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One reason that video games are appealing is that they allow players to be someone important: a rock star, a valiant hero, a benevolent deity, a nefarious villain, a cunning thief, a brilliant general. PEGs, which are supposed to enhance this attraction with advancement elements, ironically tend to diminish this appeal in various ways.
First, a player doesn’t feel all that important when there are thousands of other “heroes” in the same world doing the same things. Instead, the player is just another face in the crowd, trying to get a little bit ahead in the rat race. In the land where everyone’s a hero, heroes are commoners.
The second problem (particularly prevalent in games with strict level-based advancement) is that as a player’s controlled entity grows more powerful, the challenges he faces grow more difficult, making the advancement seem worthless.
For example, the player can typically dispatch enemies at the start of the game with ease. However, as the game progresses, the relative strength of an appropriate enemy increases, making analogous battles lengthier and more difficult, despite the fact that the character is now many times more powerful than before. This design makes players feel as if they are running in place (hence, the “hamster wheel” analogy), or even getting weaker as they “advance.” In many cases, game balance and the reward system make the player feel forced to group with other players, further increasing the feeling that no matter how far a character advances, it will always be weak in relation to opponents. In a game where gaining power is the primary goal of the game (problem #3), this design flaw is significant.
Even more egregious is the use of similar enemies at various stages of advancement. If a player’s character kills a deer easily at Level 4, why, after twenty levels’ worth of advancement, is it terribly difficult to kill a nearly identical deer in another location? This situation makes the game and its advancement system feel absurdly and unnaturally mathematical. Furthermore, a player can spend months trying to obtain a special item, but even when acquired, that item typically increases the character’s power by only a fraction of a percent. In this case, advancement is not only purely mathematical in terms of gameplay effect, but to add insult to injury, it is also mathematically insignificant.
This problem is particularly noticeable in “raids,” high-risk encounters that typically comprise most of the time spent by experienced players. These challenges often require 24-40 players to overcome. They make the player feel quite insignificant, as the player’s character, having reached the upper limit of advancement, might only be 1/40 as strong as the opponent.
Solution 1: Make difficulty progression varied
Typically, RPG-type PEGs increase difficulty by bumping up enemy hit points and damage output. These tougher enemies may require more time or more players to defeat than easier enemies, but the player does not have to take any different actions to defeat them. The same buttons are pressed, the same ability types used. Therefore, players do not feel any more powerful than when fighting the earlier enemies, even though they may have advanced significantly since then. In order to give meaning to this advancement, the challenges the player faces should force the player to view them in a different light as difficulty increases.
For example, instead of having the player advance from fighting a level 1 goblin with 10 hit points to fighting a level 5 goblin with 50 hit points, have the player fight five level 1 goblins at once. Although it might be mathematically equivalent in terms of difficulty, the experience for the player is completely different, in terms of both visuals and gameplay. By facing old enemies and dispatching them much more easily then before, the player gains perspective on how much more powerful his entity has become, and the increase in power is therefore more rewarding.
There are many other methods of increasing difficulty without resorting to brute force (bumping up stats), such as combining challenges in new ways, making enemies smarter, giving enemies new abilities that encourage the player to play differently, or even introducing new gameplay rules and concepts (for example, the player must fight during an earthquake for the first time, and previous assumptions and strategies must be adapted according to the gameplay effects of the earthquake).
Solution 2: Make character progression about more than just numbers
Because even good gameplay mechanics will wear out their welcome with enough repetition, it is important to introduce new mechanics and variations, as well as new uses for old mechanics, as the game progresses. It isn’t enough to give the player a more potent version of an old ability. Players will use this ability in the same way and in the same situations they used the old ability; gameplay is unchanged. The player doesn’t need 20 different variations of “do some damage”; instead, new abilities should offer markedly different gameplay possibilities if they are to hold players’ interest and give them a feeling of genuine advancement.
Solution 3: Design for the solo player
Encouraging players to play alone or in small, regular groups solves several problems. First, the player feels more powerful because he is not surrounded by hundreds of other players whose persistent entities are stronger or more advanced than his. Second, the player is not involuntarily exposed to aspects of unexplored game content (a.k.a. “spoilers”) through contact with those other players, making exploration and discovery of that content more satisfying later on. Third, the time necessary to play the game is reduced, since the player does not need to spend time finding other players to play with first (this is discussed more in section #6). Fourth, limiting the number of players who can congregate in one area allows CPU/GPU cycles to be used to make the game look and play better instead of being reserved for scenes where dozens of player models must be drawn. Lastly, solo play gives anti-social players a way to advance their persistent entity without affecting other players’ game experience, as well giving all players a way to avoid anti-social behavior without lessening their game experience in some way.
The “party” paradigm of RPGs—where each character in the party has a specialized role and relies on the others to survive—is another one of those old pen-and-paper/CRPG holdovers that designers include in almost every PEG seemingly without much consideration. It is quite possible to make an RPG-style PEG that does not use the tired damage absorber/damage dealer/healer system. Diablo 2 did it. And there are plenty of games that can be played “co-op” without forcing players into specialized, dependent roles, with Gears of War being a prominent example.
And if the game uses a party mechanic, why not let the player control the entire party? It is quite common in current PEGs for players to control more than one character at once by using multiple accounts and computers (“two-boxing”). Why not make control of multiple characters a central feature of the game? Players do not want to be held back because the designer left necessary tools out of their toolbox.
And even if the player controlled a self-sufficient group of characters, co-op would still be a viable option. The co-op mechanic would let players coordinate their groups of characters against challenges that scale in difficulty based on how many player-controlled parties are present. Imagine an Xcom-style PEG, where 4 players, each controlling a team of 4 characters, coordinate their efforts to neutralize the aliens terrorizing Rio de Janeiro. Or a Total War-style PEG, where 3 players, each controlling an army division comprised of many units, assault an AI-controlled castle together. In both cases, players could very well play alone, but the co-op mode, while not necessary to enjoy the game, would provide a new and social gameplay experience.