Progression in Game Design can be tracked between the player themselves and the game. In today's post I'm going to take analyze the two and their intended effects on game design.
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In my first article on Gamasutra, I examined the concept of Skill Abstraction: where the factor of the player’s involvement differed between games built around action, or around RPG design. Taking this concept further we can discuss how progression works in game design. The definition of progression has grown as game design evolved and today there are several ways to define it, each having a different affect on the design.
Let’s begin with a basic definition of progression: the path from beginning to end the player takes. From that first village to the final epic battle, we can easily chart the player’s path through a video game. Examining it further, we can break down the term progression into two individual elements.
The Progression Split:
Progression through a video game can be divided into two categories: player and game. Player progression is the player learning the rules and mechanics while developing their skills. As an example: someone learning how to make use of the portal based movement in Portal. While game progression refers to the player’s character developing over the course of the game or with strategy game campaigns: the unlocking of new units.
Progression and skill abstraction go hand-in-hand based on the player’s preference. Games that are more about the player improving are normally those that have less abstraction. While the opposite is true for games designed around RPG leveling.
However that is not always the case and it makes it harder to categorize progression. For instance: Borderlands which I examined in my skill abstraction article, I rated it at -25% abstraction making it more on the action end of the scale. But in terms of progression, it is mainly based on game due to how the characters and gear improved over time.
In my article on skill abstraction I used a number scale from -100 to 100 to define abstraction. For progression we’re going to need something else:
A Breakdown of progression between player and game.
This diagram shows the breakdown of how player and game progression are separated. The extremes which are colored dark blue and dark green represent games that are based almost entirely on player and game progression respectively.
Fighting games and competitive shooters are examples of games based entirely on player progression. Along with games that fit the category of Darwinism difficulty: where the player is tested on if they can improve at the game’s mechanics or fail trying.
On the opposite side, JRPGs and older CRPGs are examples of games based completely on game progression. It doesn’t matter how versed the player is in the mechanics of the game or how quick their APM (actions per minute) is, when success or failure is dictated by attributes and dice rolls.
In the outer-middle categories of light-blue and light-green, is where we find most games fall based on their genre today. For action games that are about player progression, there is also the game progression of unlocking new moves or weapons for the player to use. On the opposite side, these are RPGs where the player is given some impact on success, such as dodging attacks with button presses or using FPS skills as in Borderlands or Fallout 3.
The middle of the chart represents games where both forms of progression exists at the same time in the form of Meta-Game and Multi-System Progression. We’ll be coming back to these concepts in a few minutes. But first I would like to talk about the extremes and their effect on game design and accessibility.
Do or Die Design:
As mentioned earlier, games that fall on the extremes of the diagram represent titles that are either predominately based on player progression or game progression. But while these games are fundamentally different, they share characteristics in terms of difficulty and accessibility.
Games designed around player progression require a high level of player skill. Titles like Ninja Gaiden Black, Street Fighter, Counter Strike and Starcraft 2 to name a few. In these titles, characters rarely improve or upgrade and in multiplayer games, any upgrades don’t persist across matches. Keep that point in mind as we’re going to come back to it very soon.
If there is any game progression, such as in Demon’s Souls, it’s designed to enhance the player’s skill, not replace it. No matter what level the player is, or what gear they’re wearing, without proper mastery of the game mechanics, they won’t survive the boss fights in Demon’s Souls. There are hardcore examples of expert players getting through Dark Souls without even leveling their character and just focusing entirely on their skill set.
On the extreme end of game progression, the rogue-like genre has flourished among its audience. Rogue-likes for those not familiar with the term: are games designed around a high difficulty curve and randomized circumstances. Most rogue-likes are turned base allowing the player to plan out exactly how they want to proceed in any situation.
The randomized nature of the genre is designed to keep players on their toes and has a huge effect on progression. Because the situation is randomized each time, the player will never know what to expect in terms of enemies or upgrades. You may find a powerful weapon within 5 minutes, or be stuck with a basic weapon for an hour.
That sense of unknown is one of the factors to the popularity of the genre. In a normal game, the player has a general idea of what to expect. But in a rogue-like, they could die within minutes, or beat the entire game with the equipment they find.
Dungeons of Dredmor was a rogue-like that players relied entirely on character progression.
