How Exp Share Has Evolved In Modern RPGs
Exp Share, a term coined from the Pokemon series, levels up your entire party without the need to switch out your members, which can dramatically impact how you play a game.
I first heard of Exp Share--a mechanic where all party members gain experience points regardless of if they're in battle--in Pokemon. Many RPGs have some level of it. Sometimes, it's just for members of your current party. Sometimes, it's for the entire roster. Its absence or limited implementation especially stands out when revisiting older games like Persona 4 and comparing them to newer ones like Pokemon Scarlet and Violet. Despite what might seem like a minor quality-of-life feature at first, its presence--or lack thereof--can have a big impact on a game, causing you to play much differently than you otherwise would.
I'm calling it Exp Share because that's what it's called in Pokemon, and it doesn't seem to have another widely recognized name. In Pokemon's case, Exp Share started as an actual item that you could give to an individual Pokemon so that it would gain experience even without being involved in a battle. It was especially convenient for raising low-level monsters into regular party members. Exp Share eventually turned into an item that distributed experience points to your entire team. Starting from Pokemon: Let's Go, Pikachu and Let's Go, Eevee, it was built into the game as a default mechanic rather than an item that you needed to obtain.
It wasn't an addition that stayed unique to Pokemon, though. Just in the past year, Xenoblade Chronicles 3 and One Piece Odyssey both offered their own version of Exp Share. These games have multiple characters with distinct abilities, enough to encourage players to experiment with them. In Xenoblade 3 especially, it felt almost criminal to ignore your Heroes (seventh party member) when there were so many character classes to try. All members of your main party are there to stay, but it would've been a daunting task for even the most diligent player to level up each of the Heroes separately. By allowing Heroes to accumulate experience points even when they're not in battle, it opens up opportunities for experimentation and variety that would otherwise be untenable.
Even One Piece Odyssey, Bandai Namco's first time creating a One Piece RPG, was a much more seamless experience thanks to this mechanic. Instead of worrying about grinding all your characters to the same level, you could just progress through the story using whichever characters you wanted.
Exp Share seems like such a natural, welcome element in any RPG, making it all the more noticeable when it's absent. That's why it was so jarring when I picked up Persona 4 and there was no Exp Share to be found. Persona 4 Golden was ported to Nintendo Switch earlier this year, but it's essentially the same as the 2012 version that came out for PlayStation. I didn't start craving Exp Share until I recruited my fifth party member, at which point I was forced to start benching characters. It then seemed counterintuitive to invest in the new character because their Social Links (another part of Persona 4's complex ecosystem) were much less developed than those of the characters I already had. Even if later recruits gained Social Links more quickly, adding them to the party still felt like a temporary disadvantage because they lacked the combat bonuses I had with veteran members.
At first, the lack of Exp Share made me less willing to experiment because it would mean letting other party members lag behind the rest. However, I realized that you can technically revisit dungeons to grind levels for all the characters if you want to. It wasn't an ideal solution, but there was a way out.
Exp Share makes it so that there's no need to spend time grinding levels for characters that aren't in your main party. In Persona 4, I learned to drop into dungeons more often so that I could play around with other characters instead of only relying on the times I had to in order to progress the story. You have to dive back in, even when no new plot-related content is available, to level up party members. Otherwise, you risk the lesser-used party members falling behind. It seems like Altus eventually decided that its old system was outdated, too, considering Persona 5 incorporated Exp Share. At least for now, Persona 4 is the last mainline Persona installment not to have the feature.
Fire Emblem is one of the few series that still doesn't use Exp Share (with a few exceptions, like Path of Radiance). Fire Emblem Fates, which works similarly to the franchise's latest entry, Fire Emblem Engage, also convinced me to carefully choose how to level my most prized characters. You can't spend time endlessly leveling characters. Instead, you have to plan which characters to take on the main mission and which ones to level up in side quests so that they keep up with the group. Fates had a limited number of side quests available per chapter, so you only had a few chances to level up characters before moving to the next chapter.
It never felt like the game was suggesting that you only use a handful of characters and ignore the rest because of type weaknesses, though. Fire Emblem games emphasize strategy, so you should use the units that work best given a specific battle. It's a more conscious decision than in Persona 4, which doesn't stop you from leveling up other characters but forces you to grind to do so. Meanwhile, Fates (and Fire Emblem in general) pushes the player to pick and choose which characters to invest in because of the limited battles. It also allowed players to experiment without Exp Share because you can control many units per battle instead of just four at a time like in Persona.
"Grind" is the key word here. It's grinding if you're fighting enemies or repeating dungeons without any other reason than to farm XP. Fates manages to avoid grinding because the quests don't overlap. Even if you're fighting the same type of enemies, they appear on new maps in different scenarios. You don't repeat a map to gain XP, and don't even have the option to. In short, it sacrifices the experimentation you can have with the full cast for a more streamlined experience.
I still enjoyed Persona 4. I ended up revisiting dungeons and unlocking Social Links because I liked the new characters and wanted to use them. However, Exp Share would have lessened that need to grind and kept my focus on advancing the story. It makes me wish that games without Exp Share would at least have a more optimal alternative or setup--like in Fire Emblem, where it's a deliberate, strategy-based decision.
Exp Share has become increasingly common in RPGs as time goes on, and I can't blame developers for leaning into what makes it easier for players to experiment with different characters without feeling like they're repeating content. I still feel some nostalgia whenever a game forces me into old-school resource management without it. However, it's a mechanic that has freed up hours of my time by lessening the monotonous grinding that turn-based RPGs were once notorious for, and that's certainly something to be thankful for.