A design flaw that shows up mainly in RPGs, but also in other games where the main characters' abilities are supposed to improve over time. The Parabolic Power Curve is a situation where, beyond a certain point, increasing your character's power actually makes him less effective. Not Crippling Overspecialization, nor the milder situation where characters simply stop getting more powerful at a certain point. This is a situation where a character that should, on paper, be less powerful actually has an easier time with a given challenge.
Often shows up when a game uses elements of Dynamic Difficulty, such as scaled encounters, but doesn't get the balance right. Occasionally a designer will put this in a game deliberately, as a kind of Anti-Grinding, but this is not wise as it tends to infuriate the players - especially if they've gotten so powerful that the game has become Unwinnable. Sometimes this can be defused by advertising it as a feature, but not always.
In games where the level and difficulty caps are changed through updates, the parabolic curve may become a sine curve instead, with one parabola for each interval between caps.
Contrast Elite Tweak. Compare Empty Levels, where it's all downhill from the start, and Low-Level Advantage, where while gaining levels does make your character stronger, there are still benefits to staying low-leveled. Unrelated to Linear Warriors, Quadratic Wizards, which is about a parabola opening upward rather than downward... though the experience of playing a fighter in a game geared to scale its difficulty alongside quadratic wizard growth can sometimes result in this. If the Parabolic Curve is applied to specific stats rather than leveling as a whole, it's Diminishing Returns for Balance.
- While it isn't completely fatal, larger bombs and faster fuses can make it very difficult to avoid killing yourself in Bomberman.
- Shmups with speed power-ups. One or two are usually necessary to dodge maneuver properly. Some, however, allow you to stack speed-ups far past the point when your ship handles with any sort of controllability. (The Gradius series is a prime example; though a few games have a method to speed down, they either cost many more power chips than to speed up or are only accessible at maximum speed.)
- In the Fighting Fantasy books, players have to determine Skill, Stamina, and Luck scores at the beginning. Normally, the higher these are, the better. In Magehunter, however, due to body-switching, it's an advantage to start with the lowest Skill and Stamina scores possible.
- In Black Vein Prophecy, you need to fail the first luck check, or you're doomed to wander through the book without a hope of beating it. If you rolled a 6 for your luck (the maximum), it is literally impossible to win.
- Justified in many Paradox games like Europa Universalis or Stellaris where growing your nation bigger and bigger won't give the benefits of a stronger economy and a larger manpower, instead it will cause instability due to overextension, non accepted cultures in the realm, separatism, nationalism in newly conquered provinces and state maintenance for non integrated territories. Expect negative random events to trigger often, revolts and even nearby countries form coalitions against you. All of these mechanics are intended to prevent the player from blobbing too easily and snowballing. Often you better keep into your area and grow tall while developing colonies, trade, infrastructures and diplomatic ties instead.
- In the ultimate difficulty of Phantasy Star Online, the temporary invincibility after being hit is taken away unless you get completely knocked over. Thus, it's only possible to survive some attacks until your defense gets high enough.
- World of Warcraft uses this intentionally. Stats granted by items (in particular, ratings that convert to a percentage increase in effectiveness like armor, critical strike chance, dodge chance, etc.) lose relative power as characters level up, encouraging players to seek better gear. This was actually done to avoid the problem of Power Creep where, given a logical progression of gear at higher levels, players would eventually be running around with 100% crit, haste, dodge, etc., severely breaking game balance.
- One side-effect of this is that items and enchants converted from the old rating system could be absurdly overpowered in the hands of low-level characters—thus spawning a whole culture around twinking characters for battleground play. (Ironically, this made it so hard for normally leveling characters to compete in PvP that Blizzard eventually created a new bracket just for twinks.)
- A variant of this situation occurred with Rage-based tanks (Warriors and Feral Druids), who count on being hit to generate power for their own attacks. With sufficient gear levels, these characters would get hit so seldom that they could not earn enough Rage to generate threat. Again, Blizzard addressed the issue by adding talents and skills that generate Rage (or Mana/RP for Paladins and Death Knights, respectively) when an attack is avoided.
- Baldur's Gate 2: the Flail of Ages +3 is one of the best weapons in Shadows of Amn and you can upgrade it during Throne of Bhaal with two additional heads to become a +5 weapon with additional fire, cold, acid, electric and magic damage. Problem is, after the final upgrade, the weapon also grants a free action status, which is basically useless against enemies by the end of the game (since they won't cast spells like entanglement or web, while you might be immune to hold or paralysis through many other means), but also prevents you to get the benefits of a haste spell or the boots of speed, which is crippling and annoying. To make matters worse, a programming glitch with the fully upgraded version of the weapon in the Enhanced Edition caused the game to check if a monster had immunity to fire, cold, acid, electric, or poison damage and apply that immunity to all the weapon's elemental damage instead of just the damage of that type. Since virtually everything in Throne of Bhall had immunity to at least one of those damage types, it meant that the weapon would rarely be able to deal any of its elemental damage.
