I find that one of my favorite things about video games is the fact that they make me feel as if I’ve progressed towards some goal. A sense of accomplishment and progression is rather important in all mediums, but it has a special place in video games, why is that? What exactly makes progression so important, how can it be better applied in game design, and what can we learn from further observing it? Well, let’s take a look.
Progression is a keystone of any video game, no matter if it’s leveling up in Skyrim or advancing to the next level in Super Mario Brothers. It is for this reason that progression should be scrutinized and observed at its core elements. Is progression the cause, or the effect? Progression can engage the player and create a sense of accomplishment, but what causes progression? If a player invests time in a video game, then the effect will be progression in that game, leaving just investment to fill out our cause and effect equation.
Because a deep rooted connection exists between investment and progression, designers must make sure that this link remains visible at all times. It does no good to have players invest time and energy into a game only to have them feel as if they’re going nowhere. So how are we able to go about reinforcing this? The easiest way is to utilize numbers.
Many RPGs utilize a leveling system in order to make progression quantifiable, thus rewarding the player for time spent grinding experience points. The Disgaea series does an excellent job of handling numbers in this regard. To use a more specific example, in Disgaea 4 the maximum level cap is level 9999 and the amount of damage characters can do goes close to infinity. It’s a game that fetishizes numbers and statistics to no end, driving the player to want to get just that little bit stronger. Yet, for all of its crazy powerful end game content, players create new characters starting at level one and do only about ten damage. This disparity allows for a dynamic scaling system as characters go from dealing ten damage, to one hundred, to one thousand, and so forth.
Needless to say, this consumes a lot of time, making Disgaea 4 incredibly grindtastic. Yet, for all its grind it still feels satisfying. Why? Well, this is where investment and progression come into play. Thanks to Disgaea’s incredible number scaling, the link between investment and progression more often than not, is easily apparent. On top of that, customization plays a role by allowing the player to name all new characters they create and allowing them to alter which stats to grow. It is through watching your own personalized character grow in the way you choose that player investment grows, resulting in increased progression. Thus, Disgaea 4 envelops its players in a vicious cycle of engagement and ultimately, addiction.
Of course, not all games have levels, and some games don’t even use numbers, so how would we emphasize progression in those games? Well, to answer that let’s turn our attention back to the RPG genre. While it may seem strange to look for an example of numberless progression in RPGs, one game manages to take the core of RPG progression and base it around skill instead of numbers: Monster Hunter.
Monster Hunter is a game about saving the galaxy from alien invaders. No, just kidding, it’s about cooking and farming. That time I was only half kidding. In Monster Hunter, players go out and hunt different monsters by utilizing armor and weapons made from other monsters, minerals, and miscellaneous materials. While numbers do play an important role when it comes to armor and weapon efficiency, the Monster Hunter series of games lacks player levels. Sure, the progression of weapon upgrading adds power to your character, but the use of monster parts as construction material stops the player from obtaining weapons that would “over level” them. Because players can only prepare so much for a fight, the emphasis in hunting becomes player skill.
Each monster has their own complex AI, as well as a variety of weak spots and behaviors that the player must learn and master in order to kill them. By requiring players to carefully observe and learn the behavior of each monster, the investment involved with progression is a lot more intense than in an RPG like Disgaea. Monsters get bigger and more difficult the further you go into the game, causing players to die again, and again, and again, requiring an investment of dedication as well as time. When players do finally manage to master and overcome each monster, progression is made instantly clear. The camera pans over the body of each beast, letting you bask in the size and majesty of the thing that you just killed.
These prior examples all used investment and progression as a complementary aspect to their main engagement types and combat systems. Since investment and progression are more or less requirements of a well made game it goes without saying that they should work well with the core engagement, but what if they were used as that engagement? Our answer lies within the farming simulator series, Harvest Moon.
Anyone that has done any gardening knows that raising and nurturing a lot of hard work, but it pays off through the growth of the plant. The very same engagement and emotions behind taking care of a plant are used as the main engagement and emotional core of Harvest Moon. This engagement stems from that very growth, and is reflected in almost every other activity of the game in different forms. Even things such as relationships in Harvest Moon reflect this linked system, just as relationships in real life often require an investment of time, emotions, and inevitably; money.
When all is said and done, what can we actually take and apply from this lesson? Investment and progression should be viewed as an inseparable connection. By viewing them as such, you can use them as the basis of an almost mathematical formula for part of your game’s engagement.
Engagement + Investment = Progression + Reward.
Fill in the variables you know then solve for x. This also shows that things equally mathematic and quantifiable are the easiest to implement and balance in this equation, explaining the use and function of RPG levelling systems. However, for the honor students in the class, systems devoid of numbers that make use of emotional spectra and interaction can improve not only engagement, but the whole investment/progression equation. The difference between good design and great design is the ability to make every single component of a game perfectly compliment. Once you’ve mastered how interaction and progression affect the rest of a game’s design and engagement, then you need to blend it seamlessly with your other aspects.
Perhaps most importantly, we’ve learned that the best uses of investment and progression come from real world examples. Through further observation of our lives, and our own personal growth, we can find ways in which to utilize that growth in interactive art. Regardless, the progression gained will always be worth, investing a closer look.
Special thanks to Saotome for authoring this article.
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