The aspect that both categories share is that their extreme design philosophy affects their accessibility to people outside the respective genre. Playing a game focused on player progression means that there are no other solutions to get past a difficulty spike then to improve at the game. But if the player can’t get better, then the game is effectively finished for them.
With game progression, someone who wants their input to factor more into whether or not they succeed will be disappointed. In this case, the only way for someone to get around being stuck is to keep playing until they either get the needed items, or out-level the fight. This increases the time needed to play the game dramatically which for some people is a good thing, but for others can lead to them burning out on the game.
While there have been some attempts at creating more accessible rogue-likes with titles like Dungeons of Dredmor and The Binding of Isaac, the genre is still considered niche among mainstream gamers. But what’s interesting to examine is how games built around player progression have flourished in the competitive scene.
The Competitive Edge:
Since the 90s with the rise of the fighting genre with games like Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat, competitive gaming has grown. The Evolution Champion Series or commonly known as EVO, has become a major annual tournament for the genre.
In the last decade, the popularity of the competitive scene expanded with organizations like Major League Gaming and the World Cyber Games. The game that led the charge was Starcraft which became a popular title among the E-Sports scene.
Titles like Starcraft and Street Fighter were the building blocks for what made a competitive game. Both games relied on player progression above all else. Games built around competitive design adhere to several design considerations:
These four points have become set in stone among the competitive community. If a game doesn’t meet those requirements, while it may sell to casual fans, it will be snubbed by competitive gamers. This is the worst case scenario as games featured in Major League Gaming, World Cyber Games or EVO receive a huge amount of press which translates into sales.
Interestingly enough, the rise of tournament play has had one major unintended effect on the strategy genre. With the success of Starcraft in the competitive scene, other developers and publishers wanted their games to also be featured and cash in. The result was a major shift in RTS design from larger macro oriented battles, to smaller micro focused battles.
Micro-battles are easier for someone to watch due to the smaller units and map sizes, while requiring more player skill then in macro battles. The reason is that in large scale RTS games, you as the player need the AI and UI to take some of the slack of controlling units or running the base to focus on the battles. Otherwise there would be just too much going on at once for anyone to manage effectively.
Because of the design considerations of larger scale RTS games, we saw the shift to micro style through new RTS series like Company of Heroes and Warhammer 40k: Dawn of War. Along with EA and how they altered the UI and design of the Command and Conquer franchise to build it up as the next big competitive RTS. Recent titles in the CNC series have scaled down the # of units on one map and have become more click-intensive with micro-managing special abilities.
Company of Heroes featured smaller battle sizes compared to other RTS titles and a greater emphasis on unit control instead of base management.
Today, macro-styled RTS games have become niche in favor of the micro intensive ones. Incidentally, this dearth was one of the motivations behind the creation of the successful Kickstarter campaign for Planetary Annihilation: A macro-focused RTS from Uber Entertainment.
The final points for this look at progression in game design are focused on the middle of the chart. Games that are made up of almost equal combination of player and game progression first started in the early days of industry. During the late 80s after the game industry revival, many designers experimented with a variety of mechanics, which gave birth to what I’ve coined: Multi-System Progression.
This type of design can be defined as follow: a game featuring multiple systems, each with their own unique mechanics and designed to work as one complete experience. Another way of putting it, is developing game systems that have enough depth to work in their own game, and combine them into an almost Frankenstein-like experience.
What makes multi-system progression so complex is that not only is the designer creating separate complete game systems, but then has to figure out how to combine them all to work together. As a result, instead of someone playing several separate games, they are playing one complete experience out of each smaller part.
While difficult to get right, the rewards can be worth it by briefly looking at one of the most famous examples: X-Com UFO Defense. X-Com is still considered one of the best games ever made, even after over eighteen years. In a retrospective piece I wrote about the game, I talked about each system that made up X-Com:
From there, I went over the interactions between each game system:
1. Your base determines what equipment you have for the squad battles and your ships. The more bases you have set up around the world will give you greater coverage allowing you to spot more UFOs and have more squad battles.
2. By taking down UFOs you'll keep each country happy which in turn means more income at the start of each month. By tracking UFOs you'll be able to send your squads either to crash sites, alien bases, or landed UFOs.
3. Any squad members that are killed are gone forever which affects your roster. Getting through missions will net you items from the aliens that you can use to research new gear, or sell for more money.