- The Elder Scrolls:
- Present in Oblivion. Due to the game's flawed Level Scaling system, it is very easy to stumble into Empty Levels. Enemies level scale based purely on your level, but your actual strength in combat involves many factors besides just level (health gain per level, attributes, equipment, and skills). As such, leveling up with too many non-combat skills is likely to result in an insignificant bonus to your abilities, but all enemies still increase in strength. Even if you've been careful in your leveling, damage caps at a certain point while health does not, meaning high-level fights become increasingly drawn-out with even standard foes becoming damage sponges without providing much challenge. While being a full blown Min-Maxing Munchkin is only necessary if you want to max out every single attribute, you're best served incorporating elements of it in order to avoid falling on the wrong side of the curve. Further, even if you level up effectively, most friendly NPCs do not (and/or have low-level equipment even at the highest levels), making Escort Missions with non-essential NPCs very difficult as your allies get torn apart in seconds by enemies scaled to your level. This is particularly blatant in a quest where you protect (what's left of) the city of Kvatch. If you do this quest early on, as the game expects you to, the City Guards fighting alongside you are apparently being terrorized by the goblin-like Scamps, who don't do much besides fling slow-moving, weak fireballs. Postpone it until you're level 20 or so and the guards' reaction will finally look appropriate, now that they are facing humanoid crocodiles, magma golems, and demonic sorcerers.
- Skyrim borrows the Level Scaling system from TES's Fallout sister series which helps to Downplay this trope especially when compared to Oblivion. Most enemies simply get replaced by tougher variants in high-level areas, and while some do directly scale with player level the curve is now a lot less exponential with many enemy types having a level bracket with a minimum and maximum level (i.e. Sabre Cats have a minimum of lvl 5 and a maximum of lvl 11). Random loot also scales, as do many pieces of unique equipment (which makes it advantageous to wait to collect some of them, lest they become less useful later on). It is still possible to grind non-combat skills and end up facing very difficult opponents relative to one's combat ability, although almost every skill has some combat utility if applied with creativity. Failing that, dungeons are locked to the level you were at when you first entered, so if you do find an area too difficult you can simply leave and come back later when you're more powerful, meaning the game never becomes straight-up unwinnable. Though, due to how magic works in this game (doing a set amount of damage and having very little in the way to squeeze out more damage), spell slingers can find themselves being outmatched by tougher and tougher foes while doing the same damage they were doing levels ago.
- Fallout 3 does it as well. While completing quests gives you better and better perks, to the point that a BB gun in the hands of a level 30 character is better than a minigun in the hands of a level 5, enemy health scales much faster and much farther than the increased damage you can do even with the best perks and weaponry. The major changeover starts to occur around the time Super Mutant Brutes replace most of the normal Super Mutants. After that, enemies with sky-high health become bog-standard. Some people build specialty characters who can still waste them, but this is difficult and takes a lot of knowledge of the game and usually just the right gear and tactics.
- It gets even worse if you have the Broken Steel DLC installed. Once you pass level 15, some new monsters start showing up (Albino Rad Scorpion, Feral Ghoul Reaver, Super Mutant Overlord, etc...) who are much tougher and stronger than anything that came before them, with the sole exception of the Super Mutant Behemoth. Unlike the Behemoths however, these Nuclear Mutants respawn and these monsters are tough for a level 30 character (someone who hit the level cap), let alone a level 15 player, and the Overlords are given an additional 35 points of damage with their Tri-Beam Lasers.
- Then there's Point Lookout, whose Swampfolk and Tribals not only have the highest HP and DR of any human enemies despite their lack of armor, but their weapons are haxed to deal unblockable damage bonuses much like the Broken Steel Overlords. What's worse Point Lookout Tribals and Swampfolk carry double-barrel shotguns that do +35 damage per pellet for a total of 400 hit points if all 9 pellets hit. Yippee.
- Fallout: New Vegas tones down the level scaling in the base game, but uses a "sine power curve" with the DLC's, each of which raises the level cap by 5, and scales up the enemies every 10 levels or so.
- Final Fantasy VIII is another famous example. Your characters had levels and increasing them gave you slight bonuses to stats, but the enemies were scaled and got powerful much faster than the player. The player was supposed to use the Junction system - which provides a much better time to earnings ratio - to increase their own power, but obsessive grinders often didn't realize until it was too late.
