skills.
- Learning new spells also costs money, though that's been downplayed in more recent editions.
- In the Noob franchise, quite a few characters are already level 100 and hence implied to be doing this. The Justice guild main roster is actually seen renewing a piece of equipment or another from time to time.