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Gameplay Design Fundamentals: Gameplay Progression
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Gameplay Design Fundamentals: Gameplay Progression

November 28, 2006 Article Start Page 1 of 5 Next

In the first installment of his series on gameplay, systems and mechanics fundamentals, systems design veteran Mike Lopez focuses on maximizing the player experience through the planning, structure and execution of the key elements of Gameplay Progression (mechanics, duration, ancillary rewards, practical rewards and difficulty).

Gameplay WHAT?

Most people who play games are probably familiar with the concept of difficulty progression, at least at a subconscious level - that games should get harder over time. Most designers presumably know to build increasing difficulty into successive levels, missions, worlds, or courses (usually the single player experiences). But difficulty is only one portion of the overall game experience, and there are several other elements that need to be structured, managed and revealed carefully in order to provide the user with a truly compelling and enjoyable experience throughout gameplay. So, what exactly is Gameplay Progression?

n 1: a series with a definite pattern of advance [syn: patterned advance] 2: a movement forward [syn: progress, advance] 3: the act of moving forward toward a goal [syn: progress, procession, advance, advancement, forward motion, onward motion]
[ WordNet ® 2.0, © 2003 Princeton University (via ]

All 3 of these definitions for progression apply to games, because it is both the realized pattern of advance and the act of movement towards the ultimate goal (winning the game) that are essential to an enjoyable experience for the player. The pattern or structure of the advance is what will ensure a rewarding experience during gameplay and will ensure the further continuation and replay necessary to turn renters into buyers.

Key Elements of Gameplay Progression:

  1. Game Mechanics – all controls and interactions within the game, including new weapons, abilities, powers, vehicles, and environmental states or events.
  2. Experience Duration – the average time it takes to complete each stage, level, mission (including deaths if applicable) or course (using the most relevant vehicle).
  3. Ancillary Rewards (visual, aural, decorative, etc.) – exciting environmental wonders, fancy visual effects, scripted events, etc. It is great to weight some of the more spectacular environmental wonders and effects up front (Medal of Honor style), but an enjoyable game needs to have all the level, course or mission experiences built so that new visual rewards are staggered at a pace that keeps the user interested (in other words with an Environmental Progression in mind).
  4. Practical Rewards (gameplay relevant) – new game modes, upgrades and practical unlockable content are very useful as the carrot on the stick that entices users to continue playing the game.
  5. Difficulty – not just how hard it is to pass obstacles and NPCs/bosses, but also how much risk is taken with respect to player injury/death, weapon depletion, or vehicle/equipment damage or loss.

Games that do not structure the distribution of all these elements risk the danger of overwhelming the player with too much up front, or they risk not keeping users engaged enough with new elements to keep them playing or to encourage renters to buy. We have all played games that have suffered from sadly common issues like difficulty spikes, frustrating mechanics complexity, or those that we just become bored with after the first few hours – all of which are symptoms of unstructured, ill-designed and/or un-managed game progression.

One of the reasons many Nintendo games are considered a bench mark for quality is that games like Zelda have the most meticulously planned, structured and executed gameplay progressions of any games on the market, and on a subconscious level the experience in those games feels just right for players in terms of increasing challenge, complexity, risk and reward. In fact, a truly engaging and memorable player experience is one where all the above elements of progression are carefully laid out and then the gameplay content (levels, missions or courses) is built to fit within that structure such that the pace of new elements is controlled and somewhat predictable, yet always keeps the player wanting more.

Article Start Page 1 of 5 Next

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