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

November 28, 2006 Article Start Previous Page 3 of 5 Next

Experience Duration

Not all games have to increase the length of the experience to be fun or successful, but experience length can directly support the gameplay progression and in turn the overall enjoyment of the experience. In all 8 Road Rash versions I worked on, we made sure to increase the length of races (both in distance and in time) at every level, and although it was a subconscious decision at the time, I now recognize that approach as a part of the gameplay experience progression. Racing games have to increase the race length more on new level races since presumably they also have faster vehicles on the new level (which can cover more ground in the same time). Combat games can increase in mission distance, opponent difficulty and penalty (e.g. player death) to increase the overall experience time.

Some platform games have very short levels at the start (teaching basic mechanics) and then longer levels farther in. Even subtle differences in experience length over time will subconsciously increase the sense of progress for the user and therefore their overall gratification (ask most players why Zelda games are so excellent and they may be hard pressed to articulate the reasons, because the feel of the experience is such a subjective thing, but much of that cohesive feel is delivered via gameplay progression).

On a micro level, the user should also feel a sense of progression within a single mission, level or course and the building structure into the content allows the designers to control the pacing, and gradually increase the intensity within a single level, race or mission. On a macro level, the sense of advancement and overall game percentage completion for the player should be obvious.

Ancillary Rewards & Environmental Progression

Most games are filled with pleasing rewards that do not directly affect how the user plays the game, but ancillary rewards (visual, aural or decorative) add to player gratification and therefore encourage replayability. Visual environmental rewards can be very pleasing and memorable to the player and include things like fantastic environments, amazing particle or lighting effects, and incredible scripted action events (e.g. Medal of Honor and Call of Duty style) and an Environmental Progression of these elements is therefore an extremely important area to plan and structure since it is key to encouraging continuation and replay. Environmental rewards are especially valuable to the player experience since they can directly affect the gameplay pacing and so they should occur fairly often (usually one at a time) within a level, mission or race.

Decorative rewards can be things like Trophies or Medals (Medal of Honor) that serve as unlocked collectibles but do not alter the gameplay. Decorative Rewards do add value in helping recognize player progress, but in this day and age a game that entirely substitutes Practical Awards with Ancillary rewards will often get hammered in chat forums and in review scores.

Key visual rewards that dramatically affect the pace of gameplay and thus need to be designed and structured into an Environmental Progression are things like scripted action events, the intensity of those action events, visual wonders, landmarks (essential for proper navigation and orientation), object groups, terrain types, and weather types (see Fig 4).

The original Medal of Honor did an excellent job of progressively structuring the unlockable medals, and since this was pretty new to FPS console gamers at the time (around 1999), these Decorative Ancillary Rewards were extremely effective as an incentive for replay (gamers just had to earn those medals). If Decorative Ancillary Rewards are the bulk of the unlockable content the first unlockables should be revealed quickly and then over progressively longer time periods from that point. Care should also be taken to make Ancillary Rewards interesting and unique enough to keep players interested (generic bronze, silver, and gold trophies or medals are less likely to satiate players in this day and age).

Ancillary rewards can also help dramatically play up key game events. For Road Rash: Jailbreak, we reinforced the combat knock-down with visual and audio rewards (skull & bones icon and cash register sound effect) to make it more gratifying. Team skeptics (myself included) quickly changed their tune when those audio/visual rewards were proven to have increased the gratification of knock-downs during focus tests. The point here is that key game mechanics or systems should be the first place to consider adding visual and audio rewards, but in that case, there is no progressive gameplay structure and those portions of ancillary rewards will not directly enhance the overall gameplay progression. In fact, in order to maximize gameplay continuation and replay many other Ancillary Rewards (e.g. scripted action events, environmental wonders, and other visual rewards) can and should be structured into an Environmental Progression Plan prior to having those levels, or areas constructed by the artists and/or level designers (see Fig 4 above); ensuring successive levels or missions have an interesting new mix of action and visuals will serve the dual purpose of rewarding prior player progress and enticing their continuation and replay.

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