- Those who understood the junction system well had little difficulty beating the game at the party's starting level.
- Geneforge 3 gives the player canisters that can increase his attributes, but using too many makes him suffer violent mood swings. Although this doesn't make the game unwinnable, eventually the player will not be able to take certain quests due to the character flying off the handle and attacking the quest givers. What makes this all the more annoying is the fact that the player was warned of this in the previous two Geneforge games, but due to Gameplay and Story Segregation nothing significant ever came of it. So when the warnings show up here for the third time, the player is likely to disregard them until past the point of no return.
- Geneforge 2 did have a few encounters that forced the PC into fights if they had used too many canisters.
- In all games after the first, it will affect the ending. It's really hard to do a no-canister game, but it will make some bittersweet or even good endings better. In game 1, however, the game assumes you used canisters heavily, even if you used none at all.
- The US and EU releases of RPG The 7th Saga altered level-up stat gains waaay downward, resulting in lots of Forced Level-Grinding. It also had boss battles with other characters at the same level as yours—but with the old stat gain formula. If you leveled up too far, their stats would outmatch yours to an unbeatable degree.
- Final Fantasy VII has a multi-layered version of this: Sephiroth's stats during the final fight are determined by a number of flags activated by the player. The more of these flags activated, the stronger he becomes. Gaining levels above level 90 are among these flags, as are defeating either or both Ruby and Emerald Weapon, acquiring Knights Of The Round, acquiring each character's best weapon, and a couple other possibilities. Note that the fight is still fairly easy if you've achieved any of the above.
- Due to a glitch, this can happen to seriously overleveled characters in Phantasy Star IV. Once a character's level gets a few levels away from 100, their stats begin to drop sharply and they lose skills. This isn't an issue in normal play, however; you can beat the game at around level 45-50, and the experience required to get that high of a level is so massive that it takes very deliberate effort to get that high (XP requirements for a single level up when in the 90s range are more than the total XP need to be able to beat the game).
- The web RPG DragonFable recently had to rebalance their entire battle scaling system because fights at high levels were getting so tedious people would get bored trying to get through quests where every one of the 10 or 15 battles took 2 minutes to finish. It's been fixed now, though.
- Mass Effect: Andromeda has this issue. The game's effective level cap is 132; however, all of your stats and gear are maxed out at level 80, so enemies keep getting stronger while you're stuck with a bunch of Empty Levels.
- Civilization: to prevent cheap strategies like founding hundreds of cities to grow wider and wider and simply submerge your rivals through sheer numbers, mechanics like corruption, inefficiency, health were gradually introduced to justify this trope when you build too many cities. You might think that creating an additional city in that fertile area with plenty of strategic resources might be a turning point for your faction, only to see unhappiness suddenly increase through all your dominions, possibly leading to revolts, decreased income and slowed production. It is not uncommon to see players reason if taking the hit and founding the city anyway or renouncing to those resources because its society is on the verge of collapse.
- The same for the maintenance cost of units and buildings. One in excess and you might end up in bankrupcy, thus sometimes you even have to avoid building structures that would be otherwise beneficial to your empires. A little more corruption or unhappiness because you didn't build tribunals and temples in all your cities might not be worth the income drain that could force you to disband precious defensive units when your warmongering neighbour is hostile...
- Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri, which is a spiritual successor to Civilization II and thus inherits all the above limits, introduces alien life: expanding too much your production might also trigger the sentient biosphere of the planet into considering your presence as too detrimental for the environment. That is, starting a planetary "immune reaction" with xenofungus growing and mind worm boils popping up next to your bases. Unless you master technologies and social civics that allow you to exploit the native life, you might find yourself seeing all your developed tiles being destroyed by the fungus growing, your units getting mauled, your pops killed and structures disabled by a mind worm attack.
- The Fire Emblem games and many of their cousins, some of the units have this problem. You can eventually build some of your characters to the point where they can one-round most enemies easily, at which point they become nearly impossible to keep alive. What happens is, an enemy will move into position and attack. He'll get blown away on the counterattack, but the character will still take some damage. Once the attacker dies, the space he currently occupied is now free and another enemy will move into it, swing for some damage, die on the counterattack, etc. Repeat six or seven times a turn and many characters, particularly the more glass cannon sorts, can end up dead. It is particularly obnoxious with mages, who can easily kill many melee units (due to their low resistances) but having low defense against physical attacks themselves, can easily put themselves in this situation. Some very powerful units, however, either have so many hit points, such high defenses, or are so likely to dodge that they annihilate groups of enemies single-handedly.