While being able to make an amazing game is one big positive for multi-system progression, it does have one major downside. Multi-system progression is very hard to get right and must be part of the game’s design from day one. Not only does the designer have to come up with not one, but several different systems, they must also balance and fine tune the interplay between them.
Because of the difficulty of designing multi-system progression, we’ve seen a new form of progression that is in a way the evolution of multi-system progression: Meta-Game Progression.
Like multi-system, meta-game progression is a way to combine both game and character progression in a single title. And it can be defined as this -- A game featuring a main game system, and a secondary one that adds permanence between play sessions.
Both meta-game and multi-system are titles made up of several game systems, but the difference is that with meta-game, you’re not creating separate game systems that tie into each other.
Meta-game design took off in the late 2000s with Team Fortress 2. TF2’s gameplay expanded over the course of updates with items that could be found or crafted. These items once unlocked remained in the player’s possession. Following TF 2, other multiplayer series like Call of Duty and Battlefield featured meta-game content with unlocks of new items and weapons.
Here are two diagrams to explain the difference between regular progression defined through either character or player, and progression that is multi-system or meta-game:
In this first chart, as the player improves over time using either player or game progression, it is a gradual increase. The expression “walk before you run” can be applied here.
This second chart shows how both meta-game and multi-system designs differ from normal progression:
Here, the player’s progression moves between player and game as they progress. You can’t properly master the game without focusing on both sides of the equation. In X-Com, someone who is good at the tactical combat side, but can’t figure out the base development will find that their troops are ill-equipped to survive later alien attacks.
On the other hand, someone who focuses on research and base development, but are not as good at the tactical combat will get their troops slaughtered every time.
What makes meta-game design so compelling is that the act of adding permanence goes a long way towards improving replay-ability. Even though the player may be playing the same maps or game modes over and over again as before, they’re now using new weapons and abilities to break up the monotony.
Meta-game also has an effect on game balance: as it allows the designer to base matchmaking off of the meta-game preventing new and expert players from interacting. One of the problems with adding new content in online games is balancing them with what is currently available. But the meta-game partially solves that by allowing the designer to focus on specific parts of the meta-game, such as content for low level players, and those for people who reached the cap.
While meta-game progression has become popular with multi-player games, it can also fit in single player design. One of my favorite uses recently would be from the indie title: The Binding of Isaac. BOI was an attempt at combining rogue-like game design with a top down action-adventure game in similar style to the first Zelda game.
As in a rogue-like, the levels and items are randomized at the start of the game, and running out of health would send the player back to the first stage on the next play. But Isaac also made use of meta-game progression which provided another layer of progression beyond just playing the game.
As someone went through the game, beating bosses or completing specific achievements, they would unlock new items that would be factored into the randomization on subsequent plays. These items ranged from stat boosters, to attack variations and many more. All designed to give the player more of an edge and made the game easier. As the player managed to beat BOI, the game would add harder variants to the randomization to challenge them. This includes: new bosses, stages, and enemy variants.
One of the many modifiers in The Binding of Isaac, this one increased the difficulty after the player beats the game a few times.
The beauty of meta-game progression for single player design is that it can solve one of the main problems with pacing: How do you keep expert players interested without punishing newer ones with difficulty they aren’t ready for?
In BOI, the player’s skill at the game allowed them to personalize their progression through the game. Someone who was starting out and wasn't that good wouldn't have to worry about the game getting harder, but would still unlock content to make the game easier for them. While expert players would quickly beat the game and unlock the harder variants faster and wouldn't have to play long before the challenge increased.
What happened was that two players of different skill, would each have their own unique path through a run at the game, based on what unlocks they have achieved.
With meta-game progression, it allows the designer to create a deeper experience then without it. Even though multi-system progression can be more enriching, but is a lot harder to create.
Figuring out how progression works in your title is an important step in developing finely tuned gameplay. Understanding what elements require the player to improve or the character will help you with balancing your game. But as with my article on skill abstraction, the same overall lesson remains: you can’t please everyone. While the use of meta-game and multi-system progression are ways at bridging the gap between player and game progression, they’re not perfect solutions.
No matter what you do, you’re always going to have someone prefer a different design and creating a game that has universal appeal is impossible. But games that feature different forms of progression can lead to richer gameplay experiences that allow them to stand out from the norm. There is a reason why gamers still hold titles like the original X-Com and Star Control 2 in high regard after all this time. While it’s not easy to design games with advanced mechanics, the risk may be worth the reward.