I've been playing a lot of Demon's Souls for the PS3 lately and I've been thinking about progression in games. No matter what the game, platform or genre there seems to be two different ways of defining progression in my opinion. Skill and time, I'm going to define time as game systems that progression is made from time spent playing for example: Leveling, stat points or loot. For this entry I'm going to define the 2 schools of thought and talk about their advantages and disadvantages, also consider this a sort of prequel to my look at Demon's Souls.
Skill: These games it's all about the player's abilities, no sword of uberness will save you. From the moment the game begins the difficulty of the game is measured by the player's own skill level. Playing the game for 10 minutes or 10 hours is not going to mean a thing unless the player actually improves. Stats have no importance in the world, if your giant axe cuts the enemy in 2 there are no dice rolls that determine if he resists it.
Skill games have the most compelling gameplay as they are challenges to the player. Titles like these grab the player with the proverbial mountain to climb. Players should expect defeat often as they are learning the ropes. This all sounds good so far, but there are weaknesses of going a full skill game.
First is that while these games are usually compelling, they don't provide a player with rewards or carrots on a stick to keep going. These games for the most part cannot be sustained for long periods of time; it's why we haven't seen an 80 hour version of God of War. Defining difficulty for these games is also a challenge as since it is player defined it's hard to create challenge. How do you know on stage 3 if your player base is still learning the game or have completely mastered it?
Another issue is that games based on skill always reach one of two endings. The player masters the game mechanics, they are effectively "the One" and the entire game becomes a cake walk. At this point if the game is done the player will not be coming back as there is nothing more from the game. However if the player reaches this point with 10 hours left in the game chances are they are going to walk away. Why should they keep on playing if there is nothing more for them to learn?
The other way it will end is if the player reaches their plateau, they can't possibly get any better at the game and are effectively at a brick wall. At this point the game is done, unless they have a friend who is better come over and finish the game for them. Most of the time when a gamer reaches this point they are going to leave the game with a bad taste in their mouth, like the last page of the book you've been reading has been glued completely to the previous page preventing it from being read. I've also noticed that skill games seem to rely more on cheap poorly designed sections then time based games, due to the attempt at challenging the player. Now let's move on to time based progression.
Time: From the moment the game begins you are a scrub, barely able to do anything but fight rats. As your level grows you'll find bigger and badder enemies to fight and better rewards. There is always a chance of finding something better for your character. Skill rarely has an effect in combat; it doesn't matter if you have the faster fingers in the world or a keyboard full of macros, if my guy is 6 levels above yours its game over. The same goes for loot, if I'm at the level cap and still using the dagger I got at level 1 I'll be worthless in a fight.
Time based games are definitely the popular vote these days and attract a huge following. The reason is that these aren't games that require "gamer skill" in the same way that Mario or Ninja Gaiden and many other require. These are games that you can play for 30 minutes or an hour and have some sense of progression. Difficulty is also easy to measure, if you know the player's stats are at X at area 3 then you can make the enemies have X +3 for a challenge or X-3 if you want to tone it back.
They also have the best hooks to keep players playing, there is always something more. Some new enemy or quest out in the world, or the chance to finally get that badass piece of armor you've been looking for. Throw in randomize sets of equipment like Diablo 2 or just have so many pieces of equipment like World of Warcraft and you'll have gamers begging to play. But (and there always is a but) there are drawbacks to an entirely time based progression.
From what I've seen in games that focus on time based progression, the gameplay takes a huge hit; in fact a lot of these games the gameplay is nonexistent. In a game where dozens of dice rolls and behind the scenes calculations determine if you live or die it doesn't make the gameplay too compelling. Watching an arrow hit you while you are hiding behind a wall because the calculations were done while you were in plain sight always makes me grimace.
Granted there is a lot to find in the world, like items and such but you won't exactly be doing a lot. With stats and gear defining the experience it can become disheartening to find out that people who just grind for hours on end will always be better then you. Even the quintessential raids in MMOGs are nothing more then spreadsheet analyzing work. To put it bluntly games that are completely focused on time based progression have gameplay that amount to "press X and watch shiny lights." Also when you are dealing with stat based progression there is always the issue of "builds", just put every stat to X and you'll win.
Hopefully you have gleamed from this entry that both sides at their extremes do not make a truly great game. One of the reasons why I enjoy action RPGS like Diablo 2 or Demon's Soul compared to strictly RPGS is that the former uses a balance of the two, while the latter only uses time. Chances you have figured out by now that you are looking at one of the few gamers not tangled up in World of Warcraft.
When I look at the games that I've enjoyed over the years, the ones I remember are both challenging and give me a sense of growth with new equipment. Even though the new equipment makes life easier or gives me new toys to play with, without having the skill I would never be able to get them in the first place. A quick look at Demon's Souls, the game manages to straddle the line between the two well for the most part and I'll hopefully have a piece up looking at the game more.