Progression systems used to be the element that differentiated the RPG genre from everything else. However, their compelling qualities ended up becoming so useful to game developers we now see them just about everywhere.
There are many ways to implement them. The root comes from traditional RPGs, leveling up characters after experience points were earned. Fill a bar up and your character reaches the next level, increasing their stats to a pre-determined amount.
This basic system is still seen, but the implementation has grown. Granting control over the attributes improved and/or skills gained is a great evolution, providing the gamer with deeper control over their character’s experience. Deus Ex famously provided significantly different skill sets, empowering the player to tailor a unique stat sheet and play-style.
Making choices meaningful is the challenge of every game. Will the player be able to max every stat or will choosing one path of the skill tree disclude another?
I’m not usually a fan of collection and exploration but Deus Ex: Human Revolution had me exhausting every nook and cranny to gain more character abilities. Designing the abilities to alter the gameplay was much more exciting than a mundane “+10 damage”.
Destiny is built almost entirely around progression. Your character has a core level, a Light Level derived from equipment that can also be upgraded, and numerous forms of currency to collect, trade, and upgrade. Dropping powerful items at random times is common slot machine psychology to encourage more play as the next round could always be the one with the big prize.
Destiny uses another psychological gaming trick with its Daily and Weekly Activities. After becoming familiar with the amount of XP and items gained per hour of regular play, the player will view a Daily Activity that provides a significantly better time/loot ratio as very valuable. Destiny and other MMO players often develop a routine of playing at least their Daily/Weekly content, with the potential of playing more.
But is the player gaining anything meaningful? Destiny originally claimed gamers would craft their own stories based on the unique weapons they found. Unfortunately, at launch, the missions and items lacked enough variety to fulfill this promise. However, the culture of upgrading a character with the best items still caught on with enough of a player base to make Destiny’s format a success.
A big mistake is rewarding the least interesting activity with the most progression. Players attracted to these types of games often have a min/max philosophy and will quickly suss out the most efficient methods of progression. Developers must also share the blame as the progression mechanics naturally encourage gamers to find satisfaction in ‘breaking the game’.
X-COM uses progression to inject personality into a game with minimal story. The narrative is instead created by which soldiers survive difficult missions long enough to gain experience. Permanent death is a design restriction that enhances the bond between players and their troops.
Progression systems are one of the most important tools in game development. They can provide engagement and elongate the gameplay arc. The challenge is providing meaningful experiences and avoiding a dull grind.
Stay tuned for more GAMEOLOGY episodes and articles every week here and on our YouTube channel. A special Zelda: Breath of the Wild episode will be released the day before launch, Thurs, March 2nd. It will also be the first GAMEOLOGY video to feature our faces and other relevant visuals.
Have a great week ahead.