- Ditto Battle for Wesnoth. Paladins vs. walking corpses and magi vs. almost anything are particularly poignant examples.
- In the strategy RPG Ogre Battle, your units get universally more powerful with levels, however a crucial element of the game is keeping the populace's faith in you. If you defeat enemy units with higher-level units, that faith goes down because you look like a bully, so other characters help you out less along the way. This was meant to encourage players to level less, but it didn't work because the players instead identified and exploited loopholes in the system.
- Ogre Battle 64 also had one nasty problem with leveling. Dragons are particularly powerful enemies, and in order to get several powerful magical crests, you've got to defeat two dragons, and a dragon tamer (strengthens dragons) in a random battle in a certain place. If you don't do the battle early enough, the dragons are all extremely strong. Smart players would bring a strong multi-attacker, and two Pumpkin Heads (HP Halving attacks), but those are late game enemies, and only available by recruiting a special character.
- Final Fantasy Tactics sort of falls under this trope. While Level Grinding would allow you to easily win the normal missions, which all have a preset difficulty, it would actually make random battles far more difficult. This is because the enemies in Random Encounters scaled to match both your level and the equipment you're supposed to have at that level. Players that overleveled would find themselves in the frustrating position of either having to save before around the overworld map and hoping not to get into a random battle, or training their characters in the thief class and stealing stronger gear from the few human enemies they encounter (a very tedious task, and quite difficult, considering how weak thieves are).
- Kinda happens in Dragon Ball Z, surprisingly enough. During their time in the Hyperbolic Time Chamber, Goku and Gohan learn to remain in their Super Saiyan forms either indefinitely, or for days at a time. While this is useful for fighting, as it saves them the time and energy required to transform, it leaves them too strong for normal household stuff. For example, they tend to accidentally crush mugs when they try to have something to drink. After the Cell arc ends, they stop using Super Saiyan as default, though they can still maintain it outside of a fight if they choose. High-school was awkward enough for Gohan as it was; bright gold hair would've only made things worse.
- As with the Dragon Ball Z, example above, this happens in an episode of Charmed where Paige magically grants Morris invincibility in which to stop a hostage situation. Unfortunately for him he can't turn it off and as the episode goes on Morris gets stronger and stronger, first he is impervious to bullets, then he starts pulling car doors off of his police car, then he accidentally tosses a criminal with his superstrength. At the end of the episode he sits in his wrecked office calling Paige and wishing for her to take it back. Then he crushes his phone in his hand.
- Partially averted in GURPS, all skill rolls are made by rolling 3 six-sided dice and comparing the total to the skill level—a roll lower than or equal to the skill level succeeds, but a roll of 18 is always a failure, so there appears little benefit in increasing any skill over the level of 17. However, there are at least three aversions to this in the rules:
- Because difficulty modifiers are applied to the skill, a skill above 17 gives a greater chance of success because the effective skill level will still be higher (e.g. if your skill is 20 and the modifier is -3, you have an effective skill of 17, the same as if your skill was 17 and there was no modifier).
- In some circumstances, two characters may make directly opposed skill rolls—in such cases, higher skill is always an advantage.
- Increasing the skill level of any spell above 17 will lead to decreased requirements for casting that spell, which can be useful in difficult circumstances.
- Zig-zagged in Dungeons & Dragons 3.0, 3.5, and Pathfinder.
- Spellcasters were subject to Linear Warriors, Quadratic Wizards, and as such they just got better. However, the math of skill checks and saves broke down so that at high levels, saves meant to challenge characters who were good at the save simply blew away characters who were bad at those saves. Likewise, eating a high-level monster's Full Attack when you were a Squishy Wizard usually made you very, very dead. As a result, at low level, characters could drop to a single unlucky hit or blown save. At mid-level, characters could contend with occasional bad luck and had a host of abilities, leading to them reliably outclassing their enemies. At high level, Rocket-Tag Gameplay ensues and the nice cushion mid-level characters enjoyed against their enemies was gone. It wasn't that mid-level characters were stronger; they were objectively weaker. However, enemies and spells scaled in such a wonky way that mid-level characters were far less likely to be stomped flat by one attack or one failed save than any other characters. In other words: Linear Defence, Quadratic Attack.
- The Truenamer in particular got hit with this hard (though it was a class with so many mechanical issues it was nearly unusable). In order to use your magic on someone, you need to beat them with a Truespeak check. Unfortunately, the difficulty of affecting an enemy as it goes up in level increases literally twice as fast as your Truespeak skill. Unless your DM allows custom magic items or other houseruled bonuses, it becomes functionally impossible to use Truespeak on anyone at high levels.